By: Jillian Simmons
Marie Laveau was one of the few free black people and a powerful woman of high status in New Orleans during the nineteenth century when slavery was still legal. She holds a legacy that is still strong in today’s society for being the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans and also for the contributions she made to society, especially to those people of color who were enslaved. During the third season of American Horror Story: Coven, Angela Bassett portrayed Marie Laveau as a merciless villain who uses her power of immortality, which she gained from a demonic force by the name of Papa Legba, to kill innocent beings and to seek revenge on those who have wronged her. The show also depicts the true historical character Marie Delphine LaLaurie (portrayed by Kathy Bates) who, like Laveau, is a historically well-known woman of high status. However, she is famous for the “brutally cruel” treatment of her slaves (“The LaLaurie House”). The LaLaurie House is still a famous building in Louisiana due to her hideous actions against the slaves she owned.
The show accurately depicts the murderous LaLaurie conducting her actions of ripping slaves apart and keeping their bodies in cages in her attic. By contrast, the show inaccurately depicts Marie Laveau as an evil witch with the same murderous behaviors and horrendous intentions as LaLaurie. It is hard to understand why the show chooses to draw an equivalency between the black woman who was actually a heroic figure for people of color during the nineteenth century with the white woman who is responsible for not only owning slaves, but murdering slaves as well. Viewers deserve to know the truth about the magnificent Marie Laveau; not the lies told by American Horror Story.
The show portrays Marie Laveau with a purpose to only prove this powerful woman as the evil antagonist. The show contains a scene where Laveau steals a baby from the hospital to sacrifice to Papa Legba in order to pay him for giving her the power of immortality. In another scene when she first makes the deal with Papa Legba, she sacrifices her first-born child, a daughter. It is horrendous for the show to depict Laveau sacrificing her own child. We hardly know anything about Laveau as a mother, only the fact that she had two children (Long 272). The only records that are recorded of the children are their births and baptisms. However, there are also records that “she raised and sheltered fifteen children in her home” (Long 272) out of the kindness of her heart. The type of person who raises fifteen children would not have sacrificed her own.
The show also portrays Marie Laveau as a woman who used the magic of voodoo to kill innocent people and seek revenge against those who wronged her. This is only partially true. Marie Laveau did use voodoo, but not to kill people. As a matter-of-fact, there is no evidence at all that Laveau ever murdered anyone. Marie Laveau used voodoo for “ritual performances that served to unite a black community around common goals, like healing and gaining independence” (Long 4). Many people in New Orleans consider Laveau to be a saint, not a villain. One of Laveau’s contemporaries described an encounter with her in the following way:
It was her all right…She came walkin’ into Congo Square wit’ her head up in the air like a queen. Her skirts swished when she walked and everybody step back and let her pass. All the people – white and colored—start sayin’ that’s the most powerful woman there is. They say, ‘There goes Marie Laveau!’ and me, I was little and I got kind of scared. You know they used to scare little children then by tellin’ ‘em they was gonna give ‘em to Marie Laveau. Now let me tell you this. She was a great person. I don’t care what nobody says. (Kein 159)
Her contemporary’s account may be misleading as she states that “they used to scare little children” by threatening to send them to Laveau. The reason some people during that time found Laveau to be “scary” was because she used voodoo. Many people think of voodoo as an evil force, which is understandable since popular culture only depicts voodoo in an evil light with voodoo dolls and witches casting voodoo spells to raise the dead. As Sybil Kein has demonstrated, Laveau used her voodoo for beauty, healing, and spiritual purposes. She did not use voodoo as a scare tactic or for evil. As the contemporary said, “she was a great person.”
Those who knew Madame LaLaurie have memorable accounts of her as well. Her neighbor “Was climbing her own stairs when she heard a scream and saw Madame LaLaurie chasing a little girl, the Madame’s personal servant, with a whip. She pursued the girl onto the roof of the house, where the child jumped to her death. The neighbor later saw the small slave girl buried in a shallow grave beneath the cypress trees in the yard”(“The LaLaurie House”). At a later date, one of LaLaurie’s slaves, whom she kept “chained to the stove,” started a fire in the house. When firefighters arrived, they “found more than a dozen slaves here, chained to the wall in a horrible state. They were both male and female…some were strapped to makeshift operating tables…some were confined in cages made for dogs…human body parts were scattered around and heads and human organs were placed haphazardly in buckets…grisly souvenirs were stacked on shelves and next to them a collection of whips and paddles.” (“The LaLaurie House”).
These hideous actions described were also portrayed in the show, which leads me to believe that the writers of American Horror Story knew what a terrible woman LaLaurie was. Laveau and LaLaurie were in no way equal. However, American Horror Story portrays these women as being equally evil, and, in the last episode of the show, Laveau and LaLaurie receive the same fate of being taken down into the depths of hell by Papa Legba.
It seems that American Horror Story could care less about Laveau’s positive influence on the lives of slaves and the black community in New Orleans or the hideous actions that LaLaurie committed against many slaves. I highly doubt those slaves would approve of the show’s depictions of LaLaurie or Laveau. The show completely distorts the image of slavery by justifying a slave murderer and her actions. The show actually made the portrayal of LaLaurie look better than Laveau’s by releasing LaLaurie from the grave that Laveau (according to the depiction of the show) buried her alive in, depicting her as befriending Queenie, a black character in the show, who is a relative of the Black voodoo slave, Tituba (Salem Witch Trials), and by depicting her crying while watching a documentary about the Civil Rights Movement and actually apologizing for some of her actions.
As if being sold into slavery, having your identity stripped away, and being forced to work without pay night and day wasn’t bad enough, LaLaurie took slavery to a higher level of cruel and unusual punishment. Why would anyone with morals put her on the same level as Laveau? There is no excuse or explanation for why American Horror Story would take the subject of slavery this lightly. Not only have they slandered the name of Laveau, but the name of every slave who was murdered, mutilated, and beaten by Madame LaLaurie.
Kein, Sybil. “Marie Laveau: The Voodoo Queen Repossessed.” Creole The History and Legacy of Louisiana’s Free People of Color. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2000. 157-178. Print.
“The LaLaurie House.” THE LALAURIE HOUSE. Web. 6 Dec. 2014. (Link)
Long, Carolyn Morrow. “Marie Laveau: A Nineteenth-Century Voudou Priestess.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 46.3 (2005): 262-92. Print.