Marie Laveau

Marie Laveau

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Marie Laveau (1794?–1881) and Marie Laveau Glapion(1827–1877) were the most famous voodoo queens, mother and daughter by the same name, reigned over New Orleans in the late 19th century, and in death are believed to haunt the city still. Their lives have become legend.

Marie Laveau I reputedly was born in New Orleans in 1794, the illegitimate daughter of Charles Laveau and Margeurite Carcantel. A mulatto of mixed black, white and Indian race, she was from birth a free woman of color. As a young woman, she was tall and statuesque, with curling black hair, flashing black eyes, reddish skin and “good” features, meaning more white than Negroid. On August 4, 1819 she married Jacques Paris, a quadroon (three-fourths white, one-fourth black) free man of color from Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). They lived in a house in the 1900 block of North Rampart Street that had been given to them by Charles Laveau as part of his daughter’s dowry.

Not long after the marriage, Paris disappeared, perhaps returning to his homeland. Marie began calling herself the Widow Paris, and supported herself by working as a hairdresser to the wealthy white and Creole women of New Orleans. Her clients confided their most intimate secrets to Marie, about their husbands, their lovers, their estates, their husbands’ mistresses, their business affairs, their fears of insanity and of anyone discovering a strain of Negro blood in their ancestry. At this time, Marie also was likely involved in voodoo activities, for she took careful note of these confessions, and later used them to strengthen her powers as voodoo queen. About five years after Paris’s disappearance, his death was reported, but there is no certification of burial.

1920 painting of Marie Laveau by Frank Schneider, based on an 1835 painting by George Catlin.
1920 painting of Marie Laveau by Frank Schneider, based on an 1835 painting by George Catlin.

Around 1826, Marie became the lover of Louis Christophe Duminy de Glapion, another quadroon from Saint- Domingue, who lived with her on North Rampart until his death in June 1855. They never married, but they produced 15 children. After establishing her relationship with Duminy de Glapion, Marie gave up hairdressing and began to devote all her energies to becoming the supreme voodoo queen of New Orleans.

The voodoo practiced by black African slaves was a mixture of African and Caribbean rites. The rites were held in secret deep in the bayous. Stories circulated that they involved worship of a snake called Zombi, orgiastic dancing, drinking and lovemaking. Nearly a third of the worshippers were whites who sought magical power for their own ends.

By the early 1830s, there were many voodoo queens in New Orleans, fighting over control of the Sunday Congo dances and the secret ceremonies out at Lake Pontchartrain. Marie handily bested them all—some said by powerful magic. A devout Catholic, she added elements of Catholic worship, such as holy water, incense, statues of the saints and Christian prayers, to the already sensational voodoo ceremonies.

She turned the rites at Lake Pontchartrain into large spectacles. The police, the press, young New Orleans roues and any other thrill-seekers interested in forbidden fun were invited to attend, provided they paid an admission fee. Marie added to the carnival atmosphere with such acts as praying over a black coffin and sacrificing roosters. Meanwhile, other, more secret orgies were organized for wealthy white men looking for beautiful black, mulatto and quadroon mistresses. Marie then gained control of the dances at Congo Square, entering the gated area before any of the other dancers and performing with her 20-foot snake for the fascinated onlookers.

Eventually, the information learned from her former hairdressing clients, her considerable knowledge of spells and her own style and flair made Marie the most powerful woman in the city, sought by both whites and blacks for magical concoctions and advice. She charged whites high fees, but few blacks paid for services.

Stories about Marie abound. Most of the tales are no doubt exaggerations, but some of the best follow.

Around 1830, the son of a very prominent and aristocratic New Orleans family apparently raped a young girl of lower but respectable class. Evidence against the young man was strong; out of desperation, either the father or the son (both are credited) went to Marie Laveau to enlist her help in an acquittal. The father promised Marie a new house if she could succeed.

At dawn of the morning of the trial, Marie went to pray at St. Louis Cathedral, remaining at the altar rail for several hours with three Guinea peppers in her mouth. Then she sneaked into the Cabildo, the old seat of French-Spanish justice, and placed the peppers under the judge’s chair. On his doorstep Marie placed a gris-gris (a charm bag) of powdered brick, and she pinned a note on the front door declaring the young man’s innocence. She even brazenly signed the note, believing in her own power and prestige.

The jury reportedly was made up of other young, aristocratic Creole playboys, many of whom had committed similar crimes but had not been punished. The prosecuting attorney pleaded passionately for conviction, appealing to the jury’s biblical sense of right and wrong. Marie watched silently from the gallery, finally flipping a piece of paper containing one of her hairs onto the prosecutor’s shoulder. The verdict: not guilty.

In gratitude, the father kept his promise and gave Marie a new house on St. Ann Street, in the French Quarter near Congo Square. Marie and her family, including Glapion, lived there until she died in 1881, and it pleased Marie to claim that the cottage was one of the oldest in New Orleans, part of the Laveau family for seven generations. The house became voodoo’s headquarters, and the small outbuildings probably housed assignations between other white men and their black lovers.

The freed young man began attending church to give thanks for his good fortune, and finally repudiated his wild friends in remorse for his sins. He determined to marry the woman he had wronged, but she refused. Again the young man appealed to Marie Laveau, who promised him that the girl would marry him within one month. Marie made the man a gris-gris bag containing “love powder” (talcum), feathers, pulverized lizard eggs and donkey hair, which he had to wear around his waist. Then she took hair from various parts of the young man’s body and spread them on the lady’s doorstep.

The lady continued to spurn the young man, but unfortunately, she met him coming into church as she was leaving. She turned to run, fell and sprained her ankle. He tenderly picked her up, begging her to let him get a doctor and take her home. Impressed with his solicitude, she yielded, and he kissed her. The next day she married him, albeit limping down the aisle.

Another affair of the heart concerned a wealthy old bachelor who was madly in love with the daughter of another Creole gentleman. The girl was young enough to be the man’s granddaughter, and rejected his advances. But her father, suffering from financial reversal, tried to convince his daughter of the benefits of the match, and when she refused, he locked her up in a cabin near the lake. Every night the old man, attended by the girl’s father, came to the cabin and tried to woo her, but still she refused. Her father cajoled, threatened and even beat her, but she held fast, swearing to die first. She had already given her heart to a dashing young adventurer, who was expected to return from the West Indies any day with his newfound fortune.

Having no other alternatives, the father and the old suitor turned to Marie Laveau, who promised that the wedding would take place. She gave love powders to the father to put in the girl’s food, and made the old man a gris-gris containing the dried testicles of a black cat. He was to wear the bag near his own genitals to cure his impotency and bring back virility. Finally, Marie advised patience, telling the men to refrain from begging for the girl’s hand for two weeks.

At the end of a fortnight, the girl, very pale and weak, agreed to marry the old man. Both men were overjoyed, and plans commenced for the wedding to take place at once. Two weeks later, all of New Orleans society crowded St. Louis Cathedral for the ceremony, gossiping about the lovely young bride taking the hand of an old man with bent knees and a toupee. Everyone was invited to a huge reception that night at the groom’s mansion, replete with champagne and rare delicacies.

As the party became livelier, the celebrants demanded that the bride and groom lead the first dance. Flushed with his conquest, he led his wife out into the ballroom and began to waltz. For a moment he was young again. Then he stopped, face turning purple, and crumpled to the floor. The bride shrieked, a doctor rushed to help, but it was too late.

The new bride inherited all the old man’s fortune, enabling her to call her lover home from the West Indies. After a year of conventional mourning, they married and reportedly lived happy ever after. Questioned about her role in the affair, Marie Laveau would reply that she had promised only that “the wedding would take place.”

Although love provided more business for Marie Laveau than anything else, she was also known for her work with convicted prisoners. Marie had always performed acts of Christian charity, helping Père (Father) Antoine, New Orleans’s much-beloved priest who had married her and Jacques Paris, with yellow fever victims. By the 1850s, her influence with local authorities allowed her to enter and exit the prison with impunity, taking food and solace to the men in their cells. She donated an altar to the prison chapel and decorated it with her own hands. None of these visits exhibited any outward signs of voodoo, only devout Catholicism.

In 1852, Jean Adam and Anthony Deslisle were convicted to hang for the murder of a young mulatto servant girl named Mary in the employ of a Madame Chevillon while stealing a large sum of money from Madame’s home. Marie Laveau visited the condemned men every day while they awaited execution, taking them food, talking and praying. The morning of the hanging she took them a pot of gumbo and stayed until the very last minute. Then she joined the enormous crowd outside waiting to watch the execution (all executions in New Orleans were then public).

When the men were brought out, they were highly intoxicated, although Marie had not given them any obvious drinks. Deslisle shouted at the spectators—hundreds of people, with their children, enjoying the clear, sunny day and the upcoming show—that he was innocent, and begged that the people attend his funeral and see that he had a decent burial and a long funeral procession. Then he claimed he was a Frenchman, willing to die only for France and not at the hands of “barbarous” American justice. Deslisle raised his arms, stared at the gathering clouds above the gallows, screamed and fainted.

By now the clear, sunny sky had filled with heavy, black clouds. Wind roared through the trees, children cried, and one woman reportedly shouted, “It’s just like the Crucifixion!” But the execution proceeded as planned. Arms bound, the men were placed in chairs on the platform, their heads covered with black hoods, and the ropes placed around their necks. Just as the executioner released the trap doors at the sheriff’s signal, rain began falling in torrents and lightning filled the sky.

The crowd gasped in horror as people realized the men lay on the ground, bleeding but not dead, the ropes frayed and broken. Deslisle crawled on his hands and knees, sobbing, and Adam was unconscious. The mob surged forward, and the police had to use their clubs to force them back. Prison officials carried Deslisle and Adam back into the jail, then hauled them out 10 minutes later and tried again, this time successfully. The sky cleared as a tall woman, recognized in whispers as Marie Laveau, left the throng.

Newspaper accounts described the execution as a “painful spectacle . . . the seldomer such exhibitions are public the better.” Everyone who was there, and anyone who heard the story, believed Marie Laveau had caused the storm and almost saved the lives of the murderers. The whole affair caused such an uproar that the Louisiana State Legislature outlawed public executions in the state forever.

In 1869, Marie was past 70 years of age, and her followers decided she should retire. She did not completely retreat from active service until 1875, when she entered her St. Ann Street home for the last time; she did not leave until her death in 1881. Her role as voodoo queen was assumed by one of her daughters, also named Marie Laveau, who bore a striking resemblance to her mother, save for a lighter skin.

Marie Laveau Glapion was born on February 2, 1827. It is not known whether Marie I appointed her daughter to follow her or Marie II chose the role herself. Marie II apparently lacked the warm compassion of her mother and inspired more fear and subservience. Like her mother, she started out as a hairdresser, but then graduated to running a bar and brothel on Bourbon Street between Toulouse and St. Peter streets.

Marie II continued assignations at “Maison Blanche” (White House), the house her mother had built for secret voodoo meetings and liaisons between white men and black women. The police looked the other way because they were afraid of crossing her and ending up “hoodooed” (bewitched).

One of the most important events in the New Orleans voodoo calendar was June 23, St. John’s Eve, the observance of the summer solstice. The event was celebrated by voodoo rites at Bayou St. John on Lake Ponchartrain. Originally, the rites were religious, but Marie I had turned them into a circus. By the time of Marie II, most St. John’s Eve rites were led by underling voodoo queens, but Marie II presided more than once.

According to one newspaper account of St. John’s Eve, 1872, the crowd sang to Marie II, then built a large fire to heat a cauldron. The cauldron was filled with water from a beer barrel, salt, black pepper, a black snake cut in three pieces (representing the Trinity), a cat, a black rooster and various powders. Marie ordered everyone to undress, which they did while singing a repetitive chorus. At midnight they jumped into the lake for about half an hour to cool off, then came out and sang and danced for another hour. Marie then preached a sermon, then gave the celebrants permission for a half-hour’s “recreation,” or sexual intercourse.

Afterward, everyone ate and sang some more, until the signal was given to extinguish the fire under the cauldron. Four nude women threw water on the fire, then the contents of the kettle were poured back into the barrel. Marie told everyone to dress again, then she preached another sermon. By now it was daybreak, and everyone went home.

Marie I died in her St. Ann Street home on June 16, 1881. Her obituaries described her as a saintly woman who had nursed the sick and prayed incessantly with the diseased and the condemned, and said her alleged beauty had attracted the attention of Governor Claiborne, French General Humbert, Aaron Burr and even the Marquis de Lafayette. The obituaries further claimed she had lived her life in piety, surrounded by her Catholic religion, and made no mention of her voodoo activities. Even one of her surviving children, Madame Legendre, claimed her saintly mother had never practiced voodoo and in fact had despised the cult. The faithful, however, knew better.

With her mother’s passing, Marie II faded into obscurity. She had been so closely identified with her mother that she apparently had little persona of her own. She continued to reign over the voodoo ceremonies among the blacks and ran the Maison Blanche, but she never regained media attention. According to legend, she drowned in a big storm in Lake Pontchartrain during the 1890s. Some people, however, claimed to see her as late as 1918.

Marie I is reportedly buried in the family crypt at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. The cemetery is quite small, but the tomb seems to appear out of nowhere when walking among the crypts. The vault does not bear her name; according to the inscription, it belongs to “Marie Philome Glapion, deceased June 11, 1897.” Nonetheless, the tomb still attracts the faithful and the curious. Petitioners leave offerings of food, money and flowers, then ask for Marie’s help after turning around three times and marking a cross with red brick on the stone.

One popular legend holds that Marie I never died, but changed herself into a huge black crow which still flies over the cemetery. The crow’s head feathers supposedly stick up in tufts, after the fashion in which Marie wore a tignon, or kerchief, over her hair, tied in seven knots with the points sticking up.

Marie II is believed to be buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 2, where another crypt marked “Marie Laveau” bears red-brick crosses and serves as the “Wishing Vault” for young women seeking husbands. Other stories place Marie in cemeteries on Girod Street, Louisa Street and Holt Street as well.

Tomb of Marie Laveau
Both Maries are said to haunt New Orleans in various human and animal forms. In addition to being seen as a crow, one or the other has been seen as an old woman in a long white dress and blue tignon, as a snake, and as a Newfoundland dog. The apparitions have been sighted floating up and down St. Ann Street. And on St. John’s Eve, when Marie I slipped off to St. John’s Bayou on Lake Ponchartrain for secret voodoo rites, residents of the bayou hear an ethereal singing and see a shadowy figure who looks like a woman clinging to a floating log.

FURTHER READING:

  • Tallant, Robert. The Voodoo Queen. Gretna, La.: Pelican Publishing Co., 1983. First published 1956.

SOURCE:

The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007

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