I have been to New Orleans before, and I’ve read a lot about it’s history and mystery on many occasions. This time around, we decided to take a walking cemetery tour to hear more stories and the history of one of the many fascinating cemeteries in the city.
So we scored a good Groupon, and booked a tour with Witches Brew Tours (by the way, they are great, check them out if you are ever in NoLa! No problem redeeming the groupon).
The stories were fascinating. Our tour guide, Andy was fantastic. He kept us entertained with a good mixture of humor, spookiness, and history. We toured Armstrong Park with its many gorgeous trees and sculptures, and we walked our way to the Saint Louis Cemetery number one built in 1789.
There, we listened to his tales about a strict Catholic cemetery in a segregated society where skin color didn’t matter after death. As long as you died Catholic, you could be buried there. But, beware of vampires! Andy told us how it was a common practice to decapitate the body, placing the head at the feet facing down, and stabbing the heart with a wooden spear all to prevent anyone suspected to be a vampire to return as such. Why? Well, interestingly enough, another practice in New Orleans was to keep the deceased body inside a coffin that was placed in an above the ground tomb and bricked in for a year and one day. Because of the usually hot weather of the region, this tomb act as an oven and the body decomposes rapidly leaving only the bones behind. This process takes approximately one year. On some occasions though, either because of the weather or because the person was really a vampire (maybe), some corpses remained, skin and all, but as the muscles atrophy, and the skin dries up, the gum line recedes, and the fingers look long and bony giving the impression of a very thin person with large canine teeth and long monster fingers… a vampire.
In this cemetery we also saw other interesting tomb sites, including one of a person that hasn’t died yet. Yes, you guessed it (or maybe you are waiting on me to tell you), Nicolas Cage’s massive pyramid tomb is in this cemetery, next to one of a queen. A voodoo queen I should add.
This is the story that fascinated me the most. Marie Laveau was a creole woman borne in the late 1700’s who worked as a hairdresser for the wealthy white women of the town. Due to carelessness or lack of a sense of prudence, these women would talk freely about their affairs and other ailments in front of her and all other house servers.
Marie Laveau took this opportunity and created an empire. Have you heard the saying, knowledge is power? Well, she was a visionary that possessed and gained all the means necessary to build her metaphorical kingdom.
She would gain information by paying the helpers of other wealthy households for details about their landlords. She kept promises to all the rich and powerful men that came to her for help. She would always keep their secrets and cater to their needs.
Here’s how she did it. She used the spectacle of magic and combined it with her catholic rituals and beliefs to create "Voodoo" rituals. This way she presented to her customers her knowledge of secret desires and/or information she had (privately) gathered from her client’s servers without their knowledge. All the gullible rich ladies really thought she was magic and that she knew all these things about them by invoking the spirits. And since she kept secrets and catered to the men’s desires she was well respected by the male society of the town. Marie Laveau made her business by collecting information behind people’s backs and making strong symbiotic friendships with the right crowd. Marie Laveau was powerful, she was a voodoo queen.
But she was also aging, and she saw the opportunity to continue her legacy with her daughter, also named Marie Laveau II. Her daughter assumed her role impersonating her in many instances, and her granddaughter after her, and as years passed, people started to believe that Marie Laveau was forever young and beautiful, immortal if you wish.
Three women, one name. That’s why when you try to find a picture, or a portrait rather, of Marie Laveau, they all look different. No one really knows what she looked like (people didn’t walk around with their smartphones snapping pictures of celebrities back in the day) as she was one and three at the same time, a holy trinity made voodoo queen.
Marie Laveau’s death was kept silent in order to keep her legacy and business going with her daughter. Her mausoleum at the Cemetery is said to be occupied by her granddaughter rather than her, but there are speculations that she was buried in a different tomb, the one next to Nicolas Cage’s pyramid. Go figure.
Marie Laveau’s influence can be felt all around New Orleans. Her tomb (which is, according to the guide, one of the most visited tombs in the US) has been vandalized (was completely painted bright pink), repainted, and repaired to conserve this popular landmark. Voodoo practitioners and other curious tourists leave offerings by the tomb and request a wish to be granted, they then mark the tomb with three X’s and walk around the mausoleum and knock on it three times. Don’t quote me on this one… I’m just repeating what Andy (our guide) said. Obviously, marking the tomb with an X is considered vandalism, so you better not get caught.
As of April 2016 no one is allowed inside the cemetery unless they are accompanied by a certified tour guide, or unless they are visiting a family member’s tomb (and have proof of this). This strict measure might change in the future, but for now they want to prevent the tombs from being vandalized by uncaring people.
Besides her tomb, the New Orleans Historic Voodoo museum on Dumaine St, established in 1972, is the oldest authentic voodoo artifact museum in the city. It has many of Marie Laveau’s belongings. Around the city it is easy to find plaques of the places where she used to frequent and live with her daughters.
Being a creole woman in a segregated society didn’t impede Marie Laveau from being powerful and having a legacy that carried for over a century. She found ways to play with people’s minds, making them believe she was a powerful priestess. As far as actual magical power, no one knows to what point this is true, but one thing is certain; she was powerful in the way she arranged her business, to the point that she was recognized and remembered as the Voodoo Queen now and for generations to come.
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