- Podcast Episode 4: The Tomb of the Voodoo Queen (Primary)
Link to Resource
- Click here to view
Please note that links to Amazon may be affiliate links.
- Type: Sound Created on: 2018 Creator: Neil Silberman and Angela Labrador
- Coherit Associates Publication date: 2018
- Copyright - All Rights Reserved
- folk beliefs
- spirits (supernatural beings)
Cross-References to Related Investigations
Related Historical Events
Related Persons of Interest
- Marie Laveau (Individual, is referred to in / refers to)
Images, Books, Documents & Other Media
Like a shapeshifter constantly changing her character and physical appearance, the spirit of Marie Laveau refuses to fade away. In the famously eerie St. Louis Cemetery #1 in New Orleans, with its house-shaped tombs sheltering the remains of the dead from the reach of the rising groundwater, one particular whitewashed mausoleum wears its sterile image uneasily. Now hidden beneath a thick coat of white plaster are dozens, even hundreds, of hastily scratched, painted, and smeared X’s that marked secret prayers for love, death, and revenge for well over a century. They were all fervent supplications by anonymous visitors for the intercession of Marie Laveau, a free woman of color who gained fame—and is still widely recognized—as New Orleans’s Voodoo Queen.
Since her death in 1881, Marie Laveau’s story has been told and retold in every medium of communication: whispers, gossip, legends, newspaper stories, pulp fiction, graphic novels, and movies made for TV. Her legendary reputation is invoked countless times every day in New Orleans by tour guides, conjurers, and New Age gurus. Her name is used to promote French Quarter hotels, gift shops, guided ghost tours, jazz tunes, folk songs, hot sauce, and even special recipes at expensive gourmet restaurants. Those who pay the $20 admission fee for guided tours of the St. Louis # 1 cemetery are still shown that most famous of its locations: Marie Laveau’s presumed final resting place. And though it is strictly prohibited by the cemetery management to use her family tomb as a public place of worship, some visitors still dare to place a small offering of flowers or set down a votive candle when the official guide has led the rest of the group away.
Who was this extraordinary woman who still attracts such veneration? What powers did she possess in her lifetime and what powers does she still possess today? As we’ll see, Marie Laveau remains a mysteriously elusive figure. Like New Orleans itself, her image is enveloped in a spooky, otherworldly glow.
Welcome to Places of Legend, a podcast that digs into places with stories. Stories that are shared in schoolyards, on sidewalks, in urban legends, age-old superstitions, and internet memes. Let’s call it Cultural Heritage with a weird and unexpected twist. The legends can be scary. They can be hilarious or grotesque, and the truth behind them is almost always hidden. Places of Legend will offer up stories that pull back the curtain at historic sites around the country—historic places with very different stories to tell.
I’m Angela Labrador and with my colleague Neil Silberman we hope to turn your ideas about America’s places of legend upside down. In this episode, our Place of Legend is a stretch of swampy ground just to the northwest of New Orleans’s famous French Quarter—that has always been regarded with a combination of fascination and dread. We’re traveling to just beyond Ramparts Street, which is now a busy urban thoroughfare that runs along the fortification line of the original French colonial city. There we will find St. Louis Cemetery #1, considered by many to be one of the most haunted burial places in the United States. Just a short walk further up North Ramparts Street is an open park once called Congo Square. There, ancient oaks with grotesquely twisted branches offer shade where public voodoo rituals and weekly celebrations of both enslaved and free populations were once held. And back across North Rampart Street, we will find the site of the wooden frame cottage where Marie Laveau lived for most of her life. It was there she led ceremonies for her family and followers to commune with the powers of the voodoo universe. And it is here our search for Marie Laveau must begin.
The wooden cottage on the northern fringe of the French Quarter, where Marie Laveau lived and performed her healing and cursing rituals for decades, is a strangely invisible presence. Though countless tour buses and sidewalk gawkers still stop at the famous address at 1020 Saint Anne Street, the actual dwelling place inhabited by the Voodoo Queen is itself now gone. Fourteen years after her death, in 1895, her financially-strapped children sold the house to a real estate developer. Soon afterwards it was completely demolished and replaced by the ornate wooden frame cottage that stands on the site today. Now a private residence, the only sign that anyone famous ever lived there is a small bronze plaque that reads: “Marie Laveau and her children lived at this site between 1839 and 1895 before the circa 1905 construction of the existing cottage.” No mention of voodoo, spirit possession, or the healing spells that were once regularly performed there.
Yet, fortunately, we do have descriptions of the happenings in the Laveau household while Marie was still alive. Those descriptions come from oral histories recorded during the 1930s by the Louisiana Writers’ Project, a New Deal initiative that conducted hundreds of interviews about the state’s traditional cultures and notable personalities and events. In the stories collected in New Orleans, Marie Laveau appears again and again. Elderly residents who had witnessed or participated as children in the ceremonies in the cottage on St. Anne Street, vividly described its rooms as being filled with altars, candles, and statues of Catholic saints. One woman recalled with amazement that there were so many candles burning, that she didn’t see how that house never caught on fire.
In the front room was an altar with blazing candles on which “good luck charms, money-making charms, and husband-holding charms” were spread at the feet of statues of St. Peter and St. Marron, the black patron saint of runaway slaves. In a back room was another altar for what one witness called “bad work” namely to place curses on those who had done hurtful wrongs. The altar there was also illuminated by the flickering light of candles, but in place of images of saints, were large, fearsome plaster statues of a lion, tiger, and bear. This back room was used to perform rituals as dark as the ceremonies in the front room were light: to cause the deaths of enemies, drive away intruders, break up romantic liaisons, and to spread confusion in the minds of those who plan evil or selfish deeds.
The Friday night services led by Marie Laveau were a mystical mixture of religious belief and emotion. The veneration of Catholic saints, West African beliefs, magical spells, and the enthusiasm of frontier tent revival meetings were melded together in an ecstatic communion with the hidden forces of the universe, both of righteous revenge and love. Marie Laveau presided over the congregation with commanding dignity, seated in a throne-like chair “like they use in a church for a bishop” another eyewitness recalled. The color of her robe would signify the rituals she was performing: brown for ritual curses and blue and white for blessings of well-being and prosperity. Marie would begin by asking the tightly-packed congregation for their individual requests, then sprinkle each of the supplicants with rum and signal a drummer and accordion player to begin the music. At that point the euphoric dances would begin.
Spirit possession was the beating heart of New Orleans voodoo. The white city fathers bitterly condemned what they called “savagery” in the massive assemblies of people of every race and class that gathered every Sunday in Congo Square. These gatherings terrified the city’s powers-that-be who saw how the bodies and minds of New Orleans’s enslaved people, free people of color, and the white people who joined them seemed to slip out of their control. On open ground within the perimeter of a lively weekly market, a familiar spectacle unfolded: drums of many sizes and shapes were brought into the circle and beat to different yet coordinated rhythms, as a chorus of voices and homemade stringed instruments improvised hypnotic melodies wove in and around the insistent, pounding drumbeat. It is hardly a wonder that some say that there in Congo Square the spirit of New Orleans jazz was born.
With the music and energy rising, the gathered crowds formed several large circles, dancing with increasingly ecstatic movements, around white garbed voodoo priests. They chanted, they twirled and somersaulted, and shouted out phrases in what outside observers assumed was a strange African tongue. “I never saw anything more brutally savage,” noted one white observer visiting from Virginia, where no such public ritual that so promiscuously mixed genders, classes, races, and bodies would ever be allowed.
Even more spectacular than the Sunday rituals in Congo Square were the rites held on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain every year on June 23rd. This was the eve of St. John’s day, just after the summer solstice that was—and still is—sacred to followers of New Orleans’s distinctive voodoo faith. On that evening and long into the night, thousands would gather by the lakeside, to celebrate the fullness of the year. In honor of St. John the Baptist, they would be led by their spiritual leader to immerse themselves in the water and prepare to accept the otherworldly energy which would be available in such abundance. Following the opening invocations and mass immersions, the ritual acts of homage to the spirits would give way to the complex rhythms of the drumming, the chanting, and the embodied rapture of dance.
This spectacle was even more threatening to the authorities and bully boys of the white police force who tried their best to wipe it out. Police raids and beatings were not infrequent. As an account in New Orleans’ most famous newspaper venomously reported “St. John’s Eve was for years a topic of discussion in New Orleans and even attracted national attention. In barbaric color and African hideousness, nothing has ever surpassed it. Thousands of curiosity-seekers, journalists, and freelance writers, who chanced to be in New Orleans at the time of this jubilee, would go out in the swamp lands after nightfall and walk through the rough paths, eager to glimpse the orgy.” And with billy clubs, shotguns, and attack dogs they would chase all the “voudous,” as they called them, away from the lakeside into the bayou brush.
During her lifetime, Marie Laveau played a leading role in all of these rituals, though archival records of her career are actually quite sparse. There are no reliably accurate portraits of her physical appearance—just some printed engravings and a famous painting that creatively express what she may have looked like. Yet we can imagine what effect she had on the public. an account written after her death reported that when she passed through the streets and greeted people—she was “tall, beautiful, and commanding in appearance; old age had not yet set its seal upon her; and one could imagine the powerful sway which her mind exerted on them.” As a free woman of color who demanded respect and always attracted deferential attention, she was hardly what would be mockingly called a “conjure woman.” Rather, she was more the charismatic prophet of a system of metaphysical understanding whose basic tenets had been carried in the hearts and minds of the shackled men, women, and children brought across the Atlantic in the crowded, squalid holds of slave ships.
For the spirit-driven ceremonies that Marie Laveau conducted and the rituals she performed were not just idle superstitions or wild acts of carnal abandon. They were a creative melding of Christian symbols, natural rhythms of the body and nature, and the systematic metaphysics of a widespread West African faith. Though now often misrepresented as black magic and sticking pins in dolls, Vodoun, Voodoo, and Hoodoo are all different names for a widespread religious tradition of West Africa, from which most of the enslaved populations of the Caribbean and North America were brought. Dualism was its metaphysical hallmark, reflecting the subtle gradations between good and bad, male and female, dark and the light, good fortune and tragedy, life and death that swirl around all of us.
The distinctive New Orleans version of this faith shared the belief that the great creator deities were beyond the reach of humans, but reachable by intermediaries called loas. These powerful spirits possessed a wide variety of powers, symbolized by various Catholic patron saints and figures of fearsome animals. Yet they were not merely passively prayed to; they were summoned down through incantations to take possession of the bodies of the faithful and their enemies. The gyrations and strange utterances that Marie Laveau evoked from her followers were not the salacious or savage rowdiness their detractors claimed. They were a deeply-felt infusion of power—for even the poorest and most oppressed people in New Orleans. For those electric moments at Marie Laveau’s altars, in Congo Square, and by the waters of Lake Pontchartrain, the Voodoo Queen’s followers were unshackled from their earthly identities and filled with the all-powerful spirits of the universe.
Beyond the tourist sites, legendary tales, and branded merchandise, Marie Laveau lives on in another way. There are many reports of the ghostly visitations of her spirit throughout the French Quarter and in St. Louis Cemetery #1. Orbs of light, fleeting spectres, the touch of a cold hand on the shoulder of shoppers in the stores that sell voodoo charms and paraphernalia have all been ascribed to her. Her presence is still so palpable that at the ceremonies held by voodoo devotees every year on St. John’s Eve, Marie Laveau the Voodoo Queen has herself been declared a loa, who can possess the bodies of those who believe fervently enough.
But who was Marie Laveau really? Decades of archive searching, historical detective work, PhD dissertations, lurid novels, TV shows, and even New Age psychic trances have failed to produce a reliable historical picture of the famous Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. Many of the most basic facts of her life are still disputed. Was she born in 1801 or 1794? Did she own slaves or merely buy their freedom? Was she really a confidante of New Orleans’s rich and famous? Was she a hairdresser or a brothel keeper, as some detractors have claimed? And what was her relationship to the Catholic Church into which she was baptized and faithfully attended communion at St. Louis Cathedral down in Jackson Square throughout most of her life? No definite answers have ever been given. Maybe Marie Laveau is whomever we want her to be.
The truth is that New Orleans Voodoo itself has lived in many guises. As New Orleans historian and Marie Laveau biographer Carolyn Morrow Long has written, the image of voodoo has several distinct identities, having undergone an evolution in the perception of outsiders that has deeply affected the way that Marie Laveau’s life and work has been seen. Before the Civil War and all the way through Reconstruction, Voodoo was considered to be depraved and threatening, a demon-worshipping threat to American Christian civilization and the strict hierarchy of races it prescribed. During the brutal era of Jim Crow laws and strict social segregation of whites and people of color, voodoo was seen as a cynical fraud perpetrated by money-hungry spiritualists and conjurer con-men to prey on the desperate and the lovelorn among the poor and disenfranchised.
After World War II, when New Orleans became a tourist destination, its voodoo tradition was seen as exotic entertainment and a popular theme for tours and souvenirs. Finally, at the close of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st, with growing appeal of alternative New Age religions, voodoo has been adopted as a faith that links all people in a web of psychic spirits and natural forces that modernity denies. New arrivals in the city from distant places, declaring themselves to be voodoo priestesses or “mambos,” have set up shops and temples, recreating or performing their voodoo ceremonies, providing demonstrations and giving lectures that serve a steady interest in the paranormal and occult today.
And so New Orleans voodoo industry has flourished—or suffered—in all of these guises, as Carolyn Morrow Long has so colorfully put it, “cashing in on the desire of outsiders to experience what they consider exotic, titillatingly sinful, or comical.” She notes how countless souvenir shops and websites market special voodoo ghost tours, hokey charms, Voodoo dolls made in China, alligator teeth and claws, “blessed” chicken feet, plastic “New Orleans Voodoo cockroaches,” branded products like “Marie Laveau’s Magic Mojo Beans,” as well as the familiar voodoo candles, powders, incense, healing herbs.
In outlying poor neighborhoods, far from the busy French Quarter, a more traditional form of voodoo worship continues. There, cheaper and less slickly packaged herbal potions and voodoo charms are supplied to a still faithful following of African American and Latino spiritual church congregations, followers of Santería, and hoodoo practitioners.
Yet by far the most surprising recent transformation of New Orleans voodoo is its bloodless, emotionless recognition by the city’s leaders, cultural institutions, and official preservation organizations as “Cultural Heritage.” Beginning In the late 1990s, voodoo history began to be recognized as a fit subject for high culture. An ambitious museum exhibition, organized and developed at the Fowler Museum of Cultural History at UCLA, toured the country at such prestigious institutions, as the Field Museum in Chicago, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and, significantly, at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Congo Square, an old building on Bourbon Street now occupied by “Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo,” and St. Louis Cemetery #1 are all now inscribed on the National Register of Historic Places. And it is there in the legendary St. Louis Cemetery that our search for the Voodoo Queen must end where it began. For generations, supplicants had visited Marie Laveau’s final resting place, communing with her spirit by scratching three x’s and tapping three times on the wall of the tomb. What they hoped for was that the spirit of the Voodoo Queen would empower their most fervent wishes and put an end to their unfulfilled longings and pain.
But today that supernatural access route to Marie Laveau’s power has been closed. In the dark of night in December 2013, an unknown person vaulted the wall of the St. Louis cemetery and entirely covered Marie Laveau’s tomb with thick pink latex paint. The city’s preservationists long regarded the scratched X’s as a destructive nuisance, but after this latest act of outright vandalism, they were now determined to crack down on any and all defacement. By 2016, the restoration of the tomb was completed. As the New Orleans newspapers reported, the Archdiocese of New Orleans and a local preservationist group called Save Our Cemeteries had paid a restoration firm to remove the pink paint and return the monument to what they deemed to be its original state.
The pink color is gone and so are the spidery network of scratched X’s. The Tomb is now a sterile, nondescript white. Access to the cemetery is now by paid guided tour only and any person apprehended for scratching, marking, or otherwise defacing the resting place of Marie Laveau is now subject to arrest, a hefty fine, and a potential imprisonment for six months. Yet the key to New Orleans Voodoo is spiritual possession and Voodoo has taken on many different faces—power, faith, sin, nonsense, spooky entertainment, New Age religion, and strictly guarded cultural heritage. The spirit of Marie Laveau has been claimed by every single one of them—and it is up to every visitor to New Orleans to choose for themselves which Voodoo Queen they will allow to possess their soul.
We hope you have enjoyed this episode of Places of Legend, a podcast in which we explore historic sites where the forgotten and unexpected meeting of past and present offers a new kind of heritage experience. Our aim is share our curiosity about out-of-the-way places and forgotten events. And we invite you to visit our website at placesoflegend.com to learn more about these places—through image, text, and links to additional sources—and, of course, to contribute some legendary stories and memories of your own.
In our next episode, we will travel to the plains of southeastern Montana, where the Little Bighorn River winds its way through the grassy plateaus of the High Plains. There, we’ll meet some of the ghosts that still inhabit the site of “Custer’s Last Stand.” That bloody event has meant many things to many people since it happened in the summer of 1876. It has symbolized white martyrdom, Native American resistance, and even carried eerie premonitions of the national hubris and humiliation of Vietnam and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Until then, thanks for listening. And we look forward to joining you in discovering more places of legend and the hidden stories they possess.
Remember, you can find us on iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher – or at our website at placesoflegend.com.