Friday, December 2, 2011
New Orleans: A Love Story, part 1
I have been in love with the city of New Orleans since April 2006. Since then I have only been two more times (one within that same year), but my adoration of the Big Easy has grown exponentially. It is a city after my own heart, full of culture, romance, tragedy and triumph. There honestly aren't enough words to describe the streets of New Orleans, from downtown, to the French Quarter, to the Lower Ninth. Seeing is truly believing. Not only does that phrase apply to New Orleans itself, but it also applies to the myriad ghosts and spirits that reside there. In honor of a friend of mine, the Violin Monster (http://www.violinmonster.com), who is spending his first time in New Orleans as I type this, and the wonderful time of year I normally spend in the city, here is a blog devoted to just a few of the myths, legends and haunts of New Orleans. There will be several more parts to come, but here's a taste of what lurks in the alleys and history-laden buildings of the Big Easy.
What goes on here?
First, let's start with a creature even the Violin Monster might be frightened of. The werewolf, or Loup Garou (in Creole, Rougarou), has been in New Orleans since the very beginning. It seems vampires weren't the only things to be brought to the new world by the French. The legend of the werewolf came down from Canada back in the 16th century, and it spread all across the Bayou. According to Journey into Darkness... Ghosts and Vampire of New Orleans, written by Kalila Katherina Smith, werewolves are still very much a part of New Orleans. There were still werewolf sightings as recent as 2004. She offers a tale from her own encounter...
Smith was driving in the swamps outside New Orleans on a black and foggy night. Going about 70 mph, she sped past a very large, furry creature standing in the middle of the road. She described the beast as being taller than her van, she could only see the legs. Its fur was grey and matted, and it obviously wasn't scared of oncoming traffic. She didn't stick around to investigate- she'd seen enough!
Another man, trapping in the woods, came across a large dog-like creature at sunset. It growled and bared its teeth, and fog grew up around it. He said the dog stood on two feet and was covered in grey fur. He didn't stick around, either. He raced back home on his boat and didn't tell a soul for a year and a day about what happened.
This is just one of many superstitions regarding the werewolf. If you look into the eyes of a werewolf, you become one as well. But if you can keep the secret for a year and a day, the spell will be broken on you and possibly even the werewolf you witnessed. Surviving a werewolf attack will turn you into one as well. However, if you pass on the curse to someone else, you are freed from it. Just like vampires, any number of things can get you into and out of werewolfism.
I doubt any of those, though, can play a violin.
Another story very dear to me is that of the Singing Rain. A very popular legend in New Orleans, many people have heard, and a few witnessed, the singing of Pere Dagobert, a Capuchin monk. In 1762 King Louis XV gave Louisiana to King Charles III of Spain. Having not told the colony there that a switch had been made, citizens were quite upset when a Spanish governor arrived to claim the territory as his own. In fact, they rebelled by organizing an army lead by six Creole men, and literally ran the Spanish out of the colony.
Unfortunately, three years later in 1769, a new Spanish governor showed up... with the Spanish army in tow. He had the six leaders of the rebellion killed, and to disgrace them further, left them all to rot in the New Orleans sun for the entire colony to see. One man, however, Pere Dagobert, could not let these brave men decay without the proper rites and burial. On a stormy night, he and the families of the men placed the bodies in coffins, and Pere Dagobert led the procession down Pere Antoine Alley and to what was then the St. Peter Street Cemetery. He sang the Kyrie the entire way.
His courageous act made a mark on the rain itself. The legend is that you can hear Pere Dagobert singing on a rainy night. The closer to dawn and the closer to the cemetery you get, the louder and clearer his singing will be.
I have a friend who claims she has personally heard the song on a late night in August, during a heavy rain storm. While she, a very skeptical person, will not confirm it was indeed singing she heard, I like to believe Pere Dagobert's beautiful voice is still ringing throughout the alley. It's a comfort and inspiration to do what is right, and remember that there is always someone looking out for you.
The last feature of part one is a lot more gruesome than the others. After learning about this mansion in the French Quarter during a Vampire Tour (courtesy of Haunted History Tours, link below), I can't look up at the beautiful domed windows without shivering.
On the corner of Royal and Governor Nicholls streets sits the gorgeous and tragic LaLaurie Mansion. What the LaLauries did here has become the "blemish of New Orleans." Madame LaLaurie was known for mistreating her servants badly. She had been to court three times for the cruelty she inflicted upon her servants. One girl, who had been brushing Madame LaLaurie's hair, caught a tangle. The lady of the house took a bullwhip to her, and hurt the girl so badly she, Leah, climbed out on the balcony and fell to her death in the courtyard. This was just the tip of the iceberg.
One evening in 1834, during a party at the mansion, the servants set fire to the separated kitchen purposely to get firefighters to the residence. They arrived and put out the flames. The servants showed them a locked door on the third floor of the mansion. Hearing human voices in agony through the door, they beat it down. No one could have imagined the atrocities waiting in that room. The firefights could not take the awful stench of rotting human and feces that filled the air. Some even vomited then and there. It seems the LaLauries had a fancy for medical experimentation. Several people were chained to walls and kept in small cages around the room. Smith describes one woman having her arms and legs amputated, and her skin peeled in a circular pattern to resemble a human caterpillar. Another woman had her joints broken and reset in the shape of a human crab. A man had undergone a crude sex change. One woman had broken free from her shackles, but not recognizing the firefighters as help and afraid of more torture, jumped out of the window. It is still boarded up and unused.
Madame LaLaurie and her family, however, escaped. They slipped out another entrance and were never seen again.
I would love to say that this is the end of the horror in the LaLaurie Mansion. But this is the event that started it all. It sat vacant for forty years, superstitious New Orleans residents hearing blood curdling cries and wails from the outside of the house. After those forty years it was home to several immigrant Italian families, who claimed to see apparitions of a bloody man, and a woman carrying a whip and screaming. Animals were found decapitated all over the grounds as well. The house was again abandoned.
A furniture shop moved in, only to move out again when twice the owner found his entire inventory covered in blood, urine and feces. A saloon set up shop, but no one would patron it. The mansion stood empty again.
The mansion's bottom floors were eventually turned into apartments. When the floor was removed to be replaced, workers found the bodies of over seventy people under the floorboards. Seventy. Those cries and wails the residents of New Orleans heard weren't ghosts at all. The people had been buried alive. Tales are still told about the LaLaurie Mansion. Smith interviewed several people who had occupied the building at one time or another. They all had stories of furniture moving, weird sounds and scary apparitions.
While beautiful and historical, the LaLaurie Mansion is one of the most frightening buildings in New Orleans. Its history is utterly tragic. It is astounding to think that one family could be so cruel and heartless, and leave such a strong impression.
If you ever have the chance, take a Haunted History Tour in the French Quarter. All three of the above have a good chance of being talked about, and you can learn more from the citizens of New Orleans themselves. There are dozens of more sites around the city I want to show you, but for now, these three are enough to get you started. Below are some links to more information and pictures of everything above. Look for New Orleans, a Love Story part 2 coming in the near future.
What to know more? Click the links below!
These three stories are copyright Kalila Katherina Smith and Haunted History Tours