HAUNTED NEW ORLEANS

THE NEW ORLEANS WAY OF DEATH

 

THE NEW ORLEANS WAY OF DEATH

The Cemeteries of New Orleans are much like the city itself. They are a mirror to the opulence and desecration of a mysterious and enchanting city. They dance back and forth between beauty and ruin. Like New Orleans, the city cemeteries hide secrets... secrets that most will never discover.

The culture of New Orleans is one rich in history and diversity. It is unique among all other cities in America. The city’s “way of death” may be the most distinctive part of its culture. For more than 200 years now, the people here have housed their dead in small, above ground tombs. They are built along streets in miniature cities of the deceased and the forgotten. These cities of the dead provide hours of discovery for the intrepid seeker and for the brave of heart. For not only ghosts lurk here, but the thief and the brigand as well.
To understand the strangeness of the New Orleans cemetery culture. We must return to the beginnings of the city itself. You see, for the entire length of its existence, New Orleans has known death. Just a few short years after the colony was founded, it was flattened by a hurricane, bringing ruin and destruction. For years after, the impoverished colonists saw their numbers reduced by the grim reaper.

The city was always wet then, as it continues to be today. The original site of New Orleans, which is the French Quarter today, had a water table just beneath the soil. The land sloped back from the river toward Lake Pontchartrain, falling quickly below the level of the sea. The question soon arose.... where would the colonists bury the dead in such water-logged conditions?
The highest area in the region was along the banks of the Mississippi. The natural levees there had been created by years of soil being deposited by the river’s current. This was the first site chosen for burial of the deceased. During floods (which came often) though, the bodies of the dead would wash out of their muddy graves and come floating through the streets of town. Obviously, this was considered a problem.
A few years later, a graveyard was created outside of the city. It was overseen by the priests of the St. Louis Church. It could only be reached by a winding path from town. This was not done for aesthetic reasons, but for ones of health. It was commonly believed that graveyards exuded a noxious odor which carried disease. Combined with the marshy soil of the area, it was considered to be an unhealthy place. For this reason, the cemetery was placed outside of town as a precaution against infection in a town already known for its high death rate.

The cemetery was known as St. Peter Street Cemetery. Most of the burials here were below ground and space was reserved for the clergy and the wealthy and distinguished of the city. In spite of this, the cemetery, which has long been built over, was said to be as shabby and dirty as New Orleans itself in those days. The cemetery remained a prime burial spot for many years, until finally, it was simply filled to capacity.
During the years of 1787 and 1788, New Orleans saw much in the way of death and hardship. The city was rocked with plague and disease, claiming many lives. Malaria, smallpox and influenza took their toll on the city and hundreds died. St Peter Street Cemetery became so overcrowded that reports claim the bones of the dead commonly protruded from the ground. There was simply no other place to put the newly departed.
The following year, a fire broke out on Good Friday and swept through the city, destroying homes, buildings and the parish church of St. Louis. A few months later, a hurricane wiped out another huge portion of the city. Hundreds more lives were taken.

A new graveyard was desperately needed and the St. Peter Street Cemetery closed down for good. The land was sold off for building lots. The first of the now classic St. Louis cemeteries was officially opened in 1789. The new cemetery was a walled enclosure with its main entrance off Rampart Street. The poor were buried here in unmarked graves until the middle 1800’s and as available space filled, the level of the soil began to sink. Contracts for dirt were frequently bid upon and city chain gangs shoveled it evenly throughout the graveyard, making room for more bodies. It is believed that beneath the grounds of the cemetery, there are layers of bones several feet thick.
Is it any wonder these labyrinths of the dead breed tales of ghosts?

For all but the indigent, above ground tombs were the rule. The reasons were obvious as the wet ground of Louisiana caused the graves to fill with water. The coffins would often float to the surface, despite grave diggers placing heavy stones or bricks on the lids. Such conditions did not appeal to those with the wealth to be buried in style.
Most of the early tombs were not fancy or decorative though. Most were simple but functional enclosures and most of the doors were bricked over once the burial had taken place. Years later, architects would design more elaborate tombs for the city’s elite, but few of those can be seen in the older graveyards.
For those who could not afford a private tomb, but dreaded the idea of the soggy earth, they had the option of a wall vault or a society tomb. The wall vaults were constructed directly into the walls surrounding the cemetery and resembled old-time baker’s ovens. The society vaults were the precursor of today’s public mausoleums, although most were organized by ethnic origins or associations such as the Orleans Battalion, who were veterans of the Battle of New Orleans.

Perhaps one of the most famous residents of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is Marie Laveau (who we read about in the last installment of the series). Her tomb is the most frequently visited site in the graveyard. The tomb looks like most others in the cluttered cemetery, until you notice the markings and crosses that have been drawn on the stone. Apart from these marks, you will also see coins, pieces of herb, beans, bones, bags, flowers, tokens and all manner of things left behind in an offering for the good luck and blessings of the Voodoo Queen.
Legend has it that Marie’s ghost sometimes walks here and one man claims to have been slapped by her spirit after making a disparaging remark at her tomb one day.

Another tale of the cemetery, and Marie Laveau, springs from the 1930’s. According to the story, a drifter with no money or prospects decided to spend the night in the cemetery one night. He scaled a tomb and slept fitfully for several hours before being awakened by a strange sound. Thinking that perhaps he would be injured by vandals, he decided to make his escape to the streets. As he rounded the corner of a row of crypts, he saw a terrible sight. Positioned in front of Marie Laveau’s tomb was a glowing, nude woman with her body entwined by a serpent. Surrounding her were the ghostly forms of men and women, dancing in mad but silent abandon. Needless to say, the drifter fled for his life.

Another account of the cemetery is the New Orleans version of the story the “Nail in the Tomb”. This legend has crossed the country in many variations, but local folklorists swear that it had its start in New Orleans.. and at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.
The tale goes that three young men spent a night drinking and carousing in the French Quarter. Their talk soon turned to death, voodoo and Marie Laveau. Before long, one of the men was enticed into a wager. His friends bet him $30 that he would not climb the cemetery wall and drive a spike into the wall of Marie’s resting place. He accepted the wager and a short time later, entered the cemetery.
His friends waited for him to return but soon, minutes turned into hours. Dawn came and with it, the opening of the cemetery gates. The worried young men hurried to the tomb and there, they found their friend... lying dead on the ground!
In his drunken state, he had hammered the spike through his coat and into the stone wall of the crypt. As he started to leave, what he believed to be an unseen force (actually the misguided nail) held him in place. Panic and fear overwhelmed him and he literally died of fright.
But was it really just confusion which fueled his horror... or did he see something on that dark night which so terrified him that his heart couldn’t stand it? Those who allege that the cemetery is haunted are certain that it is the latter.

By 1820, the city was outgrowing its boundaries, reaching Rampart Street, and the old cemetery became overcrowded. They chose another site, not too far away for the funeral processions, but far enough to avoid contagion, and called it St. Louis Cemetery No. 2. Burials began here in 1823.
The new cemetery was laid out in a perfect square with large, house-like mausoleums on orderly streets. It was the embodiment of the term, city of the dead. Over time, the tombs here became much larger and grander than in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, although below ground burials continued as well. Contracts for cemetery dirt were constantly filled.

As the city grew, more cemeteries were added but only one other boasts a ghost story. It is called Metairie Cemetery and has always been known as the most fashionable in the city. This opulent park-like cemetery was organized by a group of local businessmen and promoters in 1873. It was the epitome of the classic Victorian graveyard, which was far removed from the jumbled chaos of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.
One of the city’s most fascinating tales comes from this graveyard and involves the ghost of Mrs. Josie Deubler, also known as Josie Arlington, the most colorful and infamous madam of New Orleans.

From 1897 to 1917, New Orleans was the site of America’s largest district of prostitution. The city officials always realized they could not get rid of prostitution, so they decided to segregate it instead. Based on a plan created by an alderman named Sidney Story a district was created which would control and license the prostitutes. Much to the alderman’s chagrin, it was dubbed “Storyville” in his honor.
It was here where Josie Arlington operated her house of ill repute and became very rich. The house was known as the finest bordello in the district, stocked with beautiful women; fine liquor; wonderful food; and exotic drugs. The women were all dressed in expensive French lingerie and entertained the cream of New Orleans society. Many of the men who came to Josie’s were politicians, judges, lawyers, bankers, doctors and even city officials. She had the friendship of some of the most influential men in the city, but was denied the one thing she really wanted... social acceptance.
She was shunned by the families of the city and even publicly ignored by the men she knew so well. Her money and charm meant nothing to the society circles of the city. But what Josie could not have in life, she would have in death. She got her revenge on the society snobs by electing to be buried in the most fashionable cemetery in New Orleans... Metairie Cemetery.
She purchased a plot on a small hill and had erected a red marble tomb, topped by two blazing pillars. On the steps of the tomb was placed a bronze statue which ascended the staircase with a bouquet of roses in the crook of her arm. The tomb was an amazing piece of funerary art, designed by an eminent architect named Albert Weiblen, and cost Josie a small fortune. Although from the scandal it created, it was well worth it in her eyes.
Tongues wagged all over the city and people, mostly women, complained that Josie should not be allowed to be buried in Maitairie. But New Orleans is a city normally lacking of discrimination and nothing was ever said to her about it.

No sooner had the tomb been finished in 1911, than a strange story began making the rounds. Some curiosity-seekers had gone out to see the tomb and upon their arrival one evening, were greeted with a sight that sent them running. The tomb seemed to burst into flames before their very eyes! The smooth red marble shimmered with fire, and the tendrils of flame appeared to snake over the surface like shiny phantoms. The word quickly spread and people came in droves to witness the bizarre sight. The cemetery was overrun with people every evening which shocked the cemetery caretakers and the families of those buried on the grounds. Scandal followed Josie even to her death.
Josie passed away in 1914 and was interred in the “flaming tomb”, as it was often referred to. Soon, an alarming number of sightseers began to report another weird event, in addition to the glowing tomb. Many swore they had actually seen the statue on the front steps move. Even two of the cemetery gravediggers, a Mr. Todkins and a Mr. Anthony, swore they had witnessed the statue leaving her post and moving around the tombs. They claimed to follow her one night, only to see her suddenly disappear.

The tradition of the flaming tomb has been kept alive for many years, although most claim the phenomena was created by a nearby streetlight which would sway in the wind. Regardless, no one has ever been able to provide an explanation for the eyewitness accounts of the “living” statue.
Perhaps Josie was never accepted in life... but she is certainly still on the minds of many in New Orleans long after her death!

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COPYRIGHT 2000 BY TROY TAYLOR. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.