From Wikimedia Commons: 1920 painting of Marie Laveau (1794–1881) by Frank Schneider, based on an 1835 painting by George Catlin. Source: Louisiana State Museum, New Orleans

According to historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, voodoo came to New Orleans not only as a result of the Haitian Revolution—when droves of refugees, both white and black, flocked to New Orleans in the early 1800s bringing the primary popular religion of Haiti with them—but far earlier in the city’s history with the arrival of enslaved Africans in the 1700s.

New Orleans elites in the early years of the 19th century were terrified a similar uprising might happen here. In 1817, City Council forbid blacks from congregating in large groups except in specified places at specified times. Therefore, voodoo rituals of the day had to hide from view, which meant—in the days before the city’s vast cypress forests were drained and developed—they moved into the swamps.

According to Bayou St. John historian Edna Freiberg, these policies explain why the famous voodoo queen Marie Laveau is said to have held her annual St. John’s Eve rituals along the banks of our swampy bayou. And yet, she seems to have invited everyone to come out and see it anyway!

I’m fascinated by Marie Laveau, along with, like, everyone ever, specifically because I want to know more about her success in bringing voodoo into the public (i.e. white) eye—one of the many things she is known for. What was the purpose of this? What was the benefit? I have much more reading to do on the subject, but as we near June 23rd, St. John’s Eve, I wanted to provide you with an interesting (and dated, and hugely offensive) Times-Picayune article of yesteryear describing this annual event. Part of the reason why we can read about the event now is precisely because it was open to white voyeurs, for reasons I still can’t figure out.

Was Laveau simply cashing in on whites’ need to witness what they termed a “barbaric spectacle,” to remind themselves, once again, of their ultimate superiority? Was it all a ploy, a “decoy,” while the “real” ritual unfolded place elsewhere?

In 1924, this Times-Picayune reporter wrote on the supposed history of this annual event: “This cabala of St. John’s Eve was for years a topic of discussion in New Orleans and even attracted national attention. In barbaric color and African hideousness, nothing has ever surpassed it. Thousands of curiosity-seekers, journalists, and freelance writers, who chanced to be in New Orleans at the time of this jubilee, would go out in the swamp lands after nightfall and walk through the rough paths, eager to glimpse the orgy. It is generally known that Marie LaVeau [sic] welcomed whites as this particular saturnalia and it is often remarked that it was the decoy, the real worship of the voodoo taking place at other times in remote regions of the swamp, near the shanty which has been styled the ‘summer home’ of Marie LaVeau.”[1]

For the modern-day St. John’s Eve head-washing ceremony (decidedly less fraught), head out to Magnolia Bridge on June 23rd!


1. Times-Picayune 16 Mar. 1924: 71. NewsBank. Web. 14 Jun. 2016.


Last night, I was lucky enough to attend the annual St. John’s Eve voodoo head-washing ceremony, led by Sallie Ann Glassman’s La Source Ancienne Ounfo, an event that has taken place for the last twenty years on the historic Magnolia Bridge on the evening of June 23rd. Yours truly has a lot to learn about the history of voodoo in New Orleans—but I do know Bayou St. John has played an important role in that history, in part because the so-called Queen of Voodoo, Marie Laveau, was said to have acquired herbs and other ritual materials from the Native Americans living in the area, and in even larger part because on October 15, 1817, shortly after the influx of refugees from the slave uprising on Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) into New Orleans (an influx that helped solidify the cultural and religious practices of voodoo here), city officials banned congregations of blacks except for in specific locations at specific times. Therefore, many of these “secret rituals” were moved out to the bayou—to that relatively untamed, muddy-banked, cypress-forested waterway, surrounded primarily by farmland of varying degrees of sogginess. In my initial search for sources on this topic, I also heard it mentioned that the bayou, named after Saint John the Baptist, was a natural place to hold these St. John’s Eve rituals—but I’m not sure about that potential connection yet.

The head-washing ceremony, believed to be a modified (and perhaps modernized) version of a voodoo baptism, included chanting and singing, dancing, a colorful, 9-foot-tall papier-mache statue of Marie Laveau (produced by Mid-City Mardi Gras decoration designer Ricardo Pustanio) looming above a pile of miscellaneous offerings, a palm-ful of cool water poured from a green bottle that we all dabbed on our necks, and a bridge-ful of spirited folks dressed in white.

Oh! And I almost forgot to mention The Inappropriate Drone, who buzzed very loudly above the ceremony for what seemed like an impossibly long time, and the interaction between the older woman to my left who crossed to the railing of the bridge, located with her eagle-eyes the two young men who appeared to be controlling the drone, made her hand into the shape of a gun and pretended to shoot them (after already having flipped off the drone a few minutes earlier). The drone soon buzzed off. A very New Orleans moment.