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Historians Reveal The Real Story of Marie Laveau, New Orleans’ Notorious Voodoo Priestess

In a crumbling cemetery in New Orleans, a crypt is said to hold the remains of one of the city’s most legendary occultists: Marie Laveau. And even centuries after her death, she has quite the following. Many curious travelers wander through the maze of dilapidated tombs in search of her final resting place. A layer of sea shells litter portions of the walkways, crunching under visitors’ feet as they wend their way toward what’s believed to be the fabled tomb of New Orleans’ Voodoo Queen.

A cemetery mystery

On that note, there’s some confusion surrounding which tomb actually holds Laveau’s remains. However, one in particular has been marked as a prime location for communing with the conjuror. Yes, despite the fact that NOLA.com claimed in 2018 that Laveau was interred in her long-time lover’s family crypt, people often frequent another grave to pay their respects to the Voodoo Queen.

Miniature tributes

This tomb – which NOLA.com dubbed a “faux Laveau” – is riddled with marks left by strangers who were doubtless keen to contact her. Rows of the letter “x” are etched into the ivory-colored plaster, scratched in hues of red and black. A green rosary hangs next to the mausoleum’s door. Half-spent candles, bouquets of lurid blooms, bottles of alcohol, and other paraphernalia cover the floor – all left as gifts to the Voodoo Queen.

Paranormal powers

You see, rumor has it that Laveau’s supposed mystical powers have extended beyond the grave. And some say, in fact, that her spirit can still make a person’s greatest desire come true if they leave her a gift. By inscribing the letter “x” three times on the wall of the tomb, people claim that the Voodoo Queen can also be persuaded to fulfill a wish. But who exactly was this woman who still inspires such devotion centuries after her death?

Historical blind spots

Little is known for certain about the enigmatic figure. Much of Laveau’s life remains shrouded in mystery, but a number of fantastical legends have sprung up around her. And perhaps because of the abundance of folklore concerning the Voodoo Queen’s powers, she has been immortalized in popular culture over the decades.

Pop culture legacy

You may have heard Laveau's name in a number of songs. For one, the band Redbone recorded its hit track “The Witch Queen of New Orleans” in homage to the conjuror in 1971, describing her as “Marie la Voodoo veau.” The record stormed through the U.K. charts and sat in the number two spot for three weeks. In the following year, the song saw some success in the States, too, peaking just shy of the top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100.

On-screen adaptations

And Laveau has been portrayed on screen, too. In Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy’s popular horror show American Horror Story, for instance, Angela Bassett first took on the role of Laveau in 2013’s American Horror Story: Coven. In the witch-themed series, Bassett’s Laveau is depicted as an immortal priestess who is embroiled in Voodoo. She can be seen slicing snakes open in elaborate rituals, for example, and summoning the dead out of their graves.

Fact versus fiction

It’s pretty safe to say that this particular fantastical on-screen characterization isn’t wholly rooted in fact, mind you. Yet so little is known about the mysterious woman that it’s difficult to judge how much of Laveau’s representations in popular culture are accurate at all. But what little we do know about the Voodoo Queen’s unusual life makes for a deeply fascinating story.

A colorful background

Even the year of Laveau’s birth is open to debate – although it’s recognized that she was born in New Orleans. A number of records suggest that the future Voodoo Queen came into the world in 1794, whereas other accounts indicate that she was actually born seven years later. It is generally agreed upon, however, that Laveau was a Creole of Native American, African, and white European heritage.

The Creole culture

For those who don’t know, the term Creole was first used to describe privileged French citizens who had gone to create new lives in the U.S. And a number of these Europeans chose to make their homes in Louisiana, becoming New Orleans’ high society. The descriptor became commonplace in the city, but in time its connotations changed to signify someone with a darker skin tone.

Different walks of life

And because of this altered meaning, Laveau’s parents could both be described as Creole. However, they reportedly hailed from quite different backgrounds. Her mother was a free woman of color called Marguerite Darcantel. Conversely, the future Voodoo Queen’s father was a local well-to-do politician and plantation owner named Charles Laveau Trudeau. He was married to another woman at the time of Laveau’s birth, though, making the young girl the product of adultery.

A hard worker

Yet despite Laveau’s illegitimacy, she apparently spent her childhood in close proximity to her father. Records indicate that after her birth in the city’s French Quarter, she moved to live on Trudeau’s land. And it was at the plantation that the young girl apparently received her schooling and even undertook vocational training in hairdressing. She also reportedly found great satisfaction in religion. Indeed, she fervently followed the teachings of Catholicism throughout her life.

An undeniable beauty

And Laveau’s appearance was apparently quite striking. According to one source, the New Orleans native was referred to as attractive, with an impressive height and bearing. She also reportedly boasted a full head of dark-colored curls that offset her olive skin tone. Naturally, many people took notice of her good looks.

Love and blood

Later, Laveau found love and embarked upon a relationship with a Creole man called Jacques Paris. He hailed from Haiti – then still known as Saint-Domingue – but he had left the island in 1809 in the wake of the explosive Haitian Revolution. From 1791, you see, slaves had violently rebelled across Haiti and finally secured independence 13 years later.

'Til death

Meanwhile, Paris carved out a life for himself in New Orleans, finding employment as a carpenter and courting Laveau. The two tied the knot in August 1819, and an eminent Catholic priest called Father Antonio de Sedella presided over the ceremony. This is one detail about the Voodoo Queen’s life that we can be relatively sure of; the couple’s marriage certificate is still kept in New Orleans’ St. Louis Cathedral.

In the French Quarter

Following their marriage, Laveau and Paris moved in together in the city’s French Quarter. The couple added to their family, too, bringing two daughters into the world. Their eldest child, Felicite, was born in 1817, with Angele’s birth coming three years later. But tragedy was to befall the family before long.

Into thin air

You see, Paris apparently vanished without a trace around the time of Angele’s birth. And in 1820 Laveau’s husband was reportedly registered as officially deceased. There was some doubt over the legitimacy of Paris’ passing, however. Indeed, some say that he could have actually abandoned Laveau and their children. Nevertheless, the Voodoo Queen seemed to carry herself as though her husband had died, and she even adopted a new moniker: the Widow Paris.

A new consort for the Queen

Following the official passing of Paris, then, Laveau found a new partner. The Voodoo Queen entered into a relationship with a man called Jean Louis Christophe Duminy de Glapion, and the two subsequently moved in together. They shared a home until 1855, in fact, when Glapion sadly passed away.

Many offspring

But before Glapion’s death, he and Laveau raised an impressive brood. Amazingly, some records state that the pair had up to 15 children – although that could also include grandchildren. Yet whatever the precise number was, tragically only two of Laveau’s daughters made it through their childhood: Marie Euchariste Eloise Laveau and Marie Philomene Glapion. The others had sadly died from various causes, including succumbing to yellow fever.

Small business owner

In addition to raising her many children, Laveau also worked as a hairdresser. She acted as the proprietor of her own salon, in fact, and catered to moneyed white families as well as their African American employees. And through this, the Voodoo Queen learned the personal secrets of New Orleans’ most affluent households and offered her own exotic services to the city’s residents.

The Voodoo religion

Laveau’s "service" was as a master of Voodoo magic. Voodoo, or Vodou, stems from ancient African religious beliefs and customs. It was first brought to the U.S. by Africans who had been seized from western Africa and transported to the States to live as slaves. And in the wake of the revolution in Haiti, the tradition grew even stronger in New Orleans, as another wave of believers brought Voodoo to the city with them.

A new brand of spiritualism

But the strain of Voodoo that took root in New Orleans was quite unlike its counterparts. Indeed, Voodoo workers who operated in the Louisiana city had to follow stringent European guidelines. So the way in which they practiced the religion was markedly different from African and Haitian customs. But Voodoo still took hold of the city, and a number of citizens sought out New Orleans’ occultists for spiritual assistance – both for good and bad purposes.

Charms and spirits

Some New Orleans residents asked for conjurors to provide them with gris-gris, a type of amulet. These charms were typically used for protection, although some people requested concoctions that would bring about harm to others rather than enticing helpful spirits. And it was this darker element of Voodoo that attracted the fearful attention of those who knew very little about Voodoo in the first place.

Dr. John's influence

Even if some members of the public did not know a great deal about the intricacies of Voodoo, many would likely still recognize the name of one of the city’s most famous practitioners: Dr. John. This mysterious figure – whose actual name was Doctor Jean Montanée – rose to prominence as one of the city’s premier conjurors. And the occultist is still remembered widely today – not least for his alleged role as Laveau’s Voodoo tutor.

Previous Voodoo Queens

Apparently, Laveau received training in Voodoo from Dr. John himself after becoming more interested in the practice following her mother’s demise. And she wasn’t the only woman to benefit from such tutelage, either. The conjuror is also credited with teaching others the craft too. Although there were a number of Voodoo Queens reigning in Louisiana before Laveau ascended, she had secured one of the top spots for herself by 1830.

Passing down wisdom

And one Voodoo Queen who had reigned before Laveau also proved instrumental to the latter’s rise. You see, two other female conjurors had held the title before Laveau. Sanité Dédé is said to have presided over the city’s Voodoo practices until Marie Saloppé took her place a few years later. And the latter would prove to be important to Laveau’s own ascendence, too. That’s because she also acted as Laveau's Voodoo mentor.

Clash of the Queens

When Laveau became a Voodoo Queen, though, she did not face any opponents until 1850. In this year, you see, a Creole conjuror called Rosalie tried to usurp the reigning Queen. Apparently, the latter procured a life-sized wooden effigy decorated with carvings and beads from Africa so that she could display it near her home. And this provocative act seemingly had the desired effect: some people reportedly began to defer to Rosalie.

Power struggle

But Laveau was unwilling to give up her crown, so she came up with a daring solution: she pilfered the effigy. Rosalie seemingly didn’t take kindly to this, and she even went so far as to take legal action against Laveau. The reigning Queen won out, however, and reportedly relied on her power in the city and her own eloquence to make sure that the statue was taken down for good.

Friendship of the rich

But how had Laveau won herself such influence in New Orleans? Well, some say that her connections to the city’s well-to-do families via her hairdressing venture were key. As well as becoming familiar with her moneyed clientele, she also apparently extracted intimate information out of terrified house servants through a mixture of bribery and Voodoo cures. In this way, then, Laveau could insinuate herself and her Voodoo abilities into the city’s high society.

Joining religious traditions

Laveau’s refusal to sway from Catholicism might also have aided her in this respect, too. Apparently, she viewed her Voodoo practices and Christian religion as compatible forces. As well as believing that people can commune with spirits via singing and snakes, she apparently also made use of Christian items such as holy water in her conjuring. And this inclusion of Catholic traditions seemingly helped make Voodoo more palatable for New Orleans’ wealthy families.

Advice and intervention

And those who asked for her guidance in personal matters would sometimes receive more than sound advice. Laveau offered direction in topics ranging from marriage problems and giving birth to attracting luck and prosperous finances. But she would also provide gris-gris for those in need of her assistance. The Voodoo Queen would concoct these charms by combining strange powders, candles, and other objects to create a potent amulet that would supposedly offer protection.

Alleged powers

But legend has it that Laveau’s powers extended far beyond creating gris-gris. Apparently, the Voodoo Queen was also able to cure diseases, foresee future events, and appease spirits through sacrifices. She allegedly owned a great albino snake named Zombi that had been raised from the dead – although this has never been proven.

Serpent spirit

Apparently, this strange python assumed a particular prominence on St John’s Eve — the city’s most important Voodoo ceremony. Every June 23rd, Voodoo believers and non-believers alike would mingle with Laveau to celebrate the city’s biggest Voodoo occasion. And during the festival, attendants would venerate Li Grand Zombi. According to African tradition, this serpentine spirit – otherwise known as Damballa – is believed to have sparked the universe and all life within it.

Rituals all over the city

However, this was far from the only Voodoo ritual that Laveau participated in. She held many ceremonies in several locations while she was Queen, including at her house on St. Ann Street. Indeed, Laveau would hold rituals to summon Li Grand Zombi in her own garden. But enigmatic events of this kind were by no means confined to her family home.

Congo Square

Indeed, as well as staging ceremonies at St. Ann Street, Laveau would also host weekly gatherings in Congo Square. This was a public space in New Orleans that city officials had dedicated to the use of all African people in the city. On Sundays, then, the Voodoo Queen would meet with her acolytes in the space to pray and cavort. No important rituals are believed to have been carried out here, though.

A bayou retreat

Instead, Laveau secured a different spot in which to conduct the most critical ceremonies. Only those who had been formally admitted into Voodoo were allowed to venture to Bayou St. John’s – a marshy outlet close to the waters of Lake Pontchartrain. When Laveau was attending ceremonies there, she was often escorted by a Voodoo “King.” At these rituals, followers would drum, dance, and sing, and some of their number would even be "taken over" by spirits.

The heart of Voodoo

However, as Laveau reached her more mature years, she relocated her Voodoo ceremonies to a part of New Orleans called Algiers. And this area had strong links to African and Voodoo culture; slaves who were being transported to the city had historically been held in Algiers before they were sent to be auctioned off. The area is also considered to be the origin of Voodoo in the city.

Death of an icon

But on June 15, 1881, Laveau passed away. Two days later, the Daily Picayune reported that the Voodoo Queen had passed away in her home. Some have claimed, however, that a number of people spotted her in the city – after she’d died. Yet despite the validity of these claims, Laveau’s remains were believed to be interred in the Laveau-Glapion crypt in Saint Louis’ first cemetery. And her tomb remains an object of macabre fascination today.

Family legacy

But Laveau’s conjuring legacy also lived on in one of her daughters. And although it’s not known for sure which of Laveau's two surviving girls took up the mantle, one certainly continued to practice Voodoo. In a twist of fate, the woman, known as Marie Laveau II, also apparently went on to replace her mother as the city’s new Voodoo Queen.