March 28, 2002
By Kristine Calongne
BATON ROUGE -- The birth
date of 19th-century New Orleans voodoo queen
Marie Laveau has been as much a mystery to
historians as the spells that she was known
for casting. But 200 years later, an LSU voodoo
expert has uncovered Laveau's original birth
record, and in the process, has been able
to shed some light on the mystery of Laveau's
Ina Fandrich, assistant
professor of religious studies at LSU, found
Laveau's birth record just a few days before
Christmas 2001, after 15 years of looking.
Fandrich has spent her career as a religious
scholar researching Laveau's life. She finally
found the document that had eluded historians
for more than a century in the sacramental
records of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
"I guess it was Marie
Laveau's Christmas gift to me," Fandrich
said with a laugh.
Laveau was famous in Louisiana
and around the world as a voodoo priestess
in the 19th century, and still plays a large
part in New Orleans folklore. Legend has it
that she received gifts from the Emperor of
China and Queen Victoria of England. There
is evidence that she was well-known in New
York and San Francisco, and it is believed
that she was also known in Haiti, France,
Mexico and Cuba, probably because New Orleans
was a major American port and trade center.
Fandrich said tour guides in New Orleans claim
Laveau's tomb is the second most-visited grave
in America, after Elvis Presley's. Fandrich
also discovered on a recent trip to the tomb
that the events of Sept. 11 even affected
"When I visited the
grave in October, there were pictures of Osama
Bin Laden at the grave site from people asking
Marie Laveau to catch him," Fandrich
An expert on African, African-American
and Afro-Caribbean religions, including voodoo,
Fandrich said Laveau's death in 1881 was well
documented. Five different obituaries were
written about her in various American newspapers,
including the New Orleans Times-Picayune and
the New York Times. Her death certificate
and burial record are on file at St. Louis
Cathedral in New Orleans, and today, tourists
can buy certified copies of Laveau's death
certificate in the French Quarter. But the
exact date of her birth has been a mystery.
Laveau's death certificate
and obituaries state that she was 98 years
old when she died. That would have put her
birth at 1783. That meant Laveau would have
been in her mid-40s when the first of her
six children was born, according to their
birth records. Aside from being physically
unlikely, this was contradicted by the birth
certificate of Laveau's youngest child, which
listed the mother's age as 35. Laveau's obituaries
also claim that she was married at age 25.
Laveau's marriage record is from 1819, so
if she had been 25, she would have been born
in 1794. There were many discrepancies, and
Fandrich set out to uncover the evidence that
would prove exactly when Laveau was born.
The process proved to be
a monumental task. For starters, the archives
of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, which hold
the 18th- and 19th-century records, were not
accessible to researchers until recently.
It took years of correspondence for Fandrich
to get permission to access the archives.
The next major obstacle was deciphering and
translating the hand-written records, a task
which required knowledge of both the French
and Spanish languages and handwriting intricacies,
as well as an understanding of the religious,
racial and cultural beliefs of that time.
Fandrich said that Laveau's
life, as well as the documentation of her
life, was inextricably tied to the culture
and society of 19th-century New Orleans, which
was at that time the South's largest and most
cosmopolitan city. Filled with immigrants
from France, Spain, Ireland, Italy, Germany,
Cuba and Haiti, New Orleans was a melting
pot of cultures, races and traditions. But
the majority of its citizens were Catholic,
Laveau was a member of St.
Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter, which
kept baptismal, marriage and burial records.
If the priest at the cathedral had been French,
the records were kept in French. If he was
from Spain, the records were in Spanish. Even
names were translated into the priest's language.
For example, the name Elizabeth would have
been written as Isabella by a Spanish priest.
And a Spanish priest may have also included
the maiden name of a child's mother on a birth
certificate, as is the Spanish tradition.
The language barrier also caused the spellings
of names to be altered. For instance, Fandrich
has found that documents from Laveau's family
spell the name "Laveaux." Also,
Laveau's baptismal record listed no last name.
Many people of color, both enslaved and free,
had only first names or nicknames listed on
their official records. And in Laveau's case,
her parents were not married, so her father's
name was not listed on the birth record, either.
These factors made finding Laveau's birth
record all the more difficult.
Ina Fandrich, left, visits Marie Laveau's
grave in New Orleans with Mama Lola,
a voodoo priestess from Haiti who
has lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., for more
than 30 years. Mama Lola, who has
been called the "Oprah Winfrey
of Voodoo," spoke at LSU during
the university's Colloquium on Voodoo.
Based on legal documents
from Laveau's adult life, Fandrich figured
Laveau was born some time around the turn
of the century. She examined every single
birth record in the archives until at last,
she found the record of a free, mulatto woman
named Margarita giving birth to a free, mulatto
girl named Maria in 1801. The names and circumstances
of the birth all checked out, and the date
coordinates with Laveau's marriage record
and the birth records of her children. Fandrich
said she is 100 percent certain that this
document is the real thing and that Laveau
was born in 1801. That made Laveau 80 years
old when she died.
Fandrich said many people
are surprised to learn that a voodoo priestess
could also be a devout Catholic. But voodoo
is as much cultural as it is religious, Fandrich
said, and many cultures include voodoo rituals
as part of their Christianity.
"It is said that in
Haiti, 80 percent of the population is Catholic
and 20 percent is Protestant, but 100 percent
is voodoo," Fandrich said. "Some
historians think Marie Laveau's Catholicism
was a camouflage for her voodoo, but her grandmother
was from the Congo, and the Congo region had
voluntarily converted to Catholicism prior
to slavery. They were Catholic, but they practiced
voodoo. That is the culture that Marie Laveau
Fandrich said Haitians also
brought a blend of voodoo and Catholicism
to New Orleans, and that in both places, voodoo
rituals included Catholic prayers.
"I don't think it was
a problem even one day in Marie Laveau's life
for her to put together her African spiritual
heritage and Catholicism," Fandrich said.
"She was an urban healer and a diviner.
She didn't see that as anything that conflicted
Fandrich said voodoo has
always been frowned upon by mainstream society
and is often confused with witchcraft and
even devil worship. She blames the vilification
of voodoo on racial discrimination and lack
of knowledge about the rituals. Voodoo was
also frowned upon by plantation owners in
the American South because the 18th-century
slave revolt in Haiti -- during which many
plantation owners were killed or expelled
from the country -- was blamed on the power
Fandrich compares African
cultural heritage with the European cultural
heritage that has been brought to Christianity.
"Nobody in this country is ashamed of
a Christmas tree, Santa Claus or the Easter
Bunny, but these come from pagan European
heritage. There is nothing in the Bible that
relates to any of those things. They are just
a cultural expression of the religion, and
that's what voodoo is," Fandrich said.
She said she hopes her research
will show what Laveau was really like.
"She was a good Catholic,
and was not ashamed of either her African
or French heritage," Fandrich said of
Laveau. "She was known for being the
most powerful person in 19th-century New Orleans.
People from all walks of life ended up at
her doorstep to consult with her."
Fandrich is working on a
book about Laveau, tentatively titled "The
Power of Marie Laveau," which should
be on bookshelves by 2004. The book will document
Fandrich's search for the birth record, the
reasons she feels certain she has found it,
and some of the more fascinating details of
Fandrich, who was born in
Germany, has lived and traveled all over the
world. She is fluent in French, German and
English, but can also read and speak about
10 other languages. She holds a master of
divinity in Protestant theology from the University
of Hamburg in Germany and a master of arts
in religious studies and a doctorate in religious
studies from Temple University in Philadelphia
More news and information
available on LSU's homepage at www.lsu.edu.
of Marie Laveau
after George Catlin
Oil on canvas