New Orleans is synonymous with Voodoo and when you think of Voodoo, you think of Marie Laveau.
The so-called Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau is arguably the most famous person to be associated with that religion and yet we know very little about her.
She is more legend than fact, shrouded in mystery and myth. Perhaps that is part of her appeal.
Marie Laveau was born in September of 1801 to Marguerite Henry and Charles Laveau. Her St. Louis Cathedral baptismal record states that she was born a free mulatto.
Despite the fact that subsequent accounts have portrayed her father as a white man, he was a well-to-do free man of color.
There was a large population of free people of color in New Orleans. Madame Laveau most likely spent her childhood in a cottage, located at the present site of 1020 and 1022 St. Ann Street in the French Quarter and on the property that her maternal grandmother purchased in 1798.
From this location, she would have been within sight of what is now Armstrong Park, where enslaved Africans gathered every Sunday to sing, dance, drum, and engage in other African instrumentation.
One cannot help but assume that witnessing such events would have greatly impacted her formative years.
In August of 1819, Marie Laveau shows back up in the historic record when at the age of 18, she wed Jacques Paris. The wedding took place in St. Louis Cathedral.
The couple had two children that most likely died in infancy as they disappeared from the historic record.
Sometime between 1822 and 1824, Jacque Paris also disappeared from the record. There is no official account of his death but the 1824 baptismal record of his second daughter list him as deceased.
Shortly thereafter, Marie Laveau started calling herself the widow Paris and constructed a tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.
That gravesite has henceforth been known as the widow Paris’ tomb and it is where Marie Laveau is interred. We have the cemetery records confirming that she is indeed interred there.
Incidentally, her tomb is the second most visited gravesite in the United States. Only the grave of Elvis Presley gets more visitors each year.
It is believed by some in the Voodoo religion that Marie Laveau has become one of the "egun" or ancestors and can thus aid you in specific areas of your life. Many visitors leave offerings at her tomb and the site of her former home.
Sometime in the late 1820s, Marie Laveau met and started a relationship with Christophe Glapion and would stay with him until his death in 1855.
Christophe Glapion was a white man and though it was illegal to marry outside of your race, it was not illegal to cohabitate with someone of another race. Together, they had seven children but only one, Marie Philomene survived her mother.
We know Marie Laveau was a confirmed Catholic because you cannot be buried within a Catholic cemetery without that confirmation. What we are uncertain of is what she thought about the Catholic faith or how she rectified it with her participation in Voodoo.
Unfortunately, Marie Laveau was illiterate and left no personal accounts behind. We also have no idea how she became involved with Voodoo.
We have nothing in the historical record to link her to Voodoo prior to 1850, even though numerous authors have referred to her as a Voodoo Queen form the 1820s to the 1870s.
In 1850, she shows up in a newspaper account where she is issuing a formal complaint against the third municipality police department, saying they were “harassing co-religionists and that they had seized a statue belonging to her.”
The newspaper called the statue the “virgin of the Voodoos.”
In 1859, she shows back up in the record when she is summoned before a judge to account for a neighbor’s complaint that she was having obscene dances on her property.
There will be nothing else in the record in regards to Voodoo until her death in 1881.
When Marie Laveau died, every single newspaper in the city wrote up her obituary. The New York Times also wrote up her obituary, attesting to the fact that her reputation had exceeded the confines of New Orleans.
Half of the local papers demonized her for her association with the religion of Voodoo and referred to her as the “queen of the superstitions.” The other half condescendingly attempted to “redeem” her by saying she was simply an herbal healer, strong in her Catholic faith, and a woman of charitable works.
I suspect that somewhere in between these two polar opposites, the real Marie Laveau is waiting.
As happens with people of mystery, numerous legends have arisen. Some say that she was clairvoyant, knowing your secrets before you divulged them. Others speculate that perhaps this legend was born because she was a hairdresser, gleaning the gossip from her clients.
The problem with that theory is that there is nothing to link her to that profession. The city directories all listed her occupation as none, as did the 1850 census.
Another colorful myth is that there were two Marie Laveaus. Most accounts of Marie Laveau stated that when she died, she was quite old and infirmed. Some said that looked like a “witch.”
Yet when the Works Progress Administration or the WPA came to New Orleans to write a history, they interviewed several people who remember Marie Laveau as being beautiful, vibrant, and youthful right up until her death.
This has led some to speculate that there was a Marie Laveau II and that it may have been her daughter. Her daughter, Marie Philomene conducted numerous interviews upon the death of her mother and refuted that her mother was anything but a devout Catholic.
It is unlikely that she was the one pretending to be the original Marie while conducting clandestine Voodoo ceremonies. If there was someone impersonating her, that person’s identity remains a mystery.
There is much we don’t know about Marie Laveau but honestly, dates and historical minutia do not make for a very good campfire story and one thing New Orleans loves is a good tall tale. So, come visit and walk the streets she would have walked.
Touch the old brick of the architecture her fingers might have grazed. Who knows, maybe you will catch a glimpse of her around the side of a building or meet her ghost in a dark corner. Who knows, she might even grant you a wish. New Orleans is full of possibilities.