Ghosts along the Mississippi
A chilling tour of Gothic New Orleans
Leaning against the wrought iron gate, I tried to snap a picture of Gothic fiction author Anne Rice’s Victorian manor. Her prodigious body of work is centered in New Orleans, and more specifically, in this neighborhood known as the Garden District. As I continued walking, I couldn’t help but marvel at the columned estates, sprawling gardens and towering oaks whose writhing branches formed a permanent canopy overhead. The houses alternated between restored homes reclaiming the decadence of the French colonial period and dilapidated structures divided into apartments for the working class. It was in one of the latter where I’d been crashing with a friend — sleeping in a room with vaulted ceilings and peeling plaster walls — a sagging mansion telling of the inequities of both wealth and time.
Cities of the dead
The wind picked up and I zipped my jacket, the sun only giving the faintest hint of warmth. A freak ice storm had occurred the night before, a rather surprising occurrence when considering that, like other former colonial ports in the South, New Orleans is oppressively muggy most of the year. I chose to visit this haunted city — a place with more supernatural street cred than perhaps any other place in the U.S. — in the winter, and had booked an otherworldly walking tour of the old quarter with some friends for later that evening.
To continue my pretour preparation, I followed up Rice manor with LaFayette cemetery. Because New Orleans was built on a swamp below sea level, heavy rains often resulted in bloated corpses and body parts littering the streets. Mausoleums became the burial method de rigueur; navigating the alleys and pathways between the sun-bleached tombs and sarcophagi of these “cities of the dead” is perhaps the best history lesson available (the famous voodoo queen Marie Laveau is interred here, her white tomb covered in scrawled X’s and spiritual entreaties). Weeds sprout from between the plots and some of the statuary has seen better days. Weatherworn angels with missing limbs stare down as you read about the city’s elite who had fallen prey to outbreaks of yellow fever, malaria and war.
Afterward, I hopped on a streetcar and cling-clanged eastward on St. Charles Ave. toward the French quarter. Steam poured out of restaurant kitchens, filling the street with the scent of crawdads boiling in cayenne pepper. Old Dixieland jazz and blues also carried on the breeze as I came into sight of Congo Square, a place where slaves congregated on weekends to dance and play traditional African music. A statue of Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong now overlooks this park, the true birthplace of musical Americana. Across the street, I ducked into a voodoo temple and was immediately hit by a thick wall of incense smoke. I gazed at the dizzying array of dolls, feathers and other gris-gris stuffed into every nook and cranny as a small, older black woman stood up from her rocking chair to welcome me. Priestess Chamani was her name, and she was more than happy to tell me of the history of voodoo. Its intertwined mix of African, Native American and European belief systems was intoxicating enough to keep me in the temple for some chitchat. After sitting for a spell, I left to meet my friends at Lafitte’s, a former smithy-turned-pub and the oldest bar in the States.
A blood-chilling history
Sipping whiskey over packed ice, we waited for our tour in what was once home to pirate Jean Lafitte during the 1700s (illuminated only by candlelight, the bricks are charred with soot and you have to duck under coarse wooden beams to reach your seats), but our pause was brief. Our tour guide soon stepped through the doorway: a dude of average height with long, jet-black hair, a top hat and tailcoat. Oh, and fangs. Erring on the side of eccentricity, we’d booked the tour via a certain Lord Chaz (find him on TripAdvisor), and this was his assistant Alexander.
Hurriedly escaping the tacky neon-degeneracy of central Bourbon Street, it wasn’t long before our own footsteps were the only sounds echoing off the cobblestones. The antique lamps cast long shadows as we strolled past shuttered buildings, the same ones that had once housed brothels and thieves’ dens. Stopping to look at the LaLaurie Mansion, with its two stories rounded to follow the corner of the road, our breath showed in the frigid night air and we shivered — but, for more than one reason: This place became an infamous landmark in 1834 when a slave girl started a fire to facilitate her escape from the nightmare unfolding within the house’s pristine exterior; when the firemen came and entered the house, dozens of slaves were found strung up, skinned and dismembered, with their blood slowly draining into receptacles. The ensuing mob violence caused Madame Dauphin LaLaurie to flee permanently, leaving tales of Nosferatu in her wake.
We were spooked even further by the imposing Old Ursuline Convent nearby, with its white walls and domed belfry looming over the surrounding area. Rumors of vampires and ghouls have long circulated about some of the young girls sent to be nuns there, whom townsfolk once whispered slept on the third floor during the day with the hurricane shutters forever nailed shut.
After the tour wound to a close, we stumbled upon a passage marked “Ye Olde Original Dungeon” and discovered three separate bars all connected by a labyrinthine series of staircases. We joined a rowdy group of locals and drank heartily, rocking out to old-school metal until the first rays of dawn sent us back underground.