Dark Side of the Quarter
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Louis Cemetery No. 1, home of Marie Laveau's fabled tomb.
course of its history the French Quarter has all but sounded a
siren’s call to extreme personalities. Depending upon what
drives them they may lob off the heads of chickens and invoke
mysterious spirits while chanting and dancing around a burning
fire, as did Marie Laveau, or brutally mutilate and torture those
in their non-paid “employ,” as did Delphine LaLaurie.
Are the reports of the French Quarter’s “hauntings” merely
attempts to re-invigorate these fascinating characters and make
life more interesting or were these personalities and their acts
so morbidly compelling as to have somehow infused the present
with vestiges of themselves?
Add physical drama in the form of
elaborate above ground tombs, secret passageways and courtyards,
and imposing aged mansions and you have the French Quarter’s
The story of Delphine LaLaurie and the heinous
manner in which she tortured her slaves is probably the most
widely known of the French Quarter’s macabre tales.
Madame LaLaurie, a respected socialite, hosted
many a grand event at her opulent home 1140 Royal Street. Her
lavish lifestyle was made possible by a troupe of slaves. Mistreatment
of slaves was illegal and society began to shun LaLaurie after
a neighbor witnessed the elegant woman chasing a young servant
girl with a whip. The neighbor saw the girl leap to her death
from the roof in her efforts to avoid LaLaurie. The neighbor summoned
the authorities and that was the end of LaLaurie’s social
career. She was shunned as a pariah.
Upon her arrest authorities removed
the slaves from LaLaurie’s
home. A short time later a fire broke out in the kitchen. In
their efforts to thwart the fire neighbors and firefighters stumbled
upon a grisly attic torture chamber. Nude slaves, most of them
dead, were discovered. Some were chained to the walls, some were
strapped to makeshift operating tables, and others were confined
in cages made for animals. They had undergone various elaborate
forms of torture and mutilation.
When news of the findings was published in
the local newspaper an angry mob drove LaLaurie and her family
from the city.
Reports that the house is haunted have been
rampant ever since. Many have claimed to hear screams of agony
coming from the empty house. Others have seen apparitions of
slaves walking about the property. There are reports of having
been attacked by an angry slave in chains.
Though the house has changed hands numerous
times and has served as not only a private home but also a musical
conservatory, a school for young women and a saloon, among other
things, many of the building’s owners have experienced
some form of misery or another associated with the house.
Clearly, New Orleans women aren’t necessarily ladies. The
activities of Marie Laveau, another of the French Quarter’s
well-known dark characters, underscores this.
Both her life and her burial place have long
evoked interest in Marie Laveau, New Orleans’ undisputed Queen of Voodoo, who
is buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, the city’s oldest
The water-logged, swampy soil upon which
New Orleans is built makes digging more than a couple of feet
impractical, especially if the reason for digging is burial of
anything more substantial than a hamster. This gruesome revelation
was made soon after the city’s first cemetery was established on St. Peter Street
just inside the current French Quarter. Graves started popping
to the surface with a grim “Hello” and bodies floated
down the street when it flooded – which was often.
The solution was to avoid burial altogether
and house the dead in aboveground tombs. In the mid-1800s the
site of hundreds of little marble, granite or stone “houses”
led to the coining of the term “cities of the dead.”
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 was established
by the Spanish in 1789. In addition to Laveaux, many of the city’s
first occupants and more notorious personalities are entombed
here including Etienne de Bore, father of the sugar industry
and Homer Plessy, of the Plessy v. Ferguson 1892 Supreme Court
decision establishing separate but equal Jim Crow laws for African-Americans
and whites in the South.
The tombs here are of whitewashed stucco-covered
red brick and shine with their own eerie brilliance in the gloom
of evening as well as the midday sun.
It’s easy to find Laveau’s tomb.
Many small red Xs cover its surface, signs that visitors have
made a wish in hope of obtaining Laveau’s assistance.
The faithful also leave behind offerings of coins, pieces of
herb, beans, bones, bags, flowers and other tokens in hopes of
invoking her good will.
Some believe Laveau materializes annually
to lead the faithful in worship on St. John's Eve. The ghost
is always recognizable, they say, thanks to the knotted handkerchief
she wears around her neck. A man once claimed to have been slapped
by her while walking past her tomb. It is also said that Laveau’s
former home at 1020 St. Ann Street is also among the French
many haunted locales. Believers claim to have seen her spirit,
accompanied by those of her followers, engaged in Voodoo ceremonies
Jyl Benson is a New Orleans-based writer and
publicist and frequent contributor to Time, New Orleans, St. Charles
Avenue and the Times Picayune. She also regularly contributes
to travel and guide books on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast