Marie Laveau is famous for being New Orleans' voodoo queen, but was she really as evil and mystical as they say?
There’s nowhere in the world quite like New Orleans. No other city so visibly encapsulates the mix of the Old World and the New, and no other city so obviously displays its belief in the supernatural. And, of course, no other city has its share of stories that would seem impossible anywhere else but The Big Easy.
Take, for instance, the legend of Marie Laveau, the “Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.” A black priestess of astounding beauty, Madame Laveau wielded tremendous power in her community and rumors of her magical abilities were so persistent that visitors still visit her grave to leave tokens in exchange for small requests.
Voodoo is as big a part of New Orleans’ history as France, although it is vastly different from the pop-culture perception. While zombies and dolls do make up part of voodoo beliefs, in reality voodoo (or “voudon”) is a combination of West African religions brought over by slaves, the Christianity they adopted, and Native American traditions they blended in.
Like the popular conception of voodoo itself, Marie Laveau’s legend differs a bit from the reality. Born around 1801 to the freed slave Marguerite and a free (and wealthy) mulatto businessman, Charles Laveaux, Marie was the first generation of her family to be born free. Laveau’s great-grandmother came to New Orleans as a slave from West Africa in 1743 and her grandmother, Catherine, eventually wound up being bought by one Francoise Pomet: a free woman of color and successful entrepreneur.
It was not unusual for free blacks to purchase their own slaves; despite her reputation as a charitable woman and an important figure in the black community, Laveau herself would own several slaves. Catherine was eventually able to buy her freedom and build her own small home, where her granddaughter would become famous.
After a brief marriage to another free part-black, Laveau entered into what would be a thirty-year relationship with a white Lousiana man with a noble French background, Cristophe Glapion. Interracial relationships were also not uncommon in New Orleans, although the couples were forbidden by the law to marry.
Laveau was a devoted Catholic all her life, and to her voodoo was not incompatible with her Catholic faith. The front room of her cottage housed altars filled with candles, holy images, and offerings, and she would lead weekly meetings (that included whites as well as blacks) where the participants would dress all in white, then chant and sing and leave an offering of liquor and food to the spirits.
Marie Laveau also saw individual clients, giving them advice on everything from winning lawsuits to attracting lovers, when she died her obituary in The New York Times claimed: “lawyers, legislators, planters, and merchants all came to pay their respects and seek her offices.”
Although people of all races visited Laveau and attended the ceremonies she led, the white community as a whole never accepted voodoo as a legitimate religion (which is partly why today it is still associated with the occult). Racism and a natural tendency for newspapers to seek out sensational stories led to the descriptions of Laveau’s ceremonies as occult “drunken orgies.”
Laveau was able to rise to such a prominent position in New Orleans through a combination of her strong personality, charity works, and natural flair for theatrics. During her lifetime she performed notable acts of community service, such as nursing yellow fever patients, posting bail for free women of color, and visiting condemned prisoners to pray with them in their final hours. After her death in 1881, her legend only continued to grow.
Whether Marie Laveau was a powerful priestess with supernatural abilities or simply a clever entrepreneur who knew the value of giving people the spectacles they wanted, she is doubtless a fascinating figure for having been a black woman with great influence in the Deep South during the days of slavery. And her rise certainly wouldn’t have been possible anywhere but New Orleans.