Voodoo queen Marie Laveau

1920 painting of Marie Laveau by Frank Schneider, based on an 1835 painting (now lost) by George Catlin

1920 painting of Marie Laveau by Frank Schneider, based on an 1835 painting (now lost) by George Catlin

Like Jean Laffite, Voodoo queen Marie Laveau is a New Orleans character whose life is shrouded in legend.

The Widow Paris

Marie Laveau was born on September 10, 1801, daughter of the free persons of colour Marguerite Henry D’Arcantel and Charles Laveaux. In 1819, Marie married Jacques Paris, a quadroon. They had two daughters: Felicité, born in 1817, and Marie Angèlie, born in 1822. Both are presumed to have died young.

Jacques died or disappeared sometime between March 1822 and November 1824. Thereafter Marie went by the name the Widow Paris. Like many women of colour, Marie was illiterate. She supported herself as a hairdresser, going to the homes of wealthy white women to style their coiffures. She would have been privy to many secrets, judging by a mid-19th century account of the job.

My avocation calls me into the upper classes of society almost exclusively; and there reigns as many elements of misery as the world can produce.… [N]owhere do hearts betray themselves more unguardedly than in the private boudoir, where the hair-dresser’s mission makes her a daily attendant….

[T]he hair-dresser is everywhere chatted with, and confided to. Indeed, I have often wished I could absent myself from conversations that I knew ought to be confidential, and that I had no business to hear; but I could not tell ladies to shut their mouths, and hence I was much oftener the receptacle of secrets than I desired to be. (1)

By the late 1820s Marie was in a relationship with Christophe Glapion, the descendant of an aristocratic French family and a veteran of the Battle of New Orleans. Between 1827 and 1838 they had seven children, two of whom survived to adulthood: Marie Heloïse (b. 1827) and Marie Philomène (b. 1836). In 1831, the family moved to a Creole cottage on St. Ann Street, between Rampart and Burgundy, that used to belong to Marie’s grandmother. They were prosperous enough to own slaves. It is here that the legend of Voodoo queen Marie Laveau developed.

Voudou in New Orleans

Voodoo, or Voudou, was a religious practice that came to New Orleans from slaves and others of African descent, particularly the refugees from Saint-Domingue (Haiti) in the early 19th century. Marie Laveau reportedly began practicing as a priestess sometime in the 1820s, though it’s impossible to say for sure, as the accounts of New Orleans Voudou during this period were written retrospectively. Another alleged priestess, Sanité Dédé (a possibly fictitious character for whom there is no archival record) was first mentioned in 1875, in a description of a ceremony said to have taken place some fifty years earlier in the shed of an abandoned brickyard on St. John’s Eve (June 23).

At a given signal the four initiates formed a crescent before Dédé, who was evidently the high-priestess or Voudou queen. She made cabalistic signs over them, and sprinkled them vigorously with some liquid from a calabash in her hand, muttering under her breath.

She raised her hand and Zozo [the drummer] dismounted from his cylinder, and from some hidden receptacle in or behind the large black doll drew an immense snake, which he brandished wildly aloft. I cannot at this distance of time recall to what species the serpent belonged; I only remember its vivid colors, showing like glistering red-and-black lozenges in the lurid, waning light of pyre and sconce.

This snake Zozo handled with the mastery of Psylli, those charmers of serpents on the burning sands of the African Syrtis, of whom Pliny tells us. He talked and whispered to it. At every word the reptile, with undulating body and lambent tongue seemed to acknowledge the dominion asserted over it… [Zozo] now compelled the snake to stand upright for about ten inches of its body, and, like the deadly Naia which figures as a head-piece to Egyptian Isis, its head was horizontally laid. In that position Zozo passed the snake over the heads and around the necks of the initiates, repeating at each pass the words which constitute the name of this African sect, ‘Voudou Magnian.’ (2)

Voudou priestess

There is no record of Marie Laveau as a Voodoo priestess prior to July 1850. That’s when the Daily Picayune reported that

Marie Laveau, otherwise Widow Paris, f.w.c. the head of the Voudou women, yesterday appeared before Recorder Seuzeneau and charged Watchman Abréo of the Third Municipality Guards with having by fraud come into possession of a statue of a virgin worth fifty dollars. (3)

Marie appeared again in the local papers in July 1859, when a neighbour charged that

Marie and her wenches were continuously disturbing the peace and that of the neighbourhood with their fighting and obscenity and infernal singing and yelling … [in] the hellish observance of the mysterious rites of Voudou … one of the worst forms of African paganism. (4)

Interviews conducted with elderly New Orleans residents during the 1930s, as part of the Louisiana Writers’ Project, brought forth several remembrances of Marie, including a description of the altar in her front room, which was for “good luck charms, money-making charms, husband-holding charms. On this altar she had a statue of St. Peter and St. Marron, a colored saint.” (5)

In her back room she “had an altar for bad work…[where] she prepared charms to kill, to drive away, to break up love affairs, and to spread confusion. It was surmounted by statues of a bear, a lion, a tiger, and a wolf.” (6)

Marie would hold small, private weekly services at her home, for a racially mixed congregation.

There was a big chair, like they use in church for the bishop, and Marie sat in it at the opening of the meeting. Then she would tell the people to ask for what they want, sprinkle them with rum, and start the dances… I have seen those men turn the women over like a top. They had large handkerchiefs that they would put around the women’s waist, and would they shake! There were more white people at the meetings than colored. The meeting lasted from seven to nine o’clock and they would have things to eat and drink. (7)

Marie also gave private consultations and made and sold gris-gris, such as the one she prepares for Napoleon in Napoleon in America. Gris-gris were assemblages of substances used by believers to attain control over others or to gain success, health, protection, revenge or luck. They could include roots and herbs, peppers, sugar, salt, flavourings, animal parts, graveyard dirt, gunpowder, pins and needles, nails, dolls, candles, incense, holy water and images of the saints.

Magic or trickery?

According to legend, Marie was charismatic, shrewd, beautiful and powerful. She exercised control over the city’s white elite because she knew their secrets from her hairdressing days and because she had a network of informants among their servants. Her “magic” was in part trickery. Again, from the remembrances of the Louisiana Writers’ Project:

[She] had a way with white people… She would get a gal [for a married man] and tell his wife about it… Then she would show the wife how to get her husband back – that would cost plenty of money.… She would…tell the man that his wife was about to find out…and he had better stop it.… In cases like that all she had to do was fool the people. (8)

Her black assistant would

get up early in the morning and kill the snakes, chickens, alligators and other animals and fix the dusts…. [He would] go to people’s houses and learn their business…[and] put cow heads and black cats…on their doorstep…. [They would] get scared and come running to Marie Laveau. She would tell them they were hoodooed and charge them big money for a cure. She already knew all about their affairs. (9)

There are tales that Marie helped prisoners who were headed for the gallows, but these all appeared after her death. Her name was never mentioned in connection with such cases in the contemporary newspaper accounts, and none of the Louisiana Writers’ Project interviewees mentioned Marie’s attention to prisoners.

Death of Marie Laveau

Christophe Glapion died insolvent in the summer of 1855. By the 1870s, Marie was old and frail. When a reporter from the Daily Picayune visited her on June 24, 1875, he found her “once a tall, powerful woman…now bent with age and infirmity. Her complexion was a dark bronze and her hair grizzled black, while her trembling hand was supported by a crooked stick.” When asked about her religious practices, she said she no longer served the Voudou spirits but was now “a believer in the holy faith.” (10)

Marie Laveau died on June 15, 1881. Most of New Orleans turned out for her funeral. She was buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Her cottage on St. Ann Street was demolished in 1903 and a double-shotgun house was built on the site in the early 1920s.

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  1. Eliza Potter, A Hairdresser’s Experience in High Life (Cincinnati, 1859), pp. iv, 68.
  2. Marie B. Williams, “A Night with the Voudous,” Appleton’s Journal, March 27, 1875, p. 404. Williams was relating the account of a “Professor D–” of New Orleans.
  3. Caroline Morrow Long, A New Orleans Voudou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau (Gainesville, 2006), p. 106.
  4. Ibid., pp. 107-108.
  5. Ibid., p. 109.
  6. Ibid., pp. 109-110.
  7. Ibid., p. 111.
  8. Ibid., p. 117.
  9. Ibid., p. 118.
  10. Ibid., p. 166. Long says Marie Laveau had always been a practicing Catholic.

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Marie and her wenches were continuously disturbing the peace and that of the neighbourhood with their fighting and obscenity and infernal singing and yelling … [in] the hellish observance of the mysterious rites of Voudou … one of the worst forms of African paganism.

Daily Picayune