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Voodoo in New Orleans

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 26.1, January / February 2002

New Orleans has been declared America’s most haunted city (Klein 1999, 104), and tour guides-following the imaginative lead of Anne Rice-have attempted to overlay it with bogus legends of vampires and other spine-tingling notions. But perhaps the city’s oldest and most profound occult traditions are those involving the mysterious practices of voodoo. During a southern speaking tour I was able to set aside a few days to explore the New Orleans museums, shops, temples, and tombs that relate to this distinctive admixture of religion and magic, commerce and controversy.

Voodoo

Voodoo-or voudou-is the Haitian folk religion. It consists of various African magical beliefs and rites that have become mixed with Catholic elements. It began with the arrival of slaves in the New World, most of them from the western, “Slave Coast” area of Africa, notably from Dahomey, now Benin, and Nigeria. In Benin’s Fon language, vodun means “spirit,” an invisible, mysterious force that can intervene in human affairs (Hurbon 1995, 13; Métraux 1972, 25, 359; Bourguignon 1993).

According to one writer, “The Blacks suffered under merciless circumstances-their property and their family and social structures all torn to shreds; they had nothing left-except their Gods to whom they clung tenaciously.” In Haiti and elsewhere, there was an attempt to strip them even of that, their “heathen” beliefs being rigorously suppressed. However, the slaves “worshiped many of their Gods unbeknownst to the priests, under the guise of worshipping Catholic saints” (Antippas 1988, 2).

Voodoo’s African elements include worship of loa (supernatural entities) and the ancestral dead, together with the use of drums and dancing, during which loa may possess the faithful. Catholic elements include prayers such as the Hail Mary and the Lord’s Prayer, as well as baptism, making the sign of the cross, and the use of candles, bells, crosses, and the images of saints. Many of the loa are equated with specific saints; for example Damballah, the Dahomean snake deity, is identified with St. Patrick who, having legendarily expelled all snakes from Ireland, is frequently depicted stamping on snakes or brandishing his staff at them (Bourguignon 1993).

Voodoo spread from Haiti to New Orleans in the wake of the Haitian slave revolt (1791-1804). The refugee plantation owners fled with their slave retinues to Louisiana where slaves had previously toiled under such repressive circumstances that their African religion “had all but withered.” However, oppression lessened somewhat with American rule, following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and-with the influx of thousands of voodoo practitioners-soon “New Orleans began to hear the beat of the drum” (Antippas 1988, 14).

Voodoo Queen

Voodoo in New Orleans can scarcely be separated from its dominant figure, Marie Laveau, about whom many legends swirl. According to one source (Hauck 1996):

She led voodoo dances in Congo Square and sold charms and potions from her home in the 1830s. Sixty years later she was still holding ceremonies and looked as young as she did when she started. Her rites at St. John’s Bayou on the banks of Lake Pon[t]chartrain resembled a scene from hell, with bonfires, naked dancing, orgies, and animal sacrifices. She had a strange power over police and judges and succeeded in saving several criminals from hanging.

Writer Charles Gandolfo (1992), author of Marie Laveau of New Orleans, states: “Some believe that Marie had a mysterious birth, in the sense that she may have come from the spirits or as an envoy from the Saints.” On the other hand a plaque on her supposed tomb, placed by the Catholic Church, refers to her as “this notorious 'voodoo queen.'”

Who was the real Marie Laveau? She began life as the illegitimate daughter of a rich Creole plantation owner, Charles Laveaux, and his Haitian slave mistress. Sources conflict but Marie may have been born in New Orleans in 1794. In 1819 she wed Jacques Paris who, like her, was a free person of color, but she was soon abandoned or widowed. About 1826, she began a second, common-law marriage to Christophe de Glapion, another free person of color, with whom she would have fifteen children.

Marie was introduced to voodoo by various “voodoo doctors,” practitioners of a popularized voodoo that emphasized curative and occult magic and seemed to have a decidedly commercial aspect. Her own practice began when she teamed up with a “heavily tattooed Voodoo doctor"-known variously as Doctor John, Bayou John, John Bayou, etc.-who was “the first commercial Voodooist in new Orleans to whip up potions and gris-gris for a price” (Gandolfo 1992, 11). Gris-gris or “juju” refers to magic charms or spells, often conjuring bags containing such items as bones, herbs, charms, snake skin, etc., tied up in a piece of cloth (Antippas 1988, 16). Doctor John reportedly confessed to friends that his magic was mere humbuggery. “He had been known to laugh,” writes Robert Tallant in Voodoo in New Orleans (1946, 39), “when he told of selling a gullible white woman a small jar of starch and water for five dollars.”

In time Marie decided to seek her own fortune. Working as a hairdresser, which put her in contact with New Orleans’ social elite, she soon developed a clientele to whom she dispensed potions, gris-gris bags, voodoo dolls, and other magical items. She now sought supremacy over her rivals, some fifteen “voodoo queens” in various neighborhoods. According to a biographer (Gandolfo 1992, 17):

Marie began her take-over process by disposing of her rival queens. . . . If her rituals or gris-gris didn't work, Marie (who was a statuesque woman, to say the least) met them in the street and physically beat them. This war for supremacy lasted several years until, one by one, all of the former queens, under a pledge, agreed to be sub-queens. If they refused, she ran them out of town.

By age thirty-five Marie Laveau had become New Orleans’s most powerful voodoo queen-then or since. She won the approval of the local priest by encouraging her followers to attend mass. While she charged the rich abundantly, she reportedly gave to the needy and administered to the suffering. Her most visible activities, however, were her public rituals. By municipal decree (from 1817) slaves were only permitted to dance publicly at a site called Congo Square. “These public displays of Voodoo ceremonies, however, revealed nothing of the real religion and became merely entertainment for the curious whites” (Antippas 1988, 14-15). More “secret” rituals-including fertility rituals-took place elsewhere, notably on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain.

It is difficult at this remove to assess just how much of Marie’s rituals was authentic voodoo practice and how much was due to her “incredible imagination and an obsession for the extreme.” She staged rituals that were “simulated orgies.” Men and women danced in abandonment after drinking rum and seeming to become possessed by various loas (figure 1). Seated on her throne, Marie directed the action when she was not actually participating. She kept a large snake called Le Grand Zombi that she would dance with in veneration of Damballah, shaking a gourd rattle to summon that snake deity and repeating over and over, “Damballah, ye-ye-ye!”

Once a year Marie presided over the ritual of St. John’s Eve. It began at dusk on June 23 and ended at dawn on the next day, St. John’s day. Hundreds attended, including reporters and curious onlookers, each of whom was charged a fee. Drum beating, bonfires, animal sacrifice, and other elements-including nude women dancing seductively-characterized the extended ritual. Offerings were made to the appropriate loas for protection, including safeguarding children and others from the Cajun bogeyman, Loup-Garou, a werewolf that supposedly fed on the blood of victims (Gandolfo 1992, 18-23).

Magic or Myth?

Claims regarding Marie Laveau’s alleged powers persist. She represented herself as a seer and used fortune-telling techniques such as palmistry (Gandolfo 1992, 26). There is no evidence that Marie’s clairvoyant abilities were any more successful than those of any other fortuneteller. We know that people attest to the accuracy of a reading because they do not understand the clever techniques involved, like “cold reading.” So called because it is accomplished without any foreknowledge, this is an artful method of fishing for information from the sitter while convincing him or her that it comes from a mystical source (Hyman 1977).

Actually, many of Marie’s readings may not have been so “cold” after all. Far from lacking prior information about her clients, she reputedly used her position as a hairdresser for gossip collecting, discovering “that her women clients would talk to her about anything and everything and would divulge some of their most personal secrets to her” (Gandolfo 1992, 12). She also reputedly “developed a chain of household informants in most of the prominent homes” (Antippas 1988, 16).

Doubtless such intelligence gathering would be helpful to a fortune-telling enterprise (just as “mediumistic espionage” was utilized by later spiritualists [Keene 1976, 27]). It could also be beneficial to a business of dispensing charms, like Marie’s:

Most of her work for the ladies involved love predicaments. Marie knew the personal secrets of judges, priests, lawyers, doctors, ship captains, architects, military officers, politicians, and most of New Orleans’s other leading citizens. She used her knowledge of their indiscretions and blackmailed them into doing whatever she wanted. She was then financially reimbursed by her elite female clients. Most of the time, this was how her love potions and gris-gris worked, which is apparently 100% of the time (Gandolfo 1992, 12).

Such tactics may help explain the claim, mentioned earlier, that Marie “had a strange power over police and judges and succeeded in saving several criminals from hanging” (Hauck 1996). But we should beware of taking such claims too seriously. When we seek to learn the facts, we soon realize we have entered the realm of folklore. There are, for example, rather conflicting versions of one case, ca. 1830, in which an unidentified young man was charged with “a crime” (rape, according to one source) and at the request of his father Marie performed certain rituals. Supposedly the case was either dismissed or the young man acquitted, and Marie was rewarded with a cottage on Rue St. Ann. However, as one writer concedes, “No one is sure how Marie actually won the case. . . .” Therefore, of course, there is no evidence that she did (Gandolfo 1992, 14-15; cf. Tallant 1946, 58; Martinez 1956, 17-19).

Legends of Marie’s beneficent aspect are rivaled by those of her sinister one. A story in this regard involves the alleged hex of a New Orleans businessman, J. B. Langrast, in the 1850s. Langrast supposedly provoked Marie’s ire by publicly denouncing her and accusing her of everything from robbery to murder. Soon, gris-gris in the form of roosters’ heads began to appear on his doorstep. As a consequence, Langrast reportedly grew increasingly upset and eventually fled New Orleans (Nardo and Belgum 1991, 89-92).

I have traced the Langrast story to a 1956 book of Mississippi folktales which describes the “businessman” as a junk dealer and bigamist (Martinez 1956, 78-83). Such a man might have various reasons for leaving town. Claims that Marie Laveau invoked a loa to curse Langrast with insanity are invalidated by a complete lack of proof that he ever became insane. In fact his alleged flight could easily be attributed to simple fear, the belief that “Marie Laveau’s followers might kill him if he stayed” (Nardo and Belgum 1991, 90-91).

Marie II

Among the most fabulous legends about Marie Laveau is an often-repeated one alleging “her perpetual youth” (Hauck 1996). According to a segment of “America’s Haunted Houses” (1998) which aired on the Discovery Channel, Marie was “said to be over 100 years old when she died and as beautiful as ever.” Moreover, “There were some unexplained and mysterious sightings of the great Voodoo Queen even after her death,” writes Gandolfo (1992, 29). “People would swear on a stack of bibles that they saw Marie Laveau herself.” Indeed, he adds, “A number of people say they were at a ritual in the summer of 1919 given by the Great Queen.”

The solution to this enigma is the fact that, according to Tallant (1946, 52), there were “at least two Marie Laveaus.” The first Marie, the subject of our previous discussions, died June 15, 1881. Her obituaries say she was then ninety-eight ("Marie Lavaux” 1881; “Death” 1881). One of the same obituaries ("Death” 1881) states more credibly that she had been twenty-five when she wed, consistent with her having been born in 1794, as most sources now agree, and thus about eighty-seven when she died. Indeed, the doctor who attended Marie at the end publicly stated his doubts that she was as old as her family had claimed, and he judged her age to be in the late eighties (Tallant 1946, 117).

Whatever her actual age, far from appearing to be a figure of eternal youth, Marie Laveau spent her last years “old and shrunken,” stripped of her memory, and lying in a back room of her cottage (Tallant 1946, 88, 115). In her stead was her daughter, Marie Laveau II. The younger Marie gradually took over her mother’s business activities, which included running a house on Lake Pontchartrain where rich Creole men could have “appointments” with young mulatto girls (Tallant 1946, 65-66). She died in 1897.

The claim that Marie Laveau was active in 1919 is thought to have been based on a third Marie, possibly a granddaughter (Gandolfo 1992, 29), or another voodoo queen with whom she was confused.

In carrying on her mother’s work, Marie II had business cards printed, billing her not as a voodooienne but as a “Healer.” According to Tallant (1946, 93):

The Laveau ways of performing homeopathic magic were endless. Sick people were often brought to the house to receive the benefit of a cure by Marie II. A person bitten by a snake was told to get another live snake of any sort, cut its head off “while it was angry” and to tie this head to the wound. This was to be left attached until sunrise of the following day. Sometimes her practices contained an element of medical truth, embracing the use of roots and herbs that contained genuine curative elements. For sprains and swellings she used hot water containing Epsom salts and rubbed the injured parts with whiskey, chanting prayers and burning candles at the same time, of course. For other ailments she administered castor oil, to the accompaniment of incantations and prayer.

Like other occult healers, Marie obviously took advantage not only of the occasional “element of medical truth” but also other factors, including the body’s own natural healing mechanisms and the powerful effects of suggestion.

Voodoo Today

Current voodoo practice in New Orleans is a mere shadow of what it was in its heyday. Although an estimated fifteen percent of the city’s population supposedly still practices voodoo, it has largely been subsumed into Catholicism, which remains the dominant religion. It has also been influenced by spiritualist, wiccan, and other occult and New Age beliefs (Gandolfo n.d.). The most visible aspects of voodoo today are tours and attractions in the area of the Vieux Carré (or “Old Square”), popularly called the French Quarter. Laid out in 1721, it is the oldest area of the city.

There, souvenir shops sell that most stereotypical of items associated with voodoo, the voodoo doll. Although in the days of Marie Laveau one might occasionally encounter “a little wax doll stuck with pins,” the fact is, according to Tallant (1946, 93), “despite their frequency in fiction about Voodoo, dolls were rarely used in the practices.” Nevertheless, they are today everywhere. One can at least shun the made-in-China souvenirs for the local variety sold at Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo, Rev. Zombie’s Voodoo Shop, and the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum. The latter attraction is well worth seeing for its display of historic artifacts relating to voodoo and its practitioners, including Marie Laveau.

The museum promotes voodoo-including its commercial, tourist aspect-through various offerings, including annual rituals on St. John’s Eve and Halloween, and for-hire performances offered as party entertainment. Walking tours of voodoo-related sites in the Vieux Carré are also available daily.

Figure 2. Authentic “working” altar in New Orleans’ Voodoo Spiritual Temple. Candles, religious effigies, bottles of rum (as offerings), and other elements are typical.

Tour groups may routinely visit the Voodoo Spiritual Temple on Rampart Street at the edge of the Vieux Carré. I had enlisted a professional guide and was able to gain an audience with Priestess Miriam, perhaps today’s premier voodoo queen. At the end of an interesting visit, she waived the prohibition against photographs and permitted me to document some of the authentic voodoo altars of this religious and cultural center (figure 2). These are “working” altars, meaning they are used in rituals and are modified to invoke and propitiate various spirits.

Tours also take visitors to the reputed tomb of Marie Laveau where they may hope to have a wish granted or glimpse her ghost which allegedly haunts the site. (The secrets of Marie’s tomb will be explored in a future column in Skeptical Briefs, where additional “Investigative Files” also appear.) Although voodoo has declined from the early days, when Marie held New Orleans under her spell, her influence nevertheless continues.

References

Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.