Postcard From Haunted New Orleans - Part 1

No building or office for Haunted History Tours - just this
sign and a card table set up on the sidewalk.
Ghosts and goblins all year 'round! New Orleans has a long history filled with pirates, battles, voodoo practitioners, evil people, deranged people, sinister people, bloodshed and natural disasters with much loss of life. Is it any wonder it is well deserving of its reputation as one of the most haunted places in America? And one of the more successful businesses in town is Haunted History Tour. For $25 per adult and $14 per child, it seemed like an OK deal, especially since I qualified for the senior discount of $7 off. We signed up and, as instructed, were at Reverend Zombie's Voodoo Shop 30 minutes ahead of the 6:00 pm tour start time.

Our tour guide and his dog.
Along with 19 other thrill seekers, the Mama-woman, Youngest-daughter and I eagerly waited across the street from the card table set up on the sidewalk in front of the Voodoo shop (which led to several concerns about this being a fly-by-night operation and the safety of our credit card number) for our tour guide. A rather strange-looking guy with long grey hair wearing a silk puffy shirt, black pants, derby hat and a small dog on a red leash finally made his way over to us at 6:10. He told us he was going to tell us stories that were profound and profane and if anybody was easily embarrassed then we should get our money back and go away. I found him to be cocky and very condescending, but we'd done paid our money so...

We walked a couple of blocks down the road to the back of the St. Louis Cathedral. We stopped and he began telling a story, but first, he informed us that he was "the real deal," born and raised in the swamps around New Orleans and a full-blooded Indian. He lives in the French Quarter and knows all the stories and all the people and there are stories told about him. He has plenty of women friends because they find him "interesting, a bit scary, a bit dangerous...and they like my dog." I didn't find him to be any of those things, but his dog was kinda cute.

St. Louis Cathedral
Most people are well aware of the St. Louis Cathedral as it is one of the iconic pictures of New Orleans. Chief Dunderhead (the honorary name I gave our guide in my head) finally got around to telling the interesting history that we didn't know. There have actually been 4 churches where the cathedral now stands. The first, built in 1718, was a small, wooden temporary structure. The building which replaced it was made of brick and timber and completed in 1727. This building completely burned in the great fire of 1788. The building which replaced it was completed in 1794. It contained the famous two round side steeples, but the central bell tower, designed by Ben Henry Latrobe, the architect who designed the White House, wasn't added until 1819. An even larger building was needed by the mid-1850's so a major renovation was undertaken. During this renovation to add more space, the middle bell tower collapsed which caused much more of the building to be rebuilt than was planned. This is the current building which is now over 160 years old.

In 1764, the King of France gave Louisiana to the Spanish in the Treaty of Fountainbleu. The people of New Orleans though, were not informed of this before a group of Spanish soldiers showed up, took down the French flag and replaced it with a Spanish flag. Thinking they were being invaded, the Creole people banded together with six men serving as their leaders and drove out the Spanish soldiers. Of course, the Spanish didn't appreciate this so in 1769, 24 war ships carrying hundreds of fully armed soldiers arrived to assert Spanish ownership. A new merciless governor arrived with the troops and ordered the 6 leaders of the Creole brought to him. They tried to tell him they didn't know about the treaty when they drove out the earlier Spanish, but he paid no heed to their pleas and order them to be hanged in the courtyard of the St. Louis Cathedral. He also issued a decree that nobody was allowed to touch the hanged men; they were to be left hanging until their bodies rotted as a warning to anyone else who dared question his authority. Anyone caught trying to remove the bodies would join them.

The priest of the cathedral, Pere Dagobert, pleaded with the governor, but was told to stop asking or the next time he would suffer the same fate. Soon, the bodies began to stink and birds began to eat the decaying flesh. Even the Spanish soldiers were repulsed and thought the governor had gone too far. Finally, during one stormy night, Father Dagobert gathered the families of the six men, cut down the bodies and placed them in pine boxes. He then loudly sang mass in his clear, distinctive voice and led a funeral procession to St. Peter's Cemetery where the men's remains were buried in unmarked graves. The sympathetic Spanish soldiers conveniently had to go inside for a bathroom break or for protection from the storm and were all temporarily away from their posts so nobody stopped the priest's activities. Word soon got to the governor, but even he figured out that if he hung the beloved priest, there would be such a backlash that he would not be able to trust his own soldiers with his safety. Father Dagobert was replaced by a Spanish monk as leader of the church, but he continued to oversee his flock until he died of natural causes and was honored by being buried under the altar.

For many years, personal sightings and experiences have been reported of Father Pere Dagobert and the 6 unfortunate executed men. Nothing strange seems to happen during the day, but once the cathedral is closed to the general public in the afternoon, witnesses tell of faintly hearing mass sang in a clear, beautiful voice at the altar. The singing then travels down the aisle toward the doors and a bright light moves from window to window until the voice fades as it seems to head out the doors and on toward where St. Peter's Cemetery was located. During stormy evenings, the ghostly image of Father Dagobert often materializes and can be seen by the living, kneeling in prayer. Perhaps he still prays for peace for the 6 executed men, or maybe he simply continues to pray for the safety and well being of the city and church he loved. And whenever he can be seen, visages of the 6 men can also be seen in the shadowy doorways and corners of the church, standing ready to assist him, forever grateful for giving them a proper funeral.

The Andrew Jackson Hotel
Walking to the Andrew Jackson Hotel, stopping along the way so Chief Dunderhead's little dog could leave a deposit on a little patch of grass, he kept up a continuous chatter (Chief Dunderhead, not the little dog who never barked or exhibited any signs of being possessed) of how he is an actor and how he knows all the alleyways and nooks and crannies where the underbelly of New Orleans can be seen. Arriving at the Andrew Jackson Hotel on Royal Street, we found out the structure had been built on the site of an old boarding school which had caught fire in the late 1700's and burned to the ground killing 5 children who were unable to escape. For over 200 years now, hotel guests have reported hearing children playing in the courtyard late at night, especially when the moon is full. Some have reported hearing children laughing and squealing like they are playing chase at 3:00 AM, but when the guest looks in the courtyard to see why children are up so late and making so much noise, even in the bright moonlight they can see there is nobody there, not anybody living anyway. And the noises abruptly stop.

Chief Dunderhead in front of Madame John's Legacy

On Dumaine Street is a house called Madame John's Legacy. It was built for Jean ("John") Paschal, a sailor who was killed in the Natchez Massacre of 1729. His widow remained in the home until 1777. The house served as a set in the movie "Interview With The Vampire" in 1994. The scene is of caskets being carried out of the house and placed in horse-drawn hearses and Lewis (Brad Pitt) reveals Lestat's (Tom Cruise) "mischievous" practice of feasting on French Quarter families. However, the spirits reported in the area are most probably due to the yellow fever epidemic which struck in 1853. In this city of 154,000 people, almost 8,000 died in a few short months. In the month of August that year, 1,186 died the first week, 1,526 died the second week, 1,534 the third week, and 1,628 the fourth week. The streets were deserted from fear as the cause of the disease was unknown at that time. So many people died that bodies in the French Quarter were simply piled up outside on the sidewalks of Dumaine Street to wait for the hospital's death carriages to come by and pick them up. It was not uncommon for there to be several dozen anonymous bodies piled up each day in front of the house now known as Madame John's Legacy. Carriages used as hearses would haul 8 - 10 coffins each to the cemeteries. Confusion and delays at the cemeteries were unavoidable so lines of hearses 2 to 3 miles long were often waiting at the gates. The hot August sun, high humidity, lack of time to embalm any of the bodies and the hastily built simple knot-holed pine coffins containing the quickly decaying bodies rendered the air putrid. It's no wonder the spirits of these poor departed are restless.

The elementary school Mr. Simmons attended.
Chief Dunderhead then led us, after stopping for his dog to squat and pee on the sidewalk, to what he called the scariest building in New Orleans. A frightening person once inhabited this building, a person so scary that grown men whimper just from the thought of him, hardened criminals cringe, Hell's Angels turn and run. It is the elementary school building where Milton T. Simmons went to grade school. Most of us know him as Richard Simmons. And before you leave nasty messages for me, those were Chief Dunderhead's words, not mine. Evidently he considers himself to be a comedian as well.

About 45 minutes of our 2-hour tour had expired with 10 minutes of that spent waiting on the tour to start. We now followed our intrepid guide to a spot which is supposed to be very haunted. Nothing happened while we were there so I can't say anything about the haunting, but the building certainly had some interesting history - Jean Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop on Bourbon Street. The structure was built in 1772 and remained untouched by the great fires of 1788 and 1794. Jean Lafitte and his brother Pierre ran a most profitable business from this building by outfitting and financing pirates who plundered goods from ships at sea and then brought the ill gotten booty back to the Lafitte's business to be sold. Since they avoided government fees and taxes, the goods could be sold far cheaper than the honest businessmen could sell their legal wares and soon, almost everyone else was out of business. Eventually, to speed up the process and to ensure all of the captured goods were brought back to their store, they purchased their own ships and became pirates themselves.

Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop
Jean was a good looking man as well as being rich and welding a lot of influence in the city so he had many mistresses and lovers, but he only had one true love in his life - the wife of the governor of Louisiana. When the governor found out about the affair, Jean had an enemy even more influential than he. The authorities became interested in the Lafitte brother's business and eventually closed it down and arrested not only the Lafittes, but their men as well. The war of 1812 was providential for the brothers. They offered themselves, their men and their ships in service against the British and after valiantly helping to win the Battle of New Orleans, were pardoned by President Madison.

The Lafittes moved their operations to the gulf coast of Texas and went back to being pirates after their pardon. After moving several more times when the heat from authorities became too great, the Lafitte brothers faded from the scene with Pierre dying from an illness in 1821 and Jean supposedly being killed in battle as a pirate while trying to capture several Spanish vessels. Some historians however, claim he survived the battle and returned to New Orleans where he changed his name and retired on his pirate riches.

Jean was known to hide a large stash of gold within the brick walls of the structure's fireplace. For many years now the building has been a neighborhood bar and patrons claim to have seen a pair of red eyes watching them from within the fireplace. There have also been reports of inexplicable cold spots near the fireplace even when there is a roaring fire. Several paranormal investigators have said they feel an aura of "unwholesomeness" near the fireplace. Bar patrons sitting near the fireplace have also reported being touched by a cold hand, but when they turn, nobody is there. Jean is known to have smoked cigars and there is often the distinct aroma of cigar smoke in the area. There have been a number of reports of Jean's ghost materializing in the women's restroom. Evidently, his penchant for women remains even in death. Most disturbing, however, are the reports of people seeing a ghostly Jean appearing in corners looking annoyed at the living and twirling his mustache in his fingers. When seen, the figure quickly disappears. There is a mirror upstairs where Jean lived which is reputed to often have the visage of a woman reflected in it. Perhaps it is Jean's true love, the wife of the Louisiana governor who no doubt enjoyed numerous afternoon trysts in the room. Perhaps it is simply some poor forgotten girl who fell hard for Jean, but was rejected by him after he was finished with her.

Chief Dunderhead then told us he needed a break to wet his whistle and we probably did too and since he is good friends with the owner of Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, we should all try one of the establishment's famous drinks and then take advantage of the bar's bathrooms. And with that, he walked off and left us for the next 30 minutes. We waited for our guide to return and we waited for dusk to become full night. We still had sites to see and Chief Dunderhead told us ghosts come out after dark. Perhaps the best is yet to come.