Witchy Women: Marie Laveau

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Marie Laveau, the infamous VooDoo Queen of New Orleans, has long been the stuff of legend. There are songs about Marie Laveau; there are works of literature, art, and film about her.

But figuring out the truth about Marie Laveau is a fairly complex endeavor. Laveau lived more than 200 years ago, and much of what was written about her even by contemporaries is difficult to confirm as fact. Everything is further complicated by the truth–Marie Laveau was actually two people (mother and daughter bearing the same name) who have been combined into a single iconic persona.

The first Marie Laveau, the mother of the two, was born in New Orleans around the turn of the 19th century. Some sources indicate that she was born in 1794, while some indicate a later birth, 1801. What is more significant than the exact year is that she was born a free woman of color; it is likely that her ancestry included the white, black, Native American, and Creole races, though her parentage is disputed. Marie Laveau grew to be a beautiful woman, and at some point she learned the craft of Voodoo from a voodoo doctor in New Orleans, Doctor John. Laveau was also a devout Catholic throughout her life, and she would incorporate many Catholic signs and symbols into her Voodoo.

Around the age of 19, Marie Laveau I married Jacques Paris, a free black man who came to New Orleans from Haiti. By all accounts, Jacques Paris disappeared soon after the two were married, and a death certificate was filed 5 years into the marriage. Marie Laveau began styling herself as The Widow Paris and became a hair stylist to the wealthy Creole and white women of New Orleans. This would prove to be a significant time for Marie I, as she learned many secrets and dispensed much critical advice to the women whose hair she was styling.

Sometime in 1825 or 1826, Marie began seeing Louis Christopher Duminy de Clapion (try saying that 5 times fast!), a free man from Sainte Dominique. The two began a long love affair, from which many children were said to be born (sources report somewhere between 7 and 15)—among them was Marie Laveau II, who would be the only one of Marie I’s children to survive into adulthood and would also one day share in her mother’s legacy. It was during Marie’s life with Louis Christopher that her Voodoo practice is said to have begun, and it supplanted her occupation as a hairdresser.

Voodoo as a practice had already been a part of the black community in New Orleans for a while when Marie I began her work. Tales of the religion’s power appealed to some of the white inhabitants of the city, making others incredibly afraid of what could be achieved. I can’t begin to cover the full scope of Voodoo here, but suffice it to say that the religion had a very real presence in New Orleans—enough that the government of the city, fearing a slave uprising like the Haitian uprising in 1803, enacted a law in 1817 forbidding blacks to gather for any reason except on Sundays in places designated by the mayor; most notably, Congo Square.

Legend has it that the voodoo priests and practitioners who had fought over control of the Congo Square rituals crumbled before Marie I, who for many years gained control of the dancing and voodoo trade at Congo Square. Marie I also monetized parts of the practice that seem not to have been as such before, charging entrance fees to watch events and inviting press and the public to attend ceremonies. She also was reported to organize secret orgies for white men seeking black mistresses.

Sometime in 1875, Marie I is said to have given her last performance in public, stating that she was retiring from the business. In theory, she never really retired, but only worked in secret. Just a few years later, in 1881, Marie I died at her home on Saint Ann Street.

Marie II seems to have learned much of her mother’s trade, perhaps from growing up in a home and a city where her mother was a Witchywell-renowned Voodoo queen. Marie II appears to have begun her practice much like her mother–working first as a hair dresser and eventually running a bar and brothel in the French Quarter. Some sources suggest that much of Marie I’s public career was actually Marie II. The two looked very much alike, and Marie II may have simply slipped into her mother’s shoes at the Congo Square gatherings. Marie II’s death was reportedly in the Lake Ponchatrain floods of 1890, but accounts vary.

Today, there is uncertainty about the resting place of the two Marie Laveaus. Several cemeteries lay claim to being the final resting place of THE Marie Laveau. We do know that there are two graves in particular that people have gravitated toward and that bear the name. In St. Louis Cemetery #1, there is a mausoleum marked “Marie Philome Glapion,” and this is generally accepted to be Marie I’s resting place. In an effort to protect the fragile mausoleums and tombs, access is only allowed with a tour guide or other official personnel (legend said that marking an X on the tomb after turning around 3 times could grant a wish to a visitor). In St. Louis Cemetery #2 is a grave marked “Marie Laveau.” This tomb has been called the Wishing Vault, and women sometimes come to it to ask the voodoo queen for husbands.

*This post is a part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge.
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10 Comments

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    1. It’s quite a tangled story! The legends have conflated the two women, and they’ve also inflated much of the lore, and voodoo is also a very secretive sort of thing…So it’s all really complex and snarly, which I think makes it much more interesting.

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    1. Sounds like probably the St. Louis 1. The Xs were usually marked on that one, though it’s against the law now and most have been cleaned off the tomb. The grave in St. Louis 2 is sometimes marked, but not with Xs.

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  1. I love the legend of Marie Leveau, I find it fascinating. Really interesting reading this and learning some new bits about her.
    Debbie

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m from Louisiana and lived in New Orleans for a long time. After moving to north Louisiana, after my kids were born, I kept a small apartment above a pizza joint on the corner of Bourbon and Conti for quite a while, but we finally gave it up. I used to go back every couple of months. The mystery surrounding Maria Laveau’s life and death always fascinated me. I spent many hours researching her life and her daughters. What I learned resembles nothing that is shared in public books or that is passed down in casual conversation. I truly don’t know where she is buried and I’m not sure I believe she’s in either one of those tombs. There’s a rumor that her black husband was murdered. Many people are afraid of voodoo and consider it sacreligious, but Marie’s practice was rooted in Catholicism and many prestigious, wealthy citizens of New Orleans had standing appointments with her. Some of them would wait until dark and sneak her into their Garden District homes so the neighbors wouldn’t see. Marie didn’t like working under those conditions. She needed to be surrounded by her Gris Gris , in her own home, filled with positive energy for the spirits to travel through.
    Interesting topic. It’s one I’ll never tire of.
    Melissa Sugar
    http://melissasugarwrites.com

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s really cool! I moved here about 3 years ago, but I’ve lived nearby for most of my life, just across the MS state line. There are so many sources about Laveau, and so much of it is changed or embellished in the telling that you never really know where to separate myth and truth. But maybe at this point the myth matters just as much as the fact.

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