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LSU Expert Uncovered Birth Record of Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau

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.

Original Portrait Of Marie Laveau
Franck Schneider after George Catlin
c. 1920s
Oil on canvas

 


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 life.

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 Marie Laveau.

"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 said.

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, including Laveau.

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.

LSU's 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 came from."

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 with Catholicism."

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 of voodoo.

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 Laveau's life.

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.

http://appl003.lsu.edu/unv002.nsf/PressReleases/PR1721

Portrait of Marie Laveau
Franck Schneider after George Catlin
c. 1920s
Oil on canvas

http://lsm.crt.state.la.us/painting/schneider2.htm


 

 

 

 

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Expert Uncovers Birth Record of Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau (Learn more here.)

Portrait of Marie Laveau
Franck Schneider after George Catlin
c. 1920s
Oil on canvas

http://lsm.crt.state.la.us/painting/schneider2.htm

 

 

XXX

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