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 well-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.