New Orleans Voodoo History and New Orleans Voodoo Information ~ A glimpse into the History of Voodoo in New Orleans by New Orleans Voodoo Priestess, Ms. Kalila Smith
New Orleans Voodoo and New Orleans Voodoo History ~ Ms. Kalila Smith, native New Orleans practitioner, provides us a glimpse into the history of Voodoo in New Orleans. She has published so many books, papers and historical tours on this topic; I couldn’t have found a more renowned expert on New Orleans Voodoo, History of New Orleans Voodoo and accurate New Orleans Voodoo Information.
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The roots of Voodoo have been traced all the way back to Africa thousands of years ago. In his book, A Brief History of Voodoo: Slavery & the Survival of The African Gods, Mr. Andy Antippas gives an overview of this fascinating history. The Yoruba people of Southwestern and eastern Dahomey and Togo/Nigeria founded a great city called Ife. It is from the religious beliefs of Ife that Voodoo as we know it today has evolved.
In 1799, a slave uprising in Haiti brought the Free People of Color and their Voodoo religion. These people had no reason to believe that they could not come to this city and worship freely. The first Voodoo Queen in New Orleans was Sanite’ DeDe, a young woman who bought her way to freedom, she would later be teacher and mentor to the most famous Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau! She would hold rituals in her courtyard on Dumaine (the same street Erzulie’s is located) and Chartres Streets, just blocks away from the Cathedral.
The rhythmic beat of the drums could be heard in during mass! It was because of this that in 1817, the church decided that any religion that was not Catholic would not be allowed to practice within the city limits. Congo Square, now Armstrong Park was the location that the early Voudoun held their rituals. The Voodoo religion is based on one main supreme deity and several demi-gods called Loas. The Loas are much to Voodoo as the Saints are to Catholicism, each one serving a specific purpose. In the language of the Dahomey tribes, the word Voodoo means Gods or Spirits. The Dahomians believed that these spirits had the ability to enter the worshippers. This was believed to be a valuable experience, warding off illness and misfortune. It was in Congo Square where Voodoo became mixed with other tribal religions of the slaves and with Native American traditions.
Voodoo in New Orleans had started to evolve becoming more indigenous to the city. Eventually, New Orleans Voodoo became immensely different from the purer form of Haitian Voodoo. Tales of Voodoo curses this mystical, spiritualistic religion spawned not only fear and hysteria to New Orleans, but shrouded the Crescent City in a veil of mysticism spilled over into our folklore for over one hundred years. The Voodoo hysteria of New Orleans lasted through the 1950’s. It left behind a trail of folklore and legend of Voodoo Queens and Root Doctors who have become ingrained in the city’s history.
Police who actually arrested participants frequently broke up rituals! In 1863, the Times Picayune recorded the trial of one such arrest. Approximately 400 women were arrested and tried for the crime of “dancing naked” at a Voodoo ritual. A young woman had reported the crime to the police after accidentally walking into the area. After three days of trials, the women were released for “lack of evidence”. It seems that the girl who reported the “crime” had become strangely confused and was unable to testify properly against them. The charges were dropped. Many believed that the Voudouns hexed the girl and then charmed the judge. Due to such incidents, many a ritual was relocated in secret to the swampland on Bayou St. John, near what is now City Park. Today, Voudouns continue to hold rituals in Congo Square.
New Orleanians feared nothing more than the dreaded Voodoo curse! It is the worst of all fates. Evil magic in other parts of the country paled in comparison. Practitioners today generally will not do negative magic but back in 1944 when Robert Tallant wrote about Voodoo in New Orleans, he spoke to elders in the community who gave a different account of the way things were!
It was not uncommon then for crosses of death, tiny coffins, and strange concoctions or voodoo dolls to be found at dawn on the doorsteps and galleries of residents here. Sometimes there would be just a black candle or a black crepe wreath. Superstitious residents of the times would constantly seek protection from such curses. Much of the Voodoo practitioners’ spells that were sought after were for that of protection or uncrossing, removing hexes. One of the most common practices to protect one from evil curses was to scrub the front stoop of the house with brick dust. Many New Orleanians purchased Gris-Gris bags (good luck charms). And would wear them near the body or place them in the home. In a 1924 newspaper article, doctors at Charity hospital who were interviewed told of patients being brought in wearing their Gris-Gris bags and refusing to part with them. These bags were usually made up of a variety of herbs or even animal parts. One of the most powerful animals to use in Voodoo was the cat, particularly, a black cat.
Many of the incidents considered Voodoo crimes that we found in the police reports were actually crimes committed not so much because there was a curse but merely the belief that there was.
On November 2, 1950, neighbors called the police to an apartment inside this building at 808 Dauphine. The neighbors complained that they heard the screams of children within. When the police arrived, they found Rosita Zerruda is a crazed frenzy attempting to burn down this building by dousing it with kerosene. She was arrested before she could ignite it. The woman had deep gashes in her arms that were obviously self-inflicted. A thick trail of fresh blood led police to a bedroom where her four children lay in pools of congealed blood, gashes down their forearms. The family was rushed to Charity hospital. The children were treated for their injuries and eventually released into the custody of a relative. Once treated for her wounds, Rosita Zerruda was then admitted into the mental ward.
When questioned by police, Mrs. Zerruda, hysterically explained that her neighbor, a Voudoun, had cursed her. She stated that the woman had been hypnotizing her and then had placed a spell on her. She informed police that when she awoke that morning, she found blood smeared on her doorstep, along with a black wreath. Police never got any more information out of Mrs. Zerruda. During her questioning, she began to stutter, and her pupils dilated. She mumbled senselessly as her skin grew pale and clammy. Her body began to twitch and her pulse weakened. The police stood and watched in horror as doctors attempted to treat her for shock. Mrs. Zerruda slipped into a coma before their very eyes. Never awakening she remained a vegetable for the duration of her tormented life!
Countless stories of Voodoo murders have cropped up throughout our history. In October of 1951, in a quiet neighborhood near the New Orleans lakefront, a woman shot and wounded her husband for burning salt and incense on their front door. Convinced her husband was trying to put a hex on her; she was driven by fear and superstition to commit murder. Police rescued her before she could pull the trigger on herself. She was committed to the Charity Hospital’s Mental Ward.
In 1938, Reverend Howard Randle believed his wife, Lucinda, had put a spell on him. She had always been a very jealous woman. He had been having an affair with a young woman on Rampart St. He had also been seen frequenting several of the local bordellos by numerous individuals. His liaisons were tormenting to his poor wife. Night after night, she cried and prayed that his escapades would cease. But instead, the situation worsened. He had been spending less and less time at home and more time with his mistress.
In an attempt to win his fidelity back, Lucinda visited Dr. Rockford Lewis, a local witch doctor who operated on Royal St. She bought a powder to turn her husband impotent. She carefully emptied the small bag into his coffee one morning. When he began to drink it, she became afraid that it might kill him so she cried to him that she had poisoned him. Within a few moments, she had convinced Howard that he was going to die!
Overwhelmed with guilt, she fell to her knees, begging him to kill her, so that she wouldn’t be left alone. Believing that he would soon die, he walked with her out to the levee. She laid her head on his lap and gazed out onto the dark river. She talked of how she would go first and be waiting for him by the river in the glorious afterlife. They would be together forever!
Slowly he took the knife out of his coat pocket and she closed her eyes. He jabbed the blade into her throat, ripping it open. He of course, did not die. But he wished he had, he was given life in prison! Legend says she still wanders the rivers edge, waiting for him to join her.
But Voodoo can also seek revenge as well. In 1932, Elijah Wheatley dragged his girlfriend, Lucille Williams to a canal and threw her in, she drowned. A night watchman had seen Wheatley running away and he reported the crime to the police. The newspaper printed the story the next day. The family of the deceased woman wanted justice. As they prepared Lucille’s body for her funeral, they placed a fresh egg in each of her hand. A rope was tied around her wrists and she was laid face down in the coffin. For the following two days, they kept a vigil, praying constantly. Tall red candles burned at each end of her coffin. She was then buried and the eggs crushed and sprinkled around her grave. The morning after her funeral, Elijah’s body was found …floating in the same canal, in the same spot where he had killed Lucille! Police assumed that maybe he had become remorseful and perhaps committed suicide. The Voudouns knew better!
In a New Orleans Daily Picayune story, dated August 13, 1863, simply called, “A Snake Story”, a young woman by the name of Susan Williams claims to have snakes inhabiting her belly. She alleges that she had become the victim of a Voodoo curse. She had gone to several practitioners obtaining roots and herbs to rid her of the dreaded serpent. The results of her endeavors were quite shocking. Rather than expel a snake from her belly she gave birth to a baby. She attributed the pregnancy to witchcraft and “expressed her opinion that a child brought unto the breathing world would never come to good.” In the morning the baby was dead. Ms. Williams died the following day in Charity hospital.