The summer is officially over, the leaves are starting to fall, and all my favorite kitschy Halloween stuff is showing up in stores. This is, hands down, my favorite time of year to be in the United States.
In New Orleans this past summer, I went on a free cemetery tour and a free ghost tour where I learned historical and present day tales of the dead and other spooky happenings. What I learned easily qualifies New Orleans as one of the creepiest cities in the country!
With October only a few days away, I am excited to finally share the chilling history of New Orleans in two installments. In this post, I share what I learned from my tour of the city's oldest cemetery.
St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery Tour
My introduction to the nonliving in New Orleans was a walking tour of the St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery.
There has been so much vandalism in this cemetery due to the folklore and fame around some of the people buried there that the Roman Catholic Diocese of New Orleans closed it to the public in 2015. The only way to walk through it is with a licensed tour company and a $2 fee at the time of booking. The fee goes to the cemetery's preservation.
Our tour guide was Elizabeth Broussard who is with Free Tours By Foot. If you don't know, Free Tours By Foot operate on pay-what-you-like policy. You tip what you feel your guide deserves at the end of the tour.
Bodies and Burials
Walking into this cemetery was like walking into a city of the dead. Tombs were raised in rows laid out in a haphazard grid with narrow paths between them.
The St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery is the oldest cemetery in New Orleans. This means there are some very old remains there.
In the Roman-Catholic fashion, family members are not buried but placed in a casket and then into a temporary "oven" vault or interment. Interments are covered for one year and one day to allow the person's remains to decompose. Completely utilitarian in design, that period of time allows the body to whittle down to a manageable size where it can be placed into a closed sack that then fits inside the main compartment of the family tomb.
When the tomb's single interment is occupied, a newly deceased family member will go into a separate interment vault for decomposition. These are seen along the walls of the cemetery, outlined by a small rectangle in the shape of a casket. After one year and one day, their remains join their relatives in the family tomb.
If that process of decomposition and moving around remains isn't creepy enough for you, recall that New Orleans is a city well below sea level. This can be a bit precarious for burying the dead, even above ground in tombs.
Think about it: This part of Louisiana floods often and was majorly devastated during Hurricane Katrina in 2004 mainly due to flooding. Many locals I spoke to throughout out stay reminded me that, "If ya dig down 3 feet anywhere in this city, you hit water."
The city itself is said to be sinking at an estimated rate of 3 inches per 100 years—and so are all its structures.
When the walls of the cemetery were constructed, they were 3-interments tall. Now they're about 2.5 interments tall in places. The very bottom level is becoming naturally buried.
You can see the wall of interments sinking in this photo:
As if preferring to be underground, this city of the dead is literally sinking into the Earth!
Famous Tombs of Historical Figures
There are several notable family tombs here and rumors of other important historical figures buried in or rumored to be buried in St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery.
For one, there is Delphine LaLaurie, a slave owner known for gruesomely torturing slaves with her husband in the 1800s. You may remember her portrayed by Kathy Bates in Season 3 of American Horror Story. I learned a lot about her particularly on the Ghost Tour later, so I'll share the incredible story surrounding her home in the French Quarter in my next post!
Then, there is Marie Laveau, a voodoo practitioner also from the 1800s who was known as the "Voodoo Queen" of New Orleans. She appears in the same season of American Horror Story as Delphine LaLaurie. Whether or not these two figures ever actually crossed paths is unknown.
Marie Laveau was buried in her husband's family tomb pictured on the left below. The tomb pictures on the right is a different tomb that people often mistake for Marie Laveau's tomb.
You're probably wondering what all the engraved X's are about. Laveau's actual and mistaken tomb have faced much vandalism over the years. For example, the tomb on the left was painted a bright pink a couple of years ago, prompting the closing of the cemetery to the public.
I'm not sure why pink was the vandal's choice in that case. Most people simply choose to engrave an X on the tomb.
Folklore tells that if people want Laveau to grant them a wish, they had to draw an X on the tomb. If their wish was granted, they had to return to circle the X and leave an offering. Because folklore suggests Laveau was a hairdresser at one time, people leave bobby pins and hair ties in front of her tomb as offerings.
Lastly, this one may be a scary reality check for you, as it was for me: Homer Plessy of the famous Plessy v. Ferguson court case is buried in this cemetery. Racial segregation was alive and well and pretty awful in the 1890s when Plessy deliberately boarded a white-only rail car. As a light-skinned male, Plessy "got away with it" until he voluntarily told the conductor he was one-eighth African American which would qualify him for the black-only car under the Separate Car Act.
When he refused to move, he was arrested.
I cannot help but compare this historic event to the events driving the modern day Black Lives Matter movement. It's scary to think racism continues today in arguably more obvious and life-threatening ways than what was being fought against in the segregated South over 100 years ago!
Today, Plessy's act of civil disobedience is recognized as the first act of its kind in the history of the Black Civil Rights movement in America.
Famous Tombs Because of Modern Celebrities
There are a couple other tombs in the cemetery that are famous because of the famous present-day people who have touched them.
For one, there's the Italian Benevolent Society Tomb seen in the movie Easy Rider. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper pick up some ladies, drop some acid, and hang around this tomb throughout their trip. Watch it here:
Creepy? I think so.
Possibly the scariest tomb in the entire cemetery is the Egyptian revival-style tomb found there.
Why is it scary? Because it is owned by Nicholas Cage.
I love how much Nicholas Cage gets shit on for his bad acting and poor role choices. It's hilarious. But seriously, what was he thinking with this tomb?
Cage was a baptized Catholic but has no family roots in New Orleans. Apparently, he took a liking to the city and made a couple of investments including this tomb and the former home of Delphine LaLaurie. Yep, the slave torturers old residence was (at least until recently) owned by Nicholas Cage.
Our tour guide said New Orleans natives do not like Nicholas Cage. Neither do the rest of us, New Orleans. Neither do the rest of us.
More to Come
I have a ton more haunting history lessons and unusual folklore to share with you from the Ghost Tour I went on a few days after I toured the St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery.
Next week's post will include hotel ghosts, swamp monsters, and one of my favorite stories from the entire trip—the murders at the LaLaurie Mansion! Check back next week to hear all about it.