Black History Month: Marie Laveau

Truth mixed with rumors about New Orleans’ Voodoo Queen

Juan Zuniga-Mejia

FEATURES EDITOR

Photo Courtesy of  FX Network  & Everett Collection; Lousiana Musem, New Orleans

Photo Courtesy of FX Network & Everett Collection; Lousiana Musem, New Orleans

When the term “Voodoo” is mentioned in conversation, people tend to think of dolls with pins, black magic, skulls, snakes, and the intention of making another suffer. However, this is an infamous image within film productions and other media. As for people most associated with Voodoo, one of the most known practitioners is the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, Marie Laveau.

There are many rumors and myths about Laveau that make her a popular figure for fiction and stories, including season three of American Horror Story, Coven. However, separating the myths and truths of Laveau’s life is no easy task, since most of what is known about her is tangled with controversy. Here are some of the stories of the mysterious New Orleans’ Voodoo Queen. 

Laveau was born on Sept. 10, 1801 to a white refugee of the Haitian revolution, Charles Laveaux, and a free woman of color, Marguerite Darcantel. The name “Laveau” has been spelled several ways, such as: La Faux, Lavaud, Labeau, and more. 

According to the research of Ina Johanna Fanrich in her book, The Mysterious Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveaux: a study of powerful female leadership in nineteenth-century New Orleans, “Both of [Laveau’s] parents were Louisiana natives, born and residing in the Crescent City [another name for New Orleans]. [Laveau’s parents] had African mothers and French or French Canadian white fathers and were thus racially identified as ‘mulattos’ in the Spanish records (meaning they were half black and half white).” This allowed Laveau to grow up as a free woman of color in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

Before Laveau turned 18 years old, she married a man named Jacques Paris, a free “quadroon” (someone who is one quarter African and three quarters European descent) at the St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square. However, their marriage did not last long. Here is where rumors and truth create controversy in Laveau’s life story. 

Several stories argue that Laveau and Paris did not lead a happy marriage. The stories say Paris was unfaithful, Laveau poisoned him for it, and Paris went missing. There are few historical documents about their relationship outside of the birth and baptism of their daughter, Marie Vangelie Paris; however, since no one at the time had seen the daughter, she was assumed either to have died or to never have existed (another rumor). Not even a death certificate or burial record could be found for either the daughter or Paris. A year after his disappearance, Laveau was known as “the Widow Paris” and officially resumed using her surname, Laveau. With this name, she began her hairdresser business; it is also believed that, around the same time of starting this business, she began practicing the Voodoo religion.

New Orleans Voodoo is said to be a combination of West and Central African, European, and Native American elements, which has become one of the Crescent City’s ‘must experience’ attractions when visiting. When tourists visit Voodoo shops and Voodoo practitioners, they will discover the truth behind media misconceptions. Voodoo is not an act of “magic,” but a religion. 

In fact, the origin of Voodoo has been traced back to Haiti. According to univie.ac.at,  it is a religion that worships the spirits of family ancestors with singing, drumming, and dancing in religious rituals. When West Africans were enslaved and brought to the New World, they brought the Voodoo religion to New Orleans, which then combined with the city’s main religion, Catholicism.

It was from Voodoo that Laveau learned plant remedies, healing, massaging, and counseling. Many people came to her home on St. Anne Street seeking her help. 

After some time, Laveau married Veteran Captain Christophe de Glapion. Together, they purchased slaves from around the city, and to the public’s knowledge, they sold them to other buyers. This was their method for liberating slaves and sending them to Canada. It is believed that Laveau would give some of these runaways protection charms for the journey.

Laveau was known to be a patron of kindness and mercy, as she gave money to the less fortunate, helped heal the wounded and sick, and provided food and spiritual services to the incarcerated at the Parish Prison. It was at this last job where more rumors of her “Voodoo magic” were spread, claiming that she was capable of necromancy, the ability to bring the dead back to life.

During Fandrich’s year in New Orleans, she met with many people, including historians who had similar stories of Laveau providing final meals to men on the night before their incarceration. She would feed them special gumbo — the next morning, the men would be found dead in their cells. 

However, when Fandrich spoke to New Orleanian community historian Randall Mitchell, he shared his theory that Laveau used a Haiti poison known as tetrodotoxin, or, rather, “Zombi poison,” as it leaves those who consume it into a death-like state for a couple hours. At the time, guards would presume the men Laveau fed were dead and buried them. Laveau would then send someone to the cemetery to dig the incarcerated person out,  and by then they would be “alive” again. She would help them lead a different life, with a new name, away from the Crescent City. 

On June 15, 1881, Laveau died. The doctor who issued Laveau’s death certificate diagnosed the cause of passing as diarrhea. Her body was laid to rest in her family’s tomb in St. Louis Cemetery. Since many people believe in power of afterlife, and some want to follow ‘things to do’ in New Orleans, many people will leave behind beads, stacks of nickels, paper flowers, and other offerings on Laveau’s grave, continuing to do what so many had done during her time among the living: ask for her help, guidance, and remedies. 

Still, there are many other controversies about Laveau’s life that linger around her name after death. Some say that many of the great things she was known for were done by one of her daughters, who shared her mother’s name Marie Laveau II. Others say it was a combination of some of her daughters, as well as herself, and Laveau’s own mother who have done the acts that create the silhouette of the Voodoo Queen.

To this day, Laveau’s true story remains in the many myths, rumors, and small bits of truth.