by Carolyn Morrow Long
In New Orleans’ St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 stands the resting place of the celebrated Voudou priestess, Marie Laveau. The pedimented three-vault tomb, bearing the inscription Famille de Vve Paris née Laveau (Family of the Widow Paris born Laveau), is said to be second only to Elvis Presley’s grave as the most frequented burial site in the United States.
Marie Laveau was descended from enslaved Africans and French colonists. She was born September 10, 1801, to Marguerite Darcantel and Charles Laveaux, both free Creoles of color. She was probably raised in the home of her grandmother, Catherine Henry, at 152 (now 1020-1022) St. Ann Street between Rampart and Burgundy streets. In 1819, Marie married Jacques Paris, a free man of color from Haiti. When he died or disappeared around 1824, Marie was officially designated as the Widow Paris. She subsequently established a life partnership with Louis Christophe Dominique Duminy de Glapion, a white man of noble French ancestry, sometimes calling herself Marie Glapion or Madame Christophe Glapion. When Marie’s grandmother died, Christophe bought the cottage on St. Ann Street, and it remained the family home until the late 19th century. Marie and Christophe had seven children together between 1827 and 1838; only two daughters, Marie Helöise Euchariste and Marie Philomène, survived to adulthood. Although Marie Laveau is best known as a leader of New Orleans’ Voudou congregation, she was also a devout Catholic beloved during her lifetime as a kind and charitable woman who nursed fever victims and ministered to prisoners.
For many years the Marie Laveau/Widow Paris tomb was easily recognizable by the offerings placed before it and the X marks covering the walls and marble inscription tablets. The Xs have been a particularly contentious issue. Local preservationists and the Archdiocese of New Orleans, which owns the cemetery, condemn the practice as “desecration” and argue that it was introduced by unscrupulous tour guides in the 1960s. The markings actually have a much longer history. At some time, perhaps shortly after Marie died, followers began to solicit contact with her spirit by leaving offerings and drawing the sign of the cross on the tomb. Newspaper articles from the 1920s–1940s refer to the offerings and cross marks at the Widow Paris tomb and at a wall vault in St. Louis Cemetery No. 2 that is also associated with Laveau. In 1940 workers for the Louisiana Writers’ Project interviewed the sexton of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and learned that “Negroes and whites come almost daily to leave offerings to Marie’s spirit. They make crosses with red brick, charcoal, and sharp rocks which [the sexton], acting under orders of the priests of St. Louis Cathedral, immediately removes. Close observation, however, discloses scratched crosses under the fresh whitewash.”
|The “Dead Space” survey of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 conducted in 2001-2002 by the University of Pennsylvania School of Fine Arts graduate program in historic preservation includes an online searchable map and database for every tomb in the cemetery. The map is located at this link , with an accompanying database. The Widow Paris tomb is #347, and the two alleged Laveau tombs are #256 and #329.|
The Widow Paris tomb became a major tourist attraction in the later 20th century, and its popularity has continued to grow. At some point the crosses morphed into X marks and thoughtless visitors, with no understanding of the Voudou religion and no awareness of the value and fragility of New Orleans’ historic cemeteries, began to draw Xs with red permanent markers, lipstick, and fingernail polish. Use of these synthetic oil-and-chemical-based materials damages the stuccoed front and sides of the tomb and especially the marble tablets, penetrating the surface and rendering the inscriptions illegible. In 2005 the city of New Orleans passed an ordinance outlawing the marking of tombs or otherwise defacing cemetery property; a warning sign was posted at the front gate of St. Louis No. 1.
In mid-December 2013, an unidentified intruder scaled the cemetery wall during the night and painted the Widow Paris tomb with bright “Pepto Bismol” pink latex paint and applied a coating of white latex to the marble tablets. A Laveau devotee, making her annual visit to the tomb the following morning, reported the shocking discovery to a cemetery custodian. The Archdiocesan Cemeteries Office dispatched workmen to remove the latex paint by pressure washing. This extreme treatment indeed got rid of the paint, but it also dislodged layers of stucco and lime wash, exposing the soft brick underneath. Save Our Cemeteries, a non-profit preservation group, subsequently raised funds for complete restoration of the tomb by experts. The work entailed rebuilding the roof, renewing the stucco on the walls followed by several coats of lime wash, and cleaning the marble tablets. The work was finished in time for All Saints’ Day 2014. Nobody was ever arrested for painting the tomb, but those in the know believe that the perpetrator was a “mentally disturbed homeless kid” who thought he was performing a service by obliterating the X marks.
Vandalism has continued since the incident of the pink paint. The most egregious example was a renegade tour guide who removed bricks from the sides of tombs, allowing tourists to insert their cameras or reach inside and snatch a souvenir bone.
The Archdiocesan Cemeteries Office had finally had enough, announcing that effective March 1, 2015, nobody would be admitted to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 unless accompanied by a tour guide registered with the Cemeteries Office. Tour companies were charged $4,500 per year, and the Cemeteries Office stated that fees would “go toward staffing the cemetery during the day, beefing up security at night, and help with overall restoration.” Tour company owners signed an agreement not to allow any tourist to “vandalize and/or deface any tomb” by “placing candles, beans [surely they meant to say “beads”], pennies, or other items near or on any tombs, and/or marking any tombs in any manner.”
Renewed public interest in the Widow Paris tomb generated questions about who is actually buried there. For answers, I turned to records housed at the archives of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Because Marie Laveau was a lifelong member of St. Louis Cathedral, there is ample documentation of the baptisms, marriages, funerals, and interments of her family. The burial books, which cover the years 1833 to 1973, were the most valuable.
Instead of searching for known relatives and friends of Marie Laveau, I was looking for any person interred in the Widow Paris tomb. My search also led to the surprising discovery that Marie owned a two-vault tomb across the cemetery on the St. Louis Street side and a vault in the Basin Street wall. There were 13 interments in the St. Louis tomb and 14 in the wall vault; none of them were family members.
During Marie’s lifetime and for a few years after her 1881 death, the final line of each entry for the Widow Paris tomb was always some variation on the phrase Inhumé dans la tombe de Mme Veuve Paris née Marie Laveau seconde allée au droite (buried in the tomb of Madame Widow Paris born Marie Laveau, second aisle on the right). After supervision of the tomb devolved to Marie’s daughter Philomène, the records called it the “Philomène Glapion tomb.” An amazing 84 people were interred there between 1834 and 1957. Only 25 were family members. In addition to Marie Laveau and Christophe Glapion, four of their children, ten grandchildren, two grandnephews, and seven great-grandchildren were laid to rest in the tomb.
Altogether, there were 111 burials in these three Laveau-related sites in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Seventy-seven were persons of color and 34 were white; the black/white ratio was nearly equal during Marie’s lifetime, but in the latter years most interments were of African Americans. There were 45 babies under 18 months old (including many infants who were stillborn or died within the first months of life), ten children ages 18 months to 13 years, 36 women, and 20 men.
Besides the 25 family members, who were the rest of these people? Two of them were slaves, recorded as the property of “ Marie Laveau Vve Paris.” At least eight can be identified as friends of the Laveau-Glapion family. Six were neighbors living within a few blocks of the family home on St. Ann Street. But most of them have no apparent connection to Marie Laveau or her family. Most of them lived and died in the working-class residential and industrial Tremé neighborhood on St. Peter, Orleans, St. Ann, Dumaine, St. Philip, and Ursulines streets in the blocks between Rampart and Broad and even further out toward Lake Pontchartrain near Galvez. They were black and white Louisianians and some immigrants. In many cases the entry in the burial book is the only record of their existence. Often there was no civil death certificate, and few of them turned up in city directories and the census. They might have been patients that Marie nursed in their last illness, clients, members of her Voudou congregation, or simply recipients of her charity. During this time when embalming was not customary, families faced with the death of a loved one, especially a sudden death for which they were unprepared, often had no tomb available for their use.Philomène Glapion Legendre, Marie Laveau’s last surviving daughter, died on June 11, 1897. There were only five burials in the Widow Paris tomb between this date and 1917, when Philomène’s son Blair arranged for an interment. After that the tomb was abandoned for 40 years. There was, however, one final burial of a 69-year-old African American woman named Bertha Alcindor on August 20, 1957. Mrs. Alcindor had no known connection to the Laveau-Glapion family, and there is no record of a family member authorizing use of the tomb.
In March 2015, just after the new regulations had gone into effect, I obtained a research pass from the Archdiocesan Cemeteries Office to enter St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 on my own. Only tour groups were present to visit Marie Laveau’s resting place. The tomb was white, pristine, unmarked, and devoid of offerings—a queen stripped of her regalia. The strict rules imposed by the Archdiocese of New Orleans will indeed protect the Widow Paris tomb from the depredations of tourists, but the curtailment of free and unlimited access to the cemetery leaves bereft the Laveau devotees who consider her tomb a shrine and pilgrimage site.
Carolyn Morrow Long, a retired research associate from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, is the author of A New Orleans Voudou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau (2006), Madame Lalaurie: Mistress of the Haunted House (2012), and Spiritual Merchants: Religion, Magic, and Commerce (2001). She won first place in the 2015 Press Club of New Orleans Excellence in Journalism competition for her article about the Cracker Jack Hoodoo Drug Store formerly located in the old South Rampart business district, that was published in the Spring 2014 edition of Louisiana Cultural Vistas.