Marie Laveau, Mysterious Voodoo Queen of New Orleans

Alleged tomb of Marie Laveau
Offerings left at the alleged tomb of New Orleans Voo-Doo Queen Marie Laveau.

c. N.A. Nungesser

Marie Catherine Laveau was born in New Orleans, and rose to fame as a priestess of Voodoo, or Vodoun. Over the years since her death, there has been some overlap between her own legends and those of her daughter, also named Marie Laveau. The younger Marie was a practitioner of Voodoo like her mother. Much of what is believed about Marie today is a blend of stories about mother and daughter.

Marie Laveau Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Marie Catherine Laveau (also spelled Laveaux)
  • Born: Sept. 10, 1801, in New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Died: June 15, 1881, in New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Parents: Charles Laveaux Trudeau and Marguerite Henry D'Arcantel
  • Spouses: Jacques Paris and Louis Christophe Dumesnil de Glapion (domestic partner, as interracial marriages were unlawful)
  • Children: Marie Euchariste Eloise and Marie Philomene. She is said to have had as many as 15 children, but most died before reaching adulthood.
  • Famous For: Known as the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, led public Voodoo rituals and ceremonies, and turned the practice of Voodoo into a profitable business.

Early Years

Marie Catherine Laveau was born in New Orleans' famous French Quarter in September 1801 to Marguerite Henry D'Arcantel, a free woman of color. Marguerite is believed to be of Native American, African, and French ancestry, and was not married to Marie's father, Charles Laveau Trudeau, who eventually became the mayor of New Orleans.

Marie Laveau
Portrait of Marie Laveau, painted by Frank Schneider ca. 1920. ​Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Not much is known about Marie's early life, but in 1819 she married a French immigrant named Jacques Paris (in some records, called Jacques Santiago), with whom she had two daughters. Shortly after their marriage, Jacques disappeared, and eventually he was declared dead; some sources claim that he did not die, but merely deserted his family. Calling herself the Widow Paris, Marie began working as a hairstylist. Her clients, many of whom were wealthy white and Creole women in the French Quarter, saw her as a confidante, and often told her their most personal secrets—something which is not uncommon in the hairstyling industry.

In addition to working as a hairdresser, Marie worked occasionally as a nurse; she took sick people to be cared for in her home and sometimes ministered to death row prisoners. At some point, she met and entered a relationship with Louis Christophe Dumesnil de Glapion. Because Glapion was white, he and Marie were not able to legally marry, but they lived together for the rest of his life, and she bore numerous children with him; some accounts say there were seven, others hint that she had as many as fifteen.

The Voodoo Priestess

During the 1820s, Marie began studying Voodoo with a man named Doctor John, or John Bayou (also known as Doctor John Montanee, according to author Denise Alvarado), who was recognized as a leader in the Voodoo community. Within a decade or so, the Widow Paris was known as one of several Voodoo Queens in the city of New Orleans.

In Investigating the Syncretism of Catholicism and Voodoo in New Orleans, author Anthony M. J. Maranise points out that as someone raised a practicing Catholic, Marie formed a close friendship with Father Antoine, a local rector, who continued to offer her the sacraments, despite her practice of Voodoo. Marie was fairly business savvy, thanks to her years spent as a hairstylist, and by combining Voodoo beliefs with Catholic traditions like holy water and saint statues, she made Voodoo socially acceptable to the upper class residents of New Orleans. Maranise says:

"The 'wedding' of Catholicism with Voodoo became more pervasive and noticeable as Marie LaVeau grew and matured. Many of Marie’s followers and friends, knowing of her friendship with Pere Antoine, and thus, with the Catholic Church, began undoubtedly synthesizing Roman Catholic ritual and the veneration of sacramental objects with traditional African religion... Although it is likely that the synthesis of Catholic rituals with those of traditional African religion was already occurring in some ways, it was strengthened through the close relationship Marie developed with Pere Antoine."

She soon began leading public rituals and ceremonies in Congo Square, which was one of only a few places in the city where blacks and whites could freely mix.

Laveau sold gris-gris bags—protective amulets which originate in Africa—as well as charms and magical potions. Her fame grew as word spread that her concoctions could cure illness, grant wishes, and bring a hex to one's enemies. In addition, she was accomplished at divination and fortune telling. She was known for healing the sick, and some people even believed she was a living saint. Marie's services were available to control straying lovers, increase fertility, take revenge upon those who had wronged you, and increase fortunes.

"Everybody in trouble of any sort seems to have sought her help—women and men, black and white, enslaved and free, the rich and famous and the poor and unknown alike. Rumors have it that all of the city's leading politicians, wealthy planters, lawyers, and businessmen consulted with her secretly before making any major decision, as everyone in the Crescent City appears to have been convinced that whatever the Voodoo Queen predicted would unfailingly come true."

While it is entirely possible that some of her divinatory knowledge was based upon an extensive network of informants positioned as servants in wealthy households, everyone believed in Marie's abilities. In fact, as her reputation grew, so did her power, and she eventually deposed the other Voodoo Queens in New Orleans.

In June 1881, Marie died peacefully at home, and was buried in Saint Louis Cemetery #1 in the Laveau-Glapion family crypt. Like many of New Orleans' tombs, the structure is above ground because the water table makes underground internment impractical. Each year, hundreds of visitors come to the tomb; it is believed that Marie’s spirit will grant favors to those who leave offerings of coins, beads, candles, or rum. Interestingly, there are two different crypts that are said to hold Marie's remains, and offerings are left at both. Across the street, there is a statue of Saint Expedite; offerings of pound cake left at the statue are believed to speed up the favors asked of Marie.

New Orleans Cemeteries
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Marie the Younger

Marie's daughter, also named Marie, was one of two Glapion children known to survive to adulthood. Like her mother, Marie the Second also worked as a hairdresser for a time, and began practicing Voodoo at a young age. After her mother's death, she took over the leadership of public ceremonies, but never quite gained the same level of popularity that was enjoyed by Marie the First. By many accounts, she instilled fear and subservience in her followers, rather than love and awe.

Marie II ran a bar for a while, as well as a brothel; she hosted lavish parties at which she invited wealthy white men to partake of champagne, food, and naked black women. She is believed to have died by drowning in Lake Pontchartrain in a storm in 1897.

Sources

  • Fandrich, Ina J. “The Birth of New Orleans' Voodoo Queen: A Long Held Mystery Resolved.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, Louisiana Historical Association, 2005, www.jstor.org/stable/4234122.
  • Long, Carolyn Morrow. A New Orleans Voudou Priestess: the Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau. University Press of Florida, 2007.
  • Maranise, Anthony M.J. “Investigating the Syncretism of Catholicism and Voodoo in New Orleans.” Journal of Religion & Society, The Kripke Center, 2012, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/f5ce/372ebd00a56a72dc82c4de8b9715f50e5bd8.pdf.
  • Niven, Steven J. “Marie Laveaux: The Vodou Priestess Who Kept New Orleans Under Her Spell.” The Root, Www.theroot.com, 12 Jan. 2017, www.theroot.com/marie-laveaux-the-vodou-priestess-who-kept-new-orleans-1790858802.
  • Sexton, Rocky. “Cajun and Creole Treaters: Magico-Religious Folk Healing in French Louisiana.” Western Folklore, Western States Folklore Society, July 1992, www.jstor.org/stable/1499774.