Laveaux, Marie, (10 Sept. 1801–16 June 1881), voodoo queen

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Citation:

Niven, Steven J.. "Laveaux, Marie." African American National Biography, edited by Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr.. , edited by and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. . Oxford African American Studies Center, http://www.oxfordaasc.com/article/opr/t0001/e0346 (accessed Tue Jan 27 12:58:46 EST 2015).

 

Laveaux, Marie, (10 Sept. 1801–16 June 1881), voodoo queen, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the daughter of Charles Laveaux, a freeman of color who owned a grocery store in that city, and Marguerite D'Arcantel, a freewoman of color about whom very little is known, although it is rumored that she was a spiritualist or root doctor. Certain sources erroneously claim that Charles Laveaux was a prominent white planter and politician. He was not, but he was probably the illegitimate son of Don Carlos (or Charles) Trudeau, a high-ranking official in Spanish-controlled Louisiana and the first president of the New Orleans City Council when the United States purchased Louisiana in 1803. The historical record, which in Marie Laveaux's case is exceptionally imprecise, provides several spellings of her surname, often leaving out the “x,” but most archival records suggest that Charles Laveaux used that version of his name and that this spelling was also used in records related to his illiterate daughter.

There is considerable doubt, too, about Laveaux's date of birth. Her 1881 death certificate claims that she died at the age of ninety-eight, suggesting that she was born in 1783, although most accounts give her birth date as 1794. In the late 1990s, however, a researcher found birth and baptismal records of a “mulatto girl child” named Marie Laveaux dated September 1801. This date coincides with information on her marriage certificate, which states that Laveaux was a minor, a month shy of eighteen, when she wed Jacques Paris, a Haitian-born carpenter, in August 1819.

Laveaux's marriage to Paris was short-lived. After her husband's death in the early 1820s, she became known as “the widow Paris” and began a thirty-year relationship with Captain Jean Louis Christophe Duminy de Glapion, a veteran of the War of 1812 usually referred to as a “quadroon” from Santo Domingo. It has often been claimed that the couple had fifteen children, but New Orleans church records suggest that they had only two sons, François and Archange, who died in childhood, and three daughters, Marie Héloïse, Marie Louise, and Marie Phélomise. In addition, Marie Laveaux had a half sister, also named Marie Laveaux, born to Charles Laveaux and his wife, a wealthy member of Louisiana's free colored Creole elite. Many of the legends about the power, wealth, and infamy of Marie Laveaux have arisen because of confusion in oral and literary sources about the women who shared her name, particularly her daughter Marie Héloïse, who was also a voodoo priestess.

In the 1830s Marie Laveaux emerged as a prominent spiritualist and healer at her home; at African American ritual dances on Sundays in New Orleans's Congo Square; and at major religious festivals, such as the midsummer St. John's Eve celebrations on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain, which attracted people of all colors. Laveaux presided over ceremonies that blended elements of Roman Catholicism, such as the invocation of saints and the use of incense and holy water, and traditional African religious dances and rituals involving drumming, chanting, animal sacrifices, and worship of Damballa or Zombi, a snake god. The scanty record of these rituals suggests that Laveaux would blow alcohol on the faces of participants as a blessing and would also wrap a snake around their (usually naked) bodies as a symbol of her control over them. Later accounts of these ceremonies, both in oral tradition and in Robert Tallant's Voodoo in New Orleans (1946), highlight the sexual abandon of the participants.

Laveaux's legendary power came less from these infrequent ceremonies, however, than from her skills as an everyday spiritualist who used her charms to bewitch a highly superstitious public. Not unlike J. Edgar Hoover a century later, Laveaux understood that knowledge, particularly knowledge of private indiscretions, equals power. As a hairdresser to prominent women in New Orleans, she had access to gossip about the city's wealthiest and most powerful citizens. She also gained information about the New Orleans elite from African American servants and slaves who, in return for Mamzelle Marie's spiritual protection, brought Laveaux news about their masters' and mistresses' financial, political, and sexual affairs. Laveaux used that intelligence to make herself indispensable to women seeking information on their husbands' philandering, to politicians keen to learn of their opponents' foibles, and to businessmen who relied on her charms and amulets when the hidden hand of the market failed to work its own particular gris-gris. Such information—and the spells and potions to rid her clients of what ailed them—provided Laveaux with a steady income, though not the great riches that many of her followers and detractors claimed. It also ensured friends for her in the highest places in Louisiana society, which may explain why, unlike other voodooiennes, she was never arrested. Her seeming influence over whites strengthened her influence over black Louisianans and entrenched her position in African American folklore as one of the most powerful women of her time.

Depending on the source, white accounts of Laveaux's mid-nineteenth-century heyday depict her as either saint or whore. After her death in 1881, white Catholics in New Orleans eulogized her saintly role in helping victims of yellow fever and cholera in the 1850s and her tireless work to give comfort to the city's death-row convicts. White Catholics downplayed any African elements in Laveaux's religion and also praised her alleged devotion to the Confederate cause. At the same time, however, an obituary in the white Protestant-controlled New Orleans Democrat dismissed these claims for Laveaux's piety, describing her as “the prime mover and soul of the indecent orgies of the ignoble Voudous” (Fandrich, 267). Other newspaper accounts and later folklore suggested that Laveaux had used her Lake Pontchartrain home, the Maison Blanche, as a brothel that served wealthy white men seeking glamorous “high yellow” prostitutes, although it is possible that these accounts confused the elder Marie with her daughter, Marie Héloïse, who reputedly kept a bawdy house.

In death Laveaux remained almost as influential as in life, at least to the thousands who seek out her tomb every year in New Orleans, which, some claim, is the second most visited grave in the United States after Elvis Presley's. Like Presley's followers, Laveaux's pilgrims leave candles, money, and other objects in hope that her spirit will grant their wishes. After the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, some disciples even left notes asking that Laveaux administer punishment to the alleged perpetrator, Osama Bin Laden.

Further Reading

  • Fandrich, Ina. “The Mysterious Voodoo Queen Marie Laveaux: A Study of Power and Female Leadership in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans,” PhD diss., Temple University (1994).
  • Raboteau, Albert. Slave Religion (1978)
  • Tallant, Robert. Voodoo in New Orleans (1946)

Obituary:

  • New Orleans Daily Picayune, 17 June 1881.

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