This article concerns two women who extended one life.
The most famous voodoo queen in North America who were actually two persons— Marie Laveau mother and Marie Laveau daughter. They epitomized the sensational appeal of Vodounism New Orleans during the 19th and 20th centuries. They taught and used the religion’s magical powers to control one’s lovers, acquaintances, enemies, and sex.
Marie Laveau I, the mother, supposedly was born in New Orleans in 1794 and was considered a free woman of color. Being a mulatto, she was of mixed black, white and Indian blood. Sometimes she was described as a descendant of French aristocracy or a daughter of a wealthy white planter. Her marriage to Jacques Paris, a free man of color from Saint Dominque (Haiti), is recorded as occurring on August 4, 1819; the records also indicates the Marie Laveau was an illegitimate daughter of Charles Laveau and Marguerite Darcantrel. Marie was described as tall and statuesque, with curly black hair, reddish skin and “good” features (then meaning more white than Negroid). She and Paris lived in a house, supposedly part of her dowry from Charles Laveau, in the 1900 block on North Rampart Street.
Paris, being a quadroon—three fourths white, disappeared soon after the marriage. Perhaps he returned to Saint Dominique, but his death certificate was filed five years later without any certificate of interment. Then Marie began addressing herself as the Widow Paris and took up employment as a hairdresser catering to the wealthy white and Creole women of New Orleans. This was the beginning of her later powers as Voodooienne. For the women confessed to Marie their most intimate secrets and fears about their husbands, their lovers, their estates, their husbands’ mistresses, their business affairs, and their fears of insanity and of anyone discovering a trace of Negro blood in their ancestry.
In about 1826, Marie took up with Louis Christopher Duminy de Clapion, another quadroon from Saint Dominique. They lived in the North Rampart Street house until his death in 1855 (some claim 1835). Although they never married, he and Marie had 15 children in rapid succession. She stopped her hairdressing career to devote all her energies to becoming the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.
Voodoo had been secretly practiced by blacks around New Orleans since the first boat load of slaves. New Orleans was more French-Spanish than English-American, and the slaves had came from the same parts of Africa that had sent blacks to work the French and Spanish plantations in the Caribbean. After the blacks had won their independence in Haiti in 1803-1804, the Creole planters brought their slaves with them to friendlier shores of southern Louisiana, from Saint Dominique and other West Indian islands. The slaves were avid practitioners of the ancient religion, and it grew rapidly.
Quickly tales circulated of hidden and secret rituals being held deep in the bayous, complete with the worship of a snake called Zombi, and orgiastic dancing, drinking, and lovemaking. Almost a third of the worshippers were white, desirous of obtaining the “power” to regain a lost lover, to take a new lover, to eliminate a business partner, or to destroy an enemy. These frequent meetings frightened the white masters into fear the blacks were planning an uprising against them. In 1817 the New Orleans Municipal Council passed a resolution forbidding blacks to gather for dancing or any other purpose except on Sundays, and only in places designated by the mayor. “The accepted spot was Congo Square on North Rampart Street, now located in Armstrong Park, named after Louis Armstrong. Blacks, most of them voodooists, met danced and sang overtly worshipping their gods while seemingly entertaining the whites with their African “gibberish”.
By the 1830s there were many voodoo queens in New Orleans, fighting over control of the Sunday Congo dances and the secret ceremonies out at Lake Pontchartrain. But when “Mamzelle” Marie Laveau decided to become queen, contemporaries reported the other queens faded before her, some by crumbling to her powerful gris-gris, and some being driven away by brute force. Marie was always a devote Catholic and added influences of Catholicism–holy water, incense, statues of the saints, and Christian prayers–to the already sensational ceremonies of voodooism.
Marie knew the sensation that the rituals at the lake were causing and used it to further the purposes of the voodoo movement in New Orleans. She invited the public, press, police, the New Orleans roués, and others thrill-seekers of the forbidden fun to attend. Charging admission made voodoo profitable for the first time. Her entrepreneurial efforts went even further by organizing secret orgies for wealthy white men seeking beautiful black, mulatto and quadroon women for mistresses. Marie presided over these meetings herself. These alleged secret meetings enviably became public. Marie also gained control of the Congo Square Dances by entering before the other dancers and entertaining the fascinated onlookers with her snake.
Eventually, Marie Laveau, with all of the secret knowledge which she had gained from the Creole boudoirs combined with her own considerable knowledge of spells along with her flair, became the most powerful woman in New Orleans. Whites of every class sought her help in their various affairs and amours while blacks saw her as their leader. Judges paid her as much as $1000 to win an election, other whites paid $10 for an insignificant love powder. She freely helped most blacks. To visit her for a reading became fashionable.
Almost every New Orleanian had a story to tell about Marie Laveau by the beginning of World War II. Some of the stories concerned the mother while others concerned the daughter who strikingly resembled her mother and continued the dynasty. While most of the tales are exaggerated, some are more reliable, particularly those in Voodoo In New Orleans by Robert Tallant, and Mysterious Marie Laveau, Voodoo Queen by Raymond J. Martinez.
At the age of 70, in 1869, Marie gave her last performance as a voodoo queen. She announced she was retiring. She went to her Saint Ann Street home, but she never completely retired. She continued her prison work until 1875, and died in 1891. Then a similar tall woman with flashing black eyes, with the ability to control lives, emerged as Marie Laveau II.
Marie Laveau Clapion was born February 2, 1827, one of the 15 children crowding the Saint Ann Street cottage. It was never known whether her mother, Marie I, chose the role for her daughter, or whether Marie II chose the role to follow in her mother’s footsteps for herself. By some accounts she shared her mother’s features. Others say the pupils of her eyes were half-moon shaped. Apparently she lack the warmth and compassion of her mother because she inspired more fear and subservience than her mother did. Likewise, she began as a hairdresser, eventually ran a bar and brothel on Bourbon Street between Toulouse and Saint Peter Streets.
Marie continued operations at the “Maison Blanche” (White House), the house which her mother had built for secret voodoo meetings and liaisons between white men and black women. Marie II was proclaimed to be a talented procuress, able to fulfill any man’s desires for a price. Lavish parties were held at the Maison Blanche offered champagne, fine food, wine, music, and naked black girls dancing for white men, politicians, and high officials. They were never raided by the police who feared that if the crossed Marie she might “hoodoo” them.
June 23rd, the Eve of Saint John’s Day was one of the most important days in the New Orleans’ voodoo calendar. All the faithful celebrated out at Saint John Bayou. Saint John’s Day (for John the Baptist) corresponds to the summer solstice (see Sabbats) which has been celebrated since ancient times. But by the time Marie II arrived she had celebrated more than once.
The Saint John’s Day celebration of 1872 began as a religious ceremony. Marie came with a crowd singing. Soon a cauldron was boiling with water from a beer barrel, into which went salt, black pepper, a black cat, a black rooster, a various powders, and a snake sliced in three pieces representing the Trinity. With all this boiling the practitioners ate, whether the contents of the cauldron or not is not known. Afterwards or during the feast was more singing, appropriately “Mamzelle Marie.” Then it was cooling off time at which all stripped and swam in the lake. This was followed by a sermon by Marie, then a half hour of relaxation, or sexual intercourse. Then four naked girls put the contents of the cauldron back into the beer barrel. Marie gave another sermon, by this time it was becoming daylight and all headed for home.
On June 16, 1881, Marie I, as Widow Paris, died in her Saint Ann Street house. The reporters painted her in the most glorious terms, a saintly figure of 98 (actually 87), who nursed the sick, and prayed incessantly with the diseased and condemned. Reporters called her the recipient “in the fullest degree” of the “heredity gift of beauty” in the Laveau family, who gained the notice of Governor Claiborne, French General Humbert, Aaron Burr, and even the Marquis de Lafayette. Her obituaries claimed she lived a pious life surrounded by her Catholic religion, with no mention of her voodoo past. Even one of her surviving children, Madame Legendre, claimed her saintly mother never practiced voodoo and despised the cult.
Strangely, Marie II “died” in the public eye with Marie I seeming to pass into obscurity. Since the public had made no distinction between mother and daughter, the death of one ended the career of the other. Marie II still reigned over the voodoo ceremonies of the blacks and ran the Maison Blanche, but she never regained high notice in the press. Supposedly she drowned in a big storm in Lake Pontchartrain in the 1890s, but some people claimed to have seen her as late as 1918.
Death did not end the power of Marie Laveau, however. Though reportedly buried in a vault in the family crypt in St. Louis Cemetery, no. 1. The vault bears the name of Marie Philome Clapion, deceased June 11, 1897. But this vault still attracts faithful practitioners who still leave gifts of food, money, and flowers, and ask for Marie’s help after turning around three times and making a cross with red brick on the stone. The cemetery is small but the tomb seems to come out of nowhere when walking among the other crypts.
In the St. Louis Cemetery, no 2, there is another vault bearing the name of Marie Laveau. This vault has red crosses on it and is called the “wishing vault.” Young women often come to it to petition when seeking husbands. Stories have it Marie rests in various cemeteries in the city. Legend also tells she frequently visits the cemeteries, as well as the French Quarter, and her voodoo haunts. A.G.H.
Source: 4, 194-197.