Since her death in 1881 Marie Laveau has morphed from a respected and charitable neighbor, or a “she-devil” and mysterious Voodoo Queen (depending on whose talking), and into a saint of strong, Black, feminist womanhood. How do we separate popular history from fact? Today we are digging into the real life of Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, and navigating the buried line between fact and fiction.

Transcript for Marie Laveau:

Written by Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD

Produced by Marissa Rhodes PhD and Elizabeth Masarik

Elizabeth: If you visit the city of New Orleans, Louisiana you will be regaled by stories of the magnanimous Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. Join any of the hundreds of walking tours of the city and tour guides will weave tales of fact and fiction as you travel down the narrow streets of the French Quarter, and meander through the uneven grounds of NOLA’s famous cemeteries.

While walking along Bourbon street you can stop into Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo Shop, a small store at the corner of Bourbon and St. Anne, about two and a half blocks down from where the real Marie Laveau lived. When you walk under the hand painted sign that reads “Strange Gods, Strange Alters,” and into the slightly grimy, dimly lit shop you find a tight two room store, full from floor to ceiling with talismans, blessed chicken feet, oils, herbs, incense, cigars, t-shirts, jewelry, alter statues, and all other manner of tourist enticements and magickal paraphernalia that you can dream of. A porcelain statue of the revered Queen of Voodoo herself is readily available for purchase.

Marissa: Unable to visit New Orleans? No worries, just turn on the TV and watch a highly fictionalized account of Marie Laveau in American Horror Story “Coven” and “Apocalypse,” played by Angela Bassett. Or do a simple Google search and find pages and pages of blog posts and articles mixing snippets of fact with a heavy dose of legend for some interesting and entertaining reading.

Since her death in 1881 Marie Laveau has morphed from a respected and charitable neighbor, or a “she-devil” and mysterious Voodoo Queen (depending on whose talking), and into a saint of strong, Black, feminist womanhood.

Elizabeth: How do we separate popular history from fact? Today we are digging into the real life of Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, and navigating the buried line between fact and fiction.

I’m Elizabeth

And I’m Marissa

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

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Marissa: The typical story one hears of Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, is part of what historian Carolyn Morrow Long calls the Laveau Legend and it goes something like this:

Elizabeth Marie Laveau, was the most famous and most powerful of New Orleans Voodoo practitioners. She was a beautiful and smart woman who used her role as a hairdresser to learn the secrets of the city’s white elite, which she then used to her advantage. She sold charms and pouches of gris gris, told fortunes and gave advice to New Orleans residents of every social strata. She obtained secret information about her wealthy patrons by scaring their servants whom she either paid or ‘cured’ of mysterious ailments. However, even though some stories paint her as a charlatan, most maintain that she was indeed a strong Voodoo priestess. Legend has it that all levels of city government, from the police to the mayor, were in her thrall and Laveau even had the power to save condemned prisoners from execution.

A painting of Marie Laveau. A light skinned black woman looks at the viewer, wearing a black dress, read patterned shawl, and white and black headscarf
A painting of Marie Laveau, made in 1920 based on an 1835 painting that now no longer exists | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: Marie Laveau quickly became the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, taking charge of the public Voodoo ceremonies held at Congo Square, and in private residences. She ran other operations at the ‘Maison Blanche’ by Lake Pontchartrain, which some said was built for secret Voodoo meetings and liaisons between white men and Black women.

Elizabeth: Some elements of the Laveau legend are more salacious than others. Most are the results of the white fever-dream of imagination that justified turning Black women into “others,” and thus outside the bounds of respectable womanhood. Accusations of prostitution, procurement, human sacrifice and cannibalism were superstitious hype that sold newspapers and justified segregation and white violence. An editorial in the Picayune New Orleans newspaper from 1870 claimed “A young white girl, partially insane, was found in the midst of an assembly of Fetish worshipers chanting a horrible jargon…” The article further claimed “…the believers in this strange superstition indulge in strange orgies with singing and dancing and sacrifices which sometimes include human victims.”[1] There you have it, sex and violence. The bread and butter of click-bate in the 19th century.

Marissa: Laveau was said to have a large python snake that she wore wrapped around her shoulders, fittingly named Grand Zombi. Some stories have her battling with other would-be rivals for her “queenship.” Others paint her as the protege and then the rival of earlier queens Sanite’ De’de’ and Marie Saloppe’. However, Carolyn Morrow Long states that neither of these other Voodoo queens can be located in the archival record. Other stories have placed Laveau with a rival/lover named Dr. John, a purported charlatan who swindled unsuspecting dupes out of their money. Think Dr. Facilier from Disney’s The Princess and the Frog.

Elizabeth: As Laveau aged, the story goes that her and her daughter perpetuated a shady switch by passing off the younger Marie as the mother to give the impression that Marie Laveau’s powers were so great that she did not age. Most of these stories postulate that Marie II was less than upstanding and that she acted as a procuress, enticing naive Black women into bed with white men for a fee. Also, some stories say that Marie II was actually the hairdresser and she was the Marie who used her unsuspecting client’s secrets as a way to extort money, disguised as supernatural powers.

Marissa: During the latter half of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first, tourists and acolytes would write Xs on Laveau’s mausoleum in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, and leave her offerings of cigarettes, fruit, beads, and coins, in hopes that Laveau would grant their wishes. The Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1 dates to 1789 and is the oldest cemetery still standing in the city. Inside are hundreds of 18th and 19th century above-ground mausoleums holding the city’s most prominent dead, including Homer Plessy. Burials need to be above ground in New Orleans because the water table is so high.

Elizabeth: At times Laveau’s mausoleum would be covered with crosses or Xs written in red brick from nearby tombs, with sharpie markers, and with red lipstick. In Voodoo, the cross or X is the point where the living and the dead meet. Her tomb would have to periodically be whitewashed and cleaned, and offerings gathered up on a weekly and sometimes daily basis, lest the pile get too large. Other people believe that Laveau is not interred in cemetery number one but instead lies in the Wishing Wall in St. Louis cemetery No. 2, and so they mark crosses and leave offerings there as well.

The mausoleum that is believed to contain Marie Laveau's remains. You can see the marks on the walls and the memorial gifts placed by visitors.
The mausoleum that is believed to contain Marie Laveau’s remains. You can see the marks on the walls and the memorial gifts placed by visitors. | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: Marie Laveau is part of New Orleans folklore. She is seen dancing in cemeteries, flying around the city, and walking down streets of the French Quarter. She’s even been known to slap those who are unfamiliar with her. One story has a man named Elmore Lee Banks who reported he saw Laveau’s ghost in the mid-1930s. As Banks stood in a pharmacy, telling the clerk what he needed, the clerk’s eyes grew large and he “ran like a fool into the back of the store.” Confused as to what was going on, Banks turned around and looked at the old woman standing next to him. She started laughing and said to Banks, “Don’t you know me?” He replied that he, in fact, did not know her and she promptly slapped him upside the head and “jumped up in the air and went whizzing out the door and over the top of the telephone wires. She passed right over the graveyard wall and disappeared.” Banks promptly passed out and was awoken to the pharmacy clerk pouring whiskey in his face to wake him up. “Son, you just been slapped by the Queen of the Voodoos!”[2]

Elizabeth: So much of the Laveau story is frankly made up. Other parts are hard to piece together. Historians Carolyn Morrow Long, Johanna Fandrich, and Martha Ward as well as anthropologist Denise Alvarado have done painstakingly detailed looks into Laveau’s genealogy, using many documents previously unused. Additionally, oral histories collected by the Louisiana Writers’ Project (LWP), a local branch of the Federal Writers’ Project created during the Great Depression under the New Deal Works Projects Administration, help fill in, and sometimes substantiate or deny, commonly held assumptions about Laveau.

Marissa: Okay, so let’s try to parse out the real Laveau from the legend with some historical context. In 1682, the French explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle claimed the region Louisiana to honor King Louis XIV of France. The area around New Orleans and the parishes around Lake Pontchartrain become a colony of Spain by the Treaty of Fontainebleau in 1762. In 1800 Napoleon Bonaparte negotiated a secret treaty with Spain’s Charles IV, which ceded the Louisiana colony back to France in exchange for a small kingdom in northern Italy. Louisiana became a formal colony of France (again), in 1803. However, France’s defeat in the thirteen-year long slave revolt in St. Domingue made French officials decide that new colonial holdings in the New World may not be such a good move.

Elizabeth: Napoleon promptly sold Louisiana to the United States for fifteen million dollars. The Louisiana purchase included the present state of Louisiana but also all of the land from the Gulf Coast up to the Canadian border between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. Anglo-Americans swarmed into New Orleans after the Louisiana purchase and encountered a diverse, Roman Catholic, mostly French-speaking city of Creoles where racial boundaries were fluid. Creole meant any person, regardless of race, who was born in a French or Spanish Colony, as opposed to being born in the mother country. Creoles, both black and white, free people of color, and enslaved people all lived and worked in the city and intermingled often. Anglo-Americans were outraged at the racial mixing that was common in New Orleans. They viewed Roman Catholicism as idolatry, and Voodoo as heathenism.

Marissa: During the 1790s and into the first decade of the nineteenth century, thousands of refugees fled the fighting and political upheaval in St. Domingue and went to eastern seaboard cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Savannah. Many made their way down to Louisiana. Thirty thousand people fled to Cuba but in 1809 when they refused to swear allegiance to Spain, they were forced out of Cuba and made their way to the French-speaking port of New Orleans. Nearly ten thousand St. Domingue immigrants arrived in New Orleans in 1809 alone. These immigrants were a racially diverse group, which included natives of France and whites and free people of color. Many of them also brought their slaves. This influx of people from St. Dominique, who shared many cultural similarities with the Creole population of New Orleans, caused strain amongst the Anglo-Protestants who were worried about the presence of so many free people of color.  

Elizabeth: Marie Laveau was born in the middle of this upheaval, and throughout her childhood and teenage years she watched New Orleans change from a racially-integrated Creole community that spoke French and was predominantly Roman-Catholic, to an increasingly segregated city as more Protestant Anglo-Americans migrated into Louisiana.

Marissa: Marie Catherine Laveau was born on September 10, 1801 to a free woman of color, Marguerite Henry, and Charles Leveau, a successful free man of color who was in the business of real estate and slave trading. Charles was said to be the son of a white man, probably Charles Laveau Trudeau, the surveyor general of Louisiana under the Spanish government and a free woman of color, also named Marie Laveau.

Elizabeth: Laveau’s maternal grandmother was named Catherine and after buying her own freedom from enslavement in roughly 1795, she purchased land on St. Anne’s street. Soon she had the house built where Marie Laveau would later live and raise her family. The land where the home was now houses another home built in the early 20th century. It’s located on the uptown side of St. Ann Street, at the upper edge of the French Quarter. It’s roughly one block to Congo Square, adjacent to what is Louis Armstrong Park, and within a short walk to St. Louis Cathedral, the St. Louis Cemeteries, and the Parish Prison, which are all places Laveau was known to have frequented.

Marissa: Marie Laveau’s mother Marguerite was born a slave in roughly 1783 and was freed by her owner around 1790. Marie’s white father Charles was not acknowledged on her birth certificate but he did acknowledge Marie as his daughter in other documents, even gifting her land and jewelry upon her marriage to Jacques Paris, a free man of color, in 1819. It’s interesting to note that Marie Laveau’s birth certificate was not found until 2001, finally putting to rest the rumor that she was over 100 years old when she died. The certificate proves that she was 79 when she passed. It also put to rest a story that she may have been born in Haiti and not in New Orleans, by showing that she was baptized in St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans. Marie’s grandmother, Catherine was listed as her godmother. According to the French and Creole tradition, first born daughters were often named Marie and the second name was often the name of their godmother. Thus Marie’s full name was Marie Catherine Laveau. This tradition, coupled with the fact that name spellings often went between French, Spanish, and American in New Orleans documentation, often make it hard to follow the who’s who through the archival record.

Elizabeth: Laveau’s marriage to Jacques Paris took place in 1819 at the St. Louis Cathedral. They had at least one daughter together and possibly two. Paris disappears from the record around 1824. Some say he left and went back to St. Dominique, where he was originally from. Others say he died in 1822. Long found documentation that seems to confirm he died, perhaps during a yellow fever epidemic. But of course, the uncertainty of his disappearance also adds to Laveau’s mystique. After Paris’ disappearance, or more likely death, Marie went by the name Widow Paris. Because most other people called her that too, it lends support to the fact that her husband died and people knew about it.

Marissa: Later Marie entered into an agreement known as placage with a wealthy white man named Christophe Glapion. Placage was a system in place in antebellum New Orleans where young women of color became a placee of a white gentlemen who entered into a financial agreement with her mother or guardian for her financial security. Placage arrangements were common among free women of color during the antebellum period because Louisiana’s anti miscegenation laws prevented legal marriages between white people and people of color. Therefore, many couples lived in these types of arrangements, which allowed white men to live with and support Black and mixed race women and their families. Glapion was thirty years Laveau’s senior but by all accounts it was a love match and the pair had seven children together from 1827 to 1838. Interracial domestic partnerships were fairly common in antebellum New Orleans, often consisting of a white man and a nonwhite woman and often included racially mixed children. Long argues that archival evidence shows that many of the unions were long-term, committed relationships that resembled legal marriages. Often records of these unions can be found in church records, where white fathers might be listed as the legitimate father of racially mixed children.[3]

Elizabeth: The Laveau Legend attributes Laveau’s homeownership to her Voodoo abilities. In one telling, a wealthy man petitioned Laveau for help when his son was accused of murder. The man asked Laveau for his son’s freedom and in payment, he would grant Laveau a house on St. Ann Street. According to the story, Laveau spent weeks praying to Voodoo loa (spirits) and Catholic saints in St. Louis Cathedral. While in prayer, she held three guinea peppers under her tongue. When the spirits saw her willingness to suffer, they decided to help her. On the morning of the trial, Laveau placed the guinea peppers under the judge’s seat. The man’s son was proclaimed innocent and Marie gained the house on St. Ann.

Marissa: Of course the reality was less theatrical but indicative of the long tradition of women of color gaining some financial independence in antebellum New Orleans. The cottage on St. Ann Street was built for Catherine Henry, Marie Laveau’s grandmother, sometime after she purchased the lot in 1798. After Catherine Henry’s death, Marie Laveau and her cousins, decided to sell the cottage to pay their grandmother’s expenses. Glapion, Leveau’s common-law husband, purchased the property and deeded the cottage to the minor children he and Marie produced, giving everyone in the family the legal right to live there. This was a way to keep the house in the family and a way to circumvent miscegenation laws that barred intermarriage between whites and Blacks and made it almost impossible for Black women to inherent money and land from their common-law husbands. Laws making it difficult for white and black relationships to inherit property and money often succeeded in stopping white property from falling into Black hands. Thus the need for workarounds.

Marissa: Nearly all of the Creole population of New Orleans was Roman Catholic. The majority of congregants of St. Louis Cathedral (where Laveau was a parishioner and where the records of her birth, her children’s births and deaths, marriages, etc. are found) were females of African descent. Travelers often noted the racially and ethnically mixed congregation, who worshipped together, sat on the same pews together, and shared the same beds too.[4]

Elizabeth: Laws governing enslaved people in New Orleans, from its time as a French colony, to a Spanish colony, and back to French, and then as part of America, gave enslaved people Sunday afternoons and holidays off. They would spend their free time cultivating gardens, fishing, and other things that would give them goods to sell and trade. Many would have their Sunday mass at St. Louis Cathedral or St. Augustine’s Church and afterwards walk over to the Public Square with their goods to set up market. Beginning in 1817 a traveling circus from Havana, named the “Congo Circus” set up in the Public Square during the winter season. From then on the Public Square was known as either Circus Square or more often, Congo Square. Weekly gatherings on Sunday afternoons included a vibrant market alongside drumming and dance circles that included enslaved people, free people of color, and Creoles both white and Black.

Marissa: It is here where many say New Orleans Voodoo flourished. In New Orleans in the 18th and 19th centuries, slaves, Creoles and free people of color practiced a type of Voodoo that incorporated African, Catholic, and Native American religious practices. According to Long, in every French, Spanish, and Portuguese slave-owning colony of the Caribbean and South America, there evolved some synthesis of African traditional beliefs with Roman Catholicism. New Orleans Voodoo, like Haitian Voodoo, Cuban Senteria, and Brazilian Candomble, was an organized religion with a complex theology, a pantheon of deities and spirits, a priesthood, and a congregation of believers.

Elizabeth: New Orleans Voodoo is the only Afro-Catholic religion to emerge in North America. The Afro-Catholic religions that evolved in the New World colonies are derived from the Fon and Yoruba people of West Africa and the Kongo of Central Africa, who were enslaved in great numbers in Louisiana, Saint Domingue, Cuba, and Brazil. Historian Ina Johanna Fandrich argues that the prevalence of New Orleans female Voodoo practitioners can be traced to West and Central Africa. She maintains that like it’s Haitian counterpart, New Orleans Voodoo is a hybrid, combining several cultural origins (West and Central African, European, and Native American elements) into a viable new form but its basic patterns remain African.[5]

Marissa: In the decade before the Civil War the color line hardened as white New Orleanians’ fears increased and places where slaves, free people of color, and white people gathered together were strictly policed. Laws were passed that restricted unauthorized gatherings where the races freely mixed together. In April of 1858, the city council passed a law to ensure “the South and the safety of the institution of slavery” by requiring that any Christian worship must be conducted under the supervision of a white minister. The raucous Congo Square assemblies began to get smaller as larger markets opened nearby but what really stopped the festivities was a city ordinance that prohibited outdoor dances, drumming, and the playing of musical instruments without permission from the mayor. Congo Square was subsequently planted with young sycamore trees (which are now big beautiful trees BTW), but which impeded large groups of dancers.

Elizabeth: Marie Laveau is said to have been the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans between the years of 1820 to 1869. However, there are very few mentions of Laveau in newspapers during this time. What we do know comes from newspaper accounts of police raids on Voodoo ceremonies and from the accounts collected by the Louisiana Writers’ Project. Police regularly raided Voodoo ceremonies and arrested participants for unlawful “mixed assembly” of white and Black people during the 1850s. It is likely that Laveau was swept up in a police raid on a Voodoo ceremony in 1850, where a group of women were arrested. The Picayune newspaper wrote the arrested women were “in the habit of frequenting a house back in the woods near St. Bernard’s Canal, where they go through a great variety of superstitious rights in a …meager…style of dress.” The “large quantity of nonsensical paraphernalia” was confiscated.[6]

Marissa: A few days later another raid was logged in the Third Municipality’s Guard book. A group of women was arrested “at Milneburg [on Lake Pontchartrain] in a house of ill fame [for] being in contravention of ordinances prohibiting slaves, free people of color, and white persons assembling together.”[7] (In non-legaleze, the races were mixing.)  A week later a group of women, including Marie Laveau, took the officers of the Third Municipality Guards to civil court, claiming they had been illegally arrested while practicing their religion. They claimed they had been falsely imprisoned, improperly fined, and subject to assault and battery.

Elizabeth: The Picayune reported that “Marie Laveau, otherwise Widow Paris, f.w.c. [free woman of color], the head of the Voudou women, yesterday appeared before Recorder Seuzeneau and charged Watchman Abreo of the Third Municipality Guards with having by fraud come into possession of a statue of a virgin worth fifty dollars.” A later article described the statue as “a quaintly carved figure resembling something between a centaur and an Egyptian mummy.” Long postulates this sounds reminiscent of figural images called nkisi, carved by the Kongolese.[8] 

Marissa: In 1859 a woman identified in the Picayune as Marie “Clarisse” Laveau was summoned before the recorder’s court for disturbing the neighborhood. Marie Clarisse could have been Marie Catherine Laveau or her daughter Marie Eucharist. The paper wrote, “Marie and her wenches were continuously disturbing [her neighbor’s] peace and that of the neighborhood with their fighting and obscenity and infernal singing and yelling.” It went on to say this exemplified “the hellish observance of the mysterious rites of Voudou…one of the worst forms of African paganism” Furthermore, they just had to titillate readers by alluding to debauchery by stating, “A description of the orgies would never do to put in respectable print.”[9]

Elizabeth: St. John’s Eve, or the Eve of the Feast of St. John the Baptiste, was an observance of the summer solstice and a vastly popular Catholic holiday in New Orleans. Many of New Orleans’ Voodoo practitioners and followers celebrated St. John’s Eve at Marie Laveau’s Maison Blanche (White House) on Lake Pontchartrain. The festivities were often led by Laveau and attracted white and Black people from all over the city. After the Civil War, Anglo-American New Orleanians wallowed in the Lost Cause mythology and bemoaned what they considered “misrule” by Northern carpetbaggers, southern scalawags, and Black people. Although all walks of life celebrated St. John’s Eve in New Orleans, post-Civil War articles painted the holiday as a debaucherous nuisance where Black people went wild. One article in the Commercial Bulletin from 1869 clearly tried to paint newly freed people as unworthy of their citizenship. The author stated that the St. John’s Eve celebration consisted of “Midnight dances, bathing and eating, together with other less innocent pleasures, make[ing] the early summer a time of unrestrained orgies for the blacks.” The writer couldn’t pass up the opportunity to paint Black people as unfit for citizenship by stating that “a more youthful hand puts up love philters and makes fetishes for the intelligent freedmen, who elect governors and members of Congress out of their own numbers.”[10] As a side note, the article went on to announce Marie Laveau’s “retirement” from leading the festivities, as she was by 1869, nearing 70 years old.

Marissa: Race relations in New Orleans became untenable when the Crescent City White League, a paramilitary terrorist organization made up largely of Confederate veterans, attempted a coup d’etat to overthrow the Reconstruction Republican state government in 1874. In what became known as the Battle of Canal Street or the Battle of Liberty Place, five to eight thousand members of the white league fought the 600 members of the outnumbered Metropolitan police force and three thousand black militiamen. The White League stormed the statehouse in a bloody battle and held it, the armory, and downtown New Orleans for three days until Federal troops arrived and restored the government.

Elizabeth: When all federal troops were pulled out of New Orleans in 1877 Democrats, or redeemers, intent on overturning “Negro misrule” as they called it, quickly regained power in the state. Needless to say, race relations became much worse. We can see how this time of “redemption” and harsh race relations coincided with anti Voodoo hysteria in the white press. White-owned newspapers from the 1870s through the 1890s rarely missed a chance to put people of African descent in a bad light. In these stories, Voodoo was just further evidence of black people’s deficiencies and unworthiness of citizenship.

Marissa: By this point, Marie Laveau was very old. One of the Louisiana Writers Project interviewees, Anita Fonvergne, who was born in 1860 and grew up on St. Anne Street remembered her mother taking her to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 where they “saw an old, shriveled-up lady…sitting by a tomb.” Mrs. Fonvergne said her mother told her “that’s Marie Laveau, the Voodoo woman. They say she was pretty when she was young, but because of the work she did, when she got old she was dried up and looked like a witch.”

Elizabeth: Other interviewees born around the same time described Marie Laveau as a statuesque woman in her 40s. This lends credence to the argument that someone, either Marie Laveau’s daughter, also named Marie Laveau, or someone else, was claiming to be Marie Laveau and was also practicing Voodoo in New Orleans.

Marissa: Marie Catherine Laveau died on June 15, 1881. She was seventy-nine years old. However, many newspaper accounts made out that she was much older- already furthering the myth that somehow, she had avoided death for longer than she should have. Some were disparaging. In “Marie Lavaux- Death of the Queen of the Voudous,” she was described as the leader of “that curious sect of superstitious darkies who combined the hard traditions of African legends with fetish worship.” A few days later the New Orleans Times wrote that “Tonight is St. Johns Eve, and on the Banks of Bayou St. John… all that is left of the old Voudou clan will convene to honor the memory of their late Queen Marie Laveau…by a series of drunken orgies around a bonfire.”[11]

Elizabeth: The New York Times published an obituary for Marie Laveau in late June using a classic 19th century-style title that just goes on and on: “The Dead Voudou Queen- Marie Laveau’s Place in the History of New Orleans- The Early Life of the Beautiful Young Creole- The Prominent Men Who Sought Her Advice and Society- Her Charitable Work- How She Became an Object of Mystery.” This obituary and others insinuated that her power and prestige in the city had less to do with her role as a Voodoo priestess and more to do with trickery and mystery. They did admit however that Laveau was an intelligent woman, a skilled herbalist, and did lots of charity work in New Orleans.

Marissa: The propaganda of the 1870s through the 1890s had a lot to do with the mythologizing of Marie Laveau. Time moves on but Marie Laveau was not forgotten, even as the South further entrenched itself in the myth of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. In 1891, the city erected a monument to commemorate the Battle of Liberty Place and the “heroes” who had tried to overthrow the Reconstruction government. In 1893 Congo Square was turned into a shrine of sorts for the Confederacy. It was renamed for the Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard and was designated for white use only, as were most other public spaces throughout the city.

Elizabeth: Much of the Laveau legend was created after her death. It is from these fictionalized novels and vignettes that Laveau was said to be a hairdresser, even though no there is no archival record of her having advertised anywhere as such. In 1896 and reprinted throughout the first decades of the 1900s, the Picayune’s Guide to New Orleans is the first place where Marie’s snake, named Grand Zombi, is mentioned anywhere. According to Long, a lot of the sensationalized Marie Laveau that we have today comes from a man who one would think, should have known better. Robert Tallant was a participant in the Louisiana Writers’ Project during the 1930s and 1940s, which was the first real attempt to collect a massive amount of oral history on Laveau and Voodoo in New Orleans.

Marissa: Louisiana Writers’ Project workers found and transcribed civil and ecclesiastical records relating to Marie, her family, and her associates, which also had to be translated from Spanish and French to English. LWP staff also made copies of nineteenth-century newspaper articles on Voodoo and compiled a bibliography of hundreds of others. Perhaps most significantly, fieldworkers interviewed seventy mostly Black New Orleanians, born between 1853 and 1878, who remembered Marie Laveau or her successor.

Elizabeth: According to Long, after the shutdown of the Federal Writers’ Project, the state offices were instructed to transfer all of their data to the Library of Congress. LWP director Lyle Saxon, however, retained the folklore files for his personal use but he died before he had a chance to undertake the project. That same year, with Saxon’s apparent endorsement, Robert Tallant published his splashy and sexually titillating Voodoo in New Orleans, replete with lurid tales of nudity, drunkenness, devil worship, snake handling, blood drinking, the devouring of live chickens and dead cats, and interracial sexual orgies. He reworked snippets from the oral histories and made-up other interviews when he needed to prove a point and added other “facts” from previous (and mostly untrue) writings about Laveau, and turned it all into a readable and sensational book. Long argued that Tallant’s books, The Voodoo Queen and Voodoo in New Orleans, influenced the Laveau Legend more than any other writer and shaped the Laveau legend for the rest of the twentieth century.

Marissa: It seems that the white press has shaped so much of popular culture’s understanding of Marie Laveau and New Orleans Voodoo. Voodoo evolved from the religious traditions of enslaved Africans and seemingly thrived during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. However, during and after Reconstruction, Voodoo was used to paint people of African descent as unworthy of full citizenship.

Elizabeth: However, modern scholars and practitioners have rescued Laveau from a side-show spook tale and seek to position her and her community within their cultural heritage.[12]

If you visit New Orleans today, you will experience the Laveau Legend in all of its glory but there are also plenty of opportunities to learn about New Orleans Voodoo and the historical context surrounding the religion in New Orleans.

Marissa: Now a days you can’t visit Laveau’s tomb unless you have family buried in St. Louis No. 1 or you are with a guided tour group. Damage to her mausoleum and those surrounding it was getting to a point where irreparable damage was taking place. Also, in 2013 someone painted her entire tomb a bright bubble gum pink. Restoration took over a year and now the Archdiocese and New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries (NOCC) no longer allow tourists to enter St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery without a licensed tour guide.

Elizabeth: Laveau excites our imaginations. She’s become part of the pantheon of goddess witches, held up in exalted and occasionally kitchy reverence. But like most mythology, there’s an ounce of truth and a whole lot of embellishment. Perhaps we’ll never know all of the details about Marie Laveau’s life, but it’s always fun to try.

Thanks for listening.

Further Reading:

Martha Ward, Voodoo Queen: The Spirited Lives of Marie Laveau (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004).

Carolyn Morrow Long, A New Orleans Vodou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2006).

Fandrich, Ina Johanna, The Mysterious Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveaux : A Study of Powerful Female Leadership in Nineteenth-century New Orleans (New York: Routledge, 2005).

Alvarado, Denice, The Magic of Marie Laveau: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans (Newburyport, MA: Weiser Books, 2020).

Google Map: Congo Square: Louis Armstrong Park – Google Maps

Google Map: Place of Marie Laveau’s St. Anne’s Home: 1020 St Ann St – Google Maps

Not her house but indicative of what homes looked like during the time Laveau would have lived in it. Although hers was known to be set back to the road, which was a bit different than neighboring houses.


[1] “Fetish Rites,” Daily Picayune, June 23, 1870 quoted in Long, 123

[2] Tallant, 1946, 130-131.

[3] Long, 54.

[4] Long, 165.

[5] Long, 94; Ina J. Fandrich, The Mysterious Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveaux: A Study of Powerful Female Leadership in Nineteenth Century New Orleans (New York: Routledge), 38.

[6] Long, 104.

[7] Long, 104.

[8] Long, 104-105.

[9] Long, 108.

[10] “Voodooism,” Commercial Bulletin, July 5, 1869. Quoted in Long, 123 and Martha Ward, Voodoo Queen : The Spirited Lives of Marie Laveau, (Univ. of Mississippi Press, 2004) 113.

[11] Long, Prologue.

[12] Ina J. Fandrich, The Mysterious Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveaux : A Study of Powerful Female Leadership in Nineteenth Century New Orleans (New York: Routledge, 2005), 209.


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