Voodoo, Vampires and Bon Vivants
by SHARON MCDONNELL
Spirits of all kinds surrounded me in New Orleans.
As the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages echoed past the latticed, cast-iron balconies of colorful 19th-century homes, and the gaslit lanterns of the French Quarter cast eerie shadows on the streets, I listened enthralled to stories about voodoo, vampires and the ghosts of pirates, wealthy Creoles, sinners and saints. On Bourbon Street, tipsy mortals reveled in the still, semitropical air.
A Macabre Melange
This is the rich gumbo stew, spiced with French, Spanish, Caribbean and African influences, that comprises the history of America’s most haunted city.
“New Orleans has an unusually high level of paranormal activity due to its history of death and pestilence and its origin as a penal colony — excellent conditions for ghosts and hauntings,” says Katherine Smith, co-owner of Haunted History Tours, a New Orleans operator of spooky walking tours.
Indeed, long before best-selling author Anne Rice set her novels about the vampire Lestat and witches in New Orleans — and began arriving at book signings in a coffin — the city seemed fated to land on the occult map. Founded in 1718 by the French, who had claimed Louisiana for “Sun King” Louis XIV in 1682, the city was originally a gloomy, mosquito-infested swamp. Living conditions were harsh, and enticing settlers was not easy. In hopes of populating the town, the French freed criminals from the Bastille and other overcrowded prisons to settle in the area.
A Match Made in Heaven, or in . . . ?
The rogue settlers soon found a perfect match in 88 female prisoners — many prostitutes and thieves — who were released in 1727 to be their brides. Known as “casket girls” because all their worldly possessions were shipped in wooden, casket-like boxes, the women were accompanied by five Roman Catholic nuns. The eccentric image of this arrival perfectly captures the macabre drama of New Orleans, then and now.
On an educational voodoo walking tour with Bloody Mary’s Tours, we learned that the hard-luck town continued to be a haven for the morose as two major fires and over two dozen epidemics of yellow fever and cholera ripped through the population. One strain killed 11,000 people in two weeks in 1853 — the deadliest virus in U.S. history. An inauspicious start indeed for a pleasure-loving capital famed for fine food and Mardi Gras revelry, nicknamed “The City That Care Forgot.” But maybe not so surprising. After all, the end of its motto — “eat, drink and be merry” — is “for tomorrow we die.”
Surrounded by death, New Orleans’ superstitious residents instinctively turned to the spirit world for answers. “People were dropping like flies,” explained Bloody Mary, “so many turned to people who could contact the spirits.” Voodoo, a secretive religion brought to New Orleans by African slaves, fit the bill nicely. A tradition that reveres ancestors and uses folk magic called “hoodoo” to ward off evil spells and bring good luck, voodoo so seized popular imagination by the mid-19th-century that many Creoles — descendants of early French or Spanish settlers, including many with mixed-blood — visited witch doctors and voodoo priestesses, usually for help in love affairs.
Some even took part in public rituals held in Congo Square, the favored spot for African slaves to dance, sing, and drum on Sundays, their only day off. Standing in the square — now a peaceful spot in Louis Arm-strong Park at the edge of the French Quarter — I imagined the throbbing, hypnotic rhythms, the uninhibited dancing, and the colorful costumes and headdresses of these voodoo celebrants. I sensed the fear of the unknown it aroused in some, and the glamour of the exotic and forbidden it inspired in others. It was here in Congo Square, we were told, that the origins of jazz were born.
A visit with Haunted History Tours to the white tomb of Marie Laveau, New Orleans’ most famous 19th-century voodoo queen, added to the drama. A fervent Catholic who attended Mass daily, Laveau reportedly prayed for two 19th-century prisoners on death row in New Orleans. At their hanging, a fierce lightning storm struck the tree from which the nooses dangled, and their lives were spared. Fearful of Laveau’s power, officials never tried to hang the men again.
Revered as a powerful healer to the sick, dying and imprisoned — whether or not they could pay — and even hailed as a saint by some, Laveau is buried in St. Louis Cemetery #1, where her grave is eternally festooned with offerings from the grateful or hopeful. Among the gifts, I counted coconuts, wine bottles, flowers, Mardi Gras beads, and coins marked with X’s — signifying wishes.
Like all New Orleans cemeteries, St. Louis #1’s hundreds of above-ground mausoleums — often guarded by white angels, weeping figures or even Sphinxes — shine with unearthly brilliance in sunlight, and cast a supernatural glow when night falls. Built because the city was a swamp and located below sea level, the extravagant tombs are now a major attraction.
For learning more about the philosophy and history of voodoo, a visit to the Historic Voodoo Museum on Dumaine Street is a must. Among a fascinating collection of masks, dolls and ceremonial items from Haiti to Africa to Brazil, presides a skeleton-like figure representing “Baron Samedi,” the demi-God, or Loas, of death and sexuality. Passing a hybrid voodoo/Catholic altar that displayed an offering of egg and cornmeal (symbols of creation and life), I paused at a sign which noted reassuringly that all skulls and human artifacts were obtained by legal means.
Vamping It Up
Voodoo is not the only tradition haunting the streets of New Orleans. Superstitious locals have spread legends of the un-dead here for centuries. Until the 20th century, belief in European vampiric folklore was so strong that corpses were often disinterred, impaled through the heart by stakes, beheaded, and then burned for good measure.
It was this superstition that inspired local Anne Rice’s widely-read Vampire Chron-icles, set largely in New Orleans. Visitors can relive the melancholic journey of Rice’s characters first-hand by exploring the sites mentioned in the books or featured in the film “Interview with the Vampire.” My black-top-hatted guide pointed out the townhouse on Royal Street used in the film version of “Interview with the Vampire” where Louis, the guilt-ridden vampire portrayed by Brad Pitt, lived with Claudia, the exquisitely beautiful child vampire.
We also visited St. Louis Cathedral, the city’s oldest, where Rice’s Louis confessed to hundreds of killings over 70 years — but ended up sinking his fangs into the priest’s neck at the altar. The scene was excluded from the film since, not surprisingly, the Catholic Church refused to grant permission to film.
For vampire enthusiasts ready to indulge in scenes even more unearthly, Rice hosts an elaborate Vampire’s Ball at her nearby mansion every Halloween, attracting hundreds of elegantly costumed mortals — and some celebrities — from all over the U.S.
According to local legend, some vampires may be hidden on Charles Street in the Ursuline Convent, the oldest building in the Mississippi Delta (built in 1745). The convent’s attic holds caskets brought by the 18th-century “casket girls,” and its shutters are tightly sealed with thousands of screws. A mere trifling for the undead, sniffed our guide, who said that the shutters have been known to open abruptly during the night — a sobering discovery since my hotel, Le Richelieu, was only one block away.
Bring Out the Garlic
“Since vampires can shape-shift into a mist, it is foolish to believe that sealed shutters would contain them,” the black-cape-clad guide explained. “Vampires would have entered the ships like anyone else and blended in well with society.”
Undead characters of a less corporeal nature are said to walk the streets, too. In an alley behind the cathedral called “Pirates Alley,” where pirates reportedly sold their ill-gotten gains from liquor to slaves, a ghost thought to be Jean Lafitte, an early 19th-century captain who commanded 2,000 men and 30 ships at the height of his career, is sometimes seen. Regarded as a local hero with a nearby tavern named after him, Lafitte turned down an offer of $30,000 to help the British in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, instead helping General (later President) Andrew Jackson win the war.
Whether it’s earthbound celebrants drawn to the gritty, foot-stomping fun of Bourbon Street, or shapeshifting connoisseurs eager to sink their teeth into the local cuisine, the mystery and magic of New Orleans is sure to please. From the misty, moonlit shadows of the French Quarter at night to the haunting echoes of steamboats drifting down the Mississippi, one is sure to have a frightfully good time.
For more information, contact:Haunted History Tours — Tel: 888-6-GHOSTS; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bloody Mary’s Tours — Tel: (504) 486-2080.
A hotel in a quiet part of the French Quarter near many haunted sights, and once part of the Ursuline Convent site, Le Richelieu has a delightful courtyard for dining. Tel: 800-535-9653; Fax: (504) 524-8179.
For information on additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under “LA.”