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Laveau, Marie (1794?-1881 and 1827-1897) The most famous "voodoo queen" in North America was actually two people: mother and daughter. As leaders of voodoo (the term used at that time) worshipers in New Orleans during the 19th century, both women epitomized a sensational appeal: magical powers, control of one's lovers and enemies, and sex.
Marie Laveau I reputedly was born a free woman of color in New Orleans in 1794. She was of African-American, white and Indian ancestry, and sometimes described as a descendant of French aristocracy or the daughter of a wealthy white planter. Records of her marriage on August 4, 1819, to Jacques Paris, a free man of color from Saint-Domingue (Haiti), report that Marie was the illegitimate daughter of Charles Laveau and Marguerite Darcantel.
Paris was a quadroon—three-fourths white. Not long after the marriage, he disappeared, perhaps returning to Saint-Domingue. About five years later his death was recorded, but there is no certification of interment.
By then Laveau already was calling herself the Widow Paris, and took up employment as a hairdresser to the wealthy white and Creole women of New Orleans. These women confided their most intimate secrets to Marie, about their husbands, their lovers, their estates, their husbands' mistresses, their business affairs, their fears of insanity and of anyone discovering a strain of Negro blood in their ancestry. Marie listened and remembered their confessions, using them later to strengthen her powers as "Voodooienne."
About 1826 Marie took up with Louis Christophe Duminy de Glapion, another quadroon from Saint-Domingue, who moved in with her until his death in June of 1855 (some accounts say 1835). They never married, but he and Marie had 15 children in rapid succession. She quit the business of hairdressing and began to devote all her energies to becoming the supreme voodoo queen of New Orleans.
Blacks had been practicing voodoo secretly around New Orleans ever since the first arrival of slaves from Africa and the Caribbean. Stories circulated of secret rites deep in the bayous, complete with worship of a snake called Zombi and orgiastic dancing, drinking and love-making. Nearly a third of the worshipers were whites, desirous to obtain the "power" to regain a lost lover, take a new lover, eliminate a bad business partner or destroy an enemy.
The meetings became so frequent that white masters feared the blacks were plotting an uprising against them. In 1817, the New Orleans Municipal Council passed a resolution forbidding blacks to gather for dancing or any other purpose except on Sundays and only in places designated by the mayor. The accepted spot was Congo Square on North Rampart Street, now called Beauregard Square, near where Laveau lived. Congo Square reigned as the supreme gathering spot for more than 20 years.
By the early 1830s there were many voodoo queens in New Orleans, fighting over control of the Sunday Congo dances and the secret ceremonies out at Lake Pontchar-train. But when Laveau decided to become queen, contemporaries reported the other queens faded before her, some succumbing to her powerful GRIS-GRIS and some yielding by brute force. A devout Catholic, Laveau added many facets of Catholic worship—like holy water, incense, statues of the saints and Christian prayers—to the voodoo ceremonies.
Laveau turned the Lake Pontchartrain rites into a business, charging fees. She invited the press and police. Other, more secret orgies were organized for wealthy white men looking for beautiful black, mulatto and quadroon mistresses. Laveau then gained control of the dances at Congo Square, entering the gated area before any of the other dancers and performing with her snake for the fascinated onlookers.
Eventually, the information learned in Creole boudoirs, her considerable knowledge of spells and her own style and flair made her the most powerful woman in the city. Whites of all classes appealed to her for help in their various affairs and amours, and the blacks acknowledged her as their leader. Judges paid her as much as $1,000 to help them win elections, and even the most insignificant love powders cost whites $10. Few blacks paid for ser vices. She became so well known that visiting Laveau for a reading became the thing to do while in New Orleans.
Although love provided more business for Laveau than anything else, she was also known for her work with convicted prisoners. She assisted Père (Father) Antoine— New Orleans' popular priest who had married her and Jacques Paris—with yellow fever victims. By the 1850s, she could enter and exit prison with impunity, bringing food and solace to the men in their cells. She donated an altar to the prison chapel and decorated it with her own hands. None of these visits exhibited any outward signs of voodoo, only devout Catholicism.
In 1869, Laveau I presided over her last official voodoo conclave, where the assembled worshipers decided she should retire as she was past 70 years of age. She continued her work at the prison and did not completely retreat from active service until 1875, when she entered her St. Ann Street home and did not leave until her death on June 16, 1881.
Newspaper accounts described her as a saintly figure of 98 (she was 87) who had nursed the sick and prayed incessantly with the diseased and the condemned. Reporters called her the recipient "in the fullest degree" of the "hereditary gift of beauty" in the Laveau family, who gained the notice of Governor Claiborne, French general Humbert, Aaron Burr and even the marquis de Lafayette. The obituaries claimed she had lived her life in piety surrounded by her Catholic religion, with no mention at all of her voodoo past. Even one of her surviving children, Madame Legendre, claimed her saintly mother had never practiced voodoo and despised the cult.
Her daughter and successor was born Marie Laveau Glapion on February 2, 1827, one of the elder Marie's 15 children. It is not known whether she designated her daughter to follow her or Marie chose the role herself. She apparently lacked the compassion of Laveau and inspired more fear and subservience. Like her mother, Marie started her career as a hairdresser, eventually running a bar and brothel on Bourbon Street.
Marie continued the assignations at Maison Blanche (White House), the house her mother had built for secret voodoo meetings and liaisons between white men and women of color. One account says that Marie was a talented procuress, able to provide whatever the men esired for a price. The parties at Maison Blanche offered champagne, food, wine and music, while the young women danced naked for white men only, including politicians and other high officials. The police never bothered her, because they were afraid of crossing her and ending up "hoodooed."
One of the most important events in the New Orleans voodoo calendar was St. John's Eve. An annual gathering in Bayou St. John had started as a religious ceremony but had become a circus under Laveau. St. John's Day corresponds to the summer solstice, celebrated since ancient times. Laveau had presided over it for years; Marie did so on several occasions.
In a newspaper account of St. John's Eve, 1872, the reporter told that after the arrival of Marie, the crowd sang to her then built a large fire to heat a boiling cauldron. Into the cauldron went water from a beer barrel, salt, black pepper, a black snake cut in three pieces representing the Trinity, a cat, a black rooster and various powders. Meanwhile, Marie commanded all present to undress, which they did, singing a repetitive chorus to "Mamzelle Marie." At midnight everyone jumped into the lake for about half an hour to cool off, then came out and sang and danced for another hour. At that time Marie preached a sermon, then gave the celebrants permission for a half-hour's "recreation," or sexual intercourse.
After the rest and recreation, everyone ate and sang some more, until the signal was given to extinguish the fire under the cauldron. Four nude women threw water on the fire, then the contents of the kettle were poured back into the barrel. Marie told everyone to dress again, then she preached another sermon. By now it was daybreak, and everyone went home.
When Laveau died, public interest in her daughter died as well. Marie still reigned over the voodoo ceremonies among the blacks and ran the Maison Blanche, but she never regained much notice in the press. Marie reportedly drowned in a big storm in Lake Pontchartrain in 1897, but some people claimed to see her as late as 1918.
Marie is said to be buried in the family crypt at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, but the vault does not bear her name. Instead, the inscription indicates that the tomb is the final resting place for "Marie Philome Glapion, deceased June 11, 1897." The tomb still attracts the faithful and the curious. Petitioners leave offerings of food, money and flowers, then ask for Marie Laveau's help after turning around three times and marking a cross with red brick on the stone. The cemetery is quite small, but even so the tomb seems to appear out of nowhere when walking among the crypts.
Others believe Marie Laveau is buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 2, where another crypt marked "Marie Laveau" bears red-brick crosses and serves as the "Wishing Vault" for young women seeking husbands. Stories place Laveau in cemeteries on Girod Street, Louisa Street and Holt Street as well. Laveau or her daughter still make personal appearances, according to legend, frequenting the areas around the cemetery, the old French Quarter and her voodoo haunts. See also Vodun.
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