Say “Mardi Gras” and what immediately springs to mind for most people are the raucous celebrations in and around New Orleans, the throwing of beads, and the event’s iconic colors – purple, green, and gold.
But Mardi Gras – or “Carnival,” as the locals refer to it – is, of course, intimately intertwined with the city itself and its captivating history. New Orleans, after all, has been in existence since its French beginnings in the early 1700s. In the centuries since then, the city and the surrounding area have been witness to epidemics, slave rebellions, various wars, environmental catastrophes, and much more.
As a result, when the shiny façade of Mardi Gras is pulled back, some much darker places, incidents, and phenomena are revealed.
Whether you’re in the New Orleans area for Carnival season – which began January 6 and lasts through February 25 (aka Fat Tuesday) – or at any other time of year, be sure to check out these eight disturbing and chilling locales that are sure to pique your curiosity for all things hair-raising and ghostly.
Colorful Energies Ignite the Spirits of New Orleans Source: Vacation.com
Chilling Voodoo History at the St Louis Cemetery in New Orleans Source: Expedia
Situated just outside the city’s French Quarter district, the Saint Louis Cemetery is actually three cemeteries in all – No. 1, 2, and 3 – and all are above-ground vaults originally built in the 18th and 19th centuries. The oldest of these, Cemetery No. 1, was constructed in 1789, and it is the final resting place for thousands. Although Cemetery No. 1 was closed to the public in 2015 due to vandalism, local tour companies are now permitted to offer guided tours through this haunting venue.
As you explore Cemetery No. 1, you might want to make your way to plot 347 and take note of one particular “resident” there: Marie Laveau, the famed voodoo priestess, healer, and herbalist. Known far and wide in the New Orleans area (and beyond) for her practice of the mystic arts, she not only performed privately but also brazenly led voodoo ceremonies and dances in public, at Congo Square (see below).
And even in death, Laveau continued to work her dark arts: Tradition states that visitors wanting her to grant a wish, had only to draw an “x” on her tomb, turn around thricely, knock on the tomb, and speak their wish aloud. However, those choosing to leave their mark were warned that if their wish was indeed granted, they must then return to the tomb, circle their “x,” and leave the voodoo priestess a worthy offering – after all, you don’t dare disappoint the voodoo queen!
Another noteworthy soul put to rest in Cemetery No. 1 is that of Barthelemy Lafon, the French architect and engineer who later became a pirate and smuggler. Lafon’s engineering skills had enabled him to become quite wealthy and a philanthropist, and he also published the first almanac in New Orleans. After the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, however, he inexplicably turned to pirating, even going so far as to work with the notorious privateers and spies Jean and Pierre Lafitte. Lafon died of yellow fever in 1820.
The Haunted Gardette-LePretre House Source: Pintrest
Also known as “The Sultan’s Palace,” this structure at the corner of Dauphine and Orleans streets acquired its sordid reputation in the mid-1800s. Its owner at the time, Joseph Gardette, sold the house to John Baptiste LePretre, a planter and merchant who tended to spend most of his time on his parish plantation. When a Turkish merchant asked LePretre if he would consider renting out his rarely used domicile to the brother of a sultan, LePretre readily agreed.
Soon thereafter, the sultan’s brother did indeed move into the house – bringing with him not only a bounty of gold, jewels, and valuable paintings and other décor, but also a harem of five women. All, it was learned later, had been stolen from his brother.
One night, not long after the sultan’s brother had moved in, a gang of assassins brandishing swords fell upon the house, slaughtering everyone within. The bodies were found the next morning, with a note reading, “This is what happens to traitors!”
Legend has it that the ghost of the sultan’s brother still walks the house’s halls – perhaps in search of the gold, the jewels, or he could be looking for his harem!
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Haunted Congo Square in New Orleans - Source: Wikepedia
As with much of America, New Orleans has a past that, unfortunately, is linked with slavery. In 1817, the city’s mayor issued a proclamation that enslaved Africans could only congregate in one area in the city: Congo Square, which can still be found in the town’s Treme neighborhood, on the outskirts of the French Quarter. There, on Sundays – the only day of the week they were permitted to not toil – the enslaved population could set up a market, sell goods and wares, sing, and dance.
Beyond those activities, however, another darker activity often took place right in the Square: voodoo ceremonies. It’s reported that practitioners including none other than the infamous Marie Laveau (see Saint Louis Cemetery, above) led voodoo ceremonies and dances on the spot – while performing even darker ceremonies in secret, away from prying eyes.
After New Orleans became part of the United States and the Civil War began, many of these activities in Congo Square declined. And while public voodoo practices became less frequent, you can be sure that Marie Laveau and others like her continued their witchy ways.
In the late 1890s, the area was renamed Beauregard Square, in honor of a Confederate General, but City Council restored the Congo Square name in 2011. Today, Louis Armstrong Park incorporates Congo Square.
The Haunted LaLaurie Mansion in New Orleans Source: USA Hitman
The last thing rescuers likely expected to find when responding to a fire at Madame LaLaurie’s mansion in 1834 was the horrifying scene before them: a slave shackled to the kitchen stove and, in the attic, more bound slaves – all showing signs of violent abuse and even mutilation.
Madame LaLaurie was a wealthy socialite, living in the mansion that she and her third husband had built. She was twice widowed – her first husband’s death apparently due to “mysterious circumstances.” And although there had been some rumors about her mistreatment of slaves, no one suspected the terrors that the slaves were facing on a daily basis within the mansion’s walls.
The fire that night was, in fact, started by the slave who had been chained to the stove – the 70-year-old woman set it in a desperate attempt to commit suicide. She was so scared of the punishment that Madame LaLaurie regularly inflicted that she preferred to end her life rather than face what the mistress of the house might inflict upon her.
And, she was right to be distressed: When rescuers and police entered the house that night, it's reported, they found slaves hanging by their necks, with limbs stretched and torn, and many other mutilations.
Outraged by the gruesome discovery, dozens of New Orleans citizens mobbed the mansion. They burned down the house, forcing Madame LaLaurie to escape – first to other Louisiana cities and, eventually, to France. There, she lived until dying in a boar-hunting accident in the 1840s (although some reports hint at her returning to New Orleans and now being buried in Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1).
Meanwhile, the LaLaurie mansion on Royal Street in the French Quarter was rebuilt. It would later serve as a high school, a music conservatory, a bar, a furniture store, a luxury apartment building, and even a food rescue for the homeless. Today, it’s been completely restored and is a highlight of many ghost-hunting tours.
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The Haunted Pharmacy Museum in New Orleans - Source: Go Nola
Before Louisiana became a state, just about anyone could obtain a license enabling them to formulate and sell their own medicinal concoctions for a variety of illnesses (real or perceived). As you might suspect, incorrect doses, as well as erroneous medications, were common – with terrible outcomes.
In 1804, however, Louisiana passed a law requiring a licensing exam for pharmacists, becoming the first state to require such licensing for the profession. Just a few years later, New Orleans’ Louis J. Dufilho, Jr. was the first person to pass the licensing examination – becoming America’s first licensed pharmacist.
Today, you can explore the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum housed within what was once the pharmacist’s original apothecary shop in the city’s French Quarter. There, you’ll find not only 19th-century surgical and dental instruments but also hand-blown bottles filled with crude drugs, leech jars, medicinal herbs, and rare patent medicines from a time when medical practice was still in its infancy. In addition, you’ll see “gris-gris” potions and talismans used by voodoo practitioners to protect the wearer from evil (or to bring good luck). Upstairs, on the museum’s second floor, you can get more up close and personal – exploring the “sick room” and study, as well as the pharmacist’s personal living quarters.
In 1857, Dufilho, Jr. sold the pharmacy to Dr. Joseph Dupas, who allegedly conducted radical experiments on pregnant slaves and even performed voodoo rites. A decade later, he died of syphilis, and his ghost reportedly now haunts the former pharmacy’s top floor, moving items, throwing books and setting off the occasional fire alarm.
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The Haunts of the Ursuline Convent Source: Haunted Nation
Legends of vampires and vampire covens in New Orleans date all the way back to the city’s French rule. In more modern times, Anne Rice’s Lestat in Interview with the Vampire is probably one the most well-known example of bloodsucking demons, but many others exist as well – there’s even a New Orleans Vampire Association, and you can find many so-called “vampire bars” around town.
Although we can’t vouch for the “fangy-ness” of any of the city’s vampire bars you might come upon – or even any individual vampires that you might encounter – what we can do here is recount the tale of the Casket Girls of the Ursuline Convent.
Built in the mid-1700s, the aptly named Old Ursuline Convent is not only the oldest structure in New Orleans but also the oldest building in the entire Mississippi River Valley. Constructed by French Colonial engineers, the structure began its life as a convent for nuns, as well as an orphanage and school for girls.
It was during these early years that the Catholic Diocese began sending young girls from French convents to New Orleans, with a mission to spread Christian values and find marriage prospects. These girls carried their clothes in “cassettes” (French for “trunks”), which locals soon dubbed “caskets” – and so the girls were called “casket girls” when they arrived in New Orleans, making their way to the Ursuline Convent.
Legend has it that the caskets were carefully placed in the Convent’s third floor, which was – for reasons unknown – then sealed off. Even the third-floor shutters were nailed and bolted shut (and some say blessed by the Pope). Years later, when the caskets were finally opened, it’s said that they were completely empty.
Why would the girls travel all that distance, from France to New Orleans, with empty containers? Many said it was because the caskets had never contained clothing at all – instead, the appropriately named Casket Girls had smuggled vampires from the Old World into the New, and these vampires still reside on the Convent’s third floor. In fact, it’s reported that, late at night, the shutters will open and vampires leave their roost to hunt down unsuspecting humans.
Now serving as a museum with various exhibits, the Old Ursuline Convent is open for self-guided tours – we would be remiss, however, if we didn’t recommend wearing garlic on your visit here.
Executions in Jackson Square in the 1800s - Source: The Culture Trip
This 2-1/2-acre plot in the city’s French Quarter was constructed in 1721 and was originally named Place d’Armes (“weapons square”). Today, it’s been renamed Jackson Square – after General Andrew Jackson, in honor of his service during the Battle of New Orleans – and is a well-known tourist spot with live music, artists, and fortune-tellers. In the early 1800s, however, this was the spot where criminals and rebellious slaves were executed for their crimes.
In January of 1811, a revolt of black slaves numbering between 200 to 500 (accounts vary) took place. Armed with hand tools, the slaves marched from the sugar plantations on the German Coast (just north and east of New Orleans) into the city, burning numerous plantations, sugar-houses, and crops along the way.
In retaliation, territory officials and militia killed 45 of the slaves the first day of the uprising. During the next two weeks, plantation owners and their men hunted down, interrogated, and killed another 40 to 45 escaped slaves.
Executions were by hanging or firing squad; the slaves were then decapitated and their heads placed on pikes to intimidate other plantation slaves. By the end of January, it was reported, nearly 100 heads were displayed on the levee from the Place d'Armes along the River Road to the plantation.
St. Roch & Mortuary Chapels in New Orleans - Source: FineArt America
On the edge of the French Quarter, at the intersection of Rampart and Basin Streets, sits the former Mortuary Chapel – now named Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel. The oldest surviving church building in New Orleans (it was built in 1826), the chapel was constructed for the explicit purpose of holding funerals for yellow-fever victims. New Orleans had more than its share of yellow fever deaths since the late 1700s, including outbreaks where resultant deaths numbered as high as 2000 or more in a year.
By the 1850s, the city’s population had quadrupled since the building of the Mortuary Chapel, reaching nearly 160,000, and sanitation conditions were at an all-time low. Too, the practice of medicine had yet to catch up to most diseases. The time was ripe for yellow fever to surge – and it did just that. The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1853 killed more than 8,000 New Orleans citizens in just four short months. That summer, people died faster than graves could be provided and not enough laborers could be found to dig graves (eventually, the governor had to have prison chain gangs bury the dead). Unaware at the time of what actually caused yellow fever, the New Orleans populace tried everything to prevent or cure the disease – from poisoning stray dogs to discharging smoke bombs (and canons!) to dispel supposed disease-causing “vapors.”
Fourteen years later, in 1867, another yellow-fever epidemic struck New Orleans. In the neighborhood of Faubourg Franklin, Reverend Peter Thevis decided to help protect his parishioners from the yellow scourge by dedicating his daily prayers to Saint Roch – the patron saint of good health.
That summer, yellow fever killed more than 3,300 New Orleans citizens, but, miraculously not a single one of the reverend’s congregation fell ill. So, eight years later, Reverend Thevis designed and built a chapel in Saint Roch’s honor, for protecting his congregation during the epidemic. The neighborhood itself was also renamed St. Roch.
In the years since, the mortuary has gained a reputation as a place of healing and a sanctuary for those in ill health. In addition, through its history, the faithful and local citizenry have left offerings in the form of medical devices inside the chapel in tribute to Saint Roch – you can see everything from dentures and polio braces to glass eyes and even prosthetic limbs.
Unfortunately, the chapel was closed in 2018 due to termite damage but has plans to reopen for tours in the near future.
We are preparing a 4-day, 3-night "Secrets of Haunted New Orleans" Tour for the long weekend of January 15-18, 2021. We are collecting a mailing list to launch out information in April since this trip will be limited to just 24 travelers.
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Haunted New Orleans - A Ghost Hunting Experience Source: Andrew Jackson Hotel
Do you have any personal experiences in the Crescent City to share with us? Make sure to comment below and share it with our readers. We are always eager to open doors of uncommon tales that are too real to not be shared!
In the meanwhile, take a peek at one of the most haunted places in the French Quarters of New Orleans, the LaLaurie Mansion with this well put together video, if you dare!
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