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Vandals’ pink paint damage removed at Laveau tomb

Marie Laveau’s legend lives on in books, movies, songs and the current TV show “American Horror Story: Coven,” even though she’s been dead since 1881.

She was resurrected again the week before Christmas when vandals painted pink what is believed to be her burial place in the Glapion tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.

Sherri Peppo, acting director of the archdiocesan Cemeteries Office that owns and operates St. Louis No. 1, said she didn’t know how the vandals got inside the cemetery to paint the tomb. St. Louis No. 1 is surrounded by 10-foot-tall brick walls.  The three entrance gates – estimated at 8 feet tall – are locked at night, and none of the locks on the gates was cut. 

“You really have to make an effort to climb over,” she said, although this wasn’t the first time it has happened. No one has since come forward claiming to have painted the tomb, Peppo said.

The Glapion tomb is not under perpetual care by the archdiocesan Cemeteries office, Peppo said. It remains under family ownership, although Peppo wasn’t sure if any of the original family is still around to take care of it since the last burial was in 1957, according to archdiocesan records. The first burial was in 1826. 

“So it is not routinely maintained or kept up,” Peppo said.

Tomb previously cleaned

Nonetheless, she said the Cemeteries Office has occasionally cleaned and painted the tomb due to the high traffic the tomb regularly receives from tours and curiosity seekers. Its condition prior to the pink paint had exposed brick and missing plaster.

“Over the last few years, it continues to deteriorate, and you can’t just keep painting over crumbling brick and deteriorating plaster,” Peppo said.

When the vandalism was discovered on Dec. 18, Peppo said she sent a foreman and repair crew of the Cemeteries Office to the tomb to assess the extent of the damage and determine what could be done. Because the weather wasn’t too warm before Christmas, the pink latex paint used by vandals “had not adhered to the tomb” and flaked off easily when the foreman examined it, Peppo said.

For that reason, the Cemeteries Office decided in early January to lightly pressure wash the pink paint, a standard maintenance technique used for all other tombs, she said.

In the process, Angie Green, executive director of Save Our Cemeteries, whose offices are across from St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, noticed the paint removal and later offered to hire a tomb restoration expert to determine the best method to remove the paint at no cost to the archdiocese.

Green said Save Our Cemeteries does not agree with the methods of paint removal or maintenance on historic tombs used by the archdiocese. 

Peppo said because the new paint came off easily, leaving the former X-marked graffiti intact, the Cemeteries office decided to continue pressure washing the entire tomb.

(According to lore, individual wishes are granted by Laveau’s spirit to those who place three Xs on the tomb, spin around three times and yell the wish. If the wish is granted, they can return to the tomb to bring an offering.)

Quick action needed

Peppo said she had received an email from Green indicating that someone was willing to repair the tomb. Not knowing the person that Green had in mind, the method of paint removal or how long the process might take, Peppo said the cemeteries office decided to remove the paint as quickly as possible before it stuck to the tomb and held in moisture that might further deteriorate the tomb.

Green said Save Our Cemeteries is an organization that has been around for approximately 40 years and conducts about 470 tours annually in St. Louis No. 1. She said “pressure washing and painting are incredibly damaging to a tomb of this age.”

Green said several paint-removal techniques are preferable, but the one most likely recommended for this tomb would have been a gentle paint remover compatible with lime-based mortar. She said Save Our Cemeteries has done work in St. Louis I and II, most recently about a decade ago, using “historically appropriate, lime-based mortars and plasters.”

Green also mentioned that she had recommended to Peppo a paint and graffiti preventative coating to help prevent future damage done by the Xs.

More work ahead?
Whether further work on the tomb will be done is unclear.

  “The next step from here would be for the archdiocese to make a decision for the tomb to be repaired,” Peppo said.

Conflicting reports remain about Marie Laveau’s life, her Catholic faith and practice of voodoo. Generally, accounts say Marie Laveau was born Catholic in New Orleans as a free person of color around 1794, although an account from scholar Carolyn Morrow Long says 1801.

From various sources, she was the daughter of Charles Laveaux and a free woman of color  named Marguerite. She married carpenter Jacques Paris at St. Louis Cathedral. He died shortly after, and  Laveau “entered a domestic partnership” with Christophe Duminy de Glapion and they had seven children, Long discovered. 

Laveau is reported to have attended Mass every day. In a New York Times 1881 story about her death, she was called the “Queen of Voudou” and Voudous were “thought to be invested in supernatural powers.”

The Xs started in the 1930s

The practices of visitors leaving Xs on the tomb probably began in the 1930s, Green surmised, since earlier historical photos do not show markings on the tomb.

What’s interesting about the tomb being vandalized with pink latex paint is there is dispute, by some, about whether Laveau is actually buried there. The New York Times, in its 1881 story, claimed she was buried in old St. Louis Cemetery on the same side of the tomb as her husband. Other reports say she is buried in St. Louis No. 2.

“As far as Marie Laveau being buried in this tomb, we do not have this in our records,” Peppo said.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarion

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