New Orleans is a city steeped in history and intrigue. And if you’ve walked the dark streets of the French Quarter late at night, it should come as no surprise that it’s also known as one of the most haunted cities in North America. So during a visit to the city this year, I signed up for a ghost tour of New Orleans, to hear the scary tales of the old city and the spirits many claim live there.
The tour began behind St. Louis Cathedral, in the heart of the French Quarter – the oldest part of New Orleans. And our guide began with a story that involves the church. Back in the 1700s, when the Spanish ruled the city, the French population resented their authority, and a group of six prominent citizens defied the new Spanish governor. He had them hung in the nearby Faubourg Marigny – at a spot now known as Frenchmen Street. To add insult to injury, he stopped their families from retrieving their bodies for days afterward.
Finally, the bodies were returned, and buried after a service at the cathedral. But even today, our guide insisted, people hear the ghostly chanting of Kyrie Eleison early in the morning in the walkway beside the cathedral, where the funeral procession took place. It’s such a common occurrence, he claimed, it’s become a normal part of New Orleans life. The cathedral itself is also reportedly haunted by the ghost of Père Antoine, its pastor during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Parishioners have reported seeing him standing near the altar, or on the balconies.
Off we went on our ghost tour of New Orleans, and nearby, we came to a house with a dark past. This was the home of a French nobleman who kept a beautiful mistress named Julie in his house. She wanted to marry him, but marriage was socially impossible because she was an “octoroon” — New Orleans talk for someone who is one-eighth black. However, she persisted, until the Frenchman said he would marry her if she spent a whole night outside, naked. The next day, her nude body was found, lifeless, on the balcony overlooking Royal St. And locals say her ghost is still seen haunting the rooftop of the house.
Around the corner, another unsettling sight: back in the colonial days, many of the elegant houses had balconies. That means they also had columns to hold them up, which provided a way for young men to climb up and visit their lovers late at night. So the young ladies’ fathers had metal spikes, called Romeo spikes, installed on them to stop anyone from climbing.
Of course, this didn’t stop everyone, and one night a young man found his way into his girlfriend’s bedroom. When he heard her father coming, he jumped out the window, with tragic results. The next morning, his body was found hanging from the spikes on the balcony post.
A few blocks farther on, we came to the most haunted, and notorious, house in New Orleans, a grand-looking mansion at 1140 Royal Street. This was once the house of Dr. Louis LaLaurie and his wife Delphine, one of the city’s most affluent couples.
In 1834, during one of their dinner parties, a fire broke out in the kitchen. Firemen entered the house, and discovered a horrible scene: a secret attic filled with slaves who had been brutally injured or mutilated in gruesome experiments. One female slave, panicked by the commotion or seizing the chance to escape, jumped out a window and was killed.
The LaLauries fled and managed to escape justice, but it’s said that their victims never left the house. Locals say the woman who jumped to her death was often seen up on the roof. And residents of the house reported hearing screams, and seeing slaves in chains on the staircases, or the ghost of Delphine chasing children with a whip. The spirits seem to have finally vanished, however: a modern family lives in the house now, and reports no ghostly apparitions.
On the block of Chartres and Ursulines Street, across from the old Ursulines Convent, we came to another celebrated site: the Beauregard-Keyes House. For a few years after the Civil War, this elegant Greek Revival building was the home of General G.T. Beauregard, who led Confederate troops in the Battle of Shiloh, one of the bloodiest in U.S. history. Later, it was the scene of a multiple murder when Italian bootleggers, who owned the house after Beauregard’s death, killed four members of a Sicilian mob at the dinner table.
More recent residents included the author Frances Parkinson Keyes, who wrote 30 novels in the house, including Dinner at Antoine’s. She and other residents reported seeing the ghosts of wounded Confederate soldiers, or a man in a general’s uniform walking through the house looking for his boots, or muttering the word “Shiloh”. Keyes was reportedly so disturbed by the hauntings that she lived in the servants’ quarters behind the house.
A few metres down the street, we found a hotel with its own haunted history. During the Civil War, the building was used as a military hospital, and guests have reported seeing apparitions of wounded soldiers throughout the hotel. One guest checked out in a desperate hurry after waking up from a dream in which he saw an army doctor looming over him, about to cut his leg off.
Our ghost tour of New Orleans didn’t include one of the city’s most famous sites, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop on Bourbon St. One of the oldest buildings in the Quarter, this was the headquarters of New Orleans’ most famous privateer, Jean Lafitte. He was a man with a checkered history: after defying the local authorities who tried to stop his illegal trade, he was arrested, but then freed himself by volunteering to fight in the Battle of New Orleans.
The blacksmith shop is now a popular bar, but according to employees, Lafitte hasn’t left completely. He can still be seen now and then in a dark corner, or sitting in a back room with a drink in his hand. I spent a few minutes in the bar on my own, admiring the rough walls and old wooden furniture. And if there’s a place in New Orleans that’s haunted by ghosts, this is as good a bet as any.
That’s a taste of my ghost tour of New Orleans. And while we visited a few places and heard a few stories, we only scratched the surface of the city’s strange and mysterious past. There are a dozen other places in the French Quarter that are believed to harbour ghostly spirits.
For example, there’s Le Petit Théâtre on Peter St., where shadow of a deceased actor is said to appear to the players backstage, and St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, where the ghost of voodoo queen Marie Laveau reportedly appears on St. John’s Eve to lead the faithful in worship. And of course, there’s the Mortuary Haunted Mansion, which turns ghost-hunting into a Disneyland ride.
I’ve never seen a ghost. And until I see one for myself, I’ll continue to believe as I do now: that they’re the products of people’s imaginations. But nothing’s impossible in this world, and if the dead still walk among us, the place you’re most likely to see them is in the French Quarter of New Orleans. At the very least, they make a good story. Happy Halloween.