Attending the recent CSICON in New Orleans last October was a marvelous experience for me since it gave me a chance to meet James Randi. It also let me experience the vibrant New Orleans scene for the first time (and, trust me in this, Halloween is the perfect season to visit) and to become acquainted with the New Orleans voodoo culture.

If you’re going to learn about New Orleans, you have to understand the role that voodoo plays there, both as a religion and as a dominant part of New Orleans life. Not only are voodoo tours popular with tourists but there is also the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum, the Voodoo Spiritual Temple, and a range of different voodoo shops, conveniently located just a few streets away from each other. From the upscale Erzulie’s Authentic Voodoo on Royal Street (which boasts that their voodoo is the real thing) to the more touristy places such as Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo and the Reverend Zombie’s Voodoo Shop with its accredited voodoo, vampire, and ghost tours.

And, yes, I did attend one of their evening tours. Along with describing her own experiences as a functioning Wiccan, the tour guide, Kalila, also took us to some of the local highlights of New Orleans’ colourful history and talked about one of the most famous voodoo queens of all, Marie Laveau.

Born in 1783 to a Haitian slave, Marguerite Darcantel and wealthy plantation owner, Charles Laveau, Marie grew up on her father’s plantation where she was educated and studied to be a hairdresser.   A devout Catholic who went to mass every day of her life, Marie married Jacques Paris in 1819 and went to live in New Orleans’ French Quarter. For whatever reason, Charles Paris was soon out of her life and she was left with two children to raise (Marie insisted that he had died and that she was a widow although there is evidence that he had deserted her instead).

In any case, the “Widow Paris” worked as a hairdresser and also did nursing (which included minor surgery in those days). This included ministering to prisoners on death row as well as taking in the sick to be nursed in her own home. She entered into a common-law marriage with Christophe Glapion, a member of a prominent local family, and they had five children together (only two of whom survived to adulthood). Although Marie never abandoned her Catholic roots, she became increasingly interested in her mother’s African traditional beliefs and quickly developed a reputation as New Orleans’ leading voodoo queen.

While voodoo was commonly practiced in New Orleans, it had a sinister reputation (and was actually banned at different times in Louisiana history). Marie’s marrying of voodoo beliefs and Catholic traditions helped make voodoo and hoodoo (the magical rituals associated with voodoo) more acceptable to upper-class New Orleans society. She regularly presided over public voodoo ceremonies in Congo Square (one of the few locations in rigidly segregated New Orleans where people of different races could mix freely) and made a good income selling charms, curses, and blessings to people of all social classes. The fact that many of her clients were servants in upper-class homes also gave her a spy network which helped reinforce her supernatural reputation to the wealthy patrons who asked for her services.

Marie Laveau had an extremely complex reputation in later life. Although a local newspaper once referred to her as “the notorious hag who reigns over the ignorant and superstitious as the Queen of the Voodoos”, she was also feared for her power as a voodoo queen (with numerous stories about the things that “happened” to anyone who offended her). At the same time, she was also regarded by many admirers as a living saint due to her humanitarian work.   At the time of her death in 1881, eminent writer Lafcadio Hearn referred to her as “one of the kindest women who ever lived”.   Her fame also guaranteed prominent obituaries in the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the New York Times .

Almost from the moment of her death, the cult surrounding Marie Laveau’s name kept her in the public eye. Although a daughter attempted to carry on her voodoo work (they tend to be referred to as “Marie Laveau I” and “Marie Laveau II”), she never matched her mother’s fame. Neither did any of the other “Voodoo Queens” who followed after her.   While Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo is still on Bourbon Street, there is no evidence that the original Marie Laveau had any real association with it (although it does feature altars dedicated to both Marie Laveaus).   Perhaps the most bizarre legacy that Marie Laveau I left behind is the cult of veneration relating to her grave.

New Orleans’ above-ground cemeteries are the city’s most widely-visited tourist attractions and are regularly featured on most city tours (not to mention used as settings in the numerous movies shot in New Orleans).   Of all the elaborate mausoleums and gravesites to be found in New Orleans, the grave that attracts the most visitors each year is Marie Laveau’s tomb in St. Louis Cemetery Number One.   Part of the Glapion Family Crypt, the tomb features numerous inscriptions marking the gravesite as well as a bronze tablet reading: “ MARIE LAVEAU : This Greek Revival Tomb Is Reputed Burial Place of This Notorious Voodoo Queen”.

As it happens, there is an ongoing dispute over whether the woman buried in the tomb is actually the original Marie Laveau. While most true believers seem convinced that the crypt in Cemetery Number One is where the bodies of Marie Laveau I and II can be found, there is another crypt in Cemetery Number Two that is also known as the “Wishing Vault” or the “Voodoo Vault” with a burial slab marked by hundreds of crosses made by red brick.   While there is no real evidence that it is actually Marie Laveau’s tomb, hundreds of visitors each year make a regular pilgrimage to the site where, according to tradition, Marie’s spirit would personally intervene to anyone leaving an offering of coins, Mardi Gras beads, flowers, rum, or candles.

Despite active attempts by cemetery caretakers to discourage the practice, visitors still follow the traditional ritual of drawing three crosses on the tomb while asking Marie for a favour (others just turn around three times and knock on the burial slab).   Although most visitors drawing crosses use red brick, some also use charcoal, magic markers, or other graffiti tools and the Glapion tomb is typically decorated with hearts, pentagrams, poetry, and initials. While sextons clean the tomb regularly, the Laveau legend ensures that there are always new markings to take their place.   Unfortunately, this often leads to nearby graves and monuments being vandalized by visitors tearing off pieces of brick to be used for drawing on the Glapion crypt.

Police regularly patrol the cemetery to keep the peace (not to mention rigidly enforcing laws against marking graves or desecrating cemeteries) but the tradition doesn’t seem likely to die out anytime soon.

Just another part of New Orleans life.