HAUNTED NEW ORLEANS
An illustration from
"The Magic Island", W.H. Seabrook's seminal 1929
No study of ghostly tales or strangeness in New Orleans would be complete without mention of Marie Laveau, the unchallenged "Queen of Voodoo" in New Orleans. This mystical religion is as big a part of New Orleans as jazz, Cajun food and Mardi Gras.
Before you start thinking that Voodoo is something of the past however, the reader should be aware that the religion is as alive today as it was in the days of Marie Laveau. On a recent trip to New Orleans, I visited no less than 4 Voodoo shops and a Voodoo museum, plus visited with three different Voodoo priestesses! But there has been no practitioner of Voodoo greater than Marie Laveau and no look at the religion in New Orleans would be complete without a mysterious glimpse of the woman who made it so famous.
And at the ghostly tales which keep her memory alive today.....
The actual religion of Voodoo, or Voudon, originated from the ancient practices of Africa. Voodoo came about most likely in Santo Domingo (modern day Haiti) where slaves devoted rituals to the power of nature and the spirits of the dead. The term voodoo was probably adapted from the African Fon spirit, vodu.
For many enslaved Africans, such spiritual traditions provided a means of emotional and spiritual resistance to the hardships of life. In time, slaves from the Caribbean were brought to New Orleans and they brought Voodoo with them.
The first reference to Voodoo in official documents came in 1782 during the Spanish regime in New Orleans. In a document which tells of imports to the colony, Governor Galvez states "these Negroes are too much given to voodooism and make the lives of the citizens unsafe". He made an attempt to ban the importation of slaves for a brief time... and its likely he felt he had a good reason.
In both 1791 and 1804, a series of slave revolts rocked Haiti. The revolts were based around the practice of Voodoo and they ended with the French being expulsed from the island. Many of the French were able to escape to New Orleans and many of them brought their slaves with them. Now, New Orleans had not only additional Voodoo practicing slaves, but rebellious ones as well.
From the very beginning of the New Orleans colony in 1718, the white colonists had gotten trouble from the beliefs of their black slaves. Shiploads of slaves came through the city on a regular basis and were bought and sold for manual labor and household work. Hundreds and hundreds were brought to America from Africa, packed into ships and treated like animals.
The stories tell of a slave farm near New Orleans where the Africans were kept until they were either tamed or killed. They were taught to work and farm and many of them were then brought into the city for auction or sold to individual owners.
These slaves, most of whom spoke no French, had brought with them their religions and beliefs from Africa and Haiti, but soon learned that they were forbidden to practice their own religions by their masters.
Many of them were baptized into the Catholic church and later, the use of these Catholic icons would play a major role in their new religion of Voodoo. These icons would take their place in the Voodoo hierarchy and be worshipped as if they were praying to the God of the Catholic church.
Many of the Catholic saints would become stand-ins for important Voodoo deities and if you go into a Voodoo shop today, you will see statues, candles and icons depicting various Catholic images. There are in fact, Voodoo symbols as well.
Soon after the introduction of the African slaves to New Orleans, Voodoo began to play a major part in the traditions, and fears, of the general populace. It was not long before the white colonists also began to hear of it and to feel its power. By the end of the century, Voodoo was firmly entrenched in the culture of New Orleans.
The religion was practiced by the slaves and the free blacks as well and so strong was the power held by the upper echelons of the religion that they could entice their followers to any crime, and any deed. Whether or not these priests held supernatural power or not, the subtle powers of suggestion and of secret drugs made Voodoo a force to be reckoned with. Masters felt the taste of poison in their food, women and men the taste of lust with a handful of powder... and even death was held in check by the use of "zombie" drugs. There was no denying that Voodoo was real, and powerful, and even today, it is widely practiced in the south and in the Caribbean islands.... and even in New Orleans.
The tomb of Marie Laveau in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1... devoted followers still leave offerings at the door of her tomb!
No study of Voodoo in New Orleans is complete without mention of Marie Laveau... the undisputed Queen of Voodoo. During her lifetime, she was the source of hundreds of tales of terror and wonder in New Orleans. She was born on Santo Domingo in 1794. Her father was white and she was born a free woman. The first record of her in New Orleans was in 1819, when she married Jacques Paris, another free black. He died in 1826 and Marie formed a liaison with Christophe Glapion, with whom she had she bore a daughter, also named Marie. During her long life (she lived until 1881) she gave birth to fifteen children.
That same year, Marie embraced the power of Voodoo and became the queen of the forbidden but widely practiced culture. She was a hairdresser by trade and this allowed her access to many fashionable homes in the city. In this way, she and her daughters had access to a intelligence network that gave Marie her "psychic" powers. She knew everything that was going on in the city just be listening to her customers and her employees.
Marie became a legend in New Orleans, which is particularly amazing in such a segregated culture, but she was more than just a Voodoo practitioner. Marie had an imaginative mind and has been credited with changing Voodoo into much more than just an African superstition. It was Marie who brought the Virgin Mary into Voodoo as the central figure of worship and she borrowed freely to bring Catholic traditions into the culture.
Marie died in June of 1881 but many people never realized that she was gone. Her daughter stepped in and took her place and continued her traditions for decades to follow.
Today, Marie and her daughter still reign over the shadowy world of New Orleans Voodoo from the confines of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Both are entombed in this cemetery in two-tiered, white stone structures. The tombs look like so many others in this cluttered cemetery, until you notice the markings and crosses that have been drawn on the stones. Apart from these marks, you will also see coins, pieces of herb, beans, bones, bags, flowers, tokens and all manner of things left behind in an offering for the good luck and blessings of the Voodoo Queen.
Many believe that Marie returns to life once each year to lead the faithful in worship on St. John's Eve. It is also said that her ghost has been seen in the cemetery and one man claimed that he was slapped by her while walking past one day. The ghost is always recognizable thanks to the "tignon", the seven-knotted handkerchief, that she wears around her neck.
It is also said that Marie's former home at 1020 St. Ann Street is also haunted. Many claim that they have seen the spirit of Marie, and her ghostly followers, engaged in Voodoo ceremonies there.
There is another house also that may harbor Marie's ghost, located on Chartres Street. It was built in 1807 and according to legend, Marie lived there for a time. Residents of the house claimed that an apparitions appeared in the house and hovered near the fireplace. They claimed that it was the ghost of Marie Laveau.
But whether or not her ghost still walks today.... one thing is sure, the "spirit" of New Orleans would not be complete without her!
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COPYRIGHT 2000 BY TROY TAYLOR. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.