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The Voodoo She Did

Martha Ward takes an anthropologist's approach with Voodoo Queen: The Spirited Lives of Marie Laveau.

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With Voodoo Queen: The Spirited Lives of Marie Laveau, Martha Ward tries the near-impossible: the first academically grounded portrait of one of New Orleans' most elusive figures. By gathering many of the assorted tales and apocryphal accounts and the few actual facts available, the University of New Orleans professor tries to form what she calls "the shape of their lives."

"Their" lives, because there were two Marie Laveaus, Ward writes at the beginning of her book. The mother, born in 1801, was a Creole, a member of the gens de couleur libre (or "free people of color"), and was a devout Catholic and a respected nurse. The daughter, born in 1827, never married, but had children and spent most of her professional life as a hairdresser.

Besides their blood connection, the two women also had the common bond of being practicing voodoo priestesses, a fact that provides much of their mystique -- and a fact that Ward wanted to keep in balance with their other lives.

"Marie Laveau is a merged person, and she's a mother and a daughter," says Ward, professor of anthropology, urban studies, and women's studies at UNO. "She has a historical life and an important mythological life. I felt I had to honor both sides of both of them. I'm an anthropologist, and I rely on first-hand field experience in my research. I don't rely on beliefs or codes. I considered that this was field work with the dead."

In order to fully investigate the Laveaus, Ward spent hours poring through church and cemetery records, newspaper archives, aged city directories, and interviews. However, for Ward to "experience" the other side of the Laveaus, she attended various voodoo ceremonies and church services, and even employed a few unconventional methods. "I have relied on dreams, intuition, a hyperactive imagination, and funky Voodoo luck," Ward writes. "From time to time I have stood in front of the Laveau tomb in St. Louis Cemetery One and talked with her."

Even with these graveyard conversations, Ward couldn't find enough evidence of the women's history, partly because of the women themselves and the religion they practiced. Both were likely illiterate, so there are no diaries or journals. Plus, the white New Orleans establishment did not favorably accept their practice of voodoo and sought its dissolution. The secret religion's initiates are not allowed to speak of its rituals, so voodoo was often practiced in private homes away from the public eye. However, for a number of years, the elder Laveau conducted her rituals on Sundays in Congo Square, a day and place where both free blacks and slaves were allowed to congregate.

As Ward points out, no white journalist has ever reported seeing either Laveau practicing voodoo in Congo Square. Eventually local authorities, fearing the free blacks were unduly influencing slaves to rebel, closed Congo Square in 1843. The square was re-opened two years later, but with armed guards posted at the gates.

Determined to come up with a clearer vision, if not an undisputed one, Ward realized the task would require some speculation and maybe even a little imagination. She used a straightforward methodology: On one side of a piece of paper, Ward listed all of the genealogical and personal facts about the Laveaus, and in another column, she listed all of the known laws of their time and any significant historical occurrences that might have affected them.

The result is a biography that delivers both a realistic side and a more fantastic one. Ward provides a solid reporting of the cultural aspects of this time period in New Orleans history (1800-1890) and helps the reader understand what a significant role the gens de couleur libre played in the early days of the city. When Ward does speculate on the women's actions, she provides an explanation for her conclusion. Unfortunately, these explanations can sometimes slow down and even obfuscate the narrative thread, even though they are often highly interesting asides. Other times, such as when Ward reveals how the two women have spiritually become one and sometimes return to the city, she gives the reader more of a mythological effect than a concrete, literal one. Taken as a whole, it is an informative and provocative look at two of the most hidden and misunderstood women in New Orleans history. And for Ward, as an anthropologist and storyteller, providing some clarity to a cloudy vision was all she could hope for. "There's hardly any peg in this whole narrative that's literal, truthful or absolute," concludes Ward. "It's all conditional, situational and interpretive. At a certain point, I had to stop equivocating and pick the best thing I think comes out of it."

"I considered that this was field work with the dead," UNO Professor Martha Ward says of her new book, Voodoo Queen: The Spirited Lives of Marie Laveau.
  • "I considered that this was field work with the dead," UNO Professor Martha Ward says of her new book, Voodoo Queen: The Spirited Lives of Marie Laveau.

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