The enduring spell of New Orleans Voodoo queen Marie Laveau
Marie Laveau, one of New Orleans’ most intriguing personalities, was born on Sept. 10, 1801, according to church records. Other sources say 1783 and 1794; that dispute is in keeping with the mystery that has surrounded her existence. Laveau, the daughter of two free people of color, was nothing if not a woman of contradictions. For instance, even though she was a renowned practitioner of the dark arts, she was a Catholic who went to Mass daily, and she married Jacques Paris in St. Louis Cathedral in 1819.
There is no shortage of Voodoo shops and voodoo tours dedicated to the darker side of New Orleans’ history, and visitors for years have marked Laveau’s tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 with X’s as part of the process of getting a wish fulfilled. Access to the cemetery has been restricted to guided tours after a man painted Laveau’s tomb pink in 2013. The tomb has since been restored.
- Laveau was said to hold Voodoo rituals on the banks of Bayou St. John annually on St. John’s Eve, the night of June 23, according to “Marie Laveau: The Mysterious Voodoo Queen” by Ina Johanna Fendrich. The date, which occurs on or around the summer solstice, is important in voodoo culture.
- By training, Laveau was a hairdresser, with clients in all social strata. She became their confidante and developed a network of sources who helped her build her power.
- Laveau predicted the future, conducted private rituals behind her French Quarter cottage, performed exorcisms and offered sacrifices to spirits. She mixed elements of Catholicism with African spirits and religious concepts.
- She also was a nurse who was intrigued by the medicinal power of certain herbs and reportedly helped out during New Orleans’ frequent outbreaks of yellow fever.
- Because she was concerned with people’s souls, Laveau often sat with condemned men as they waited to be put to death and served them their last meals.
- Depending on whom you believe — sources differ — Laveau was an apprentice to or rival of a Voodoo priest named Dr. John. He was the inspiration for the alter ego of the New Orleans musician Malcolm “Mac” Rebennack, who was invoking the city’s Voodoo legacy by calling himself “Dr. John, the Night Tripper.” That eventually was simplified to “Dr. John.”
- Laveau had two children with her husband. After he disappeared in 1824, she had 15 more with Louis Christophe Dumesnil de Glapion, with whom she lived from 1826 until his death in 1855. One daughter, who became known as Marie Laveau II, tried to follow in her mother’s footsteps.
- Laveau died in her St. Ann Street home on June 15, 1881. Because of the fame she had achieved, she was the subject of obituaries in The Picayune and The New York Times. The writer Lafcadio Hearn described her as “one of the kindest women who ever lived.”
Of all the legendary figures who have swept through New Orleans in its first three centuries, few have captured the collective imagination as much as Marie Laveau. She obviously still exerts her mysterious power because people today, nearly 140 years after her death, make pilgrimages to her tomb – out of curiosity, perhaps, or out of a belief that Laveau can still work her magic. Like any other enigmatic personality, Marie Laveau was a woman of several roles – a Voodoo practitioner and, yet, a devout Catholic and a devoted mother who didn’t hesitate to volunteer her services as a nurse during the city’s recurring yellow-fever epidemics. Does anyone know who the “real” Marie Laveau was? Will we ever know? Probably not. That’s the power, and the lure, of legend.