1920 painting of Marie Laveaux by Frank Schneider, based on an 1835 painting (now lost) by George Catlin
Wikimedia Commons

There is a painting from 1920 of New Orleans Vodou priestess Marie Laveaux. The solemn woman in the portrait gazes, almost mournfully, at us with just a hint of the power and mayhem that resided behind those eyes. It was in 1830s New Orleans that Marie Laveaux emerged as a prominent spiritualist and healer. She held court in her home, at African-American ritual dances on Sundays in New Orleans’ Congo Square (pdf) and at major religious festivals, such as the midsummer St. John’s Eve celebrations on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain, which attracted thousands of people of all colors.

These ceremonies blended elements of Roman Catholicism, such as the invocation of saints and the use of incense and holy water, and traditional African religious dances and rituals involving drumming, chanting, animal sacrifices and worship of Damballa or Zombi, a snake god. The scanty record of these rituals suggests that Laveaux would blow alcohol on the faces of participants as a blessing and would also wrap a snake around their (usually naked) bodies as a symbol of her control over them.

Laveaux’s legendary power came less from these infrequent ceremonies, however, than from her skills as an everyday spiritualist who doled out healing candles and incense for a wide range of ailments, real and imagined. Like a snake-charming J. Edgar Hoover, she understood that knowledge, particularly knowledge of private indiscretions, equals influence. As a hairdresser to prominent women in New Orleans, she had access to gossip about the city’s wealthiest and most powerful citizens. She also gained information about the New Orleans elite from African-American servants and slaves who, in return for spiritual protection, brought Laveaux news about their masters’ and mistresses’ financial, political and sexual affairs.

Mamzelle Marie then used that intelligence to make herself indispensable to women seeking information on their husbands’ philandering, to politicians keen to learn of their opponents’ foibles, and to businessmen who relied on her charms and amulets when the hidden hand of the market failed to work its own particular gris-gris. Such information—and the spells and potions to rid her clients of what ailed them—provided Laveaux with a steady income, though not the great riches that many of her followers and detractors claimed. It also ensured friends for her in the highest places in Louisiana society, which may explain why, unlike other voodooiennes, she was never arrested. Her seeming influence over whites strengthened her influence over black Louisianans and entrenched her position in African-American folklore as one of the most powerful women of her time.

Marie Laveaux’s prominence in the early 19th century was part of what has come to be known as a “golden age” for the 7-8 percent of Louisianans who were “free persons of color” and enjoyed an intermediate status and influence on the remainder, who were divided evenly between whites and black slaves.

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Marie Laveaux’s father, Charles Laveaux, was the illegitimate son of Don Carlos Trudeau, a high-ranking official in Spanish-controlled Louisiana and the first president of the New Orleans City Council when the United States purchased the territory in 1803, two years after Marie was born. Her mother, Marguerite D’Arcantel, was a freewoman of color who may have been a spiritualist or root doctor.

Marie Laveaux would have been 10 years old when the largest slave uprising in U.S. history occurred in New Orleans, and was a month shy of 18 when she married Jacque Paris, a Haitian-born free black carpenter who was part of a large influx of Haitian free people of color (and their slaves) following Toussaint Louverture’s revolution. A Vodou ceremony played a central role in sparking the Haitian revolt, and as a result, many whites feared the religion’s potential for inspiring insurrection. There is no evidence that Laveaux had any interest in encouraging slave rebellion, however. Indeed, following the death of her husband, the “Widow Paris” was involved in the buying and selling of eight slaves, along with Capt. Jean Louis Christophe Duminy de Glapion, the father of her five children. A veteran of the War of 1812, often referred to as a “quadroon” from Santo Domingo, de Glapion was most probably white, and thus unable to marry Laveaux because of Louisiana’s anti-miscegenation laws.

Depending on the source, white accounts of Laveaux’s mid-19th-century heyday depict her as either saint or whore. After her death in 1881, white Catholics in New Orleans eulogized her saintly role in helping victims of yellow fever and cholera in the 1850s and her tireless work to give comfort to the city's death row convicts. White Catholics downplayed any African elements in Laveaux’s religion and also praised her alleged devotion to the Confederate cause.

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The white Protestant press, however, condemned her as “the prime mover and soul of the indecent orgies of the ignoble Voudous.” Other newspaper accounts, and later folklore, suggest that Laveaux had used her Lake Pontchartrain home, the Maison Blanche, as a brothel that served wealthy white men seeking glamorous “high yellow” prostitutes. These accounts possibly confused the elder Marie with her daughter, Marie Héloïse, who reputedly kept a bawdy house. Indeed, many of the legends about the power, wealth and infamy of Marie Laveaux have arisen because of confusion in oral and literary sources about the women who shared her name, including a half sister named Marie, and two other daughters with de Glapion, Marie Louise and Marie Phélomise. The black Louisianans interviewed by the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s who spoke of the tall, attractive and energetic woman who “walked like she owned the city” probably meant one of these younger Maries.

In death, Laveaux has remained almost as influential as in life, at least to the thousands who seek out her tomb every year in New Orleans, which, some claim, is the second-most-visited grave in the United States after Elvis Presley’s. Like Presley’s followers, Laveaux’s pilgrims leave candles, money and other objects in hope that her spirit will grant their wishes. And maybe it’s that simple human longing for supernatural assistance—a faith that gris-gris might work when all else fails—that explains Marie Laveaux’s continued power to enchant us today, in music, in fiction, in the TV drama American Horror Story starring Angela Bassett and even as a Marvel superhero.

Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the African American National Biography was first published by Oxford University Press in an award-winning, eight-volume print edition in 2008; a 12-volume second edition followed in 2012. As of 2015, more than 5,500 separate AANB entries are available online as part of OUP’s African American Studies Center.

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Steven J. Niven is executive editor of the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography, the Dictionary of African Biography, and the African American National Biography at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is also the author of Barack Obama: A Pocket Biography of Our 44th President.