Marie Laveau: A Legend in Her Own Time

Marie Laveau, New Orleans’ Voodoo Queen, is seen in her most famous portrait.

How are legends made? One whisper at a time. Or at least such seems to be the case with New Orleans’ most famous practitioner of Voodoo, Marie Laveau. Her name is known worldwide and, while verifiable facts of her life are scarce at best, there is no shortage of stories about the woman New Orleans came to both fear and love.

Marie Laveau or Marie Laveaux?

While the difference of a mere “X” added or subtracted from a name might seem trivial that one letter represents a larger pattern in Marie Laveau’s life. That is, no one can seem to agree on even one fact of it.

Some accounts put Marie’s birth in 1783, 1793 or 94, or in March of 1801.
Likewise, at her death, some put her age at 98 while others maintained she was far younger. Whenever she was born, and whatever her age when she died, the things that are known about her are these: she was a Roman Catholic and a Voodoo Priestess. She was a free woman of color, owned slaves, and nursed the sick during several outbreaks of yellow fever in New Orleans throughout the 1800s. She had many children (accounts vary on exactly how many) but only two survived into adulthood, two daughters, both also named Marie.

She married a Haitian immigrant in 1819 with the last name of Paris and their marriage certificate is still housed in St. Louis Cathedral. She bore him two children but both died young. In 1820, she began calling herself the Widow Paris, although no one can say if her husband died or abandoned her and returned to Haiti. She inherited a house on St. Ann Street in the French Quarter from her grandmother and lived there all her life. Marie later entered a common-law marriage with Christophe Glapion which
lasted nearly 30 years and, after his death, didn’t seek out another man in the remaining three decades of her life.

The Legend Begins

The life described above doesn’t sound particularly remarkable, does it? But it’s the unverifiable parts of Marie Laveau’s existence that make it exciting. Various accounts say after her 1 st husband’s death, Marie became a hairdresser to keep her family afloat. It was through this hairdressing business she learned secrets of wealthy households by giving gifts to the slaves living there. When meeting with the wealthy women for appointments, Marie would disclose what the “spirits” had told her and posit a solution. For a fee, of course.

But there are others who say that Marie Laveau’s powers were legitimate. She could cure the sick with the same power she used to curse wrongdoers. Many believe she studied Voodoo with Dr. John Bayou, a man reported to be both a root worker and an African prince. Marie’s powers had people of all social statuses and races coming to her for help with everything from keeping/losing a lover to being sure a relative was acquitted of murder. Whatever the outcome to these problems, people throughout the
city were sure Marie had made things work out exactly as she wanted them to.

The Legacy of Marie Laveau

Marie Laveau reigns in New Orleans in death as she did in life. Her name is
everywhere and her image, in the form of an oil painting, can be seen in the Cabildo in Jackson Square. Or can it? There is no consensus on whether or not the portrait is actually of Marie Laveau. Those who knew her in life claim she never wore the traditional Creole headscarves, or tignons, as the lady in the portrait does.

Of course, there’s also controversy over where exactly Marie was laid to rest. Some say she resides in the city’s oldest cemetery, St. Louis No. 1, while others maintain she is in St. Louis No.2. Tombs reported to be Marie’s can be found in either so you can travel to both before making up your mind.

Tomb of Marie Laveau

Marie’s legacy is diverse and wide-ranging. She’s memorialized by a voodoo shop on Bourbon Street which bears her name, in numerous songs recorded by the likes of Dr. John, Bobby Bare, and Papa Celestin, and was brought to even wider attention by Angela Bassett’s portrayal of her in American Horror Story: Coven. It seems even in death the Voodoo Queen is able to conjure up as many different versions of herself as there are people who hear about her.

As a woman whose reputation always preceded her, I doubt she’d have it any other way.

Tomb of Marie Laveau