MARIE LAVEAU TIMELINE
1801 (September 10): Marie Laveau, a free woman of color and descendant of African slaves, was born in New Orleans.
1819: Marie Laveau married Jacques Paris from Haiti.
1824: Jacques Paris died or disappeared. Marie became known as Widow Paris.
1827–1838: Marie Laveau had seven children with her partner, Louis Christophe Dominique Duminy de Glapion, a white Louisiana native of noble French ancestry.
1855 (June 26): Christophe Glapion died.
1881 (June 15): Marie Laveau died.
Marie Laveau became one of New Orleans’ most iconic figures. [Image at right] A free woman of color descended from enslaved Africans and French colonists, she was born in 1801, when Louisiana was still a Spanish colony. Her life extended through the Louisiana Purchase by the United States in 1803, Louisiana’s progress from territory to state, through the dark years of the Civil War (1861–1865), and into the politically and socially turbulent period of Reconstruction (1863–77). She died in 1881, as New Orleans was descending into a time of virulent racism and segregation that lasted into the twentieth century.
The determined researcher with access to New Orleans’ unsurpassed civil and church archives can construct an accurate biography of Marie Laveau as a citizen of New Orleans and an active member of the Catholic congregation at St. Louis Cathedral (see Long 2006; Long 2016; Fandrich 2005; Ward 2004). In contrast, reliable documentation of nineteenth-century New Orleans Voudou and Marie Laveau’s role as a Voudou priestess is scarce. Many sensationalized descriptions of Voudou were produced by newspaper reporters and the writers of popular history and fiction. A better, but still somewhat imperfect, source is the collection of interviews, conducted between 1936 and 1941 by the federal Works Progress Administration–Louisiana Writers’ Project (LWP) with elderly New Orleanians who remembered the Voudou traditions of the later nineteenth century. It is from these journalistic, literary, and oral narratives that we must piece together some idea of the religion practiced by Marie Laveau and her followers in nineteenth-century New Orleans.
Exactly who Marie Laveau was, her descent, her birth and death dates, and burial location have been misrepresented to such an extent, that it is necessary to report the details of her life as revealed in archival records in New Orleans. The history of Marie Laveau’s maternal lineage, as well as her own life, sheds light on issues of slavery, race, gender, and class in New Orleans from the eighteenth through the nineteenth centuries.
Marie Laveau’s great-grandmother, called Marguerite, was probably born in Senegal and brought to New Orleans on a slave ship, where she became the property of the prosperous colonist Henry Roche-Belaire. Marguerite had one daughter, Catherine (who would become Marie Laveau’s grandmother), with a black man called Jean Belaire. Henry Roche-Belaire might have fathered Catherine’s daughter named Marguerite (who would become Marie Laveau’s mother). In 1795, Catherine purchased her freedom from a subsequent owner. As a free woman, Catherine took the surname Henry, became a successful market woman, and commissioned the construction of a cottage on St. Ann Street between Rampart and Burgundy Streets in the French Quarter, which would later become famous as the home of Marie Laveau. Catherine’s daughter Marguerite remained enslaved in the household of Roche Henry -Belaire; she finally gained her freedom in 1790 (Long 2006:8–10, 15–19).
The future Voudou priestess Marie Laveau was born on September 10, 1801, and was baptized at St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter on September 16. The event was entered in the sacramental register as “a free mulatto girl born the tenth day of this present month, daughter of Marguerite, free mulatress, and an unknown father.” Marie’s grandmother Catherine stood as her godmother (Maria 1801; Fandrich 2005:152). No surname was recorded for the child or her mother and godmother, a fairly common occurrence in the baptismal records of people of color.
Though not listed on Marie Laveau’s baptismal record, Charles Laveaux later acknowledged Marie as his natural daughter and they maintained an affectionate relationship for the rest of his life. But at the time that Marie was conceived, Marguerite Henry was still involved with and financially dependent on another man, Henri Darcantel, and Charles Laveaux was engaged to a wealthy free woman of color named Françoise Dupart, whom he married in 1802 (Long 2006:21–24, 30–31; Fandrich 2005:153; Ward: 40). These existing entanglements would explain why Marguerite and Charles did not continue their relationship and make a life together. Young Marie did not fit into her mother’s ongoing relationship with Henri Darcantel, and her existence might even have been kept secret from him. Marie was probably raised in her grandmother’s home on St. Ann Street, where Catherine Henry became the primary maternal figure in her life.
In 1819 Marie Laveau married Jacques Paris, a free man of color who was a carpenter from Saint-Domingue (Haiti). He probably arrived in New Orleans along with the influx of former Saint-Domingue colonists fleeing the bloody and chaotic Haitian Revolution (1791–1804). Charles Laveaux accompanied his daughter to the notary’s office to draw up her marriage contract and provide her with a dowry, “because of the attachment he bears for her as his natural daughter whom he acknowledges.” He gave to the future husband and wife “a donation inter vivos and irrevocable…of that half lot belonging to him situated in the Faubourg Marigny,” the neighborhood downriver from the French Quarter on land that had formerly been the Marigny plantation (Paris and Laveaux Marriage Contract 1819; Paris and Labeau Marriage 1819; Long 2006:47–48; Fandrich 2005:155–56). Marie and Jacques had two daughters together, Felicité and Marie Angèlie. Following the notation of their baptisms, these girls vanish from the archival record. They most likely died in childhood (Long 2006:49; Fandrich:155–56).
Jacques Paris died or disappeared around 1824, and no death or interment record has ever been discovered. Marie was henceforth designated in official documents as the Widow Paris. It is often said that during this time she supported herself as a hairdresser. Many free women of color followed this occupation, but she was never listed as such in census records and city directories.
Marie Laveau subsequently entered into a domestic partnership, which lasted until his death, with Louis Christophe Dominique Duminy de Glapion (1789–1855), a Louisiana native of noble French ancestry. Because she was a woman of color and he was white, they could not legally marry. They lived together as husband and wife for thirty years and had seven children together between 1827 and 1838: Marie Eloise (or Helöise) Euchariste, Marie Louise Caroline, Christophe, Jean Baptiste, François, Marie Philomène, and Archange (Long 2006:53–56; Fandrich:58). Only Eloise Euchariste and Philomène survived to adulthood. When Marie’s grandmother Catherine Henry died in 1831, Christophe Glapion bought the cottage on St. Ann Street from her succession and it remained the Laveau-Glapion family home for nearly a hundred years (Henry 1831; Long:60–63; Fandrich:160–61).
Virtually all well-to-do New Orleanians, including free people of color, owned slaves. Marie Laveau was no exception. Between 1828 and 1854 Laveau and Glapion bought and sold eight slaves. Marie Laveau herself sold a woman and her child in 1838, and sold another woman in 1849. Christophe Glapion, like many people of that time, was speculating in stocks, money-lending, and real estate. Never a particularly astute businessman, he was deeply in debt by the late 1840s. He sold one slave in 1849. Under severe pressure from the Citizens’ Bank of Louisiana, in 1850 he sold two slaves to family friend Philippe Ross, a free man of color, a slave to family friend Pierre Monette, and he sold yet another to the slave trader Elihu Creswell (Long 2006:72–78; Fandrich 2005:163; Ward 2004:13, 80–88.)
Christophe Glapion died on June 26, 1855. The St. Ann Street cottage, which was in his name, was seized and sold at a sheriff’s auction to satisfy his creditors. Fortunately, a family friend came to the rescue and bought the house, generously allowing Marie Laveau, her daughters, and her grandchildren to remain in residence (Long:80–82). With Christophe’s death, Marie not only lost her beloved companion, she and her family were plunged into a financial crisis from which they never fully recovered. The popular notion that Marie Laveau derived great wealth from her Voudou practice is refuted by the increasing poverty in which the Laveau-Glapion household lived for the rest of the nineteenth century.
Marie and Christophe’s eldest daughter, Eloise Euchariste Glapion, died in the early 1860s; one source indicates 1860 and another gives 1862 as her death date (Long 2006:66–67; 200–02; Long 2016:34–37). Eloise left behind three young children: Adelai Aldina, Marie Marguerite Onesta, and Victor Pierre Crocker, all fathered by Pierre Crocker. Crocker had died in 1857, and the orphaned children were raised in the family home by their grandmother, Marie Laveau (Long 2016:37–39).
Marie and Christophe’s youngest daughter, Philomène Glapion, had entered a domestic partnership with a white man, Emile Alexandre Legendre, at about the time her father died. The couple lived together in the Faubourg Marigny and had four surviving children: Fidelia, Alexandre, Noëmie, and Blair Legendre. When Philomène’s partner died in 1872, Philomène and her children moved back into Marie Laveau’s cottage on St. Ann Street (Long 2016:39–42). By this time Marie was in declining health, and was cared for by Philomène until her death.
Marie Laveau’s physical condition toward the end of her life is verified by several sources. In 1873, a justice of the peace came to the family home to take her testimony related to the succession of family friend Pierre Monette, who had died the previous year. At that time Marie stated that she was “about seventy years old…. I am sick for some time past. I am too sick to leave my room and cannot walk” (Laveau 1873; Long 2016:40). In 1875, a Daily Picayune reporter called at the Laveau-Glapion cottage. There he found “Marie Lafont [sic], the Ancient Queen,” whom he described as “once a tall, powerful woman…now bent with age and infirmity. Her complexion was a dark bronze and her hair grizzled black, while her trembling hand was supported by a crooked stick” (“Fetish” 1875). Some of the community elders interviewed by the Louisiana Writers’ Project described Marie as a “wrinkled, shriveled-up lady” with snow-white hair, who “looked like a witch” and was “so old she could hardly walk” (Long 2006:166–67).
Marie Laveau died of natural causes at her home at 152 St. Ann Street on June 15, 1881, a few months short of her eightieth birthday. Her funeral, conducted by Father Hyacinth Mignot of St. Louis Cathedral, took place at 5:00 p.m. on June 16. An obituary in the Daily Picayune noted, “Her remains were followed to the grave by a large concourse of people, the most prominent and the most humble joining in paying their last respects to the dead.” She was interred in the middle vault of her family tomb [Image at right] in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 (“Death of Marie Laveau” 1881; Long:175–77; Long 2016:29–31; Fandrich 2005:171–76).
In the later 1880s and continuing through the turn of the century, the New Orleans newspapers cited various women (such as Mama Caroline, Madame Frazie, and Malvina Latour) as having replaced or succeeded Marie Laveau, but nowhere do we find any suggestion that either of her daughters became the new Voudou Queen (“St. John’s Eve” 1873; “Fetish Worship” 1875; “A Voudou Dance” 1884). Most of the LWP informants were born in the 1860s and 1870s. Some of them remembered Marie as an old lady, but others spoke of a tall, handsome, energetic middle-aged woman with a light complexion, Caucasian features, and long, wavy black hair. [Image at right] Everyone commented on her majestic stride, saying that she “walked like she owned the city.” This woman lived in the Laveau-Glapion cottage on St. Ann Street and was known to them as “Marie Laveau” (Long 2006:190–205; Fandrich 2005:17–80; Ward:163–67). Later writers called her “Marie II.”
The archival evidence and the oral testimony of the LWP informants argue against the possibility that the new leader of the Voudou community was Eloise or Philomène Glapion. As we have seen, Eloise died in her mid-thirties in 1860 or 1862. Philomène continued to live in the Laveau-Glapion cottage until her death in 1897; by all accounts she was a very proper lady, known as Madame Legendre, who claimed to detest Voudou (“Flagitious Fiction” 1886; “Voudooism” 1890; Long 2006:202–04). While there may have been a “Marie II,” her identity remains a mystery. The original Marie Laveau and this other, younger woman (maybe even several others) have merged to form a single persona, the legendary Voudou Queen.
LEADERSHIP AND RITUALS/PRACTICES (CATHOLICISM AND VOUDOU)
In her life and works, Marie Laveau had one foot in the world of the Catholic Church and one in the world of Voudou. She would have perceived Catholicism and Voudou as different, but not conflicting, ways of serving the spiritual forces that govern the world.
Marie Laveau was a lifelong member of St. Louis Cathedral, where she was baptized and married and attended Mass regularly. She ensured that her children were baptized there, and stood as godmother at the baptisms of her nephew and granddaughter (Long 2006:22, 47–48, 66). Her funeral was conducted by a priest of the cathedral and she was interred in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.
Marie was renowned for her acts of charity and community service. She provided food and housing to the poor, nursed yellow fever and cholera victims during the city’s frequent epidemics, sponsored the education of an orphaned boy at the Catholic Institution for Indigent Orphans, and posted bond for free women of color accused of minor crimes. She visited condemned prisoners, built altars in their cells, and prayed with them in their final hours. She also offered the use of her family tomb to strangers who had no burial place of their own (Picayune’s Guide to New Orleans 1897:32–33; Journal des Seances 1852:109; Long 2006:53–54, 84–85, 151–64; Long 2016:58–59). These acts embody what are known in the Catholic Church as the Corporal Works of Mercy, in which the faithful are instructed to feed the hungry, give drink to the to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead.
Some writers have implied that as Marie Laveau became old and feeble she renounced Voudou and converted to Christianity. A Daily Picayune reporter who visited her in 1875 quoted her as saying that she no longer served the Voudou spirits, but was now “a believer in the holy faith” (“Fetish” 1875). This claim was repeated in 1885, when a popular New Orleans guidebook alleged that in her old age, “Marie Laveau renounced her wickedness and joined the church” (Historical Sketch Book 1885:66). It is well documented, however, that she was a devoted Catholic for her entire life.
It is not known exactly how or at what age Laveau came to her vocation as a priestess of Voudou. She may have been trained and initiated by her grandmother Catherine Henry, by African-born community elders, or by people of color who arrived in New Orleans from Haiti at the turn of the nineteenth century. By the 1830s she was the leader of a multiracial, mostly female Voudou congregation. Most accounts say that, in addition to her genuine spiritual gifts, Marie possessed extraordinary beauty, a magnetic personality, and a flair for showmanship. [Image at right] She developed a following among enslaved and free people of color as well as upper-class white New Orleanians and visitors to the city, who were welcome at her ceremonies and numbered among her clients.
Marie Laveau and her followers were practicing what is known as New Orleans Voudou, the only indigenous North American example of the Afro-Catholic religions common to the Caribbean and South America (Long 2001:37–70; Long 2006:93–36). When enslaved Africans were exposed to Catholicism, they found many elements to which they could relate. The supreme being common to most African belief systems was analogous to God the Father, and the African deities who serve as intermediaries between humans and the supreme being became identified with Mary the Blessed Mother and the legion of saints. The rituals, music, vestments and miracle-working objects of the Catholic Church seemed familiar to Africans whose religious ceremonies stressed chanting, drumming, dance, elaborate costumes, and the use of spirit-embodying amulets. Through a process of creative borrowing and adaptation, they reinterpreted Catholicism to suit their own needs, resulting in the evolution of Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santería, Brazilian Candomblé, and New Orleans Voudou. The guiding principal of these African-influenced religions was balance between the individual, the community, the natural environment, and the deities.
From nineteenth-century newspaper articles and the interviews conducted under the auspices of the Louisiana Writers Project, we learn that Marie Laveau held small weekly services for her congregation, provided consultations for individual clients, and led the large annual St. John’s Eve Voudou celebrations at Lake Pontchartrain or Bayou St. John.
The cottage on St. Ann Street was not only the Laveau-Glapion family home, it also served as Marie Laveau’s temple. The front room was filled with altars laden with candles, images of the saints, flowers, fruit, and other offerings. Here Laveau presided over weekly Friday night meetings, assisted by a core group of her closest followers. A chorus of young singers, accompanied by an old man who played the accordion, supplied the music. All present were dressed in white. Herbs, food, liquor, candles, and coins were arranged on a white cloth on the ground or the floor, in accordance with a custom referred to as “spreading a feast for the spirits.” The service began with Catholic prayers, such as the Hail Mary and the Our Father. Laveau would pour out libations of water or wine, saluting the four cardinal directions, and rap three times on the ground “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” Afterwards the participants would chant and dance. All of these rituals were intended to call the spirits to enter the bodies of the faithful and provide counsel to the congregation. A shared meal followed the religious portion of the service (“Another Voudou Affair” 1850; “A Mystery of the Old Third” 1850; “A Singular Assemblage” 1850; “Great Doings” 1850; “Idolatry and Quackery” 1820; “More of the Voudous” 1850; “The Rites of Voudou” 1850; “Unlawful Assemblies” 1850; “The Voudous in the First Municipality” 1850; Long 2006:108–11).
In addition to holding regular services for her congregation, Marie Laveau also gave consultations and performed ceremonies for individual clients. LWP narrators told of rituals to attract and control a lover, bring about a marriage, improve business, and win in court, as well as those for negative purposes (Long 2006:117–18). According to the obituary published in the New York Times after her death, Marie Laveau received “Louisiana’s greatest men and most distinguished visitors…lawyers, legislators, planters, and merchants, [who] all came to pay their respects and seek her offices” (“The Dead Voudou Queen” 1881).
The most important of the Voudou ceremonies took place on the eve (June 23) of the feast day of St. John the Baptist. St. John’s Eve coincides with the summer solstice, which in pre-Christian Europe was believed to be a time when the human world and the spirit world intersect. Men and women responded by lighting bonfires to attract good spirits and drive away bad ones, protect livestock and people from disease, and ensure a successful harvest. Believers also immersed themselves in sacred bodies of water supposed to be endowed with magical and medicinal virtues. The Feast of St. John the Baptist was grafted onto this night of pagan religious observance (Frazer 1922:724). The celebration of St. John’s Eve was probably introduced into Louisiana by French and Spanish colonists, and at some undetermined time it was adopted by people of African descent. (St. John’s Eve is still celebrated in France and Spain, in French Quebec, and in the former French and Spanish colonies of Latin America and the Caribbean.)
According to printed sources and the LWP interviews, Marie Laveau led this celebration, which attracted hundreds of people, from sometime in the 1830s until about 1870. These accounts vary considerably, but all describe bonfires, drumming, singing, dancing, ritual bathing, and a communal feast (“Fetish Worship” 1875; “St. John’s Eve” 1875; “The Voudous’ Day” 1870; “Vous Dous Incantation” 1872; “Voudou Vagaries” 1874; Long 2006:130–33).
By the end of the nineteenth century, opinions of Marie Laveau’s character were already divided. Some journalists and local popular writers extolled her exemplary benevolence, but others claimed that she preyed upon the superstitions of the gullible and effected the downfall of innocent young women lured to prostitution through her activities as a procuress.
Marie Laveau was loved and respected by many people who had benefited from her assistance or knew of her reputation for inclusiveness and charity. She also had her detractors, by whom she was feared, ridiculed, and stigmatized as a sorceress, a fraud, and the keeper of a house of prostitution. In 1850, she was characterized by the Daily Picayune as “the head of the Voudou women” (“Curious Charge of Swindling” 1850). A Daily Crescent reporter was less kind in 1859 when he called her “the notorious hag who reigns over the ignorant and superstitious as Queen of the Voudous” (“Recorder Long’s Court” 1859). In 1869, the Commercial Bulletin reported that she was retiring and that the summer’s St. John’s Eve ceremony would be “marked by the coronation of a new queen in the place of the celebrated Marie Laveau” (“Voodooism” 1869). Newspaper reporters continued to cover the St. John’s Eve festivities throughout the 1870s–1890s, writing the usual overblown “orgy stories” featuring nudity, drunkenness, frenzied dancing, devil worship, snake handling, blood drinking, animal sacrifice, and interracial fornication. Some even claimed that Marie Laveau was present (“A Cungi Dance” 1887; “A Voudou Dance” 1884; “Dance of the Voodoos” 1896; “Fate and Mystery” 1874; “Fetish Worship” 1875; “Making a Night of It” 1872; “St. John’s Eve” 1887; “St. John’s Eve” 1873; “St. John’s Eve” 1875; “The Voudou Ceremonies” 1874; “The Vous Dous Incantation” 1872; “Voudou Nonsense” 1874; “Voudou Vagaries” 1874).
When Marie Laveau died on June 15, 1881, her renown was such that remembrances and tributes appeared not only in the New Orleans newspapers but also in the New York Times. During this post-Reconstruction period, the more liberal New Orleans newspapers, represented by the City Item and the Daily Picayune, rejected the idea that Laveau was actually a Voudou priestess, portraying her instead as a woman of great beauty, intellect, and charisma who was also pious, generous, and a skilled herbal healer.
The reporter for the City Item, possibly Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904),wrote: “Few women were more charitable, few more kind, few more beloved than Marie Laveau,” and that “whatever superstitious stories were whispered about her, it is at least certain that she enjoyed the respect and affection of thousands who knew her, of numbers whom she befriended in times of dire distress, of sick folks snatched from the shadow of death and nursed by her to health and strength” (“Wayside Notes” 1881). The Daily Picayune spoke of her charity to the poor, who were “welcome to food and lodging at any time of night or day,” and of her abilities as a yellow fever and cholera nurse and her knowledge of “the valuable healing qualities of indigenous herbs.” Laveau “labored incessantly” to comfort condemned prisoners, praying with them in their last moments and endeavoring to rescue them from the gallows (“Death of Marie Laveau” 1881). Echoing the New Orleans newspapers, the New York Times concluded that Marie Laveau was “one of the most wonderful women who ever lived,” lamenting: “Now her lips are closed forever…and as she could neither read nor write, not a scrap is left to chronicle the events of her exciting life” (“The Dead Voudou Queen” 1881).
In contrast, the conservative newspapers in New Orleans, the Times and the Democrat, took a sarcastic tone. (Recall that at that time the Democratic party favored segregation and a return to the post-Civil War social hierarchy.) A few days after Laveau died, the Times ran one of its standard St. John’s Eve stories, “Voudou Vagaries—The Spirit of Marie Laveau to be Propitiated by Midnight Orgies on the Bayou.” Following a harangue about “weird fetish worship” and “lewd women and worse men,” the article announced: “Tonight is St. John’s Eve, and on the banks of Bayou St. John…all that is left of the old Voudou clan will convene to honor the memory of their late Queen Marie Laveau…by a series of drunken orgies around a bonfire” (“Voudou Vagaries” 1881). The Democrat characterized Marie Laveau as “the prime mover and soul of the indecent orgies of the ignoble Voudous; to her influence may be attributed the fall of many a virtuous woman,” implying that Marie was a “procuress” who furnished young women of color for white men (“A Sainted Woman” 1881; “Marie Lavaux” 1881).
By the later nineteenth century, New Orleans had entered the infamous era of Jim Crow prejudice and racial segregation. Two popular writers, George Washington Cable and Henry Castellanos, advanced differing opinions of Marie Laveau, although both condemned the practice of Voudou.
George Washington Cable (1844–1925), in his 1886 Century Magazine article, “Creole Slave Songs,” was sympathetic when describing a visit with the celebrated priestess just before her death, declaring that he “once saw, in her extreme old age, the famed Marie Laveau.” At her cottage on St. Ann Street,
in the center of a small room whose ancient cypress floor was worn with scrubbing…sat, quaking with feebleness…her body bowed, and her wild, gray witch’s tresses hanging about her shriveled, yellow neck, the Queen of the Voudous. Yet withal one could hardly help but see that the face, now so withered, had once been handsome and commanding. There was still a faint shadow of departed beauty on the forehead, the spark of an old fire in the sunken, glistening eyes, and a vestige of imperiousness in the fine, slightly aquiline nose, and even about her silent, woe-begone mouth.
He may have admired Laveau, but he thoroughly disapproved of Voudou, characterizing it as “dark and horrid as bestialized savagery could make the worship of serpents. So revolting was it, so morally hideous, that even in the French West Indian possessions a hundred years ago…the orgies of the Voudous were forbidden” (Cable 1886:807–28).
Henry Castellanos was vehement in his denunciation of Marie Laveau in his 1894 article, “The Voudous: Their History, Mysteries, and Practices,” which appeared in the New Orleans Times-Democrat. According to Castellanos, Marie’s reputation as a worker of magic was based on illusion: “Such was the superstition of our people…that her apartments were thronged with visitors from every class and section…ladies of high social position…politicians and candidates for office…and sports…[all] in search of aid from her supposed supernatural powers. Is it needless to say that she was an arrant fraud? Yet money poured into her purse” (Castellanos 1894). In his 1895 collection of anecdotes, New Orleans As It Was, Castellanos referred to Marie Laveau as the “infamous bawd, who blending African mysteries and superstitions with the worship of the Blessed Virgin, posed for so many years as a character of importance when, in very truth, she was naught else but a consummate impostor.” Castellanos introduced the idea that Marie was a hairdresser by profession, “assisting in the clandestine correspondence of sweethearts and aiding youthful lovers—and old coquettes as well—in their amours.” Like Cable, Castellanos denigrated Voudou: “that mysterious sect of fanatics, imported from the jungles of Africa and implanted in our midst,” who with their
stupid creed and bestial rites, made considerable progress among the low and ignorant of our population in the early period of the present century…. The tribe of Voudous…deserves to be stamped out…and with the advances of our superior civilization it is to be hoped that the hour is not far distant when the last vestige of its degrading and dangerous influence will forever be wiped out of existence (Castellanos 1895:90–101, 113).
White writers were not the only ones who expressed this viewpoint. Some of the elite and well-educated Creoles of color in New Orleans also had a poor opinion of Marie Laveau and Voudou. The members of Henry Louis Rey’s Spiritualist Cercle Harmonique referred to Voudou as “superstition,” and called Marie Laveau as la sorcière (the witch) (Daggett 2017:43, 70).
The first half of the twentieth century saw more fantastic embellishments and reiterations of the Marie Laveau legend. Voudou was perceived as irresistibly scary and enticingly erotic. The old French spelling of Voudou became voodoo, a term encompassing everything from the African-based religions in Louisiana and Haiti to the folk magic of black southerners. It now appears in phrases like “voodoo economics” and “voodoo science” to denote fraudulent mumbo-jumbo. Marie Laveau, a tempting combination of black magic with beauty and sexuality, was an ideal subject. Sensational stories concocted by newspaper reporters of the 1870s–1890s were avidly incorporated into the legend of Marie Laveau, and the works of George Washington Cable, Lafcadio Hearn, and Henry Castellanos were freely interpreted.
We have seen that none of the nineteenth-century literature ever suggested that Marie Laveau was succeeded by her daughter as leader of the Voudou community. It was only in the 1920s–1940s that this story evolved, and it was asserted that as Marie Laveau became incapacitated by old age she was gradually and secretly replaced by her daughter, “Marie II,” creating the illusion that one woman of imperishable beauty reigned as Queen of the Voudous until the turn of the twentieth century. It was generally assumed that “Marie II” was Marie Laveau’s elder daughter, Marie Eloise Euchariste Glapion, born February 2, 1827. The most influential contributors to this legend were Lyle Saxon, Herbert Asbury, and Robert Tallant.
Lyle Saxon (1891–1946), a popular New Orleans writer and man-about-town, was fascinated by tales of Marie Laveau and Voudou, and both were included in his 1928 “series of impressions,” Fabulous New Orleans. In his chapter on Marie Laveau we first find the notion that there were two Marie Laveaus. According to Saxon, Marie Laveau was the original “Queen of the Voodoos.” After the death of her husband, Jacques Paris, “Marie formed a liaison with Christophe Glapion…. Several children were born to [Marie and Christophe], among them Marie, who being a natural daughter, took her mother’s maiden name, Laveau. She was born on the second day of February, 1827.” This is the birth date of Eloise Glapion. “As a very young woman,” Saxon continued, “we find her known to the police as a worker of black magic. She became officially known as the Voodoo Queen and even today her name is used to frighten children” (Saxon 1928:237–46, quote on 243).
Herbert Asbury (1889–1963) was a New Yorker who produced a series of popular histories on New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and New Orleans. The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underground was published in 1936. Asbury gathered together bits and pieces of material from various printed sources and fashioned them into an entertaining and highly readable product. It is in Asbury’s The French Quarter that the legend of “the celebrated Marie Laveau” really took shape.
In her youth Marie Laveau was renowned among the free people of color for her beauty, and especially for the symmetry of her figure. By profession she was a hairdresser, and as such gained admittance to the homes of fashionable white ladies, where she learned many secrets which she never hesitated to use to her own advantage. As a lucrative side-line she acted as procuress for white gentlemen, furnishing quadroon and octoroon girls for their pleasure…. She became a member of the Voodoo cult about the time her husband died, and [assumed the role of] Queen half a dozen years later.
Regarding the alleged “Marie II,” Asbury wrote that Marie Laveau “had a daughter in February 1827…who was named Marie,” but did not go so far as to say that this daughter succeeded her mother (Asbury 1936:254–83, quotes on 266).
In 1936, Lyle Saxon became director of the Louisiana Writers’ Project and continued in this position until the program ended in 1942. As we have seen, Saxon had a particular interest in Afro-Creole religious and magical practices, and under his direction the LWP made the first serious attempt to unravel the truth about Marie Laveau. One can imagine Saxon’s jubilation at being able to deploy a cadre of energetic fieldworkers to search the city and church archives for ancestors and descendants of Marie Laveau, comb newspaper files for relevant articles, and seek out and interview community elders.
LWP employee Catherine Dillon was assigned to compile the transcriptions of archival documents, newspaper articles, and interviews into a book-length “Voodoo” manuscript. In the most important chapters, “Marie the Great” and “Marie the Mysterious,” Dillon interpreted these primary sources to create a narrative of the original Marie Laveau and her successor. It was Catherine Dillon who coined the names “Marie I” and “Marie II” (Dillon 1940).
Dillon’s “Voodoo” manuscript never saw publication. Robert Tallant (1909–1957), with the blessing of Lyle Saxon, inherited the project, which was published in 1946 as Voodoo in New Orleans. Tallant elaborated on Dillon’s theory that Marie Laveau was secretly replaced by her daughter, thereby creating the impression that she reigned as Voudou Queen, perpetually beautiful, for more than a hundred years. He quoted “orgy stories” from nineteenth-century newspapers, lifted sections from the literary and journalistic works of George Washington Cable, Lafcadio Hearn, and Henry Castellanos, and incorporated a sensationalized version of the LWP interviews, skillfully cutting and pasting to create a lurid concoction of some fact and much fiction that characterizes New Orleans Voudou as drunken, interracial sexual debauchery. Tallant never expressed a personal view of Marie Laveau, but gave the impression that he was quoting from his own interviews with community members who held opinions ranging from admiration to fear and disgust (Tallant 1946).
The later twentieth century saw greater acceptance of Voudou as a religion, and Marie Laveau evolved from a frightening, witch-like figure to the beloved mother-goddess of New Orleans. But despite this renewed interest in Marie as a popular icon, the topics of Marie Laveau and Voudou were considered too trivial by academics to merit the arduous research necessary for discovering the factual data. This changed in the 1990s and 2000s, when scholars began to move beyond the stereotypes and reexamine the role of Marie Laveau (Duggal 1991; Fandrich 1994; Sussman 1998; Bibbs 1998; Ward 2004; Fandrich 2005; Long 2006). Notable are the biographies by religious studies scholar Ina Fandrich (2005) and anthropologist Martha Ward (2004).
Ina Fandrich’s 1994 dissertation, “Mysterious Voodoo Queen Marie Laveaux: A Study of Female Leadership in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans,” was the first treatment of Marie Laveau based on archival research since the work of the Louisiana Writers’ Project. Like earlier writers, Fandrich identified Marie Eloise Euchariste Glapion as her mother’s successor. Fandrich introduced the idea that Marie Laveau and Christophe Glapion were abolitionists who bought enslaved people in order to free them (Fandrich 2005:176–79, on anti-slavery activism see 163, 295n56; see interview with Fandrich in Hageman 2002:1, 9). Fandrich’s 2005 book, Mysterious Voodoo Queen Marie Laveaux, is a revision of her dissertation.
Anthropologist Martha Ward authored the 2004 biography, Voodoo Queen: The Spirited Lives of Marie Laveau. Ward presented Marie Laveau as “two women with the same name—a mother and daughter,” who led “dangerous and secret lives” as social activists and religious leaders of the Afro-Creole community. She identified this daughter (“Marie the second”) as Eloise Glapion, who, according to Ward, lived into the 1870s. According to Ward, both women helped slave families disappear from enslavement, defied pro-slavery laws, and hypnotized, blackmailed, or bribed judges and policemen on behalf of people of color. Like Fandrich, Ward contended that Marie Laveau and Christophe Glapion bought slaves in order to liberate them (Ward 2004: introduction, 80–88, 165–66, 129–37).
Those who wrote about Marie Laveau in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries envisioned her in terms of absolute evil or absolute good. To some she was a cunning fraud who used her beauty and intelligence to swindle the gullible and lead vulnerable females into a life of prostitution, while to others she was a Christian woman of great kindness and generosity. On neither side of this argument was Voudou recognized as a valid form of worship. More recent writers see no conflict between the Marie Laveau who was a devout Catholic, a nurse and an herbal healer offering charity to the poor and comfort to prisoners, and the Marie Laveau who was the priestess of an authentic Afro-Catholic religion.
Voudou is still very much alive in New Orleans, with several active priestesses, priests, temples, and congregations. In recent years, the New Orleans Voudou community has accorded to Marie Laveau the status of a lwa, or Voudou deity. [Image at right] For more than two decades, priestess Sallie Ann Glassman, initiated in Haitian Vodou, and her congregation have celebrated St. John’s Eve by performing a head-washing ceremony on the old iron bridge across Bayou St. John (Wooten 2015). Participants are asked to bring offerings for Marie Laveau, who is honored with an altar. Outside the door to Glassman’s Island of Salvation Botanica in the New Orleans Healing Center on St. Claude Avenue, there is a shrine to Marie Laveau with a statue of Marie and an altar where devotees can pray and leave tributes.
In 2017, there was some discussion in New Orleans of erecting a monument to Marie Laveau to replace one of the statues of Confederate generals removed in May. In newspaper articles, and later on Facebook, it was suggested that Marie Laveau would be a good choice for the tall column in the center of Lee Circle or for General P. G. T. Beauregard’s former pedestal at the entrance to City Park across from Bayou St. John. Others argued that this would be unacceptable because Marie Laveau had owned slaves.
Marie Laveau was illiterate. She signed official documents with an X. Curious newspaper reporters and literary figures visited the great priestess in her old age, but she gave no substantive interviews. We therefore have no written or oral statements of her teachings or doctrines. In the end, her character remains elusive. Was she the healer and philanthropist portrayed by the 1881 obituaries, the cunning fraud and procuress described by her detractors, the sexually alluring sorceress depicted by earlier twentieth-century writers, the feminist religious leader and anti-slavery activist as conceived by recent scholars, or does she, as envisioned by the contemporary New Orleans Voudou community, exist in the realm of the lwa?
Image #1: Alleged portrait of Marie Laveau, Louisiana State Museum, New Orleans. The original canvas was purportedly executed in 1837 by the famous painter of Native Americans, George Catlin, while he was visiting New Orleans. The portrait was on loan to the Louisiana State Museum between 1911 and 1922, during which time a copy was made by museum employee Frank Schneider. The Catlin painting disappeared after the owner, New Orleans merchant Gaspar Cusachs, reclaimed it. The whereabouts of the original painting is unknown, and it is Schneider’s copy that hangs in the Louisiana State Museum.
Image #2: On June 16, 1881, Marie Laveau was laid to rest in the middle vault of her family tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Her followers began to solicit contact with her spirit by leaving offerings and drawing three Xs on her tomb. The tomb became a major tourist attraction in the later twentieth century, and thoughtless visitors began to draw red Xs with paint, lipstick, and permanent markers that damaged the tomb and rendered the inscriptions illegible. In late 2013, someone scaled the cemetery wall at night and painted the entire tomb with pink latex paint. This, plus other acts of vandalism in the cemetery, caused the Cemeteries Office of the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans to limit entry only to groups accompanied by a licensed tour guide. Photo courtesy of David Johnson.
Image #3: Carolyn Long. “Two Maries.” Collage. 2015. Here “Marie I” is represented as an older, darker-skinned woman, and “Marie II” as a younger women of more European appearance. Their bodies overlap. In the upper left is the image of the Mater Salvatoris, associated in the Voudou religion with the strong black mother-deity Ezili Dantò and with Marie Laveau I. On the right is the Mater Dolorosa, associated with Ezili Freda, deity of love and femininity, and with Marie II. Courtesy of Carolyn Long.
Image 4: Carolyn Long. “Tea with Marie.” Collage. 2012. Marie Laveau is depicted at tea with two of her devotees, a woman of African descent and a woman of European descent. The table is covered with magical potions and a bottle of High John the Conqueror root compound, and the wall is hung with images of Catholic saints, several with significance in Voudou in New Orleans. Courtesy of Carolyn Long.
Image #5: Vodou priestess Sallie Ann Glassman and Vodou priest Gary Lertalee Howell at the Marie Laveau Shrine in the New Orleans Healing Center, 2372 St. Claude Avenue, New Orleans, during a Vodou ritual on August 19, 2017. Courtesy of Catherine Wessinger.
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