How Marie Laveau Worked


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Katie: Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sara: And I'm Sara Dowdy.

Katie: And Sara and I were talking today about wanting to get out of Atlanta and picturing ourselves in far-flung locales, but we were thinking of someplace a little closer. New Orleans.

Sara: Drivable perhaps?

Katie: Perhaps drivable, yes. I have had one fantastic trip there to Jazz Fest, one terrible one to Mardi Gras, and a failed one where my house ended up falling through at the last second and didn't end up going.

Sara: At least your house didn't actually fall through.

Katie: True.

Sara: I thought that's where you were going with that.

Katie: It's a terrible joke.

Sara: Anyway, I've had two probably equally fantastic trips to New Orleans. Both were for Mardi gras, but today we're going to talk ea little bit about New Orleans voodoo past and present, because it is October and Halloween.

Katie: And we're going to talk about Marie Laveau, who was both feared and revered. And you will still see references to Marie Laveau all over New Orleans. There's a Marie Laveau voodoo shop even I think. And the legend of Marie Laveau was that she could do pretty much anything with her voodoo magic. She could make people crawl on their bellies, she could make your husband disappear, she hypnotized the police, she danced with snakes, she could make you sleep with people you didn't want to sleep with.

Sara: So she was a lot of bad magic, I guess.

Katie: My favorite detail about Marie Laveau was that she supposedly had a 20 foot long snake named Zombie that she would go dance with.

Sara: And she also dressed like a gypsy and had big gold earrings, probably like a Halloween costume one of us would put together. And rings and these dances with the snake are very much part of her legend. They pop up in almost every account you read of her.

Katie: But that's the thing. It is a legend, and not entirely based on fact. And the reason for that is because there aren't a lot of primary sources from this particular time in New Orleans's history, and a lot of it is just hearsay accounts and people telling stories of things that they've heard.

Sara: Yeah, there's also a lot of Marie Laveau's, and some of them are related to her, and then some of them aren't. And then a lot of her public records are just missing, like many free people of color at the time. Their records are literally razored out of documents. It's strange.

Katie: Because some people, I think, go back to look at their records, and realize their ancestors weren't who they thought they were.

Sara: They're cleaning up their family history.

Katie: Right, and getting rid of them. Or they think it's cool to find something about Marie Laveau and they're just cutting it out of the book. Please don't do that. For the love of research, stop.

Sara: Well, and also Marie Laveau didn't write anything of her own.

Katie: Right, she was liberate, so she wasn't keeping any records for us to look at. So we've got a historical Marie Laveau - or two - and also this legend of Marie Laveau. So we're going to try to weave them both together and some of this will be entirely true and some of it, well, not so much.

Sara: We'll try to tell you when. So Marie Laveau lived on St. Ann Street, which of course there's an interesting story even about how she got her house. It was said that a wealthy white client had a son who was in trouble with the law, and Marie Laveau worked some voodoo magic and got the son off the hook, and in gratitude, the father gave her this house. This is really unlikely. She didn't even own the house on St. Ann, but she did live there most of her adult life.

Katie: But that's the story, and it's a story we like. Supposedly she did a lot of things with prisoners. She would get people acquitted even when they were at the gallows somehow, and they would disappear. Part of the key to Marie Laveau's status as this voodoo queen with powerful gris-gris, she had a network of informants by making friends with all the servants in all the affluent houses of New Orleans, and curing them of their ailments and fixing their life's worries. And so they gave her information whenever she needed it.

Sara: Yeah, so if she was working for a wealthy white client and she happened to know all of his servants, she was going to be able to have more potent magical cures.

Katie: Because she knows what he'll need?

Sara: Exactly. But we're going to talk a little bit about where Marie Laveau actually came from, and how she became this voodoo queen in the first place. She was born in the Vieux Carré in 1794, or maybe 1801. But either way, it's before New Orleans was part of America for the Louisiana Purchase. And she was rumored to be the daughter of a wealthy plantar and a slave woman who was perhaps also part Native American, but later historians have suggested that Laveau's father was in fact a free man of color.

Katie: And stuff I found was saying that she was born to a free woman of color instead of a slave woman, and to a French man, a plantation owner. So her beginnings are very muddles. That will be theme in the life of Marie Laveau.

Sara: And no one agrees what color she is too. People call her basically every hue there is, but everyone -

Katie: Black, Indian, Native American, White, Mix.

Sara: Yeah, everyone agreed that she was very beautiful, which is probably another really important aspect of her power.

Katie: One of our sources says that she attended convent schools, so she had a little catholic background. And then she was married at 17 to her first husband, Jacques Paris - I don't know if it's Paris or Paris, so we're just going to stick with Paris - who was a quadroon from San Dominique.

Sara: And there were really fallacious rumors about how she eventually got rid of him. I mean, the guy might have just died, but people would suggest, "Oh, he beat her, and she made him disappear." Or, "He wasn't faithful and she made sure he went away."

Katie: I wonder if she didn't discourage the rumors because they made her seem more powerful anyways?

Sara: Yeah, definitely. If you can get rid of your own husband, you might be able to do that for clients. But anyway, after that she's known as the widow of Paris until - and this is even when she takes up a partnership with a white man who is essentially her husband. They can't marry because he's white; even though some people suggested that he adopted a biracial identify to marry.

Katie: Yes, the double life.

Sara: That probably didn't happen. But this is Christophe Glapion, and they lived together for the rest of their lives. They're buried next to each other. And they have anywhere from five to 15 children, which is a pretty big difference.

Katie

We found different numbers pretty much everywhere we looked.

Sara: But it wasn't rare for white men to live with Creole women in a sort of common law marriage, even recognizing their children together in legal ways like that.

Katie: And some of what I was looking at was saying that Marie Laveau was both a devout Catholic and someone who practiced voodoo, which might sound kind of crazy unless you know a little bit more about the origins of voodoo.

Sara: Yeah, voodoo - it encompasses more than just voodoo dolls or the little trinkets you're going to see if you visit New Orleans during Mardi Gras or something. But it's more about philosophy, medicine, justice, and religion. It's kind of got everything wrapped into one.

Katie: And Haitian voodoo was a sacred slave religion, and according to one of the scholars I was reading, a collective form of rebellion. And it was suppressed in both Louisiana and in Haiti before the revolution. But in 1809, a whole bunch of Haitian refugees came to New Orleans and they brought their own version of voodoo with them, which mixed with the African religions the slaves there already had, and also with Catholicism, so that became a new form of voodoo that was practiced in New Orleans in the 19th and 20th centuries. You can think of it as like Afro Catholicism Voodoo.

Sara: Yeah, and New Orleans voodoo was based on animism which is a belief in nature that was from Africa, and that was modified in Haiti to throw in the stuff about the zombies and the spirit world and demons and ghosts.

Katie: Which actually I think would work well with saints and devils and various aspects of Catholicism.

Sara: Yeah, and the Roman Catholicism side to it all made it a little more toutable for officials. If they were saints and not spirits or ghosts or something like that!

Katie: And there was a place called Congo Square in New Orleans where people would come to do some of their voodoo. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of free and blacks and slavery came to dance and sing and got their drums out and did little voodoo rituals, and the thing freaked out all the city fathers, but Marie Laveau was a very central part of that. And part of why Marie Laveau is so interesting and still today people are kind of obsessed with her is she walked the border between these two worlds, between this catholic world which is still very strong in parts of New Orleans, and then this voodoo world that people didn't know anything about. And she was so powerful; she was this really powerful black figure.

Sara: And she walked the line between the white world and the people of color. I mean, she weirdly has this reputation of being a kind of racial reformer, but she owned slaves with her husband, several of them.

Katie: And did not set them free and sold them, actually.

Sara: Yeah. Many people of color, freed people of color would buy slaves with the intention of freeing them, but that was not her intention. So she kind of skirts a lot of different boundaries about religion and race and the power of this woman who was illiterate and probably shouldn't be as famous as she is now if it weren't for this mythic image she's created of herself.

Katie: She's not easily categorized I think, which is part of it, but also she had such a wealth of information, which you mentioned earlier, of being in contact with all these incredibly wealthy people, and also their slaves. She knew everything about everyone, and that's a completely different kind of power you don't need voodoo for.

Sara: Yeah.

Katie: But it turns out there actually may have been two Marie Laveau's. So when we're talking about Marie Laveau, we're actually talking about these two women, and possibly more.

Sara: Marie I and Marie II. And Marie II is likely Marie I's daughter.

Katie: Marie Eucharist from one of the sources I was reading.

Sara: One of those five to 15 kids of hers. And it makes sense that the line between them is so confusing, because if the Maries are making their reputation off of blurring these bounda ries, how grated is it if you have two women or maybe one and they have the same name.

Katie: And nobody knows.

Sara: And obviously for Marie II, her mother is this local celebrity and very successful practitioner of voodoo. It's in her best interest to kind of keep that family business going and stir up that confusion.

Katie: Marie II was a hairdresser, again, to a lot of very wealthy New Orleanians, so think about it. When you go to the salon and your hairdresser starts talking and asking you questions.

Sara: You're gossiping.

Katie: You might end up telling all your secrets, and it might come in handy later when you need some help.

Sara: Yeah.

Katie: Supposedly also, going back to the legend, one of the Maries - or both of the Maries - helped slaves escape and also built this crazy cult off Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans.

Sara: Where they sacrificed roosters.

Katie: Yes, it was supposed to be very scandalous because apparently the police came, and not only was it the slaves they expected to find there and some of the free people of color, but also the affluent whites of the city as well from the very good families. And it was quite the scandal. And people still go to New Orleans looking for this kind of voodoo dark magic. New Orleans just has that reputation, not only as the city of sin, but also this place where things can happen where they can't happen in other places.

Sara: Well, and they go trying to - a lot of people go trying to figure out the story of the Marie Laveau's. There's been all these books written about her recently, and just either going to really embrace this made up crazy stuff that's associated with her, or try to figure out who the real person was.

Katie: And that's part of the appeal, because you can't. You absolutely cannot. There will never be an answer. So you can come up with your own opinion and we've certainly come up with ours. But the legend persists, and one of our favorites was this myth that if you go to the tomb of Marie Laveau and mark it with three X's, she will grant you a wish.

Sara: And the cemetery people do not think highly on this. And I saw a picture of her tomb. It looks pretty dingy with all the markings on it. It's kind of like Oscar Wilde's tomb at Père Lachaise with all the kind of greasy looking lipstick kissy marks on it.

Katie: Yeah, not cool. And I think some people even break off bits of other tombs so they can make little marks which is disrespectful to the dead.

Sara: But her tomb is one of the most visited graves in the United States, and it's estimated to have doubled since the early 1990s, the visitors to the resting place of Marie Laveau.

Katie: And even that's confusing, because we're not quite sure who's buried there. Is it Marie I, is it Marie II? Or is it both of them, which some sources say, because part of the inscription seems like its talking about Marie II, the date of death and her age, which cannot possibly apply to Marie I. But the other part of it refers to Marie I, it's talking about family of the widow Paris, which could only be her. So is one of them buried atop the other, or was there just some sort of confusion? No one knows.

Sara: And after both the Maries are gone from New Orleans, whenever that happened, because Marie II actually disappeared -

Katie: Completely, during the reconstruction.

Sara: Yeah, disappeared completely. After they're both gone, the voodoo community in New Orleans starts to change and fragment, and sort of the more touristy stuff that we think of now starts popping up!

Katie: The hokey stuff.

Sara: And that's really a lot more associated with hoodoo, which is evil magic and bad juju and it's used for harm. So that's more like the pins and the doll and stuff like that. And that's what supplants this very tradition oriented voodoo that the Maries are known for.

Katie: So if you'd like to learn more about how Zombies work and the origins of voodoo and how voodoo works, come to our website at www.howstuffworks.com.

Sara: Or if you have your own Marie Laveau - I or II - legends, you can email us at historypodcast@howstuffworks.com.Announcer: For more on this, and thousands of other topics, visit HowStuffWorks.com. Let us know what you think. Send an email to podcast@howstuffworks.com and be sure to check out The Stuff You Missed in History Class blog on the How Stuff Works homepage.