American Hauntings Podcast

Voodoo In New Orleans

Episode Summary

Most tourists, even after seeing the voodoo shops in the French Quarter, assume that voodoo is a thing of the past – but they couldn’t be more wrong. The religious faith is very much alive today and it’s taken just as seriously now as it was in the days of Marie Laveau.

Episode Notes

Ask any tourist – or anyone who watched a season of American Horror Story – and they can tell you that Marie Laveau is the undisputed Queen of Voodoo in New Orleans. Voodoo is as big a part of New Orleans as jazz, gumbo, and Mardi Gras. Most tourists, even after seeing the voodoo shops in the French Quarter, assume that voodoo is a thing of the past – but they couldn’t be more wrong. The religious faith is very much alive today and it’s taken just as seriously now as it was in the days of Marie Laveau.

Follow us on social:

Instagram: @AmericanHauntingsPodcast

Twitter: @AmerHauntsPod

For a free month of Stitcher Premium, visit www.StitcherPremium.com and use promo code: HAUNTINGS

Leave us a review in iTunes by clicking this link or on RateThisPodcast.

Check out our NEW PATREON TIERS, our NEW CLOTHING STORE, and learn how YOUR BUSINESS CAN REACH OUR AUDIENCE.

Sign up for our newsletter at AmericanHauntingsPodcast.com

Want to read ahead for this season? Check out the book Haunted New Orleans by Troy Taylor.

This episode was written by Troy Taylor. Produced and edited by Cody Beck.

Intro music by Charlie Brockus

Monologue music by: Myuu

Episode Transcription

Welcome to the new episode of American Hauntings, the podcast dedicated to the history, hauntings, legends, and lore of America’s past. The show is hosted by Cody Beck and Troy Taylor and we are now deep into our fourth season, “Haunted New Orleans.”

If you are tuning into the podcast for the first time, we suggest you start listening to the “Haunted New Orleans” season with episode 53, which is where this season begins and where we set the stage for the many dark tales ahead. In each episode of the season, we’ll be revealing the history, mystery, spirits, scandals, and sins of New Orleans – a city that we believe is the most haunted in America.

So, light some candles, put the chicken on the altar, pack up the gris-gris bag and prepare yourself for the next episode of Haunted New Orleans.

Ask any tourist – or anyone who watched a season of American Horror Story – and they can tell you that Marie Laveau is the undisputed Queen of Voodoo in New Orleans. Voodoo is as big a part of New Orleans as jazz, gumbo, and Mardi Gras. Most tourists, even after seeing the voodoo shops in the French Quarter, assume that voodoo is a thing of the past – but they couldn’t be more wrong. The religious faith is very much alive today and it’s taken just as seriously now as it was in the days of Marie Laveau.

Voodoo came to New Orleans from Africa, mostly by way of the Caribbean islands. Slaves in Louisiana began arriving in 1719. The majority of enslaves Africans that found their way to New Orleans came directly from West Africa, bringing with them their language and religious beliefs, which were rooted in spirit and ancestor worship. In the Fon language of West Africa, “Vodun” means spirit – an invisible and mysterious force that can intervene in human affairs.

One reason that voodoo developed in New Orleans more than in other parts of America is largely because the French – then the Spanish, then the French again – colonized Louisiana. They were far more tolerant of the practices and the faiths of the slave population than were the British – you know, the people who came to America for religious freedom and then suppressed the faiths of anyone who didn’t agree with them.

Another reason was because of the sheer numbers. Thousands of slaves were brought to Louisiana. In fact, according to the census of 1732, the ration of slaves to French settlers was two to one. The white minority would have had a hard time suppressing the voodoo faith, so they mostly didn’t bother.

However, there were some worries that popped up here and there. The first reference to voodoo in official documents appeared in 1782 when the Spanish were in charge. In a document about imports to the colony, there is a terse line regarding black slaves from the island of Martinique. Governor Galvez wrote: “These Negroes are too much given to voodooism and make the lives of the citizens unsafe."

But I think the governor was less worried about voodoo and more worried about rebellious slaves. A series of slave revolts had rocked Haiti and other islands in the Caribbean and each time, French colonists were driven from those lands and ended up in New Orleans. When they arrived, they brought their slaves with them – slaves who not only practiced voodoo but who also may have been recently involved in uprisings.

New Orleans-style voodoo evolved just like the food in New Orleans did – as a blend of different cultures. One of the most important cultures was Catholicism. Some people feel the people who practiced voodoo started using Catholic saints, holy water, and the Lord’s Prayer in their ceremonies as a way to hide voodoo in plain sight. It’s been suggested that slaves were forbidden to practice their religion, so they used Catholic saints and icons as stand-ins for important voodoo deities.

But this may not be true. Some believe that it was a conscious decision to integrate Catholicism into voodoo because the white man’s magic did seem to have some power – you known, since the white man had a better life as a slave owner instead of as a slave.

For others, the blending of voodoo and Catholicism was simply a nature course of events. After many years and generations away from their homeland, slaves slowly lost their old beliefs and the predominant Catholicism of New Orleans bled into their practices.

Regardless, if you go into an authentic voodoo shop today, you’ll find – in addition to charms, roots, potions, and powders – icons of Catholic saints, statues, and prayer candles, all of which are used in the ceremonies and practices of the faith.

Voodoo in New Orleans grew to be quite a bit different than what is practiced in Haiti and other places. The evolution of the faith in New Orleans created many new practices that most of us associate with some of the basics of voodoo, including voodoo dolls, gris-gris -- which are small bags filled with magic items to bring good luck or protect us from evil – and voodoo queens. In Africa, voodoo is a male-dominated faith, but it was the opposite in New Orleans. The slaves gave credit to a female spirit, Aida Wedo (A-DUH WEE-DOE) for allowing them to survive the ocean crossing to the New World. This weas the beginning of women having a central important in New Orleans-style voodoo.

Marie Laveau is, of course, the most famous voodoo queen in the city’s history but she was not the first. Sanite Dede (SAN-NEET DAY-DAY) was an early voodoo practitioner in the city. She was a young woman from Haiti who held rituals in her courtyard at Dumaine and Chartres Street, just a few blocks from the St. Louis Cathedral. The local newspaper printed sensational stories about her rituals, described “wild, uncontrolled orgies” and “serpent worship.”

It was the newspaper stories that first upset the white colonists. Whether it was the drums that could be heard during Mass or the supposed orgies, the Church managed to push through an ordinance in 1817 that stated that Catholicism was the only recognized faith in New Orleans – making it illegal to practice any others. Soon after, the police arrested 400 women for allegedly dancing naked in Sanite’s courtyard.

The charges were later dropped for lack of evidence – which turned out to be almost as bad as if they had been sent to jail. Rumors spread that voodoo spells had either erased the evidence of clouded the minds of the judges and prosecutors. White residents feared that the religion – practiced by slaves and free people of color – was so powerful that it could entice followers to commit any crime of deed. Supernatural powers and secret drugs made voodoo a force to be reckoned with. Slaves owners began to fear poison in their food. Men and women were convinced they could be forced to fall in love with anyone, just because of a sprinkle of magic powder. Even death could be held in check by the use of “zombie drugs.”  

The message was clear -- voodoo was not welcome in New Orleans. To avoid harassment in the city, voodoo practitioners moved outside the city limits to the swamp of Bayou St. John – near what is now the City Park.

But the fears and prejudices of the white residents of the city did not drive voodoo out of New Orleans altogether. The next leader of voodoo in the city was John Montent (MOAN-TEN-AY), a heavily tattooed voodoo priest known better as Dr. John. He was a well-respected free person of color who sometimes claimed to have once been an African prince. He had a number of beautiful wives and mistresses, with whom he had over 50 children. In addition to what must have been a busy love life, he was also famous for predicting the future, casting spells, making gris-gris bags, and reading minds.

And if his name sounds familiar, it’s likely because you’ve heard his music. Well, not the original Dr. John, but the music of Mac Rebennack, who took the stage name of Dr. John as an homage to the nineteenth century voodoo man.

He was the first in New Orleans to use voodoo for profit. He charged fees to mix potions and make gris-gris bags and was happy to sell them to whoever wanted to pay – black or white. Dr. John was the mentor, teacher, and some even say, the power behind Marie Laveau. She eventually decided to creak away from Dr. John and set up her own practice.

 Marie Laveau became for voodoo what Louis Armstrong is for jazz. By that, I mean that there are a lot of people who claim to have invented jazz, from Buddy Bolden to Jelly Roll Morton – but it was Louis Armstrong who made it internationally famous. Marie Laveau may have come later than Sanite Dede (SAN-NEET DAY-DAY)  and Dr. John but she was the one who made it notorious and the reason that we still talk about it today.

Marie Laveau was born in New Orleans – or maybe in Haiti – in 1794, or maybe not. Her father was a white plantation owner and her mother was one of his slaves. The first official record of her appears in 1819, when she married Jacque Paris, another free person of color. She was soon abandoned or maybe widowed, no one knows. At some point in 1825, she began a second, common-law marriage to Christophe de Glapion, another free person of color with whom she would have 15 children. It seems hard to believe that she had time for making potions, holding voodoo ceremonies, and doing hair.

Yes, Marie Laveau really was a hairdresser. She learned all the latest styles and cared for the most affluent ladies of New Orleans. This allowed her access to the most fashionable homes in the city, gathering gossip and information during every appointment. Her clients talked to her about anything and everything, from childbirths to scandals, and she created a network of intelligence by recruiting cooks, maids, and domestic workers as her informants.

In this way, when she told fortunes, she was remarkably well-informed, presenting information that she couldn’t possibly know – or so it seemed to her clients. Her reputation became well-known throughout the city. To visit Marie for a reading became the latest craze throughout the city. Politicians paid her as much as $1,000 for help in winning elections. The cost of her love potions soared to $10. As a lifelong Catholic, she has been credited for introducing the Virgin Mary as a central figure of worship in voodoo, attracting even more followers. She dealt in spells and charms, for both white and black customers, and produced cures for their ailments. Marie was a clever and astute businesswoman who knew how to use her beliefs -- and the beliefs and fears of others -- to the advantage of herself and her clients.

One tale of Marie Laveau has reached legendary status in New Orleans. A young man from a wealthy family was arrested and charged with a series of crimes. While the young man himself was innocent, the true perpetrators had been several of his friends and they had let the blame fall upon their unlucky pal. His grief-stricken father sought out the assistance of Marie and explained the circumstances of the case to her. He promised a handsome reward if she would use her powers to obtain his son’s release. When the day of the trial arrived, Marie placed three peppers into her mouth and went into the St. Louis Cathedral to pray. She remained at the altar for some time and then managed to get into the courtroom where the trial was going to be held. Before the proceedings could start, she took the three peppers from her mouth and put them under the judge’s chair. None of the spectators could see them – but there was no way that the judge could miss them as he wanted to his chair. We can only imagine what he must have thought after seeing the peppers and then looking out and seeing Marie Laveau sitting behind the defendant in his courtroom.

The trial began and the prosecutor presented hours of unfavorable evidence against the young man. But after a lengthy deliberation, the judge returned to the courtroom and pronounced the young man “not guilty.”

Magic? Probably not. More likely it was the power of suggestion and the worries of the judge about what might happen to him if the young man went to prison. Marie possessed the secrets of the most influential people in the city – probably including the judge.

The father of the young man was thrilled with the verdict and in return for her help; he gave Marie the deed to a cottage at 1020 St. Anne Street, between Rampart and Burgundy. It remained her home until her death many years later.

Above and beyond her network of spies and her potions and charms, Marie had great showmanship. She knew how to take money from the white man’s pockets so that he could watch her rituals. Men and women danced wildly after drinking rum and seemed to become possessed by various gods. Seated on her throne, Marie directed the action or she danced with a large snake in honor of Damballah, the Sky Father and the creator of all life.

Once each year, Marie presided over the ritual of St. John’s Eve, beginning at dusk on June 23 and ending at dawn the next day. St. John’s is the most sacred of holy days in the voodoo faith. Hundreds attended each year, including reporters and curious white onlookers, each of whom were charged a sizable admission. Drum beating, bonfires, animal sacrifice, and nude women dancing were all part of the all-night ritual – which, of course, created lurid stories for newspapers and magazines across the country.

But Marie knew what she was doing. In addition to being a mother, voodoo queen, and hairdresser, she also probably should have started New Orleans’s first tourism bureau. One of the reporters who attended Marie’s was a writer named Lafcadio (LAUGH – CAE-DIO) Hearn. The quiet, scrawny, bug-eyed, weak-chinned, bird-legged writer was a reporter in Cincinnati before moving to New Orleans in 1877. He’d been fired from his job at a Cincinnati because he’d married an African American woman, which was against Ohio law at the time. He spent the next 10 years in New Orleans, writing pieces about the city for national magazines like Scribners and Harper’s Weekly. His articles created the popular reputation of New Orleans as a place that was more like Europe or the Caribbean than like the rest of the United States. Essentially, he put the city of New Orleans on the tourist map.

He also wrote a lot about voodoo and while not completely accurate in his reporting, he certainly made it seem like something every adventurous traveler of the nineteenth century should see. Most of his articles portrayed voodoo rituals as snake handling, bourbon drinking, nude dancing, chicken killing affairs that ended with people sticking pins into dolls.  

It’s a reputation that has endured for a century and half – all thanks to Lafcadio Hearn and – by extension – the showmanship of Marie Laveau, the voodoo queen who laughed all the way to the bank.

But make no mistake, she also helped a lot of people along the way. She has become a woman known for two identities. She was feared by some and beloved by others. While she charged uptown ladies and politicians hefty fees, she provided many services for free when she cared for the sick during yellow fever outbreaks, ministered to inmates in jail, or just helped those in need who had no money.

Marie died in June 1881 – maybe – but whenever it was, many people didn’t realize she was gone. A second Marie Laveau – her daughter – stepped in and took her place and continued her traditions for some time to come.

But the golden age of voodoo in New Orleans was not destined to last. By the 1930s, tourism had become the foundation of the city’s economy. City leaders didn’t want to frighten away visitors with the sensationalized version of voodoo that had been created by Hollywood movies like White Zombie and best-selling books like The Magic Island by William Seabrook. Most of the publications about voodoo in New Orleans or Marie Laveau printed in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s are always sensationalized and usually -- surprise, surprise -- inherently racist.

Voodoo today is making something of a comeback in New Orleans. There’s the touristy voodoo rebirth -- which means you’ll find about a dozen shops selling gris-gris bags and pin dolls in the French Quarter – and then there’s the real embrace of the religion. People today are hungry for spiritual fulfillment and voodoo offers a direct experience that appeals to people. What’s happening is very apparent in New Orleans, which has always been the center for these beliefs. The main focus of voodoo today is to serve others and to influence the outcome of life events through a connection with nature, spirits, and ancestors. Most rituals are held behind closed doors since publish shows are considered disrespectful to the spirits. Voodoo practices include readings, prayer, and personal ceremony and is often used to cure depression, loneliness, anxiety, depression, and other ailments. It also tried to help the poor, the hungry, and the sick, just as Marie Laveau once did.

But attitudes are slow to change. There is still fear among many people as to what voodoo is and how it works. They dismiss is as superstitious nonsense but there’s no denying that they are afraid of it, too.

It’s impossible to deny the fear and racism that lurks behind statements made by people like evangelist Pat Robertson, who, after the massive earthquake that occurred in Haiti a few years ago, stated that the Haitians deserved the death and destruction because, in following voodoo, “they made a pact with the Devil.”

You won’t find the Devil mixed up in voodoo, but you will find some strange stories of spirits that have lingered in New Orleans after all these years.

Marie Laveau allegedly died in 1881 but based on the tales that have been told for years, her spirit may not rest in peace. There are some who believe that Marie returns to life once each year to lead the faithful on St. John’s Eve.  

It is also said that Marie haunts the site of her former home at 1020 St. Ann Street. The original house was torn down in 1903 and a new structure was built on the same foundation, which is why many believe her spirit still calls this place home. People have claimed to have seen her walking down St. Ann Street wearing a long white dress, her trademark tignon (TEN-YON) or headdress, which she knotted seven times to represent a crown. Marie's spirit and those of her followers are said to still perform rituals at the site of her old house.

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 apparition appeared in the house and hovered near the fireplace. They claimed that it was the ghost of Marie Laveau.

But the most famous place connected to the spirit of Marie Laveau is her tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 – but like Marie herself, there is a lot of controversy about what may – or may not – be her final resting place.

Most believe that the tomb, which bears the name Glapion, holds the remains of Marie and her daughter, the second Marie, but there are many others who disagree. There is also a “Marie Laveau Tomb” in St. Louis Cemetery No. 2. It is located at the rear of the cemetery and the slab over the crypt is always covered with literally hundreds of red crosses, inscribed with pieces of brick. There are also tales that claim Marie is buried somewhere else altogether.

It’s believed that the confusion started after the body that was originally interred in the tomb was allegedly moved. It was said that Marie was first entombed in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 but that her spirit “refused to behave”. People became so scared that they refused to go near the cemetery so another priestess, and some relatives, moved Marie to Holt Cemetery. She was placed in an unmarked crypt so that her name would not be remembered. The ghost stayed put from that point on, the story said, but her name has yet to be forgotten.

Despite the many stories, New Orleans tradition holds that Marie is buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and literally thousands have come here in search of her crypt. The tomb looks like so many others in the cemetery, until you notice all the stuff that has been left behind in front of the crypt. You’ll find coins, pieces of herb, bottles of rum, beans, bones, bags, flowers, tokens, and just about anything else you can imagine left behind as an offering for the good luck and blessings of the Voodoo Queen.

If you visit the tomb and don’t leave anything, legend has it that your teeth will fall out. I don’t know if this is true, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

In addition to the offerings, you will also find thousands of markings and X’s covering the tomb. The tomb is often repainted, but the marks come back. There’s nothing supernatural about this – it’s done by stupid people. The origins of what some claim is a voodoo practice are unclear but, despite what some people may claim, it’s not an old tradition. The X’s that are found on the tomb have been left by tour groups and uneducated guides, who instruct the tourists to leave three X’s inscribed on the tomb in hopes of good luck.

If visiting St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, think twice before leaving your own X’s on the tomb. The Glapion family (who owns the tomb) does not consider this voodoo, but vandalism. If you are hoping to get on the good side of Marie Laveau, leave an offering instead.

Marie’s ghost is believed by some to haunt this graveyard. Legends say that she has sometimes been seen walking the cemetery’s narrow paths. One man even claimed to have been struck by her spirit after making a disparaging remark at her tomb one day.

Another story, which was popular in the 1930s, involved a drifter with no money and no prospects who decided to sleep in the cemetery one night. He slept fitfully for several hours before being awakened by a strange sound. Thinking that perhaps vandals or grave robbers might injure him, he decided to make his escape to the streets. As he rounded the corner of a row of tombs, he saw a terrible sight. Positioned in front of Marie Laveau’s tomb was a glowing, nude woman with her body entwined by a huge snake. Surrounding her were the ghostly forms of men and women, who were dancing to music only they could hear. Needless to say, the drifter fled for his life.

Perhaps the most unusual sighting of Marie’s spirit took place in when a man was in a drug store near St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 one afternoon. He was speaking to the druggist when an old woman in a white dress and a blue turban came and stood next to him. Suddenly, the druggist was no longer listening to him, but looking in terrible fear at the old woman instead. Then, he turned and ran to the back of the store. The man turned and looked at the old woman and she started laughing. He thought that perhaps the druggist had been frightened of a “crazy woman” who lived in the neighborhood.

Finally, the woman looked at the man and asked if he knew her. He replied that he didn’t, and she laughed some more. Then, she turned and looked behind the counter and demanded to know where the druggist had gone. She had stopped laughing and seemed very angry.

The man shrugged and she suddenly slapped him across the face. Moments later, she turned and ran out the door and, to his shock and surprise, vanished over the cemetery wall. Stunned, the man then stated that he “passed out cold”.

When he woke up, the druggist was pouring whiskey down his throat. “You know who that was?” he asked the dazed and confused young man. “That was Marie Laveau. She been dead for years and years but every once in a while, people around here see her. Son, you’ve been slapped by the Queen of Voodoo!”