Voodoo, specifically the kind practiced in New Orleans and referred to as “Louisiana Voodoo” or “New Orleans Voodoo,” are a series of underground religious practices that originated with the African religious beliefs of the French, Creole, and Spanish speaking African Americans in Louisiana, which are themselves based on the West African Dahomeyan Vodun. Compared to Haitian Voodoo or Hoodoo, Louisiana Voodoo places an emphasis on gris-gris (a talisman for protection against bad luck or evil), Hoodoo occult paraphernalia, the snake deity Li Grand Zombi, and voodoo queens.
During the 1800’s, there were roughly fifteen voodoo queens operating in New Orleans, with the most prominent of them all becoming known as Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. Laveau was born on September 10, 1801 as the illegitimate child of white plantation owner Charles Laveau and a free Creole person of color Margeurite Darcantrel.
Not much is known about Laveau’s early years, other than she was married to Jacque Santiago Paris on August 4, 1819. About a year later, Paris mysteriously died (although some sources claim he actually disappeared) which led to wild rumors circulating throughout the French Quarter of New Orleans.
After Paris’ death, Laveau became a hairdresser for the wealthy and elite women of New Orleans, which gave her inside information regarding the cities’ whites, their servants and slaves, many of whom by this time thought Laveau was a powerful voodoo priestess. During the 1820’s and 1830’s, Laveau had also worked as a matchmaker at a brothel known as the Placage Balls, and some sources claim she was a liquor importer as well.
According to Aileen Eugene on April 27, 1930:
“Marie Laveau was a voodooienne. She was the queen of them all. White and colored folks used to go to her. She could keep anybody from harming you and she could do anything you wanted done to anybody. How she used to do it, I don’t know. She used to say prayers and mix different things to give people to drink, to rub with, to throw over your shoulder, to throw in the river.”
A year after Paris’ death/departure, Laveau married Capt. Christophe Glapion, a white man of French descent. They remained married until his death in 1855, and produced fifteen children, although all but one died.
Laveau was highly involved in the society of New Orleans, taking care of the sick or wounded, ministering to condemned men on the gallows, and offering anything from herbal remedies to voodoo paraphernalia to everyone from rich whites to black slaves. However, local legend prevents many aspects of Laveau’s career from being substantiated. Some claim she had a pet snake named Zombi, others claimed she could influence who held political offices, and combined aspects of Catholicism and voodoo.
By the 1860’s, Marie Laveau had stopped publicly performing voodoo, although legends say her daughter Marie Laveau II had continued putting on voodoo rituals throughout the 1870’s as the new Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. Marie Laveau II was known to perform particularly exotic and wild rituals in the swamps surrounding New Orleans, such as a religious rite on Lake Pontchartrain for St. John’s Eve in 1874, which attracted over 12,000 whites and blacks. Laveau II supposedly drowned in Lake Pontchartrain in 1897, and Marie Laveau herself died on June 15, 1881.
However, not all of the attention given to Laveau was positive. The New Orleans Democrat, the official newspaper for the Louisiana Democratic Party, called for people to pay little attention to the life and passing of Laveau in their June 18, 1881 issue:
“The fact is that the least said about Marie Lavoux’s sainted life, etc., the better. She was, up to an advanced age, the prime mover and soul of indecent orgies of the ignoble Voudous; and to her influence may be attributed the fall of many a virtuous woman. It is true that she had redeeming traits. It is a peculiar quality of the old race of Creole Negroes that they are invariably kind-hearted and charitable. Marie Lavoux made no exception. But talk about her morality and kiss her sainted brow – pouah!!!”
It is not certain where Laveau is buried, but the most likely location is in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 which is mentioned in her obituary. For awhile, occultists and tourists would write an “X” on her mausoleum in the hopes Laveau will grant their wishes, although this has no voodoo origin and was discouraged by preservationists in New Orleans. The tomb was renovated in 2014, and now fines are in place for anyone who attempts to write anything on the mausoleum.
Today, Laveau’s legacy can still be seen and felt throughout New Orleans. For example, the shop Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo on Bourbon Street, sells numerous items allowing people to learn and practice voodoo rituals.