New Orleans is filled with crow energy. They fly from rooftop to rooftop leading those who heed the call down roughly paved streets and into new territories. There’s a legend whispered through the winding paths that Marie Laveau never died but changed herself into a crow so she could watch over the place she called home. For many the allure of Laveau’s mythology brings them to the places she frequented in the city she called home.
Marie Laveau is said to have been born in the French Quarter of New Orleans on September 10, 1801, although some sources say 1794. Her parents were a wealthy Creole plantation owner named Charles Laveau and his mistress a recently freed slave Marguerite Darcantrel who was part part Choctaw Indian. It’s said her grandmother , Catherine Henry worked as a slave in the Roche- Belaire house where she birthed Marguerite and her brother Joseph. Catherine was then bought by Francoise Pomet, a free woman of color and entrepreneur. Free persons of color often owned slaves then. In 1795 for the price of 600 pesos in cash, Catherine became a free woman. She changed her name to Henry, after who was believed to be the father of her children (her former owner) and bought a piece of property on St Ann which was where she lived and worked as a merchant. Marguerite was liberated from slavery in 1790 and shortly after became the lover of Henri D’Arcantel. The birth of Marie resulted from a brief affair with Charles Laveau who went on to marry another free woman of color. Marie and her siblings were the first of their families to be born free. (I have since learned many of the articles and information researched online for this are directly from A New Orleans Voudou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau by Carolyn Morrow Long. She was also the first to make the connection to Marie’s grandmother, the purchase of her freedom, and lineage there.)
Catholicism played a huge role in Marie’s life. She was baptized in the St. Louis Cathedral with her grandmother acting as Godmother. She went to mass daily and even married at the Cathedral, Aug 4, 1819 The senior pastor, the Capuchin Friar Antoinio de Sedella from Spain, affectionately called Pere Antoine presiding over the ceremony. Marie married a carpenter, Jacque Paris who was part of the Haitian immigration in 1809. He was considered a quadroon ( person with 1/4 black and 3/4 white) originally from the town of Jérémie. Her father gave her property as a gift on Love St. which is now North Rampart Street for the couple to live in but city records show that by 1822 they were living on Dauphine St. between St. Philip and Dumaine. In some accounts baptismal records from St. Louis Cathedral have records for two daughters, Marie Angelie Paris baptized in 1823 and Felicite Paris baptized in 1824. They are both listed as the daughters of Marie Laveau and Jacques Paris. These records stop here. They were married for 5 years before he disappeared. While there were no records of Jacque’s death he more than likely left, still Marie was called Widow Paris. Pere Antoine would become and important confident and friend to Marie throughout her life.
Popular belief is that Marie worked as a hairdresser after Paris’s death to maintain financial stability and also worked as a nurse which helped to build up a network. There is no record of Marie’s profession and some believe it was her daughter Marie II, who was a hairdresser. Hairdressing was one of the few jobs free women of color partook in to create a steady income for themselves. In those days you catered to what was needed. Some of the jobs free women of color had were seamstress, hairdresser, domestic labor jobs such as cooking, washing, gardening, nurses, and merchants. Her clientele would have included wealthy white and Creole women. The legend has it that women considered Marie a confidante and confessed to what was ailing them in business and personal affairs.
Marie entered a plaçage or civil union with Louis Christophe Dominick Duminy de Glapion, who everyone called Christophe, a white Louisiana native of French descent from a wealthy family. He was a seller of stocks, real estate, and slaves. The anti-miscegenation laws did not allow them to marry so they lived in her grandmother’s former home on St. Ann which Glapion had purchased after Marie’s grandmother passed away in 1831. Together Marie and Christophe had five children, only two of which survived into adulthood. Their names were Marie Euchariste Eloise Laveau (1827-1860-2), and Marie Philomene Glapion (1836-1897). Both were baptized at St. Louis Cathedral. Marie was with Christophe for 30 years until his death in 1855.
She was known for her charitable acts nursing such as nursing yellow fever and cholera patients, posting bail for free women of color, providing education to a young orphan boy, and visiting condemned prisoners to build altars and pray with them for repentance in their final hours according to the New Orleans Daily Picayune May 10, 1871. Marie was against public hanging and there are rumors that she even saved a few men from the gallows. To give you an idea of what it was like here is an excerpt from “The Diary of A Samaritan" by William L. Robinson
As part of the experiments to control the disease] tar was set on fire around and in the cemeteries...in the yards of private houses...and in the middle of Canal, Rampart and Esplanade streets. At sunset, when all were simultaneously fired, a pandemonium glare lighted up the city. Not a breath of air disturbed the dense smoke, which slowly ascended in curling columns...here it seemed equipoised, festooning over our doomed city like a funeral pall and there remaining until the shades of night disputed with it the reign of darkness.
"The [chapel] contiguous to the graveyard on Rampart Street was a thronged receptacle of the dead and their mourners during the day until after dark. Hence arose the mournful Miserere, filling the air with its melancholy influence and heightening still more the universal despondency and sadness.
To Marie, Catholicism and Vodou while separate were not incompatible. Many of the religions brought over from the slave trade have felt this way. Vodou is derived from the historic west African kingdom Dahomey, now Benin. It was transported to the United States during the transatlantic slave trade. After the revolution in Sainte-Domingue, they brought their religion to New Orleans. These practices mixed with the strict European laws and codes merged Catholicism into the practice. Those practicing their religions found similarities in the Saints to their Lwa thus becoming the evolution of the foundation of New Orleans Vodou. There’s a lot of stories behind who taught Marie Voodoo in the first place. Some say renowned practitioner Dr. John or John Bayou a Yoruban free person of color who was said to be a great healer was the one who educated her. He also brought more drumming to her ceremonies. He lived on Bayou Rd along with the other Native Americans. Others say Sanité Dédé a Congolese woman and Marie Saloppé, a creole woman from Santo Domingo introduced her. There is no archival record of Sanité but it does not mean she didn’t exist. Paperwork for slaves and immigrants often didn’t exist or was written as something else depending on skin color and behavior, sometimes the names were written as the slave owners last names and then changed again of they were sold to different families. Records for that time are often hard to find and require much persistence and patience. There are even theories that her mother and grandmother may have taught her. No one knows exactly how she learned. The Daily Picayune reported July 1850 in what seems to be the first mention of Marie and Vodou:
Marie Laveau, otherwise Widow Paris, f.w.c. the head of the Voudou women, yesterday appeared before Recorder Seuzeneau and charged Watchman Abréo of the Third Municipality Guards with having by fraud come into possession of a statue of a virgin worth fifty dollars.
According to the Louisiana Writers' Project (LWP) Marie’s front room of her her house was filled altars, images of the Saints, candles, and offerings of fruit. She sold gris gris, did consultations, and private workings and rituals out of her home. Sundays she would head to Congo Square, a public space to hold court over the ceremonies for both enslaved and free Africans. There they were allowed to drum, dance, and worship. On Fridays she would hold ceremonies at her home. There would be a number of offerings such as fruits and dedications made as Catholic prayers were spoken and then drumming, song, dancing to honor the Lwa and Saints. The home ceremonies provided council for those who attended. She provided consultations as well as a shared meal after. Bayou St. John extends to the shore of Lake Pontchartrain where Marie would do head washing. During this time sensationalist tales and racist reports of activities circulated through newspapers and books detailing the accounts of these ceremonies, many from men threatened by a woman of color holding a position of power and their dislike of African and what they perceived to be pagan worship which out of fear they associated with the devil or being evil.
Despite all of this Marie continued working and doing charitable acts. She died in her home on June 15, 1881, right before her eightieth birthday. With her long time commitment to the church her funeral was conducted by a priest of St. Louis Cathedral. Cemetery records show she is buried in the Glapion tomb under Mrs. C. Glapion in St. Louis Cemetery Number 1. There is a plaque on the tomb indicating her burial place. Further into the cemetery is another grave said to be her grave as well. It is covered in x’s. It is said that it is Marie’s real grave and the other is her partner’s family tomb.
Following her death news sources such as The New York Times published obituaries and remembrances. Lafcadio Hearn a prominent writer referred to her as “one of the kindest women who ever lived.” Many writers chose to paint her as a saintly figure but white washed her work as a Vodou priestess and focused on her relationship with the Catholic Church.
Today visitors must book a tour to see Marie’s grave. You are allowed to bring flowers but long gone are the days of circled turns, three x’s, and a few knocks left with an offering. In 2013 someone painted the tomb pink with latex paint which damages the foundation. The tomb was restored but closed off to the public unless guided by a tour. A statue of Marie was erected in front of the The Healing Center 2372 St. Claude Ave.
If you are looking to learn more about Vodou, New Orleans, or Marie Laveau head over or contact Botanica Macumba 3154 St. Claude Ave in New Orleans and ask for Demetrius Lacroix, Oungan Asogwe. He’s extremely knowledgeable and talented and helped me iron out the information in this blog post.
Many of the sources used in the history above connect back to this book. A New Orleans Voudou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau