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Real, but like a dream; established in definite, concrete truth, but veiled in an unclearable fog of mystery so thick that legend becomes indistinguishable from fact. This is a fine summation of both the city of New Orleans, and one of its most famous residents who embodied its spirit: Marie Catherine Laveau (1801 - 1881), the Voodoo Queen.
Marie grew up in a New Orleans of constant change. Napoleon Bonaparte sold French Louisiana to the United States in 1803, and shortly thereafter began an influx of Haitians fleeing the bloody revolution there. The black immigrants, both free and enslaved, brought with them their religion - Vodou, a synthesis of traditions from native West African religions and the Catholicism of their French masters. Though Louisiana Voodoo already existed, Marie may have learned a great deal from these immigrants, as well as from her grandmother - a former slave only one generation removed from Africa herself.
Marie also benefitted from having a white father, who, although she was illegitimate, nonetheless always acknowledged her as his own and gave her some support. He aided in obtaining the contract and home for her first marriage to Jacques Paris, a free man of color from Haiti, with whom Marie bore two daughters. This family did not last long; in 1824, only five years into the marriage, Jacques died or vanished - no record exists to clarify what happened - and the children may also have died as there is no further mention of either after their baptism. Marie would be referred to as "The Widow Paris" on official documents for the rest of her life.
It is not known when Marie began her practice of voodoo. She certainly led a congregation out of her own home by the 1830s, where her front room was her temple for weekly services. Her following knew no boundaries of class, race, or gender, as everyone from slaves to white aristocrats visited her for spiritual advice, charms, spells, and curses. During the same decade she began presiding over the most important voodoo festival of the year, on St. John's Eve, on the shores of the Bayou of the same name. Though there would certainly have been drumming, feasting, dancing, and ritual bathing in the bayou, reports of orgies and blood sacrifice were fanciful exaggerations by Laveau's detractors, most of whom had no understanding of voodoo and believed she was an agent of the devil.
In fact, Laveau remained a devout Catholic all her life. Her baptism, marriage, and funeral ceremonies all took place at St. Louis Cathedral, where she attended mass and had all of her children baptised. It may have been her pursuit of Christian principles - feeding the poor, nursing the sick, visiting the condemned - that did more than anything else to endear her to the hearts of New Orleaneans, who then came back to her for services more appropriate to voodoo practices. Afro-American religions, by necessity, have always been highly synchretic and priestesses like Laveau would have seen no conflict in using Christian prayer for some needs and voodoo rituals for others.
Nonetheless, around the turn of the twentieth century topics like voodoo were almost exclusively written about by sensationalist sources comfortable with printing rumors without bothering to substantiate them. We do not know if Laveau actually gathered information about New Orleans society through a career as a hairdresser, nor if she walked the streets with a pet python named Zombi, nor if she was actually succeeded in her role as "Voodoo Queen" by one of her daughters - in fact, this last detail is extremely unlikely as no claim to it appears in any source before the 1920s and Marie actually outlived most of her children.
Laveau's health declined sharply in the 1870s, and though she still saw many visitors, she spent most of her last years bedridden until her death in 1881. The crowd at her funeral procession was like her clientele - multiracial, multiclass, representing every facet of society. By that time, there were certainly other priestesses looking to fill the void left by Marie, but none could ever match the influence and prestige of the original Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. Marie is best remembered today not for the sinister rites suggested by her detractors, but for her influence, her power, and her charitable works as a pillar of New Orleans society and culture.