Actually there are two women who can claim that title, a mother and daughter, both named Marie Laveau.
Very little is known about the first Marie. Accepted wisdom for years has been that Marie I was born in 1794 to a French creole planter, Charles Laveau and his mistress Marquerite Darcentelin Saint Dominique (modern day Haiti) and moved to New Orleans as a child. However, there is compelling evidence that Marie was actually born in 1801 in New Orleans. This is due to research by Ida Fandrich recently who found a baptismal certificate for a Marie Laveau born on September 10, 1801 in New Orleans. Whether this is the same Marie Laveau is still debatable as it was not an uncommon name in New Orleans.
Marie I was described as beautiful, tall, and statuesque with curly black hair, flashing bright eyes, reddish skin and 'good' features (meaning that she favored her white ancestry as opposed to her African). She married a free born man of color Jacques Paris in 1819, which would have made her either 18 or 25 at the time. Jacques however disappeared shortly after their marriage and was presumed dead, although he may just have opted out of the marriage. Whatever the explanation, Marie now called herself 'the Widow Paris.' She worked as a hairdresser for many white Creole women as well as the free women of color.
Marie eventually ended up living with Louis Christophe Duminy de Glapion in a common-law marriage. Fandrich believes that Glapion was not a free man of color as has been repeated in various biographies but a white man who passed in order be accepted as her husband. Although its often been stated that Marie and Glapion had 15 children, Fandrich believes that they only had five, only two of whom lived to adulthood, and that the other children attributed to her belonged to her half-sister, another Marie Laveau.
New Orleans in the years before the Civil War had an interesting society that made it one of the most unusual cities in the nation. In the heirarchy of New Orleans, there were the French Creole planters and their families who occupied the French Quarter, then the Americans who began to arrive in the city after the Lousiana purchase settling in the Garden district, and then you had the gen de couleur or the free people of color who were a kind of shadow society that mimicked the white social structure. Many free people of color even owned slaves. The young daughters of the gen de couleur were offered to the white creole planters at the Quadroon balls, where the most beautiful were chosen to be placees, set up in houses on North Rampart street. The mothers who may themselves have been placees, negotiated the arrangement, whether the children, particularly the sons, would be educated in France. A settlement was normally arranged in case, the Creole planter tired of his placee, in the future.
This was the world that Marie Laveau I lived in. Although Marie had been brought up a Catholic, she became involved with the religion that we know as Voodoo. At this time in New Orleans, it was common for Voodoo to be practiced along side of Catholicism, the way the ancient Celts still kept their ancient practices as Christianity spread through Ireland and Scotland. Voodoo in the United States was a combination of various African religions, superstition, blood ritual and animism. Voodoo came about most likely in Santo Domingo ( now modern day Haiti) where the 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 slaves, these spiritual traditions provided a means of emotional and spiritual resistance to hardships of the life they were made to endure. After Toussaint L'Ouverture overthrew the governement in Santo Domingo, French creole planters who fled brought their slaves with them to New Orleans and they brought Voodoo with them. In the early days, slaves were allowed to congregrate in the evenings after their daily chores.
The main meeting place for Voodoo worship was Congo Square (now Beauregard Square) on North Rampart Street, but these meetings freaked out the white citizens of the city, who feared that the meetings could lead to a slave uprising. As a result, new laws were enacted in 1817 that forbid blacks to get gather for dancing or any other purpose except on Sunday, and then only in places that had been designated by the Mayor of the City. However, it turned out that Congo Square was that place, and the meetings continued as always but only on Sundays. Like Harlem in the 1920's, Congo Square became a popular place for whites and tourists to watch the entertainment.
In New Orleans, Voodoo was a matriarchy, 2/3 were female. At one point there were more than 40 recognized Voodoo priestesses, but Marie Laveau was the 'Boss Woman' of them all. Marie had trained with the famous “Voodoo doctor” Jean Montaigne (Doctor John or John Bayou as he became known), who was then the most powerful Voodoo practitioner in New Orleans, and learned from him how to make the most potent charms, potions and gris-gris. She also gained an extensive knowledge of herbs and natural healing remedies.
Legend has it that Marie acquired her cottage at 1020 St. Ann Street from a grateful father whose son was in trouble with the law. Marie put a green pepper gris-gris under the judge's chair leading him to be lenient. The truth was probably far simpler. Marie had a network of spies made up of servants and slaves that worked in the houses of the elite in New Orleans, which she controlled with fear. She also learned a great deal while dressing the hair of the Creole women who vied for services. Then as now, women tended to confide their secrets about their lives o their hairdressers. Marie used this information for blackmail and to give the illusion that she had learned things from the spirits.
Marie Laveau, her secret knowledge which she had gained from the Creole boudoirs combined with her own considerable knowledge of spells along with her flair, became the most powerful woman in New Orleans. Whites sought her help in their various affairs and amours while blacks saw her as their leader. Judges paid her as much as $1000 to win an election, other whites paid $10 for an personal consultation or visit. She freely helped most blacks. To visit her for a reading became fashionable.
Like other scandalous women, she also learned to cultivate the press. When she died, the Times-Picayune editorialized saying "Much evil dies with her, but should we not add, a great deal of poetry too." She invited the public, press, police, and others thrill-seekers of the forbidden fun to attend. Charging admission made voodoo profitable for the first time. Hundreds would turn up to watch Marie hypnotize her giant snake Zombi at the Voodoo ceremonies. She blended aspects of Catholicism in to Voodoo, adding incense, statues and holy water to the mix. Marie was said to arrange orgies between the quadroom and octoroon women and the white men who paid dearly for her services, replacing the Quadroon balls that had been fashionable before the war.
Despite her reputation as a Voodoo priestess, Marie was also still a devout Catholic. She paid visits to men condemned to death in prison, bringing them food and prayer beads. In 1853 Yellow Fever once again threatened New Orleans. A special committee of gentlemen was quickly appointed to request Laveau’s help on behalf of all the people to minister to the fever stricken. Many who survived the endemic owed their survival to Laveau’s dedicated care and ministrations.
In 1875 Marie Laveau announced her retirement in order to concentrate on tending to the sick and condemned in New Orleans’ prisons. Within a few years however, she moved into a back room of 150 St. Anne Street. There under the care of her eldest daughter Marie Laveau II, she lay bedridden until she finally passed into the world of the “loas” (ancestor spirits) on the 15th June 1881.
After her death, there was a myth that Marie had risen from the grave. In reality, it was Marie's daughter Marie Laveau II, who continued her mother's work well into the 20th century. Marie Laveau II gradually took over the business, thus adding to the many myths and legends that surround the Laveau name. Marie II was a strikingly woman bearing many of her mother’s features; she also had a strong and dominant personality that she used to control the lives of others. Like her mother, Marie II also started out as a hairdresser.
Marie II continued to run rituals and parties from “Maison Blanche” out by Lake Pontchartrain, the house which her mother had built for secret Voodoo meetings and liaisons for the rich elite. Like her mother, she also made special arrangements with the police and media, who never raided her premises without prior notice, and then only for show and appearances sake.
Marie II was also adept in the use of herbs and other healing techniques, and sick people often came to the house on St Anne Street for treatment or a cure. Most of her healing medicines combined the use of natural products, roots and herbs that contained genuine curative elements, but she also employed other factors, including the body’s own natural healing mechanisms and the powerful effects of suggestion. To this end her cures were often accompanied by ritual praying, chanting and the burning of candles and incense for added affect.
While Laveau II continued to reign over the Voodoo ceremonies and run the Maison Blanche, she never gained the same high respect her mother had earned. Apparently she lacked the warmth and compassion of her mother, and instead inspired fear and subservience. Some claim Laveau II drowned on the 11th June 1897 during a big storm on Lake Pontchartrain.
Marie Laveau I managed to transcend racial, social and religious lines in 19th century New Orleans which was unusual in a segregated city, where blacks and whites didn't freely mix after the Civil War. One could say that she raised the practice of voodoo from a local religion practiced by slaves to an art form. To this day, visitors to her tomb in Saint Louis Cemetary #1 draw three crosses (XXX) on its side, hoping that her spirit will grant their wishes. There are those who believe that Marie Laveau returns to life once each year to lead the faithful in worship on St. John's Eve. Another myth says that her ghost has been seen in the cemetery, recognizable thanks to the "tignon", the seven-knotted handkerchief, that she wears around her neck
For further reading:
Great characters of New Orleans - Mel Leavitt
A New Orleans Voudou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau Carolyn Morrow Long
Voodoo Queen: The Spirited Lives of Marie Laveau - Martha Ward
Sources of information: Wikipedia.