As this week begins, Carnival season is in full swing in New Orleans with Mardi Gras happening tomorrow. So, it seems fitting to pay tribute to one of New Orleans’s famous citizens, the Voodoo Priestess—or mambo—Marie Laveau. Few facts are actually known about Marie Laveau. It’s believed she was born circa 1801 in New Orleans. She was a free woman of African, French, and Native American heritage.
In 1819, she married Jacques Paris, a free Haitian in St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans. He died only a year later. Her only recorded profession was as a liquor importer in 1832 on Dauphine Street. Popular legend says she was also a hairdresser.
After the death of her husband, she took Christophe Dominick Duminy de Glapion as a lover, with whom she lived until his death in 1835. It’s said they had 15 children including a daughter, also named Marie Laveau. Presuming this is accurate and presuming she was faithful to her first husband, she had an average of one child a year for each year of her relationship with Glapion!
During my first visit to New Orleans, the story was told that Marie Laveau obtained much of her fame and power by circulating among the wealthy of New Orleans. She would dress her daughters like her and send them to parties all over the city, giving her the reputation of being in more than one place at a time. It also allowed her daughters to gain information about people around town.
Marie Laveau died in 1881. At that time, Malvina LaTour took over as the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. To this day, Marie’s grave site is one of the most visited in the United States. People will mark three X’s on the grave and shout a wish, hoping it’ll come true. If you visit her grave in St. Louis Cemetery Number 1, please don’t vandalize it. Leave it as a place for future generations to pay tribute to this remarkable woman.
So, what exactly is Voodoo? According to my friend, Denise Dumars, it’s spelled Voodoo to differentiate it from Haitian Vodou or Mexican Vudu. It’s a magico-religious system born in Africa of traditional West African indiginous religious practices and those of secret societies and synthesized in the New World with French Catholicism, African, Western European, and Native American folk magick and herbalism, plus a smattering of magick, Kabbalism, and Masonic ritual. It seems to have come to America around the time of the Haitian slave revolt of the 19th century. However, the Haitians were too busy getting their new country going to worry about Voodoo, so it really took root in the American South and particularly in New Orleans.
Marie Laveau’s legend has grown through fiction. She’s featured in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Cherie Priest’s Ganymede. She also appears in a number of songs including Redbone’s “Witch Queen of New Orleans” and Jimmy Buffett’s “I Will Play for Gumbo.”
If you’re writing a tale of nineteenth century New Orleans, it seems clear that Marie Laveau would almost certainly make an appearance!
Painting of Marie Laveau by Frank Schneider, based on a (now lost?) painting by George Catlin. (Louisiana State Museum, New Orleans) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons