On a dark, dark night in New Orleans I walk down a dark, dark street in the French Quarter and there’s spooks in the air. Literally – though its mid-November, some of the houses are still decked out for Halloween and billowing white ghosts and skeletons drape down from twisted iron balconies, setting the tone for an evening of haunts. I follow Aubrey, a guide on the Ghost and Vampire tour with French Quarter Phantoms, down Orleans Street into the heart of the city’s oldest neighborhood.
New Orleans consistently ranks among the most haunted cities in the United States. Aubrey explains that this may be due to the fact that the city is surrounded by so much water, from the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain to nearby bayous, and water is a magnet for spirits and the paranormal. It could also be that the city’s history has been so haunting, many spirits were left unsettled upon their death.
Aubrey shares a few tips about photographing the spirits – turn on your flash, set your camera to night mode, take lots of photos – and we are on our way. Now I’m not going to spoil all the paranormal secrets I learned on my tour with French Quarter phantoms here, but I do want to share a few highlights that will hopefully entice you to take the tour for yourself should you be seeking a New Orleans Walking Tour.
Bourbon Orleans Hotel
Our first stop of the evening is the Bourbon Orleans Hotel, a luxury hotel that is a gleaming example of French-Provincial architecture. The building originally opened as an opera house in 1815. In 1817 a ballroom, or Salle d’Orleans, was added and this quickly became one of the city’s most prominent settings for masquerade balls, carnival balls and quadroon balls.
What is a quadroon ball? Quadroon is a term used to describe a person who is one-quarter black. At these social events, young light-skinned black women were courted by wealthy white creole men to be mistresses. The quadroon’s mothers would also be in attendance at these functions, and if a man expressed interest in one of the young ladies, mamma would be waiting in the wings to negotiate a contract, which usually included a home and finances to support the young woman and her future children. The Bourbon Orleans Hotel was also home to octoroon balls, displaying, you guessed it – young women who were one-eighth black.
By the time Aubrey got to the ghost part of this story, I was already sickened, not by anything paranormal, but because of the horrifying past of our nation. I too often forget that for many women and people of color throughout our history, life was not filled with any of the opportunities and freedoms I so easily take granted for today.
Bourbon Orleans Hotel is said to be haunted by a number of spirits, one of whom is Giselle, a 28-year-old quadroon woman who, after many years of attending balls and never receiving an offer, committed suicide here.
One of our next stops is Muriel’s Restaurant, a top ranked Creole restaurant on Jackson Square. This was once the dream home of former resident Pierre Antoine Lepardi Jourdan and his family. Unfortunately for Pierre and his family, he suffered from a serious gambling addiction. After gambling all his money away one night in 1814, he put the deed of the home up in a poker game. He lost the bet and was so distraught that he went home, poured himself a glass of his finest wine and shot himself on the second floor.
This area is now home to a séance lounge, and paranormal investigators have reportedly been able to communicate with Pierre’s spirit. After a series of ghostly incidents that took place in the restaurant, investigators learned that Pierre, always a man who enjoyed a good party, felt left out of the social gatherings that were occurring nightly in his home.
To make peace with Pierre, the staff at Muriel’s set a table for him in the restaurant every night and bring him bread and wine. Pierre has been said to appear here in the form of a light. For an extra $50 on top of your meal, you can dine at this table and try your chances at an encounter with Pierre. For the budget conscious you can sneak a peek free of charge through windows on the street.
Madame John’s Legacy
New Orleans was struck by a fire in 1788 that destroyed roughly 85 percent of the city’s buildings. When the city was rebuilt, Spanish colonial style architecture was in fashion. Madame John’s Legacy, now a museum, is one of the few examples of the early French colonial style architecture that dominated the city prior to the fire. Though this historic home was also badly damaged in the fire, the owner had it rebuilt in its original style.
The home is notable not only for its ghosts, but also because it was featured in the film Interview with the Vampire. In the 1700’s, the people of New Orleans largely believed in vampires. At this time, the diseases of tuberculosis and porphyria were prevalent in the city. Symptoms of these diseases, including pale skin, sensitivity to sun and garlic, coughing up blood, and the build up of gases in the esophagus that can emit with a scream like sound after death – are consistent with vampire folklore. This is one theory as to why the belief in vampires was so widely held in colonial New Orleans.
Speaking of vampire stories, one cannot discuss vampire folklore in New Orleans without mentioning the most famous “vampires” of all – the casket girls of the Ursuline Convent.
Built in 1752, this is the oldest building in the Mississippi River Valley. In the early 1800’s there was a shortage of eligible women for the men of New Orleans to marry. A group of young women (likely still girls) were brought over from orphanages in Paris to be wives for this unwed male population. Prior to their journey they were given hope chests, which just so happened to be shaped like caskets, for their meager possessions. To make the best impression possible they were also each given a new dress.
The journey from Paris to Louisiana was supposed to take three months. It took five. During the journey the women were locked up below deck and not exposed to the sun. As food was scarce they all and got scurvy, from the lack of vitamin C.
When they arrived to the port, the women disembarked pale, malnourished and weak, wearing their now tattered dresses and dragging a hope chest behind them. Due to their dismal appearance locals thought they were vampires and fled the port. Since no one wanted to touch them and they were quite weak, they were sent to the Ursuline Convent to recover.
The women were given rooms on the second floor that had long windows opening into the street. Their chests were propped up for all to see, only further lending to the legend that they were vampires.
Some believe that Vampires still roam the streets of New Orleans. The New Orleans Vampire Association is an organization for the city’s self-proclaimed vampires.
Our last stop of the night was the most horrifying of all, again not for any paranormal activity but because of the history of our country.
The mansion was once home to a prominent white Creole socialite by the name of Delphine LaLaurie. She had three husbands, the first two both died of mysterious causes exactly four years into the marriage.
In 1831, now on her third marriage, Delphine bought property in a prominent location in New Orleans and built a three-story mansion that still stands today. She threw many lavish parties here. At the time New Orleans had laws called black code or code noir, that legislated how slaves were to be treated.
Now this in no way made the people of New Orleans morally superior to other slave owners – they still felt it was acceptable to own other human beings and view them as property after all, but it did make it illegal to torture slaves. While it was long suspected Delphine mistreated her slaves, this could never be proven and was left to rumor.
In 1834 a fire broke out at the LaLaurie mansion and rescuers responded, finding a 70-year-old woman chained o a stone. The woman admitted she set the fire as a suicide attempt to avoid further torture from Delphine. While evacuating the rest of the building, rescuers broke down a locked door to the slave quarters and found seven slaves chained up and severely beaten, injured and otherwise suffering.
In the ensuing chaos, Delphine escaped to France with her family and died of old age peacefully in her sleep. It is said that the souls tortured by Delphine still haunt the property. No owner since Delphine has managed to keep the property for more than six years.
Whether you believe in ghosts or not, in New Orleans a ghost tour also is a history tour that allows you to learn about real historical events through the lens of ghostly lore.
Tickets start at $16 when you book online. Reserve your tour with French Quarter Phantoms here.
Note: I received a complimentary tour from French Quarter Phantoms for the purpose of review. However, all thoughts and opinions are my own.