“She come walkin’ into Congo Square wit’ her head up in the air like a queen. Her skirts swished when she walked and everybody step back to let her pass. All the people—white and colored— start sayin’ that’s the most powerful woman they is. They say, ‘There goes Marie Laveau!’”
Born in 1801, Marie Laveau was a free woman of color who lived in ante and postbellum New Orleans. Despite her fame and legendary reputation, there is little documentation detailing the life of New Orleans’ most famous and renowned Voodoo queen. What little documentation is available mainly focuses on Laveau’s supernatural abilities, healing powers, and connection to Voodoo ritual. Practically no documentation highlights Marie Laveau’s larger influence on the Black community outside of her role as a Voodoo priestess.
During the early antebellum era from 1812-1830, slavery dominated the New Orleans’ economy. During Laveau’s reign as Voodoo queen, New Orleans was the third wealthiest city in the country and home to the largest slave market in the nation. The booming economy ushered in an influx of white immigrants (especially Irish and German), ultimately changing New Orleans’ racial composition and power balance. White people now constituted almost 60% of the population, whereas free people of color, who had once accounted for 25% of New Orleans’ population, now only made up 10%. Compared to its Spanish-ruling predecessors, who had overseen one of the most liberal periods in Louisiana history, New Orleans was now ruled by a society dominated by conservative, money-driven, slave-owning White men.
Fear of slave revolts and abolitionist groups that threatened the institution of slavery led to the enactment of a series of laws and ordinances that limited the rights of Black people, both slave and free. Interracial marriage and cohabitation became illegal, and later, so did interracial congregation. In addition, Black assembly in large groups was severely limited.
Ignoring these prohibitions, Marie Laveau continued to host large Voodoo rituals and gatherings that on occasion drew crowds into the thousands. While a majority of Laveau’s followers were free and enslaved people of color, Laveau also had a following of White women.
“The women and men was half-naked. White and colored. Beautiful mulatto women would fall on the floor shaking and hollering louder than the tom toms. Even white women would do funny things.”
“Can you imagine all them people, white and colored, dancing around like devils, and all of them naked as jaybirds?”
Despite public condemnation against these large and racially integrated gatherings in the press, Laveau’s rituals were never interrupted nor raided by police. In fact, the police were invited to her rituals, along with prominent New Orleans lawyers, judges, and politicians. While the police turned a blind eye to Laveau’s law-breaking gatherings, they did not provide Laveau’s fellow Voodoo priestesses with this same luxury of protection. For example, well-known Voodoo priestess Betsey Toledano was arrested twice and charged with illegal assembly and interracial revelry. In a social climate wherein Voodoos and Black people were being charged and arrested for the slightest infractions, Laveau’s status and power within the New Orleans community gave her the ability to provide a safe space where Black, White, free, and enslaved people could gather and commune without fear of religious and racial persecution.
“She had meetings everywhere. Marie Laveau could do anything—not afraid of nothing. On St. John’s Eve, she invite everybody to her meetin’—the big judges, lawyers, the police and all the firemens. They wouldn’t arrest her—they was too afraid. Along the lake from Milneburg to Spanish Fort, in Congo Square, and private meetings at her home, there was more White than colored.”
Marie Laveau’s status as a Black female entrepreneur stood in direct opposition to the societal norms and expectations held for women, especially White women. Women were not believed to be destined for greatness, nor expected to be anything except a subservient wife and mother. Few if any professional jobs were available for White women, especially in the South. Even if a woman were able to secure a job, married women did not have the right to control their wages, own property, sign contracts, nor vote.
Marie Laveau owned her own business and worked as a hairdresser and beautician that catered to wealthy White clientele. Records indicate that she was a mother to 15 children, defying the notion that women with children could not successfully work. Laveau also owned property that had been passed down to her by her father, Charles Laveau.
Along with the social and financial restrictions White women faced during the 18th and 19th centuries, White women were literally restricted by the clothing they were expected to wear. Typical attire included multi-tiered dresses and gowns that covered all skin minus the wrists and ankles, with laced corsets designed to make the waist appear incredibly small. Minimal makeup was preferred in upper/middle classes, as more obvious looks, such as wearing red lipstick, were associated with prostitution.
Marie Laveau embraced her natural feminine figure by wearing loose dresses that accentuated her bust and curves. An English visitor who saw Marie Laveau walking the streets of New Orleans described how one might mistake her for the goddess Venus. Her signature red-lip look is fondly recalled in her follower’s description of her physical appearance.
“Marie had left the corsets, petticoats, and heavy undergarments she wore to church that Sunday at home. In their stead, she chose a loose, low-necked cotton dress that permitted easy movement in the subtropical humidity and allowed the Great Serpent Spirit to use her body. Her gold earrings and bracelets flashed in the sun, and her tignon—a vividly colored madras handkerchief wound as a turban—stood high in seven points.”
“She was light and could have passed for a Spanish lady. The mens used to go crazy lookin’ at her. She had the reddest lips I had ever seen in my life. She wore a tignon, with little curls hangin’ down around her face, and she always had big gold hoops in her ears. She wore blue dresses that had big skirts and a shirtwaist buttoned straight down the front and come in tight in the middle; it sure showed off her bust.”
While Laveau’s overt display of her sexuality and femininity did not align with society’s conservative standards, the White public was sure not turned off by her looks. If the White public truly believed Laveau’s appearance was distasteful and immoral, Marie Laveau would not have had a White clientele to provide services for in her salon. White women trusted Marie Laveau to style their hair and makeup, not just because she was the powerful Voodoo queen of New Orleans, but because they thought she was beautiful.