Marie Laveau was a free woman of color born in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Laveau assumed the leadership role of a multiracial religious community for which she gave consultations and held ceremonies. During her time, she was known as "The Priestess of the Voudous"; among many other colorful titles.
A free woman of color descended from enslaved Africans and French colonists, Marie Laveau is known as the Voudou Queen of New Orleans. During her lifetime she was loved by many people and feared by others. She was always treated with respect.
Marie Laveau was born in New Orleans on September 10, 1801, the first of her maternal line to be born free. Her story begins with her great-grandmother, Marguerite, who had no surname because she was enslaved. Marguerite was born around 1736, and historical evidence suggests that she was transported from Senegal to Louisiana aboard the last French slave-trading vessel, the St. Ursin, in 1743.
During the late eighteenth century, Marguerite and her daughter, Catherine, were held in slavery by the white Creole Henry Roche dit (known as) Belaire, a master shoemaker. Catherine’s father was Jean Belaire, possibly a slave of Henry Roche-Belaire. Roche-Belaire, or some other white man, fathered Catherine’s mulatto children. After enduring three more owners, Catherine finally purchased her freedom in 1795 and took the name Catherine Henry. Catherine’s daughter, Marguerite Henry, was manumitted by Henry Roche-Belaire in 1790. She became the concubine of a Frenchman, Henri Darcantel, with whom she had several children. She subsequently went by the name Marguerite Darcantel. Marguerite also had a brief relationship with Charles Laveaux, a successful mulatto businessman. Her daughter, Marie Laveau, the future Voudou queen, was a result of this union.
On August 4, 1819, Marie Laveau married Jacques Paris, a free quadroon carpenter from Saint Domingue (now Haiti). The couple had two daughters, Felicité and Marie Angèlie Paris, who died in childhood. Jacques Paris died or disappeared around 1824, and Marie was thereafter known as the Widow Paris. By 1826 she had entered a domestic partnership with a white man of noble French descent, Louis Christophe Dominic Duminy de Glapion, which lasted until Glapion died in 1855. Marie and Christophe had seven children together. Of these, only Marie Heloïse Euchariste Glapion (born in 1827) and Marie Philomène Glapion (born in 1836) survived to adulthood. The Laveau-Glapion family lived in the original French section of the city, now known as the Vieux Carré or French Quarter, in a cottage on St. Ann Street between Rampart and Burgundy. This dwelling was built around 1798 by Marie’s grandmother, Catherine Henry.
Laveau’s Spiritual Work
By the 1830s, Marie Laveau’s combination of clairvoyance, healing abilities, beauty, charisma, showmanship, intimidation, and business sense had enabled her to assume leadership of a multiracial religious community. She gave consultations and held weekly ceremonies at her home on St. Ann Street, and is credited with leading the St. John’s Eve celebrations on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. These annual events, derived from the European pre-Christian celebration of the summer solstice, consisted of bonfires, drumming, singing, dancing, ritual bathing, and a communal feast. Laveau was seldom the subject of newspaper stories during her own lifetime, but in the few appearances she made in the New Orleans press, she was referred to as “the head of the Voudou women,” “her majesty,” “the celebrated Marie Laveau,” “the Priestess of the Voudous,” or “the ancient queen,” indicating that her exalted position was recognized by all.
In addition to being a Voudou priestess, Marie Laveau was a lifelong Roman Catholic. She was baptized, married, attended Mass, and had her children baptized at St. Louis Cathedral. She served as godmother for her nephew and her granddaughter, and paid for the education of a seven-year-old orphan boy at the Catholic Institution for Indigent Orphans. In her later years, Marie abdicated leadership of the Voudou community and devoted her time to charitable works. An 1871 newspaper article describes how she regularly erected altars in the cells of condemned prisoners and comforted and prayed with them before they went to the gallows.
Despite legends of Marie Laveau’s great wealth, she actually lived quite modestly. Her father gave her a vacant lot on what is now North Rampart Street at the time of her marriage to Jacques Paris. Otherwise, she owned no real estate. Even her home on St. Ann Street legally belonged to her domestic partner, Christophe Glapion. She did buy two enslaved women, whom she later sold. After Glapion’s death in 1855, the family experienced a financial crisis owing to his unwise business speculations. The St. Ann Street property was seized for debt, and Laveau, her daughters, and grandchildren were only allowed to remain in residence through the kindness of a friend who bought the house.
Marie Laveau died at home on June 15, 1881, a few months short of her eightieth birthday. Her funeral was conducted by a priest of St. Louis Cathedral. Cemetery records prove that she was interred in the Widow Paris tomb in St. Louis Cemetery Number 1. Following her death, the New Orleans newspapers and even the New York Times published obituaries and remembrances. Most characterized Laveau as a woman who nursed the sick, provided for those in need, ministered to prisoners, and dedicated herself to the Roman Catholic church. Dissenters, however, called her “the prime mover and soul of the indecent orgies of the ignoble Voudous,” a “procuress,” and an “arrant fraud.” Her reputation as an evildoer evolved during the twentieth century. Our present understanding of the Voudou religion enables us to see Marie Laveau as a kind and charitable woman who was both a lifelong Catholic and a Voudou priestess. Even today, tourists and locals visit her tomb to leave offerings and ask for her assistance.
According to legend, one of Laveau’s two surviving daughters became her successor, popularly known as “Marie II.” Her elder daughter, Marie Heloïse Euchariste Glapion, died in 1862 and therefore could not have been “Marie II.” Laveau’s other daughter, Marie Philomène Glapion, was her mother’s caregiver during her old age and continued to live with her adult children in the cottage on St. Ann Street until her own death in 1897. It is unlikely that Philomène assumed leadership of the Voudou community; interviews with those who had known her indicate that she was a rigidly proper Catholic matron who had no association with Voudou. The identity of “Marie II,” if she existed at all, remains a mystery.