American Hauntings Podcast

Death In New Orleans

Episode Summary

In this episode, we’re going to talk about a subject that many of our listeners have been waiting for – and a state of being that none of us can avoid: death. Specifically, death in New Orleans.

Episode Notes

There are 38 cemeteries in New Orleans, so there’s no way that we can get to them all. Instead, we’ll focus on the history of death, burials, and boneyards in the city and then take a closer look at the cemetery that is the most popular among tourists. Of course, just using those two words together – “cemetery” and “tourist” – says a lot what kind of traveler embraces New Orleans. I’m thinking that it’s a lot like the kind of listener that never misses this podcast.

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Want to read ahead for this season? Check out the book Haunted New Orleans by Troy Taylor.

This episode was written by Troy Taylor. Produced and edited by Cody Beck.

Intro music by Charlie Brockus

Monologue music by Josh Flori

Episode Transcription

Welcome to the new episode of American Hauntings, the podcast dedicated to the history, hauntings, legends, and lore of America’s past. The show is hosted and produced by Cody Beck and written and performed by Troy Taylor – that’s me -- and we are now in our fourth season, “Haunted New Orleans.”

If you are tuning into the podcast for the first time, we suggest you start listening to the “Haunted New Orleans” season with episode 53, which is where this season begins and where we set the stage for the many dark tales ahead. In each episode of the season, we’ll be revealing the history, mystery, spirits, scandals, and sins of New Orleans – a city that we believe is the most haunted in America.

So, grab a shovel, head down to the boneyard, and get ready for the next episode of Haunted New Orleans. 

In this episode, we’re going to talk about a subject that many of our listeners have been waiting for – and a state of being that none of can avoid: death.

Specifically, death in New Orleans. 

There are 38 cemeteries in New Orleans, so there’s no way that we can get to them all. Instead, we’ll focus on the history of death, burials, and boneyards in the city and then take a closer look at the cemetery that is the most popular among tourists. Of course, just using those two words together – “cemetery” and “tourist” – says a lot what kind of traveler embraces New Orleans. I’m thinking that it’s a lot like the kind of listener that never misses this podcast. 

It was Mark Twain who first praised the uniqueness of New Orleans’ cemeteries. He wrote: “Our cities of the dead look just like our cities of the living – long narrow houses, housing multi-generations of the same family with above-ground basements.”

Mark Twain had always intended to buy a house in New Orleans, but he never did. He died in Redding, Connecticut, and his funeral was held in a boring Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. My guess is that he would have preferred a send-off by Second Line in New Orleans instead of the dignified snore-fest that he got in New York.

But we should get on with our story. 

The graveyards of New Orleans are much like the city itself. They are a mirror to the greatness and the decay of the city. They are beautiful and in ruin, at the same time. And like the city, they hold many secrets.  

New Orleans is the most unique city in America. Its way of death is the most distinctive part of its culture. For more than 200, the people of New Orleans have housed their dead in small, above-ground tombs. They are built along streets in miniature cities of the gone and the forgotten. These cities of the dead provide hours of discovery for the intrepid tourist and sometimes, for the brave of heart. 

New Orleans is a city that has known death. Just a few short years after the colony was founded, it was flattened by a hurricane, bringing ruin and destruction. Fire, epidemics, and hardship claimed more lives, and there was always a need for a way to dispose of the dead. 

The city was – and continues to be – wet. The water table is located just below the soil. The colonists searched for higher ground and found it along the banks of the Mississippi. But during the frequent floods, the bodies of the dead would wash out of their muddy graves and come floating through the streets of the town. 

The first public cemetery in New Orleans was created on St. Peter Street in 1721. It was officially outside the town limits at the time.  This was not done for aesthetic reasons but for health. It was commonly believed that graveyards exuded a noxious odor that carried disease. They didn’t, but it seemed like a good idea in a town that had already seen more than its share of epidemics.

Those early burials were all below ground. Spaces were reserved for the clergy and the wealthy and distinguished of the city, but it was a shabby and dirty place that only operated until 1788. It was closed, but not because of bodies that kept popping up out of the ground, but because this was the year of the great fire that burned down most of the city and killed more than 1,200 people. The St. Peter Cemetery couldn’t handle the overflow of bodies, so they had to be taken and buried in the cypress swamp that is now located where Basin Street exists between Conti and St. Louis Streets. 

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 took its place. 

The new cemetery was a walled enclosure with its main entrance off Rampart Street. The poor were buried in unmarked graves until the middle 1800s, 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.

For all but the indigent, though, above ground tombs were the rule. There were several reasons for this – not the least of which was the wet soil. As graves were dug, they often filled with water. Coffins floated out of the holes, despite gravediggers placing heavy stones or bricks on the lids. Such conditions made funerals a somewhat terrifying affair. Caskets were often lowered into gurgling pools of water and oozing mud. As often as not, the coffin would capsize as the water began to leak in, causing newly buried and half-decomposed cadavers to float to the surface of the grave --- to the horror of those attending the funeral, of course.

Another reason for the above ground tombs was fashion, of all things. During this same period – back home in Paris – the French were creating the first garden cemeteries outside of the city. Pere Lachaise Cemetery was the first City of the Dead, with above ground mausoleums and tombs with space for multiple bodies in the same small stone house. It became the final resting place of France’s most famous citizens and the style spread to other places, including New Orleans.

And then, of course, there is the Catholic Church, which helped spread the stories of dead people popping up out of the ground every time it rained. They used the stories as a sales pitch to guilt their parishioners into buying the more expensive above ground tombs that were owned by, sold by, and filled the pockets of the New Orleans archdiocese. 

The burial plots in the cemetery were sold to families and constructed tombs to suit their purposes on the land. Most of the tombs had two vaults, and the top vault is used first. By law, you could only inter two fresh bodies at a time. After that, you were cut off. Once occupied, the burial houses were sealed and had to remain sealed for one year and one day. This was a rule that came along during the days of the yellow fever epidemics in New Orleans when it was worried – incorrectly – that the disease could be caught from a dead body. 

The real advantage to the year and a day rule is that the body would be inside the tomb over an entire New Orleans summer. When it’s 110 degrees outside on a hot August day, it’s well above 300 degrees inside the tomb. The body is cooked and naturally cremated. At the end of the 366 days, the vault is opened, and the remains are moved into the “caveau” (CAV-O) -- a chamber in the tomb’s foundation – to make room for the next occupant. 

If more than two members of your family died during that 366 days, they were out of luck. The law prohibits the tomb from being opened. But there’s an option available in the cemetery wall. Each cemetery is outfitted with dozens of vaults that look like brick pizza ovens. They are rental properties for when a family member dies while the tomb is still sealed. They can be used for 366 days, and then they are scooped and bagged, making room for more of the recently dead to fill the slots.

If you failed to pay the rent on the oven vault, though, you’d get evicted, just like when you don’t pay your rent on a living space. A cemetery employee would use a long pole to push the remains to the back of the oven, where an opening in the floor allowed them to be dumped to the bottom of the vault and mix with the ashes of the other people who didn’t pay rent over the years. The use of the long instrument to do this may be where the phrase of not touching something with a 10-foot pole got started.

As you can see, not having money could be an issue when it came to your funeral. So, many in New Orleans started to build monuments that were dedicated to an association or group, rather than just to a family. Many poor immigrants could not afford funeral expenses or a personal tomb. Benevolent societies formed in New Orleans, allowing members to pool their money and build society vaults in the city’s cemeteries. 

The tallest monument in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is the Italian Mutual Benevolent Society tomb. It has space for more than 1,000 remains. Many film buffs will recognize it as the background in the LSD trip scene from EASY RIDER, where Peter Fonda climbed all over the monument, and Dennis Hopper allegedly tore the head off one of the statues. By the way, that scene was filmed there without permission from the archdiocese, which led to a permanent ban on all Hollywood productions in the cemetery. 

At the end of Canal Street, where New Orleans becomes Metairie, are the Cypress Grove and Greenwood Cemeteries, both built by the Firemen’s Charitable and Benevolent Societies. It was founded in 1834 to arrange burials and help the families of nearly impoverished, all-volunteer firemen lost their lives in the line of duty. There’s also a Police Mutual Benevolent Association, a Confederate monument, and the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks. 

And while the societies to help bury European immigrants are largely a thing of the past, another New Orleans custom continues today – the Second Line.

The origins of the Second Line procession come from West Africa. During a traditional African circle dance, adults formed the inner circle, and children assembled around the outside. In the New Orleans style, the family of the deceased forms the first line. The second line are the friends and more distant relatives, with lots of room for people who didn’t even know the deceased but want to join the party. 

Brass bands accompany the funeral party from the church to the gravesite, playing traditional slow spiritual hymns like “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and “Amazing Grace.” Leaving the cemetery, though, the tunes become lively and upbeat. Handkerchiefs that had been used for tears become waving flags, and everyone dances to the second line songs that are a celebration of the life that was.

African music and burial traditions took hold in New Orleans mostly because the French and Spanish allowed the slaves to keep their traditions and express their music and dance heritage every Sunday – the slave’s one free day from work – in Congo Square. The tradition of the Second Line grew out of this. 

Historically, Second Lines occurred in predominantly African American communities like Treme, but today, they can be found pretty much all over the city and not just for funerals. There are Second Lines staged for weddings and even store openings.

Call me a traditionalist, but I think Second Line parades should only be used in the way they were intended – to bury the dead and celebrate the way they lived their life.

PAUSE

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I love cemeteries. I love the artwork, the symbols, the atmosphere – and especially the history. Many people laugh when we talk about the most popular cemetery for tourists – but these are special kinds of tourists who understand that graveyards are not just for those with a gruesome or macabre frame of mind. 

Of course, it helps to have those – but still , many understand that visiting the dead is a way of reliving the history of a place. Most of the most famous people in New Orleans can ONLY be found in the cemetery. That’s the only way that we now have of paying them the respect they deserve.

St. Louis Cemetery No. 2 is now home to Dominique You, a lieutenant of pirate Jean Lafitte and to New Orleans mayor Nicholas Girod (GEE-ROW) who once famously offered his home to Napoleon Bonaparte to live in New Orleans in exile. Musicians Earl King and Ernie K-Doe – most famous for the song “Mother-in-Law – are buried here. Ernie was supposed to be buried in a family plot outside the city, but his wife, Antoinette, stepped in, saying, “If you’re from New Orleans, you want to be buried in New Orleans.”

St. Louis Cemetery No. 3 has a chef’s corner with adjacent family tombs that belong to the restaurant families of Prudhomme, Galitoire, and others. 

E.J. Belloq is also buried here. The weird loner and photographer who became famous after death for his private collection of the prostitutes who worked in Storyville. If you haven’t seen these photos, seek them out. They are a time capsule of the heyday of one of New Orleans’ most notorious spots. 

Holt Cemetery was originally a potter’s field, holding the remains of those who couldn’t afford to pay for a burial. Somewhere on the grounds is the final resting place of Buddy Bolden, the man who invented jazz. He became a victim of acute alcohol psychosis and spent the last 24 years of his life in an asylum. When the most important man in the history of New Orleans music died, he was buried here – but no one knows where. 

Mahalia Jackson – the undisputed Queen of Gospel – is buried at Providence Memorial Park. 

Some charred bits of Cecil Ingram Conor III are in a grave at Garden of Memories Cemetery. You might know him by better by his professional name of Gram Parsons. A pivotal member in such bands as the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. He died at the age of 26 from an overdose of alcohol and morphine. His stepfather overruled his wish to be cremated at California’s Joshua Tree National Park. His body was on its way to New Orleans when it was intercepted by some pals, who drove his coffin to Joshua Tree, doused it in gasoline, and set it on fire. The resulting fireball alerted the police and led to a high-speed chase and a $700 fine with no jail time. What was left of Gram was buried in New Orleans.

Mount Olivet Cemetery holds the remains of Henry Roeland Byrd, who was better known as Professor Longhair, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member who is also known as the “Picasso of Keyboard Funk.”

Metairie Cemetery is one of the most beautiful in the city. It’s on the site of a former county club and racetrack that was a favorite of the wealthy elite. The club refused to allow Charles Howard to become a member because he was “new money” and, worse, a Yankee, so he vowed that he would one day buy the club and turn it into a graveyard. When money was tight after the Civil War, the people who supported the club fell on hard times and it was eventually put up for auction. 

Charles Howard kept his promise.

The cemetery has since become the final resting place to 11 Louisiana governors, 9 New Orleans mayors, dozens of Confederate officers, and an area called Millionaire’s Row, thanks to the price of the real estate in that part of the cemetery. Attorney Ray Brandt paid over $1 million for an eight-crypt mausoleum for his family there and shrugged it off – “I guess it’s the last house I’ll buy,” he said.

Among the notables in the cemetery is Josie Arlington – the bordello owner that we talked about in a recent episode, as well as General Pierre Gustav Beauregard, who once owned a famous French Quarter haunted house. 

There are also musicians like jazz trumpeter Al Hirt and Louis Prima, who gained fame with songs like “Jump, Jive, and Wail.

There are also important names in the New Orleans food world like Ruth Fertel, who put the name “Ruth” on Ruth Chris Steak House in 1927, and Al Copeland, the Popeye’s Chicken King. 

Owen Brennan also rests here. He is the patriarch of New Orleans restaurants, and there are now 10 Brennan’s restaurants operated by his heirs in the city. Brennan was a larger than life character who started his first restaurant after the owner of Arnaud’s made the snarky comment that an Irishman wouldn’t be able to run anything better than a hamburger joint.

Jim Garrison, the district attorney who helped create the conspiracy theories about the death of JFK, is also buried here. So, is Stan Rice, the artist-poet husband of author Anne Rice, who will also be interred here eventually. 

Our journey through New Orleans cemeteries eventually brings us back around to where we began – at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. This cemetery is also home to many names from the city’s past, and of course, it’s also the future resting place of Nicholas Cage, who will be someday interred in an oversized and gaudy Egyptian pyramid that is usually in lipstick prints left by adoring female fans. 

Among the crypts, you’ll find the monument of New Orleans’ first black mayor, civil rights activist Ernest “Dutch” Morial. He was buried here for years, and while the monument in his honor remains, his body was recently moved to St. Louis Cemetery No. 2. 

Benjamin Latrobe – the man, called the Father of American Architecture – is buried here. He is most famous for designing the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. and in New Orleans, he completed the tower of the St. Louis Cathedral and the U.S. Customs Building before dying from yellow fever. 

Homer Plessy is also interred here. He was Rosa Parks more than 50 years before Rosa Parks. He was of mixed race, which made him all African American in the eyes of the law. He purposely sat in a whites-only railroad car intending to be arrested. Plessy took his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In May 1896, the court issued its infamous “separate but equal” ruling that basically legalized segregation – the Jim Crow laws --  in America for decades to come. 

The cemetery’s Protestant Section also holds the remains of many of the city’s well-known residents. After the Louisiana Purchase, Americans flooded into the city, and many of them eventually needed a place to be buried. That place is now the low-rent section of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, a section without vaults, in the far back left corner. The newly arrived Protestants had no interest in being buried above ground, even though this part of the cemetery is below sea level. 

Because of this, you can see the double layers of brick and large slabs that have been designed to hold the water-logged coffins below the surface. Legend has it that in the 1800s, visitors to this section of the cemetery often reported the sounds of the coffins knocking and thumping against the tops of the below-ground tombs.

Later, many of these bodies were moved to other parts of the city, like the first Protestant Cemetery on Girod Street, which was started in 1822 and then closed in 1957. All the bodies were supposed to be moved out at that time – but we know how that goes. 

The Superdome now stands atop these old burial grounds, and some football fans that suffered through the first 43 seasons with the Saints claimed they were so terrible because they were playing on an old cemetery. 

One of the notables allegedly buried in the Protestant section of the cemetery is William C.C. Claiborne, the first American governor of Louisiana – once the archenemy of pirate Jean Lafitte, and later, his friend. As an American, Claiborne wasn’t a popular politician with the local Creole merchants and families, so after his first wife died, he remarried a Creole woman named Clarisse Durand, hoping to win some favor. After only two years of marriage, though, Clarisse died. When Claiborne died, he was not permitted to be placed in a tomb with his wife because he was not a Catholic. He was buried in the Protestant section instead – but is he still there?

Who knows? There is a Claiborne family vault at Metairie Cemetery. His remains may have been moved there, or they might be mixed in with the bodies that were taken to Girod Cemetery. No one really knows.

One thing we do know, of course, is that St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is the final resting place of Voodoo queen Marie Laveau.

Or do we?? Yeah, we covered that in the last episode, but let’s say that it’s generally accepted that Marie is entombed here. It’s the most visited tomb in the cemetery. Thousands of people come here every week and leave offerings behind, hoping for good luck. 

Marie’s ghost has been seen many times in the cemetery – as detailed in the last episode -- along with the ghost of Zombi, Marie’s large black pet snake. Legends say that she has sometimes been seen walking the cemetery’s narrow paths. One man even claimed to have been slapped by her spirit after making a disparaging remark at her tomb one day.

Bad things happen to you when you cross Marie Laveau. In late 2013, someone climbed over the cemetery wall at night and painted Marie’s famous vault with pink latex paint. Latex paint, which traps in moisture and does not breathe, can ruin brick and mortar tombs. It required months of work and over $10,000 to repair. I don’t know for sure if anything bad happened to this person, but I have to say – I hope it did.

But Marie’s ghost is not the only spirit that is believed to haunt this cemetery. 

One resident spirit is said to be that of Henry Vignes (VIN-YAY), a sailor who lived in the nineteenth century who roamed all over the world in his work. The closest place that he had to a home was a New Orleans boarding house, where he stored the personal belongings that he didn’t carry with him and all his private papers, including the title to his plot at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. He had left his papers in the care of the boarding house’s proprietor in case anything ever happened to him at sea. But once when Henry was away for an extended time, the proprietor sold his plot in the cemetery to the highest bidder. When Henry returned, he was never able to remedy the situation and when he later fell ill and died, he had no place to be buried. His remains were sent to a potter’s field, but his spirit remained in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. He still walks there today. Visitors sometimes claim they have encountered a thin, pale man with blue eyes who asks them where the Vignes tomb is located.

Another lingering spirit is said to be that of a man known only as Alphonse. Legend has it that he was murdered, but no one knows for sure and there are no clues to his identity, other than when visitors get too close to the Pinead (PIN-NAY) family tomb; they are told to stay away. Aside from that, Alphonse is not threatening. Instead, he has been known to stop visitors on the narrow paths between the tombs, take them by the hand, and ask them to take him home with them.   

The ghost of Paul Morphy has also been encountered in the graveyard. Morphy was the greatest chess player in the world in his day. He became the international chess champion at age 19 but got bored traveling to Europe and Russia and winning every match. He returned to New Orleans in 1859 and retired at age 23. He planned to become a lawyer but instead mostly lounged around his family’s home on Royal Street for the rest of his life. At some point, Morphy started living in his own reality. He feared being poisoned and would only eat food prepared by his mother and sister.  He also claimed he was being watched – while at the same time, following women around the city and spying on them as a voyeur. In the late 1870s, he ran through the streets of the French Quarter one night, completely naked and waving an ax, threatening to kill anyone who tried to stop him. 

Morphy was found dead in his bathtub in 1884. He was only 43. The official cause of death was cardiac arrest – some say from jumping into a cold bath on a very hot day – but the official report made no mention of the collection of ladies’ shoes that encircled his bathtub.

And a haunted cemetery would not be complete without a classic graveyard tale:

It was said that in the 1930s, New Orleans taxi drivers avoided St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 whenever possible. If they did drive past, they allegedly refused to pick up any young woman in white who hailed them from the graveyard’s entrance.

Rumor had it that one driver had picked up such a young girl one night and drove her to the address that she gave him. Once they arrived, she asked him to go up and ring the bell, then inquire for the man who lived there. The man came out, but when the driver told him of the girl waiting in the cab, he immediately asked for her description. When the driver told him what the girl looked like, the man shook his head sadly. This was obviously not the first time that a driver had appeared on his doorstep. The young girl, he explained to the taxi driver, was his wife, but she had died many years ago and had been interred wearing her bridal gown at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.

 That was when the driver suddenly realized the white gown the woman was wearing had been a wedding dress.

He raced back to the cab and jerked open the door, but the woman was gone. The driver fainted away on the spot. After that, young women in white stood little chance of hailing a cab near the entrance to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.