She wielded a lot of influence in the Deep South during the days of slavery, despite being a Black woman. Known as the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans for at least 40 years from the 1820s to the 1860s, Marie Laveau was well known for her special powers, her charity works and her ability to heal and charm with her potions called gris-gris.
Rumors of her supernatural abilities are so widespread that to date, people from all over the world visit her gravesite to leave tokens like candles, flowers, Voodoo dolls, and offerings with hopes that she will bless them and grant them their requests.
Born in New Orleans on September 10, 1801, as a free woman of color, Laveau was the daughter of a free man of color and a Creole mother. Various sources say that Laveau’s mother and grandmother were voodoo practitioners, however, Laveau started life as a hairdresser after losing her first husband, Jacques Paris, with whom she had two children. Her two children would also pass away while young under unknown circumstances.
Scholars had until recently been wondering whatever happened to her husband, Paris. Per records, Paris was a cabinet maker and another free person of color from Haiti,who married Marie in 1819 when she was 18. In 1822, he appeared in the New Orleans City Directory, which is a list of residents and businesses. After, he disappeared from history.
Over the years, some writers have come up with so many reasons for his disappearance. Some say that he probably had an affair with another woman and left Laveau. Others think he went down in a shipwreck while hoping to go back to his native home, Saint-Domingue (Haiti). Others say that he was against his wife’s voodoo practice and left for good. Laveau could have also cast a spell on him to disappear after realizing he had cheated, some writers say.
Last year, Kenetha Harrington, an LSU archaeology doctoral candidate, said she had uncovered the fate of Laveau’s husband. “As a student of Marie Laveau, I’ve never been satisfied that he’d just disappeared,” Harrington told Nola.com. “It seemed too easy for him to disappear.”
Harrington, from Chicago, was only 12 years old when she heard about the story of Laveau while playing a video game. Over the years, as she studied theater, anthropology and archaeology, she became fascinated by the voodoo queen’s story and even moved to New Orleans to learn more and find Laveau’s missing husband.
About six years ago, she started going through historic archives to find out what really happened to Laveau’s husband Paris. She took a different approach in her search. She knew that scholars before her had searched records in New Orleans for clues as to what happened to Paris, so she started her search in the neighboring city of Baton Rouge.
What’s more, Harrington did not only search for Jacques Paris, she searched for Santiago Paris, an alternative version of his name, she told Nola.com.
In 2019, she stumbled upon the record of an 1823 succession, a list of earthly possessions compiled after a death, for a free man of color named St. Yago Paris, a phonetic spelling of Santiago, according to Nola.com. The man was a carpenter, which can be used to describe a cabinet maker at the time.
“The chances that there was another free man of color in West Baton Rouge Parish with that name, who was also a carpenter, living around that time, are unlikely,” Harrington said. “The dots line up. I’d welcome arguments against, but that is my theory.”
St. Yago died leaving behind some woodworking tools and clothes valued at $13.87. He was buried in an unmarked grave in St. Joseph Catholic Cemetery in Baton Rouge. It is still not known why Paris moved to Baton Rouge.
Harrington went ahead last year to present her finding to the Louisiana Historical Association. There is no record of Paris divorcing Laveau. What is known is that Laveau passed away some five decades after her husband Paris.
Known around town as the Widow Paris while working as a hairdresser, Laveau’s clients were mostly wealthy white women who felt at ease revealing secrets and other confidential matters to her. Gaining so much information from these influential people, Laveau was able to convince others that she was a Voodoo priestess with supernatural abilities although other sources claimed that she learned her craft from a “voodoo doctor” known as Doctor John.
It has been documented that enslaved West Africans first brought Voodoo to New Orleans and the religion evolved as Black people escaped to New Orleans in their numbers during the Haitian Revolution from 1794 and 1801.
Despite being a devoted Catholic, who attended mass most of the time and advised others to do the same, Laveau became the most powerful among voodoo queens in New Orleans. Writer John Kendall, once wrote, “After dark, you might see carriages roll up to Marie’s door, and veiled ladies, elegantly attired, descend and hurry in to buy what the old witch had for sale. An arrant fraud, no doubt, but money poured into her lap down to the last day of her evil life.”
With her charity works, Laveau visited condemned prisoners and prayed with them in their final hours. From the 1860s, Laveau stopped practicing voodoo in public and remained in her home on Rue St. Ann until she passed away on June 15, 1881, at the age of 98. With her funeral widely attended, records say she was interred in the “Widow Paris” tomb in St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery and her tomb remains the most visited in all of New Orleans.
Although she had a daughter, Marie Laveau II, who picked up from where she left off with some “wild rituals”, she is said to have drowned in Lake Pontchartrain.