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TALKING TO THE DEAD

I am not a paranormal investigator. I do not use light meters, heat sensors, or digital recorders to capture a message from the netherworld. I am a television producer, director, writer, and author. I seek out stories about previous inhabitants who may still wander about.

All that being said, I do occasionally hear from the dead. There is no pre-planning when this occurs. And for me the event itself is inexplicable. I have come to accept that sometimes things happen, and I just go with it.

During the Q&A at a few of my speaking engagements, I have shared the following true story as it unfolded. And I will preface it by stating that on this day, ghosts were not on the agenda.

The television crew and myself were in the final days of shooting a PBS documentary titled Hidden Nation. It was to be the story of the Houma people, a Native American tribal group living among the swamps and bayous of southeast Louisiana. It was a late summer afternoon; hot, humid, and the mosquitoes were swarming. We were in search of a gravesite.

During the course of the previous weeks’ interviews numerous tribal members spoke of Rosalie Courteaux, the last great female chief of the Houma Nation. Rosalie is the central figure of genealogical significance  with multiple “greats,” “great-greats,” and “great-great-greats” to everyone alive in the tribe today. Unfortunately, there are no sketches, paintings, photos or known artifacts linked to Rosalie. We were working in a television medium that requires visuals. So, when tribal members referred to Rosalie’s grave it became a top priority to get footage of her final resting place. And we were sent to various remote cemeteries scattered in lower Terrebonne Parish. Everyone it seemed had a different memory of where we might find this illusive grave.

As a crew we were exhausted and frustrated driving for miles up and down dirt and shell roads along Bayou Dulac, Bayou Dularge, Golden Meadow. We even traveled by boat to a cemetery in Pointe Aux Chene that is fast slipping into a trevasse, a canal cut by an oil company to reach their rigs deep  in the marsh. We saw simple crosses but none inscribed with the name of Rosalie.

The sun was beginning its downward descent but the rays still burned; there was no shade in this flat terrain, only dead and dying cypress trees and lots of muddy water. We were in lower Montegut when we caught a glimpse of what we knew would be our final stop of the day; we were losing light.

I was excited when we spotted a group of headstones with the family name of Courteaux. We went up and down the aisles, cameraman, audio tech, and myself. We wiped sweat from our dripping faces. We squinted at names worn by time and the elements. No Rosalie. My crewing was grunting from hauling equipment from grave to grave. It appeared that once again we had been sent to the wrong cemetery or, as I was beginning to concede, Rosalie’s grave no longer existed, it had fallen into some lost bayou never to be seen again.

We packed up the gear and climbed into the van ready to head back to the station in New Orleans. My cameraman was driving. I was riding shotgun. We had just pulled a few feet past the edge of the cemetery when I screamed, “STOP THE CAR.”

My cameraman slammed on the brakes, scanning the road for whatever might be in front of us. “What? What?” he yelled back. “I don’t see anything, not even an armadillo crossing the road.” He was furious.

“Everybody get out and grab the gear,” was my response. “I know where she is.”

The crew must have been a little shell-shocked from the long day. They moved like robots unpacking the camera and tripod. I marched ahead to the left side of the graveyard with my back to the water’s edge. I stepped around a large, recently white-washed tomb, and there, leaning behind it was a small, simple curved headstone.

ROSALIE COURTEAUX
1787- 1883

It wasn’t much to look at, but it was the exact image I needed for the documentary. I mouthed a silent “Thank you.” As we repacked and climbed back into the van, my cameraman turned to me and asked “How? How did you know it was there and why didn’t you say something before?”

I hadn’t even thought about how  when I yelled out STOP THE CAR. My answer startled not just my crew, but stunned me the most. I hesitantly answered, “She called to me. Rosalie called to me.”

It was that simple and that inexplicable. Rosalie Courteaux got inside my head. “Here I am,” is what I must have heard, and I reacted.

I’ve thought about that call from the beyond on and off since then. Did I really hear her voice? Where those her exact words? Replaying that moment over and over hasn’t helped. We’d been searching all day for her gravesite with no luck. We ended up in a cemetery below Montegut alongside a nameless bayou with little expectations. We’d given up. We were headed out, and suddenly I KNOW. It just pops into my head. With no hesitation, with no thought process, I led the crew to her grave.

Then again, it is unreasonable to expect that messages from the dearly departed are delivered and received in generally accepted modes of communication. Sometimes the inner voice we hear is really telling us something. And if we are smart, we listen. This producer remains enormously grateful. Rosalie’s story became an integral part of the documentary Hidden Nation.

Thank you, Rosalie, for leading me to you.

 

As always, thoughts, comments, and questions are always welcome. Click on REPLIES, and I’ll get back to you.

 

 

Old Ghosts Vs New

I admit I prefer ghosts with a bit of substance to them. It’s hard to get to know a spirit if he or she is merely a gauzy apparition who occasionally flits by. Or worse yet, the “ghost” is captured as an orb that shows up only in photos taken at night, or a garbled voice played back on a digital recorder. Not a lot to go on. And urban myths about a man with a hook on Lover’s Lane or a female spirit hovering over a deserted country road don’t do a lot to spark my interest.

I want a ghost with a lineage, a past I can track. At the very least, I want a ghost who hangs out at a historic site: a centuries-old house, church, store, barn, battlefield, slave quarters, shipwreck, lighthouse—all excellent choices. Age, sex, occupation, religious or political affiliation, I am an equal opportunity storyteller.

To appear in the pages of my books, magazine articles, or be featured in my documentaries, I need corroborating witnesses. Credible individuals who don’t crave the spotlight but are willing to share their experiences. Over the years I have interviewed museum curators, docents, teachers, a dentist, a voodoo priestess, an archbishop, a maintenance worker, an underwater archeologist, Native American tribal members, artists, musicians, waitresses, bartenders, chefs, fishermen and boat builders. The all have one thing in common; they’ve all encountered someone from the past. And some have closer relationships with their ghosts than others.

Ruth Bodenheimer, who runs the Lanaux Mansion as an elegant guest house on the outskirts of the French Quarter in New Orleans, holds regular consultations with her decorator, Charles Andrew Johnson. The fact that Mr. Johnson has been dead some two hundred years is irrelevant to her. Ruth explains it this way: “He instrumental if I have a major project especially if it’s a costly one. I’ll have a little private chat with him.” Charles Andrew Johnson built Ruth’s home in 1879 so despite his demise, the ghost of Mr. Johnson would certainly know how to restore the mansion to its full glory (The full story can be found in The Haunting of Louisiana/Chapter 15).

The Lanaux Mansion in New Orleans

 

Antoine has been haunting Tupelo, Mississippi’s Lyric Theatre for as long as anyone can remember. His activities in the present day leave the staff and troupe of actors in turmoil. Box office manager Lisa Hall recounts a typical incident. “We were upstairs in the costume room and had reorganized things. We left and came back a little later, and everything had been rearranged. Nothing was in the same place and there was no one in the building but us.” Executive Director Tom Booth takes a stab at explaining why their ghost is so grouchy. “There was a tornado in Tupelo in 1939 and they used this building as an operating room for the injured, Antoine was probably one of the victims; he was brought here and never left. All I can say is that when we bought the building twenty-six years ago, we inherited Antoine” (for more about Antoine and his antics check out The Haunting of Mississippi/Chapter 16).

 

  The Rose Dorothea with its Phantom Captain

The Provincetown Library on Cape Cod inherited a ship and its ghostly captain. The ship is a half-scale replica of the fishing schooner Rose Dorothea. It is sixty-six feet in length and its mast with the full sail unfurled rises from the second floor to the third floor ceiling of the library. Since the original Rose Dorothea was sunk by a German submarine off the coast of Portugal in 1917, it seems that Captain Marion Perry has chosen the replica to reenact the moment of his greatest glory. Capt. Perry received the coveted Lipton Cup Trophy when he won the 1907 Fisherman’s sailing race between Boston and Gloucester. As he crossed the finish line, he is said to have grabbed a broom and “swept the deck clean,” a symbolic gesture celebrating that he had beaten his closest rival. Patrons of the Provincetown Library insist they can still hear the swish of a phantom broom across the deck of the Rose Dorothea (the full story of the vessel and its ghostly captain can be found in The Haunting of Cape Cod and the Islands/Chapter 20).

These type of tantalizing details are why I tend to prefer old ghosts over new. The vintage ghosts have been around long enough to haunt multiple generations. There are layers to their tales. And there is a certain visceral thrill when uncovering their stories.

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HAUNTING 101

At the conclusion of each author talk or multi-media presentation, I open the floor to audience questions. And there are always a few surprises. After giving a presentation for the Falmouth Historical Society on The Haunting of Cape Cod and the Islands, a rather tall woman standing at the back of the room asked in a blunt no-nonsense voice:
How do you get to be a ghost.?

I was ill-prepared to give advice on how to return from the dead.

After what felt like a black hole of tick-tocking minutes with all eyes on me, I smiled. Fortunately, in my head I heard the voices of two women who had shared their life-after-death plans with me. I offered their stories as a ghostly guidepost on how to make your way back if you are so inclined.

Jeanette Feltus greets her circle of family ghost as warmly as the human guests who come to stay with her at Linden, a circa 1790 bed and breakfast plantation in Natchez, Mississippi. Jeanette is the sixth generation of Connors to reside in the house. She is adamant that she will also be among the sixth generation of the Connor-Feltus clan to return post-mortem. She has it all worked out. “I don’t really care about having to be put in a casket and stuck under ground. First of all you run out of places to bury people in a cemetery; our family plot at the Natchez Cemetery is so full that I want to be cremated.” Jeanette informed her daughters that she wants her ashes put in an urn and the urn placed between the graves of her husband and father-in-law, but if her daughters really want to “stay in touch” with her then they just need to remain at the family homestead. “I know when I die, I will haunt Linden too. I really believe my spirit will come back here.”

Ruth Manchester is an award-winning chef, who, along with her husband, owns the Bramble Inn in the charming town of Brewster on Cape Cod. She also has a thriving paranormal following. Like the Pied Piper of old, ghosts seem to follow her wherever she goes. Ruth is nonchalant about it all. “I think it is like people who end up with stray cats: if there is a presence that is lost, and if you are at all receptive to them, they will find you . . . they need to find you.” Ruth has had a great deal of success as a chef. The prestigious Zagat Guide voted the Bramble Inn the “Best Restaurant on Cape Cod.” Ruth has no intentions of ever giving it up. “We decided we really love what we are doing, and we’ll just keep doing it until we can’t anymore. I’ll be the ghost haunting this place.” This dedicated woman added, “They will take me out of here feet first, but I’ll be back in spirit form and torture the new owners.” She laughs and amends her remarks. “No, I’ll be the good ghost. I’ll just point out what they need to do.”

So good ghost or troublesome ghost, it would seem that the first step on the way to returning in the afterlife is to announce your intentions when you are alive. Step two, be specific and make plans to haunt your locale. Step three, well, I’ve thought about that a lot since the question was first thrown at me. I have three daughters. I have told them (and I genuinely believe this will happen) that whenever they are together and think of me, I will be there.

I believe that when we are remembered by those who love us, we live on in their hearts. Whether we manifest ourselves in spirit form, speak, or are able to reach out and touch our loved ones again may be dependent on how strong the need for affirmation that we linger on.

For more about Jeanette’s story go to Chapter 7 of The Haunting of Mississippi; to learn more at Ruth Manchester, you’ll find her tale in Chapter 14 of The Haunting of Cape Cod and the Islands.

The Haunted Linden Plantation in Natchez, MS

The Bramble Inn on Cape Cod

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WHAT ELSE DO THEY LEAVE BEHIND?

If spirits do come back or if they’ve never left, why is finding tangible proof of their existence so hard? Why are all photos of the paranormal so blurry? Why can’t ghosts hang around long enough to have a pleasant chat? After all, our intent, (like the Hippocratic Oath, the moral code for physicians ) is Do No Harm. We’re just curious. We could soon be in their position, and it would be nice to have a little insight into the spirit world.

When I visited Ormond Plantation in Destrehan, Louisiana, I had the privilege of interviewing former docent Edith Layton. The two-hundred-year-old plantation harbors a few dark secrets and Edith kindly shared a bit of its twisted history. Dressed that day for our cameras in full antebellum regalia, Edith was both gracious and casually accepting when it came to the subject of the ghosts who resided within.

To the skeptics who needed proof before they would buy into the notion of spirits popping in and out, Edith took a practical approach. If we can accept the concept that we leave images of our fingerprints on every surface we touch, What else do we leave behind?  Just because these images are often invisible to the naked eye, doesn’t mean they are not there. When a structure such as a centuries-old plantation house is home to so many occupants, and these occupants experience many strong emotions within the walls, why should it be so hard to accept that such feelings remain, that they are now part of the essence and ambiance of the house? If their voices once filled the rooms, why assume now that there is an acoustic void? Is it simply a matter of tuning in to the right channel?

On the day of Edith’s interview, the crew and I (for the shooting of the  documentary The Haunting of Louisiana) were in the dining room on the ground floor. The table was set with elegant dishes as if the original owners were about to sit down and enjoy a meal. The camera began to roll and Edith pointed to a massive armchair at the head of the table. There in 1798, she said, sat sugar baron Pierre Trepagnier. A servant entered the room and announced that a mysterious carriage with a Spanish insignia had arrived. Pierre got up to see. When the servant checked again, his master and the phantom carriage had vanished never to be seen again.

At a special function in the late 1990s, Edith became convinced that Pierre had returned. As part of the evening’s entertainment for a group of hospitality executives, a voodoo demonstration and séance by a medium were in progress. The table had been cleared. Only a small incense dish to ward off evil spirits remained on the polished mahogany surface. Edith began to relate the story of Pierre Trepagnier’s disappearance centuries ago. “When I got to the part of Pierre walking out the door and his family never seeing him again, the little incense dish just cracked with a loud pop right on cue.” Edith believed his timing was impeccable and that Pierre’s restless spirit had found a way to get their attention.

Two subsequent owners of Ormond Plantation suffered gruesome fates. In 1805, Colonel Richard Butler purchased Ormond from Trepagnier’s widow. In 1819, a yellow fever epidemic was raging along the River Road. Terrified, Butler fled to coastal Mississippi, but it was too late. He died in his prime at forty-three, his body ravaged by yellow fever. In 1898, State Senator Basile Laplace, Jr, purchased Ormond. One year later, the senator’s body, riddled by bullets was found hanging from a tree in the front yard. The culprits were never found.

For Edith, such tragic exits from Ormond have led to endless speculation about which male apparitions have returned. On one particular tour, Edith was doing her best to answer questions about the paranormal. A rude visitor kept interrupting Edith’s tale by repeatedly saying, “That’s a ghost for you.” She acted, said Edith, as if  she was an expert on ghosts. Edith and the visitors were standing on the verandah when Edith heard what she described as a deafening noise. “Pretty soon the noise roars towards us. Something goes through me. My knees buckle. My mind is going What’s that? What’s that?  Edith turned to check on her guests. They were oblivious to the ghostly phenomena. “This lady is still blithering on about the spirit world and she hasn’t heard or felt a thing.”

For Edith Layton, if you want proof, you have to pay attention. It’s like the Tree in the Forest riddle: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, is there sound? If a ghost haunts a plantation and no one sees it, does it exist? If Edith Layton said a spirit had popped in, that was good enough for me.

 

Author’s Update:  Edith Christine Layton died in February. She is sorely missed. Her presence remains with her beloved family and friends.

You’ll find more about Ormond Plantation and its haunted history in Chapter 4 of my book, The Haunting of Louisiana. Just go back to the Books page and click on the cover.
I’d love to hear what you think, click Replies t the top or send me a message.

 

 

 

They’re Back!

A pilfering pirate who prefers to imbibe his spirits straight from a bottle, a politician who hungers to cast his vote from the grave, a heartbroken Confederate soldier who plays a haunting violin for his lost love, a voodoo queen who still dispenses gris-gris and favors to her acolytes, and a Bourbon Street madam who won’t lie still-the Bayou state’s legendary spirits run the gamut. From the courtyards of the French Quarter to the hallowed halls of the Old State Capital Museum in Baton Rouge, from faded plantations to fabled “Cities of the Dead,” Louisiana’s penchant for ghostly lore flows as freely as the mighty Mississippi. Yet, Louisiana has no exclusive on ghosts.

New Orleans may indeed be Ghost Central USA, but other locales boasting of an extremely high quotient of wandering souls include: Cape Cod, Charleston, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Natchez, Savanah, Salem, and Key West. Also garnering spectral reputations are the cities of Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Haunted tales know no boundaries. If you are someone like me who loves the past, this is a very good thing.

I am often asked if during my research have I found out why spirits or ghosts (the labels are interchangeable) favor some locations over others and why. Unlike aliens who populate Area 51, ghosts are really not that social. They do not crave a communal gathering place. For the most part they are solitary creatures. They rarely appear together. Even when a site such as the Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana or Linden Bed and Breakfast in Natchez, Mississippi (both of which have multiple ghosts), the spirits within pop up one at a time.

Think of it this way, if you had a desire to make a grand entrance, you wouldn’t want to share the spotlight-you’d enter solo. So, if a ghost craves your attention or needs to get a message across, it’s usually a one-on-one situation.

Occasionally, ghosts do team up for a common goal. The long-deceased couple at Anchuca Mansion in Vicksburg, Mississippi, set off an indoor waterfall. It seems Mr. and Mrs. Hennessy’s portraits were buried in the insulation in the attic and they were tired of inhaling tiny pink fibers so they created a drip which flowed from the attic down through the ceiling of the first-floor dinning room. The owners of this historic bed and breakfast immediately called a plumber. According to owner Tom Pharr, “The plumber just started taking his bare hands and squishing in that insulation trying to find some dampness.” And then like in the nursery rhyme where little Jack Horner sticks “in his thumb and pulls out a plumb,” Donny the plumber pulls out not one but two old portraits in matching oval frames. The plumber never found the source of the prodigious leak, but at the moment he handed the portraits to Tom, the waterfall in the dining room ceased. No more drip onto the heirloom carpet.

  Mrs. Hennessey.

Mr. and Mrs. Hennessey’s portraits now hang prominently once again in the lobby. In my interview with Tom Pharr for The Haunting of Mississippi, he happily concluded this unusual tale by stating that since the portraits have been on display “everything is cool and dry.” He adds that at the time of the leak, “I wasn’t seeing any shiny lights, no orbs, none of the usual paranormal trivia. Two pictures pulled me upstairs . . . I guess they just wanted to be back out. They hadn’t seen the light of day in a long, long time.” Tom swears, “I would never have been able to make up a ghost tale like this.”

Moral of the story? Don’t despair. Even when lost or forgotten for centuries, there’s always a way to make your presence known. Or, in the case of the ghosts of the enterprising Hennessys, an annoying drip can set you free.

To read more about this weird (and true tale), you’ll find all the details in The Haunting of Mississippi Chapter 2/Anchuca.  Go to my Books page and click on the title.

 

Welcome to my new blog, where together we can explore haunted history and all things ghostly.

So what is it about ghosts and haunted tales? When I give lectures and book talks about The Haunting of Louisiana, The Haunting of Mississippi, or The Haunting of Cape Cod and the Islands, the most popular question is: Do you believe in ghosts and have you ever seen one?

Since I produce documentaries for public television, I used to carefully skirt the answer by adhering to a standard PBS neutral reply: I am open to the possibilities. How’s that for avoiding the issue? Now, after years of interviewing very credible individuals, witnessing their reactions when they have encountered the inexplicable, and experiencing a few did-I-just-see-that; did-I-just-hear-that? moments of my own, my answer to both questions: Do you believe in ghosts and have you ever seen one?  is Yes and Yes. I have seen and I have heard.

The Haunting of LouisianaThe book, The Haunting of Louisiana, is based on a documentary of the same title which I produced and wrote. In the book, I was able to go into a little more depth with many of the tales, as well as include a few behind-the-scene incidents that happened to the crew and myself during filming. Chapter 12/Little Girl Lost explains what happened the night we tried to recreate the story of the little girl ghost trapped in the mirror of the Lafitte Guest House on Bourbon Street (on the opposite corner from the Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop in New Orleans French Quarter).

We cast a four-year-old to be our ghost, but made sure to tell her nothing about the haunted tale. All the child actress knew was that she was going to go up the stairs to the second floor and walk down a hallway until she passed a mirror. That was it. Our actress, Cedar, was very comfortable in front of the camera. Her father is musician and storyteller GrayHawk of the Houma and Choctaw tribes. Her mother is from the Sioux St. Marie band of Chippewa. They took her everywhere. As a baby, Cedar joined her parents on stage at a concert with Willie Nelson. He held her in his arms. At the Cannes Bruleé Native American village where her parents worked, people constantly took pictures of Cedar, an adorable, dark-haired child.

While we set up the camera and lights on the second floor, Cedar played with her parents in the first-floor parlor of the Lafitte Guest House. She was laughing and giggling. When we had everything in place, we called to Cedar to walk up the stairs. She did so, but hesitantly. However, when she got to the top, she wouldn’t budge. Cedar knew me (I was at her naming ceremony, held her at birthday parties). I asked her what was wrong. No answer. Her father GrayHawk knelt next to her, trying to figure out why she wouldn’t continue walking down the hall. We were about to give up and declare the night of filming a bust when GrayHawk made one last attempt. He told Cedar that her mother would stand next to her out of camera range and he would go down the hall and wait for her just past the mirror. All she had to do was go from her mother’s arms to her father’s. Cedar agreed.

With silent tears dripping down her cheeks, she walked with eyes downcast. When she got to the mirror, she gave it a quick sideways glance and then leapt into her father’s arms. We got the shot and, through the magic of special effects, Cedar appears in the film as a transparent little ghost floating down the hallway.

That night, as soon as the shot was done, GrayHawk carried his daughter back down to the parlor. As we packed up the equipment, we could hear her giggles. Clearly, she had returned to her bubbly self. Yet, the mystery of her strange reaction upstairs remained.

When we rejoined Cedar and her parents in the parlor, we learned that GrayHawk had the answer. Cedar told her parents that the reason she had been crying upstairs was that when she looked down the hall at the mirror she became very sad. “I saw a little girl in the mirror. She was crying. She couldn’t get out, and it made me cry.”

Remember, Cedar at four years old had never heard the story of the little girl who died in the house (likely during one of the yellow fever epidemics that swept through New Orleans in 1783 and 1784). Cedar had not been told that the little girl’s lonely spirit is often seen in the mirror or walking out of the doorway of room number 22. This room had been the nursery during the time of the Gleises family, the original owners. Yet, Cedar clearly saw and reacted to something they we as adults could not see. Cedar’s sadness was real.

I have come to accept that the child ghost appeared to Cedar. Was she reaching out to her? Was she simply trying to connect with a child her own age? What I hold onto is that, on that night, a tiny figure from the past served as a reminder that death is a constant. Tragedy happens even to the innocents.

For me, such haunted tales are links to the past. They offer clues to what happened to the people who came before us. And, through these stories, the past lives on.

I will do my best in ongoing blogs to answer your questions, whether they pertain to the paranormal or not. Just post them here.

Barbara

Update: Cedar is now a happy, loving adult and mother to a very sweet child.