New Orleans, the fabled city by the river. An often cantankerous metropolis filled to the brim with the curiously derelict, unkempt and although rather charming, citizens of both fantasy and non fiction. It provided a home for a cast of characters that seem almost incongruous with their surroundings. The lush verdant swamp land, backdropped against the mighty live oaks, protruding out of the concrete and in the sky, creates a sense of ease in a city racked with turmoil. New Orleans is home to one of the highest death rates in United States history, while simultaneously hosting one of the most creative cultures in the world. It is no wonder many of these forlorn souls have decided to remain. Often taking the crown as the most haunted city in the United States, New Orleans casts a large shadow as to why. The worst scourges of humanity fell upon the city since its inception in 1718; slavery, yellow fever, the morally condemned and the criminally contempt have all laid waste to this serene, elegant civilization. Many of them have stayed behind in the afterlife to tell their tales and so many living souls come to hear from them in modern times.
New Orleans: The Cursed City
Death, “the great equalizer.” A fate for all souls locked in this mortal coil. In New Orleans, until the turn of the 20th century, the end of the road wasn’t only planned for, it was expected. It became part of every day life for New Orleanians. Yellow Fever was the main culprit, although diseases such as malaria, scarlet fever, rabies and cholera were also common. Yellow Fever is a disease hosted inside the body of a mosquito. While in most modern societies they are mostly annoying and harmless, a small mosquito bite in the 18th and 19th century could mean the kiss of death. In fact, the colonizer of Louisiana, Pierre D’iberville, who founded the colony in 1699, passed away of yellow fever in 1701. He followed in the footsteps of a man named Robert de la Salle, who in 1787 ill fatally sailed across the Atlantic after stumbling upon the area two years prior. He missed his mark, landed in Texas and his crew proceed to conduct a mutiny against hum. With a false start such as that it is no wonder so many unlucky settlers met a similar fate in the new swampy colony.
Engraving from a series of images titled “The Great Yellow Fever Scourge — Incidents Of Its Horrors In The Most Fatal District Of The Southern States Source: NPR
Soon after its establishment it was turned into a penal colony and the city of New Orleans was founded by the younger brother of D’Iberville, Jean-Baptiste De Bienville. From the start prospects were low. The swamp land was already inhabited by the Choctaw, Houmas and Chitimacha peoples who had been there for centuries. They called the land “Bulbancha,” the city of many tongues, and beloved much of the inner swamp lands to be cursed. The French settlers paid no mind and soon disaster struck. Many early settlers felt the tiny sting of mosquitos and a few days later experienced jaundice, vomiting, diarrhea followed by organ failure and death. Yellow fever had made its presence known. The dead had to be quickly buried, as the early settlers believed it was spread via “miasama” or bad air. This belief carried well into the 20th century and helped the formation of the city’s famous above ground tombs.
The St. Peter Cemetery
Problems soon began to arise, literally up from the ground from whence they came. The water table was a mere three to four feet from the surface and the city was unprepared. During flash floods it was common for bodies to go drifting down the street. Citizens of the city tried all sorts of things to keep their dead below ground. Coffins would be filled with brick and stone, holes drilled in their bottoms to allow them to fill with water. They would even be jumped upon to force them Into the mucky dirt. Nothing seemed to work and disease continued to spread.
City officials decided to move all burials outside of city limits in 1726 when the St. Peter cemetery was established. It was closed in 1800 shortly after the building of the St. Louis Cemetery #1. While the St. Louis Cemetery #1 is one of those most visited cemeteries in the United States, home to the tombs of famous Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau and actor Nicolas Cage, still living as of the publication of this article, its predecessor is largely forgotten. For good reason to, it was simply paved over and renovated as the French Quarter expanded in the early 19th century. It’s assumed that there are over 8,000 bodies beneath St. Ann, St. Peter, Dauphine and North Rampart at the top of the French Quarter. It is no wonder that New Orleans is considered one of the most haunted places in the Untied States when corpses lay both above and below it!
In 2010, a man named Vincent Marcello was building a pool for his apartment complex. During the test dig archaeologist Ryan Gray discovered something unusual at about four feet down. At the end of it all, he and his crew discovered fifteen coffins resting beneath the surface on North Rampart Street. This led to a large archaeological dig and a cumbersome one at that. Each coffin weighed around 600-800 pounds. He did finish his pool and it is known as the “Pool of Souls,’’ undoubtedly many of those spirits remain inside the apartment complex.
The St. Louis Cemetery #1 and The Old Mortuary Chapel
Many spirits roam these “cities of the dead,” a macabre yet fitting name coined by author Mark Twain. The St. Louis Cemetery #1, has perhaps one of the most famous spirits in New Orleans still residing inside it. Built in 1789 as a below ground cemetery, it suffered the murky fate of the St. Peter cemetery, becoming a bog full of dead bodies and further spreading disease. By 1801 the first above ground tomb appeared in the cemetery. They became not only practical but a sign of high society. As time went along the cemetery became over populated by the irreparable damage caused by the yellow fever epidemic. In 1826 The Mortuary Chapel of St. Anthony of Padula was opened to accommodate the city’s high death rate. It ferried bodies from the streets of the French Quarter, into the overcrowded cemetery. In one day over 200 funerals were held in what we now call The Our Lady of Guadalupe. It was believed that the quicker the bodies were put into their tombs, the less yellow fever would spread. While this did not prevent the problem from reoccurring it did help to ease the city’s high death rate.
Many are perplexed by the above ground tombs of the Crescent City and for good reason. Each tomb can hold up to 60 to 100 bodies each. They operate as slow burning furnaces, incinerating the body inside during the long humid summer found in the tropical climate of New Orleans. A shelf divides the tomb and the body is placed on top. Sometimes in a light wooden casket but often simply wrapped in cloth. The corpse then remains there for a period of a year and a day, the designated period of mourning in the Catholic city. After this period, the body is then removed by a designated cemetery worker. Pushed to the back of the tomb, it falls over the shelf and into the bottom area. Here, the rest of the family lays. Some now piles of bones, others simply ash. Within about fifty to sixty years the corpse is completely cremated.
Along with the massive amounts of people interred in the St. Louis Cemetery #1, comes a massive amount of spiritual visitors. Many living visitors come to the cemetery to visit the tomb of Marie Laveau, the most famous Voodoo Queen in American history. Some have witnessed her mythical spirit roaming the cemetery late at night. Her tomb is incredibly full with a whopping 91 people inside. Majority of these corpses were unrelated to her family and are believed to be yellow fever victims she assisted during her life. Around the start of the 1900’s many started seeing x’s carved into the side of her tomb. This was a form of appeasement from her followers and these x’ can still be seen today! While it is now illegal, as the St. Louis Cemetery #1 became a national landmark in 1974 and this will simply land you jail, many still bring various offerings to her tomb in the hopes that her spirit will bless them from the afterlife. Voodoo is a very large and complicated religion, often misperceived by pop culture and film. Take a Voodoo tour with US Ghost Adventures to learn more about this mysterious religion!
Others fascinating stories line the walls of the cemetery. Quite literally the walls are filled with over a thousand people. Another type of interment in New Orleans are small square oven like structures called Wall Vaults. Extremely cheap, maybe $600 in todays money, and very useful. Bodies are put into the walls and left alone until the next family member passes. The remains of the former are then pushed to the back of the tomb and the next body enters. Some of these wall vaults hold up to 10 people! It is believed that Marie Laveau’s corpse was removed and taken to one of these wall vaults in the St. Louis Cemetery #2, behind the #1. In the St. Louis #1 there are multiple tombs called “Faux Laveau” tombs, that many believe her corpses actually rests in. Records of the archdiocese indicate that she still remains in her tomb today, spiting the myth.
Hollywood and the St. Louis Cemetery #1
For Better or for worse Hollywood has glamorized the St. Louis Cemetery #1. The 1969 hippie cult classic Easy Rider landed itself in the cemetery and became the last film to ever do so. A film chronicling the coming of age tale of two hippies traveling across America on their motorcycles. Eventually they land themselves in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. After taking some acid they bring two flirtatious women into the cemetery and a raucous, sinful, scene ensues. After the Archdiocese caught word of this they tried to sue Peter Fonda, the producer and star actor in the film, however there were no laws in place at the time against doing such a thing. Now upon entering tourists may not take videos although all photos are welcome.
Later on in 2010 another famous actor made his presence known here, Nicholas Cage. The cult icon, loved by many and hated by others, built a tomb here while he was alive! In 2006 he purchased the most cursed building in New Orleans, the infamous LaLaurie Mansion. LaLaurie was ran out of town in 1834 after it was discovered that she had been torturing slaves in her attic. He purchased the home in 2006 and by 2009 he believed the curse had caught up to him. He owed the IRS millions in back taxes and as such they confiscated this property and the others he owned at the time from him. His wife then divorced him and his career took an abrupt left turn. A psychic in town told him the only way to bury the curse was to build a tomb as close to Marie Laveau as possible. The St. Louis Cemetery #1, being as old as it is, did not have much room and he had to buy his way into the hollowed grounds. Finding two families willing to move their tombs, he wrote them blank checks and built a twenty four foot tall pyramid. While the St. Louis Cemetery #1 has its fair share of Hollywood experiences, another cemetery uptown remains the city’s hotspot for filming and film fanatics.
The Protestant Cemeteries
Hidden amongst the castles once owned by plantation owners, businessmen and social leaders of the past, the Lafayette Cemetery #1 has become well known for the myriad of films and TV shows shot on its ground. One of the first protestant cemeteries built in New Orleans, the first officially being the Girod Street Cemetery in the Central Business District, it was opened in 1833 and easily rivals the beauty of the St. Louis Cemetery #1. This caught the attention of Hollywood producers and it can now be seen in many popular films and TV series. Interview With The Vampire, Double Jeopardy, Hard Target, Deja Vu among others have been filmed here. The popular TV show The Originals used the cemetery’s squared alleyways as a backdrop for their Vampire drama. Musicians even took note of its graceful elegance. Master P, LeAnn Rimes and New Kids On The Block have shot music videos in the Lafayette Cemetery #1.
The Archdiocese owns seven cemeteries among the cities 43. Until 1805 the newly immigrated Protestant population was not allowed to be interred into the St. Louis Cemetery #1. By 1822 the Girod Street Cemetery had been consecrated and Protestants had an official place to be laid to rest. This cemetery was lined with many beautiful Benevolent Society Tombs. These tombs were largely constructed by former slaves who had bought or been granted their freedom, a common thing due to the French code of law know as “Code Noir.” Struggling as newly freed African peoples in a Caucasian society, they formed Benevolent societies to help each other out financially. These societies provided assistance both in life and in death and were formed by all sorts of communities. Some can hold up to 400 people inside! By 1957, these beautiful tombs were forgotten and had become homes for people on the street. The cemetery was becoming a health hazard and an eye sore. It was soon paved over. In 1975 the Superdome and Champion square were built haphazardly close to the old cemetery. It is said this is why the Saints are cursed to this day!
St Roch Cemetery
The St. Roch Cemetery is rarely seen by tourists. Often overlooked due to its location, intriguingly kept secret. Constructed in 1874 and tucked away in the back of the seventh ward in the St. Roch neighborhood it was founded by Rev. Peter Leonard Thevis for the German congregation of the nearby Holy Trinity Church. Yellow Fever had ran rampant in New Orleans during the outbreak of 1868 but his congregation had mostly survived. He promised his people’s that he would construct a chapel and cemetery in honor of St. Roch, the saint who had brought blessings upon them. A chapel was constructed in 1876 for the patron Saint of dogs, bachelors and defending against the plague. This chapel stands as an oddity, even in terms of an already odd city and a macabre reminder of the destruction of disease.
The small chapel is lined with unusual offerings. Shoe braces, doll parts, plaster feet, legs, hearts and other organs cover the walls of the church and are offered to the martyred Saint. Born the son of a wealthy governor, he denounced his fortune and became a pauper. While visiting a small town in Italy it was quickly discovered he could heal victims of the black plague. Soon enough he fell ill with the fatal disease and retreated to the forest to make peace with God. But a small dog came to him, brought him food and supplies and miraculously a pond of spring water appeared near his campsite. He was healed and returned to his former village only to deemed a spy and thrown in jail. He died there, largely forgotten and in poor health. People still visit his chapel to this day to heal their loved ones.
The cemetery has seen its fair share of ghosts and other spiritual activities. In 1937 there were claims that many saw the spirit of a young woman exiting her tomb and calmly taking a seat upon its limestone top. It was debunked as simply a shadow trick but to this day many claim to see her sitting quietly in her final resting place.
Jackson Square and The St. Louis Cathedral
One of the oldest city squares in the United States, The French Quarter was designed in 1721, by French engineer Adrien de Pauger. Since then, the walls of the old city have survived numerous disasters. Two great fires, one in 1788 and one in 1794, burned down a majority of the Quarter. Only three original French buildings remain. The rest hold the stories of those lost to these various tragedies. Throw violence, sin, and pestilence into the murky waters of the New Orleans swamplands and out of it crawl the infamous tales that keep many a traveler intrigued and awake at night.
At the center of the French Quarter lies Jackson Square, a beautiful arrangement of classical style buildings with the St. Louis Cathedral at its center. The oldest active Catholic church in the United States, it is no stranger to disaster and destruction. Burned down in 1788 and officially designated as a Cathedral in 1789, it remains a bastion of New Orleans culture and social life. Marie Laveau was baptized and married within its walls and the spirit of her pastor, Father Antoine Sedella better known as “Pere Antoine” still haunts his former home behind the Cathedral. St. Anthony’s Garden, as it is now known, was his home until his death in 1829. HIs spirit is often seen tending to his garden and giving mass in the old church. The garden later became dueling grounds for the creole population of the city and many say they can hear swords clashing underneath the shadow of “Touchdown Jesus” late at night.
Pirate’s alley careens adjacently to the left of the St. Louis Cathedral and is full of spiritual activity. The Cabildo, the building where the Louisiana Purchase was signed, once operated as the old jail and many inmates here were indeed pirates. Often hung right where Andrew Jacksons statue now stands today, their spirits are often seen and felt inside Pirates Alley Cafe. Next door is Faulkner House books where William Faulkner once lived. His spirit can be seen writing away at his desk that is still owned by the bookstore.
The Haunted Hotels of the Quarter
Majority of the largest buildings in the Quarter that now serve as hotels once operated as homes for the ill fated, injured and indignant of New Orleans. The Hotel Provincial, a five building complex considered one of the finest in the city, once was a hospital for Confederate soldiers. Horrific operating scenes are often witnessed by guests of the hotel as they exit the elevator and step out into the elegant hallways of the hotel. Splotches of blood often appear and disappear on the floors and even the ceilings. In the early 20th century it served as a boarding home. A solider dressed in garb from the era are commonly heard from, calling the name of “Diane” and claiming an unrequited love. This spirit finds the modern sounds of rock music to be soothing to his broken heart and frequently turns the radio dial to the stations of his choosing.
Another well known haunted hotel of the Quarter is the Bourbon Orleans. Built in 1815, burned down and rebuilt in 1816, it was originally known as the Orleans Theatre and Ballroom. Many say they can see the spirit of a lost ballroom dancer in the Bourbon O Bar on Bourbon. 1839 the building collapsed due to faulty construction and 9 lives were lost. These spirits still roam the hallways along with wounded confederate soldiers from the period when the building operated as a confederate hospital. In 1881 the building was bought by the Sisters of the Holy Family, the oldest African American Convent in the United States. Purchased by the Bourbon Kings hotel company in 1964, the convent then moved their operations out to New Orleans East. Yet one restless nun stayed behind to stun visitors for the rest of time. In room 608, many are awoken by a nun standing over their bed, vividly smiling and intriguingly looking over her new found roommates. It is believed this poor soul committed suicide in the convent and has yet to find peace in the afterlife. She is far from the only restless spirit to inhabit these former behemoths of the French Quarter.
The LaLaurie Mansion
Made popular by the television show American Horror Story: Coven, the LaLaurie mansion has attracted tourists far a wide before televisions was even invented. Considered the most haunted home in the French Quarter and even the United States. It continues to deter locals, many of whom won’t even walk on the same side of the street, with its gruesome tales of horror, while bringing more and more outsiders to its doors. The graphic portrayal of her by Kathy Bates sadly enough holds much truth to it. Raised by the wealthy plantation owning family the McCarthy’s, she was not always seen as the twisted madam we know her as in modern times. It wasn’t until 1826 when she met her third husband, Dr. Louis LaLaurie that her reputation took a turn for the worse. Soon after their marriage, many saw the couple and their slaves walking through the French Quarter, their slaves mangled and abused. Due to the “Code Noir” she was brought into custody multiple times for her crimes. This was one of many laws that allowed slaves opportunities not found in the rest of the United States. Sadly she was frequently released with simply a small fine and her crimes aggressively continued.
They built their home, at the time the largest building in the quarter, in 1831. The infamous fire depicted in American Horror Story occurred on April 10th, 1834, during an elegant party. Guests headed out to the streets only to find no slaves evacuating with them. Soon a party of fire fighters, policemen and attendees headed into the house on a rescue mission. The party discovered a seventy-eight year old slave women in the kitchen and chained to the stove. She told them that she started the fire on purpose in order to save herself and the other slaves in the house from a fate worse than death, being sent up to the attic. The party headed up the stairs to discover a gruesome scene. Seven slaves were being tortured. Chained to walls, limbs pulled out of their sockets and organs laying outside of their bodies.
The Mansion Today and Other Tales of The Quarter
The slaves were brought downstairs and many died en route. Two days went by after this discovery and no justice prevailed. LaLaurie and her husband were not arrested. But on April 12th a social justice mob headed to the home to bring justice of their own. Sadly enough LaLaurie escaped and fled to France where she lived until her death in 1849. The house lay empty for nearly ten years. From then on out it was considered cursed. It served as various public institutions, but none could stay open for very long. By 1935 it became a private residency. In 2006 Nicholas Cage purchased it and built his infamous tomb in the St. Louis #1 in 2010 to break its curse. Today the house is owned by a BP oil executive named Michael Whalen who seldom visits, but will invite friends of his to stay. The spirits of the slaves roam the home and many have even reported sightings of LaLaurie walking its dark hallways. No one may enter, although it is hard to fathom why anyone would want too.
While other buildings in the Quarter come nowhere close to this gruesome scene, quite a few have horrific tales of their own. The Omni Royal Hotel on St. Louis Street is the final resting place of a gentleman named Zack Bowen. He was a military veteran who after Katrina mutilated his girlfriend Addie Hall after murdering her during a lovers quarrel. He felt so guilty for what he did he threw himself onto the parking garage below the building on Oct 16th, 2006. His spirit still haunts the roof of the building along with many others that inhabit the hotel. Across the street from Omni is the Pharmacy Museum. Once the first official pharmacy in the United States, Louisiana being the first state to legalize medicine in 1826, it later was home to Dr. Joseph Dupas. Dupas was a Haitian immigrant who experimented on pregnant slave women in the building. His spirit and those of his victims still makes visitors to the museum uneasy, especially women far along in pregnancy.
The spirits of the old city still call out to those that listen and even to those who refuse. Countless tales of terror await visitors courageous enough to hear them and new ones assuredly have yet to be discovered. The most haunted city in the United States, a hefty title to take, New Orleans wears it with pride. Take a ghost tour with US Ghost Adventures today to find out for yourself and read more of our most haunted blog for spooky stories.
Featured Image Source: Iphotostock.com
St. Louis Cathedral
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Saxon, Lyle et al. Gumbo Ya Ya: Folk Tales of Louisiana. 3rd edition. Pelican Publishing Company 1987
Florence, Robert. New Orleans Cemeteries: Life In The Cities of The Dead. 1st edition. Batture Press 1997
Long, Carolyn Morrow. A New Orleans Voudou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau, 1st edition, University Press of Florida, 2006
Long, Carolyn Morrow, Madame Lalaurie, Mistress of the Haunted House, University Press of Florida, 2012