My Year of Ghosts -The Toast

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In the summer of 2004, I quit my first full-time job—teaching high school—and answered an alt-weekly ad that asked “Do you love New Orleans history? Do you love to tell stories?” followed by a date, a time, and the location of a 24-hour bar.

My job interview lasted a week: I read and memorized stories, shadowed other guides, and took the city-mandated drug test and history exam. In a week, I was turned out onto the street to lead a couple dozen drunk tourists past the French Quarter’s most haunted houses.

Over the course of a year, many of my tour guests asked me whether my stories were true. The answer I gave is that they were stories truly told. When I wrote my tour, cribbing heavily from ghost story collections published over the last century, I chose stories that had been repeated over time, printed in different editions, retold in countless variations on tours. I chose stories I thought would capture the imaginations of my guests, give them chills, or make them laugh.

How can anyone really know what happened in the past? I asked them. But night after night, I stood surrounded by people from all over the world who wanted to be immersed in history. They wanted to be spooked by it. They also wanted to be entertained by it. So I gave them my best adaptation of the truth, such as it is, filtered by what I thought they wanted to hear.

Jackson Square

PereAntoineBrewsterThe first stop on the tour is always St. Louis Cathedral. Officially, my job was to take my guests through one of the cobbled alleys, a place of relative quiet where they could look up at the soaring white church and listen to a frankly unfrightening tale of a phantom friar who occasionally bumps into people, suffusing them with a feeling of peace and joy. But at the start of the tour, guests are restless and excitable. They’ve been milling around a 24-hour bar getting pumped up with loud music. Many of them have taken advantage of the 2-for-1 fire sale of hurricanes just before we left the bar; the perfectly legal act of carrying a plastic souvenir cup in each hand infuses their walk with an emboldened swagger. The last thing I would want to do is take them into a quiet alley and ask them to please listen.

So unofficially, I brought them through Jackson Square to get them in the mood for the supernatural. When I was new to the company, a dignified old palm reader was introduced to me by another tour guide who was leaving the company to take his magic show on the road. I took over his share of a mutually beneficial arrangement: if the palm reader’s table was available, he would be my first stop on the tour. He’d pick a guest out of the crowd and read the basic shape of his or her palm: the spread of the fingers, the curve of the fingertips, the angle of the thumb. He would then ask everyone in the group to hold their palms out flat; pointing to each guest in turn, he would name the personality types he saw: codependent, cooperative, cantankerous, total asshole.

The palm reader’s routine always met with a good-natured uproar, but as we left him, my group would become quieter, more receptive.

I would casually mention an appropriate dollar amount in case anyone went back to the reader later. Psychic services are donation only.

Royal at Orleans

c3ffe8f4433dc2b79b68c36482105acaThe house across the street from the old opera and ballroom was my favorite stop on the tour—not because of the story, but because I think Royal is one of the most beautiful streets in the world. Even after hours, the shop windows glowed amber and gold; they glittered with artworks, antiques, and jewelry. The galleries and balconies were garlanded with hanging plants and twinkling lights. Many other tours and buggies trundled through this street in the course of the evening: once, I felt a pair of eyes at my back as I stood before the House of the Octoroon Mistress and told her story; turning, I found myself nose to nose with the wise, placid face of a mule. Another time, a woman who kept shop on the bottom floor bustled out with a tray of sandwiches, offering them to my guests and making chitchat with me while I waited for them to swallow.

The ghost story here is supposed to be a romance: a rich, dissipated young man courts a mixed-race woman he met at the Quadroon Ball; he sets her up in a nice house, keeps her like a doll. They are in love: he proves it to her with gifts of fine lace and casual cruelty, and she proves it to him by accepting a dare. He tells her to stand naked and alone on the roof of the house while he entertains other dissipated young men with cards downstairs; if she can endure it, he will marry her in defiance of all social rules. She endures it. When he remembers to check on her, he finds her frozen and dead.

(No one questioned this outcome, even if we were all peering up at the roof on a balmy 60-degree December evening with Christmas beads wound around our necks.)

The ghostly part is that the mistress still walks the roof without having bothered to dress, giving a thrill to anyone lucky enough to see her. It’s no coincidence that her chilly catwalk is not far from that graceful old meat market, the site of the Quadroon Ball, or from Bourbon Street, where out-of-towners flash their mortal flesh and make each other promise not to tell.

I prefer the story that the shopwoman with the sandwich tray told me. She said that two young women who had come from a ghost tour once asked her if they could see the inside of the house and take pictures. Digital cameras were new then, but a few people brought them on tours and used them to look for orbs and strange lights. When the girls showed their photos to the shopwoman, many images were spotted with spectral spheres and one showed the misty, transparent lower half of a woman. Her upper half was out of frame, but they knew it was a woman because she wore a long skirt and old-fashioned buttoned shoes.

Romeo Spikes

a739d125c3047fc0366f646244eec04eMy route took the tour a long way down Royal Street, away from the warm glow and friendly camaraderie of the upper Quarter. Even so, the stories I could tell along this elegant path were mostly light, even funny: a stately Victorian hotel haunted by harmless, giggling child-ghosts; a shuttered house that is one of several possible candidates for the House of the Rising Sun, always good for a round of impromptu singing. 

Sometimes as we walked, I would turn to the three or four most enthusiastic guests—they were always directly at my heels if not at my shoulder—and point out how the city’s history is embedded in its remarkable architecture. How all the houses in the lower blocks are shuttered because their front entrances are inside courtyards, protected from the heat by leafy tropical trees, protected from the crowd by curling iron gates. How balconies differ from galleries—the latter extend the full width of the sidewalk, with support poles down to the curb—and how they cool the streets with shade. How the whole Old Quarter burned to the ground twice and was rebuilt twice in a style more Spanish and Caribbean than French.

For guests who wanted it, I verbally traced the surfaces of buildings to project a vision of history for them to lose themselves in, because that was the pleasure of these walks for me too: feeling the layers of the past rise up like smooth stones from a river. For everyone else, the only stop I made was under a gallery supported by poles wreathed with spikes, like the bristles some buildings use to prevent pigeons from roosting. I told guests the same story I was told: that these defenses are called Romeo spikes and have been in use for as long as rich men have had daughters to protect from enterprising young swains. If you go up a Romeo, the story goes, you’ll come down a Juliet.

I can’t take credit for that line, but it is the only joke in my repertoire that never failed to get laughs. Not even once, in hundreds of tours.

Governor Nichols Street at Royal Street

640px-1140_Royal_StreetEven years before American Horror Story, the LaLaurie Mansion was the most famous haunted house in town. It is a large, imposing gray house on the corner of two quiet streets, which permits a relatively unobstructed view of its inner walls. This is crucial to the story. You can see the flat roof where Delphine LaLaurie is said to have chased an enslaved girl with a whip; you can imagine, beyond the outer wall, the paved courtyard where the young girl leapt to her death. You can see the thin, slant-roofed wing of the house known as the slave quarters; such wings are common to houses and apartments of this shape, and are often still called “slave quarters” in rental listings. At this house, the wing was said to have burned up in the 1830s, but not before agitated onlookers forced open the doors and burst into the burning attic to discover a nauseating scene of imprisonment and mutilation. You are facing the wooden gates that would have issued Madame’s getaway coach, chased by a furious mob who would return to destroy what remained of the property. Thus we would stand before an elegant, monumental edifice built on the ashes of torments carried out on the bodies of black slaves, and I would rush quickly and guiltily through a litany of torture.

I sometimes think that gruesome true-crime stories like this are perversely reassuring to privileged populations. We think we’re looking at the face of evil, and it is so inhuman and so outré that we feel reassured it bears no relation to ourselves. The details of Madame’s atrocities which vary from version to version reflect this: to neoclassically-minded antebellum writers, there was something decidedly Roman about Madame’s cruelty. In retellings published after World War II, the attic apartment is reimagined as a dungeon of live experiments; Monsieur LaLaurie, a doctor, becomes more central in these mad-scientist versions. The true-crime tale becomes a reverse Pandora’s box for evils already loose in the world.

But you don’t sign up for a ghost tour to get an academic discussion on the ethics of rewriting history and reenacting violence for entertainment. So although telling this story did and does make my stomach tight and cold—you should never get used to something like this if you believe it to be true—I gave all the gory details. Because Madame is not the only monster in this tale, I described her escalating acts of public violence, which were witnessed and explained away for years before the public outcry. I briefly sketched the legal mechanisms which provided some measure of protection to slaves and which wealth and prestige could wave away like so much smoke. And though I did not like to linger, I traced out the violence on my body, marking my torso with slash motions and holding my limbs at odd angles for the tour to see.

What hundreds of listeners took away from this telling is impossible to say. But as with the Romeo spikes, the LaLaurie Mansion never failed to bring everyone into a common disposition: when we left the house, the tour was always quiet.

The weight of this story is in its visceral real-life horror; the supernatural element is merely afterthought. The details of the subsequent hauntings are wildly divergent, so I opted instead to follow up with a smattering of ghost photography stories. For whatever it’s worth, this house always brought out the orbs on film; once a woman showed me a photo on her camera that showed the slave quarters ensconced in a flare of red-orange light.


51OOONSvKWL._SX300_Lower Chartres Street can’t help being spooky. Compared to the bright bustle of Royal Street and Jackson Square, it has a deserted air: there’s not much around but a few silent houses, the back ends of hotels, and the severe white bulk of the Old Ursuline Convent lying behind a gate. In wintertime, a miasmatic mist may creep in from the river, sometimes so thick and low that I’ve kicked my way through it as I now do through a blanket of snow.

If I had enough time toward the end of my tour, I would stop on this street and field some questions: what happened to the LaLauries? Are these stories real? Do you (meaning me) believe in ghosts? We would look at pictures, if anyone took any digitally. Sometimes I would throw in a popular vampire story, a play on the term “casket girl” for young women who were sent to the Ursulines from overseas.

But if the hour was late, I would hustle my guests back to the 24-hours bar. I risked another trip to traffic court if I didn’t get them off the residential blocks by 10pm. Besides, a quiet street can be creepy in more than supernatural ways. Once, I was in the midst of describing exsanguination when a deep, echoing laugh rose up behind me. I whirled, tensed and alert, and saw a patrol car slowing rolling down the street while a police officer affected evil laughter into his PA microphone. Once, a buggy trotted past as the driver pointed me out like a landmark: “There’s a haunted history tour guide!” A man leaned over one of the hotel balconies and yelled, “Show us your haunted tits!”

My face felt stretched at the end of a tour: as I spoke, I would smile, worry, gape, and affect surprise to model for my listeners what I wanted them to feel. After the tour, my face would become a mirror. Some guests tipped in appreciation of an evening’s entertainment; they might ask for directions or recommendations, which I would deliver with a conspiratorial grin. Other guests gripped my hand as they tucked a tip into it, looking meaningfully into my eyes. Some searching glances would turn into a story:  it was after I lost my youngest son, they might say, or once when I was a child but I never forgot, or my husband thinks I’m crazy but I sense things.

After ten years I still think about these people: the men talking in low voices, the women gripping my hands. So many of the stories that haunted them were about loss and loneliness: their ghosts were past memories they still held close or suspicions of a hidden world that only they could see and none too clearly.

The ghost stories that haunt the city itself are more varied—they can be funny or cruel, mischievous or horrifying—because in so many ways, they reflect the present. We must still dream the fantasy of being so consumed by love that we would die—or kill—for it. We must still be hounded by the horrors of the past, though we want to be the incensed crowd that runs it out of town. But we want to also relive the beauty, the intricacy, the passions left behind by those before us—whose lives are so unlike ours that we rewrite them as romance.

And so New Orleans is haunted by history: its recent and ancient pains are written onto its face, and the shadows of past lives creep like river fog along its streets.


Background Reading:

I favor Strange True Tales of Louisiana by George Washington Cable (1888). Many of Cable’s stories are available for free on Kindle.

Sara Davis did not work for Haunted History Tours. She tweets about books and food @LiterarySara and comments on The Toast as Sara Davis.

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