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(This article was originally posted in April 2016 and reposted with updates)
I’ve been and read a lot about New Orleans history and mystery on many occasions. However, this time around, we decided to take a walking cemetery tour. I wanted hear more stories as well as the history of one of the many fascinating cemeteries in the city, Saint Louis Cemetery number one.
Luckily, we scored a good Groupon, and booked a tour with Witches Brew Tours . By the way, they are great, check them out if you are ever in NoLa! No problem redeeming the Groupon.
beautiful trees all around
Let me tell you that the stories were fascinating. Our tour guide, Andy, was fantastic. He kept us entertained with a good mixture of humor, spookiness, and history.
We toured Armstrong Park with its many gorgeous trees and sculptures, and we walked our way to the Saint Louis Cemetery number one built in 1789.
Inside the cemetery
Do Vampires really do exist?
Do you believe in vampires? That is a great question to ask when you are in Nola.
Once we arrived at the cemetery, we listened to tales about a strict Catholic cemetery in a segregated society where skin color didn’t matter after death. As long as you died Catholic, you could be buried in this cemetery.
But, beware of vampires! Andy told us how it was a common practice to decapitate the body, placing the head at the feet facing down, and stabbing the heart with a wooden spear. This was all to prevent anyone suspected to be a vampire to return as such.
It’s all about the heat.
Well, interestingly enough, another burial practice in New Orleans was to keep the deceased body inside a coffin that was placed in an above the ground tomb and bricked in for a year and one day.
Because of the usually hot weather of the region, this type of tomb acts as an oven leading the body to decompose rapidly. As you can imagine, after 366 days only the bones will remain. Creepy, right?
On some occasions though, either because of the weather (or because the person was really a vampire…maybe), some corpses remained almost intact, skin and all.
But, think about this: as the muscles atrophy and the skin dries up, the gum line recedes, and the fingers start looking long and bony. This phenomenon gives the impression of a very thin person with large canine teeth, and long monster fingers… a vampire.
Famous Tombs and Empty Tombs?
But, in this cemetery we also saw other interesting tomb sites, including one of a person that hasn’t died yet.
Yes, you guessed it (or maybe you are waiting on me to tell you). As of right now, Nicolas Cage’s tomb remains lavishly empty. We guess he wants to go out in style.
Nicolas Cage’s massive pyramid tomb is located in this cemetery, next to one of a queen. A voodoo queen I should add.
Nicolas cage’s tomb
This is the real tomb of Marie Leveau… according to the guide.
The Queen of Voodoo.
This is the story that fascinated me the most. Marie Laveau was a creole woman born in the late 1700’s and who worked as a hairdresser for the wealthy white women of the town.
Often, due to carelessness or lack of a sense of prudence, these women would talk freely about their affairs and other ailments in front of Marie and all other house servers.
Marie Laveau took this opportunity and created an empire. Have you heard the saying, knowledge is power? Well, she was a visionary that possessed and gained all the means necessary to build her metaphorical kingdom.
She would gain information by paying the helpers of other wealthy households for details about their landlords. She kept promises to all the rich and powerful men that came to her for help. She would always keep their secrets and cater to their needs.
Magic or plain genius?
How did she obtain the title “Queen of Voodo?” Here’s how she did it:
She used the spectacle of magic and combined it with her catholic rituals and beliefs to create “Voodoo” rituals. This way she presented to her customers her knowledge of their secret desires, which in fact, was merely the information she had (privately) gathered from her client’s servers without their knowledge.
Seeing the spectacle, the gullible rich ladies thought she possessed magic and and that she knew all these things about them by invoking the spirits. And, since she kept secrets and catered to the town’s gentlemen’s desires, she was well respected by the male society of the town.
Marie Laveau made her business by collecting information behind people’s backs and making strong symbiotic friendships with the right crowd. Marie Laveau was powerful, she was a voodoo queen.
Immortal? not quite
But beauty and youth can only last but so long. As she was aging, she saw the opportunity to continue her legacy with her daughter, also named Marie Laveau II.
When her daughter was old enough, she assumed Leveau’s role, impersonating her mother in many instances. The legacy continued with her granddaughter after that, and as years passed, people started to believe that Marie Laveau was forever young and beautiful, immortal if you wish.
Three women, one name. It is believed that this is the reason why every portrait made of Marie Laveau look different. No one really knows what she looked like (people didn’t walk around with their smartphones snapping pictures of celebrities back in the day). She was one and three at the same time, a holy trinity made voodoo queen.
A silent death.
Marie Laveau’s deaths were kept silent in order to keep her legacy, and business going with her daughter. Her mausoleum at the Cemetery is said to be occupied by her granddaughter rather than her, but there are speculations that she was buried in a different tomb, the one next to Nicolas Cage’s pyramid. Go figure.
Marie Leveau’s tomb after it was re-painted and repaired
The faithful and the vandals
Marie Laveau’s influence can be felt all around New Orleans. Her tomb (which is, according to the guide, one of the most visited tombs in the US), has been vandalized (was completely painted bright pink), repainted, and repaired to conserve this popular landmark.
Voodoo practitioners and other curious tourists leave offerings by the tomb and request a wish to be granted. Then, they mark the tomb with three X’s and walk around the mausoleum knocking on it three times. Don’t quote me on this one… I’m just repeating what Andy (our guide) said. Obviously, marking the tomb with an X is considered vandalism, so you better not get caught.
Her tomb before it was vandalized and repainted
No more unauthorized solo visits
As of April 2016 no one is allowed inside the cemetery unless they are accompanied by a certified tour guide, or unless they are visiting a family member’s tomb (and have proof of this). This strict measure might change in the future, but for now they want to prevent the tombs from being vandalized by uncaring people.
Besides her tomb, the New Orleans Historic Voodoo museum on Dumaine St, established in 1972, is the oldest authentic voodoo artifact museum in the city. It has many of Marie Laveau’s belongings. Around the city it is easy to find plaques of the places where she used to frequent and live with her daughters.
House where she lived with her daughters
A strong, independent woman
Being a creole woman in a segregated society didn’t impede Marie Laveau from being powerful and having a legacy that carried for over a century.
She found ways to play with people’s minds, making them believe she was a powerful priestess. As far as actual magical power, no one knows to what point this is true, but one thing is certain; she was powerful in the way she arranged her business, to the point that she was recognized and remembered as the Voodoo Queen now and for generations to come.
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