Orléans has St. Jeanne d’Arc as its patron saint. Ancient Egypt had Cleopatra. New Orleans has Marie Laveau as patron “saint” and Voudou queen and to make things even more interesting, there were two Marie Laveaus, mother and daughter.
I’m writing about Marie Laveau Sr., (also known as “the widow Paris). A figure shrouded in mystery, wrapped in a febrile Mississippi fog, bound in cobwebs of legend and folklore is Marie Laveau. She lived in the New Orleans of the early 19th century, between the American Revolution and the War Between the States. Official records regarding her life are scarce, church records have “gone missing”, there are no known accurate portraits of this woman who has the power to fascinate the imagination even from the grave. If you were to ask 10 contemporaries of Marie Laveau to describe how she looked (as writers in FDR’s WPA effort to collect oral histories of the United States did), you will get 10 different descriptions.
Fact: Marie Laveau was a Free Person of Color, not white, but not a slave. Records of FPC’s often “go missing” especially if the family now considers themselves one race or the other.
In anticipation of our trip to New Orleans I read a recent biography of Marie Laveau by Mary Ward.* Ward’s research, such as it was, because there is little factual information to be found about Marie Laveau raised a number of interesting points.
One of the things I found terribly intriguing was that in 19th century Louisiana, people “passed” on both sides of the color divide. Although Louisiana was a member of the CSA with the same laws, strictures and taboos regarding race as other CSA states, things were different in Louisana. Interracial relationships were tolerated on the basis of the French Colonial term “placage”.
Plaçage was a recognized extralegal system in which white Frenchand Spanishand later Creolemen entered into the equivalent of common-law marriageswith women of African, Indian and white (European) Creole descent. (From Wiki-pedia)
Fact: Marie Laveau’s second (common law) husband, Christophe Galpion, long believed to have been a member of the “Sons of Freedom”, the “Battalion of Free Men of Color” (War of 1812) actually served in the of the Dragoons, which was an all white regiment. Christophe, in order to bypass the extralegal convention of placage to legitimize their children and ensure their inheritance passed as a “free person of color”. Ironically, he used the extralegal convention of placage to do this. His father had a second “placage”wife. Christophe had half-brothers and cousins who helped him via various social and benevolent societies to seamlessly pass as what we would now call “biracial”.
I found the voodoo yaya a bit tedious.
Fact: Marie Laveau was a skilled (such as it were) nurse during the many outbreaks of yellow fever in New Orleans. She had a wealth of knowledge regarding folklore and folk medicines passed down from generation to generation by the women of her family. Her remedies often worked better than those prescibed by conventional doctors. This gave her an allure of mystical power.
Fact: Marie Laveau was a devout Catholic. Her work with the famous Pére Antioine of Cathedral St. Louis is well documented. She visited the condemned in jail on a regular basis to pray and comfort. She was involved in a number of what we would today call “social” issues.
Why would a devout Catholic turn Voudou practitioner?
New Orleans was a cultural melting pot in seriously turblent times. It wouldn’t be beyond the scope of possibiltly to believe that Marie Laveau, strong in her own Roman Catholicism tried to bring it home to others who were not brought up in the faith on their terms by drawing parallels to Native American and Yoruba spiritualism. This resulted in the litany of Voudou saints that we know today. I don’t believe that she believed that she was practicing any kind of dark arts.
She liked a party. She could dance, apparently, and would dance in Congo Square, a place at the corner of St. Peter and Rampart in the French Quarter of New Orleans on a Sunday when people of color would gather there on their free days. Un, deux, trois, Marie Laveau would knock three times on the wooden dancefloor to “call up the spirits” to kick off the party. Now, I’ve seen James Brown perform live and count it off to start a song. Is this any different? I’m not sure. People liked to see Marie dance and liked to dance along too. St. John’s Day, 24 June was apparently the scene of some notoriously wild dance parties attended by the “Voudous” as Marie’s “fans” called themselves.
It is said that people would seek out Marie Laveau for advice and help in all manner of personal conflicts. The woman had been widowed young, was a mother several times over and had at one point wealth and social standing in the community. She had money, power and life experience. Who would you go to for advice in a tough situation? Oprah wasn’t born yet. In the ‘Burg such a person would be addressed as “Don”.
I like the idea of a mysterious Voudou queen with arcane powers. I don’t want to see what’s behind the curtain, but it is a good bottle of wine’s worth of conversation to speculate on the real woman.
We went to visit her crypt in St. Louis Cimitiere No. 1 before we left the Cresent City on Sunday morning. I couldn’t bring myself to add to the grafitti on the crypt with my own 3 crosses (un, deux, trois). Instead I knocked 3 times on her name, just to say “hi”and left 3 Euro coins at the base of the crypt so she’d know it was me who came knocking.
**All images except photo of crypt (used by permission of VWG Rutgers) are public domain.