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Let the Spirits Come to You

The leaves are dancing on the trees and Halloween’s on the horizon. All things spooky: jack 0’ lanterns, witches’ brooms, and the requisite black cat are popping up on doorsteps, porches, and window displays. I’ll be the storyteller for the annual semi-scary “A Visit with the Night Watchman” event at a local museum. So let’s talk ghosts.
First and foremost, I like it when the dead come out and whisper their secrets. I like it when we turn inward to ponder the past. I like it when we embrace all those who came before. I like it especially when we dig beyond the facades of costumes and masks and understand the origins of Halloween as a sacred time, a time when the barriers between the natural and supernatural worlds are lowered and spirits are free to roam.

I am intrigued by the spirits of children long dead who come out to play. It’s not that they hide the other three hundred and sixty-four days and nights a year, it’s just that on the days leading up to Halloween we are more aware. The tiny spirits haven’t been napping in some spectral slumber; it’s us, the living, who have been too caught up in our daily tasks to notice.

And it’s the living children most likely to interact with the dead: a two year old asks his mother to help get the little girl down that he sees dangling from the chandelier; a four year old is sad because she can’t free another little girl trapped in the looking glass; another four year old begs his mother to let him play with “the red-headed boy” that she and others on the tour cannot see.* Children under the age of seven do not have any preconceived notions or fears of “ghosts.” What they see is as real to them as their parents sitting in the next room.
*The first two stories are from “The Haunting of Louisiana,” and the third is from “The Haunting of Mississippi.”

A generation or so back ghost tales were all about blood and gore: disfigured and dismembered ghouls; knife wielding-chain-dragging monsters; and the walking-stalking dead, howling and screeching, seeking victims to devour. Ghosts were thought to travel the same byways as vampires and zombies. These gruesome figures gave spirits a bad rap.

If you’d like to see a friendly ghost, pay attention; they walk among us all the time. They are the flicker of movement caught mid-flight out of the corner of your eye. They are the curtains that stir as they float from room-to-room. They are the soft whisper in your ear. And for me, on one stunning occasion, the ghost was the voice of a child who gave me a predawn wake-up call.

During the research for my book, “The Haunting of Mississippi, I spent one memorable night at a bed and breakfast known as Linden Plantation in Natchez, Mississippi. Jeanette Feltus, the owner, gave me the key to the South Room, the last guest room on the second floor of the west wing. In 1849 owner Jane Gustine Connor used it as a schoolroom for her children. Although small, the room had a lovely canopied bed, an antique dresser, nightstand, original plank flooring, and a fireplace. As with all the other rooms at Linden, the South Room has a private entrance accessible only by an exterior staircase in the courtyard. That weekday evening, I was the only guest. Jeanette retired to her room at the front of the west wing; we were as far apart as two bedrooms could be in the house. I climbed into the high bed, turned out the light on the nightstand, and pulled up the quilted coverlet.
Creak. The distinct sound of a floorboard as someone steps on it. I dismissed it as just the weathered wood rising back up after I clamored into bed.
Creak. Creak. I sat up and looked around. The moonlight pouring through the mullioned window was sufficient to see there was no one in the room but me. The creaking sound continued at irregular intervals as if someone was tiptoeing across the room. Eventually, I fell asleep. At 2:00 A.M., there was no creaking. Just a voice. A quiet little voice. A child’s voice.
“Hello!” Upright, I surveyed the room.
“Hello to you too,” I whispered back.

I waited. No response. I confess that I was disappointed that my little visitor had chosen not to pursue the conversation or make an appearance. She had limited her interaction to a one-word greeting. Yet, I felt privileged that she had made her presence known
In the morning, Jeanette joined me in the formal dining room for a Southern-style breakfast complete with homemade butter biscuits. I sheepishly shared my story. The gracious hostess of Linden poured another cup of tea and smiled, a satisfied smile. One more spirit had joined the ghostly entourage at Linden.

So this Halloween season, relax and let the spirits come to you.

Blog # 20 Out of Body

When I was just eight years old I had major surgery to save my life. My clearest memory of the operation was looking down at myself on the operating table. It wasn’t until I reached adulthood that it dawned on me that this was an odd perspective. How could I possibly be looking down at myself? I began to question if I had had an out-of-body experience. Had I left my physical self to float above in the nether regions among the large covered globe lights suspended from the high ceiling? Had I taken flight? Was I on the verge of becoming an untethered spirit, a ghost of my former self?

This leads to several tantalizing questions: Can spirits of the dead or nearly dead decide where they want to go? Can they chose to be good or evil, naughty or nice?

Since, apparently, I chose to return to my sliced open body, or sucked back in, with limited first-person experience I can only provide brief commentary on the answers.

Let’s start with the whole death and dying situation. Other than those deeply troubled souls seeking to escape the pain of life, who actually chooses to die? Even those brave combat soldiers who risk it all to save a buddy are not actually choosing death rather their gut instinct is to save life. So, putting aside the tragically suicidal, and life’s heroes, if given the opportunity to extend our stay, wouldn’t we?

Knowing death is a given, knowing our shelf life has an expiration date, shouldn’t we all make plans? As a child of eight, clearly, I hadn’t given much thought to my options. Now that I have a few more years on me, it’s time.

For some a prepaid funeral plan and an accompanying will are all the necessary preparations for departure. For others, it’s all about the church service, the candles, the hymns, the prayers. I can forgo the details concerning the disposition of my body, what haunts me, however, is what happens to my essence, my spirit?

If I could choose, my goal would be to return as a kinder, gentler soul, a ghost, a spirit who comforts and coaxes a smile. So, can good intentions pave the way? I’d like to think so. I shall leave instructions that wherever my ashes are scattered, I would like a small cement statue of a young girl and her rag doll be placed near the site. This very statue graces the cover of my first book and the DVD cover of my first documentary, “The Haunting of Louisiana.” To this I would borrow a quote from the poet/essayist Flavia Weedn: “Life is brief and very fragile. Do that which makes you happy.”

Valentine’s Day Rooted in Ghostly Lore

Valentine’s Day is a celebration of love wrapped in a bouquet of romantic traditions. Yet, many of our most haunted tales have a tragic Romeo and Juliet heart-rending ending.

In the rolling hills of Madison, Mississippi, the ghost of a bride-to-be still mourns at the gravesite of her groom, a century and a half after his death. The marriage of Helen, youngest daughter of John and Margaret Johnstone to Henry Gary Vick was set for the spring of 1859 at the Chapel of the Cross in Madison. During their two-year courtship, Helen elicited a promise from often hot-blooded Henry that he would never again use dueling as a means of settling a dispute.
Four days prior to the wedding, Henry traveled downriver to New Orleans. While there he ran into a former classmate. Somewhere between the pleasantries and the reminiscing, a perceived slight escalated into an accusation sullying a man’s honor. They agreed to a duel. Two different versions linger on what happened at the duel. The first says Henry belatedly remembered his promise to Helen and shot his gun in the air, hoping his opponent would be honorable and do the same. The second report states that both men were lousy shots: Henry aimed for his classmate’s forehead and hit a tree; his classmate aimed for Henry’s body but the bullet hit his head. Henry Grey Vick lay dead on the ground. His body was placed on a steamer headed back to Mississippi.
A courier on horseback delivered a note to the bride’s parents: “Henry Vick killed in a duel.” The wedding decorations at the chapel were hastily pulled down and funeral preparations begun. Helen wore her wedding gown to the service. A grave was dug in the cemetery behind the chapel, and Helen had an iron bench installed next to the grave. On balmy spring nights, the ghost of Helen appears in the cemetery, and sits on the bench pinning for her lost love. pics of grave.
In Natchez, Mississippi, a young woman paid the ultimate price for loving the wrong man. In the 1930s, the skeletal remains of a teenage girl were discovered bricked up behind the fireplace wall of what is today King’s Tavern. Buried with her was a jeweled dagger. Somewhere between 1789 and 1820, a barmaid referred to as Madeline had an affair with Prosper King, the tavern’s owner and Mrs. King swiftly ended it. I was so moved by the tale that I penned the following poem:

Madeline. Alluring Madeline
Sweet Sixteen and a dimple in her chin.
Love for the tavern keeper sealed her fate
when the coy barmaid chose the wrong mate.

For the tavern keeper had a wife,
who knew too well how to yield a knife,
Now, alluring Madeline, a pretty little ghost is she,
haunting King’s Tavern for all eternity.

What is purported to be Madeline’s portrait hangs over the restored fireplace today in the tavern. Guests report that the picture occasionally swings violently back and forth. This attractive ghost is also blamed for water dripping from the ceiling, hotspots on the staircase, and tugging at the hair of female customers.

So, whether it be Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Helen, the almost bride, or the young barmaid Madeline, love does not always have a happy ending. For those of us who love a good haunted tale that endures through time, a love story with a haunted twist. More details about Helen and Henry or alluring Madeline can be found in my book The Haunting of Mississippi.

May all your Valentine’s celebrations be filled with love and happy endings.

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

We all have a few unsettled spirits that haunt our holidays. As Christmas music dominates the airwaves, shoppers fill the malls, and we jostle merrily along, sometimes it is a song, a cinnamon-and-spice-filled fragrance, or simply the sight of a small child enthralled with the newest toys spilling into the aisles, these unbidden triggers often pull us back into an uncomfortable space. We are transported to a scene from our childhood, our youth, or even a relationship that ended poorly. We want to call it back, fix it, rewrite the script, go for the sugarplum-and-fairytale happy ending.

But we cannot control our ghosts. They smugly remind us: There are no do-overs, no second chances. The good, the bad, the ugly, we are part of who you are. We are why you linger here in this moment. We are why you choose the red sweater over the green, why you insist on turkey for Christmas dinner, why you open presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, why you crave the magic of Christmas or run like hell if you spot another street corner Santa Ho-Ho-Hoing away.

Our ghosts have programed us to react. Like an overstuffed closet crammed with the flotsam and jetsam of life, open the door even a sliver and out it all tumbles. Big globs, little globs of memories stowed perhaps not so carefully away.

So how to handle the Holiday Blues delivered unceremoniously by annoying ghosts from the past?

First: Like the miscellaneous crap falling out of that closet, we can kick it all back in and slam the door. However, the disastrous fallout will happen over and over. So option number two would be to pick it all up, refold neatly and tuck back on to the proper shelves. The next time we open that particular closet, the ghosts of Christmas Past will still be there, but won’t tumble out and smother us. Ghosts or troubling memories are like that; deal with them thoroughly once, and they are less likely to catch you off guard.

Second: Call upon memories that ooze pleasure and comfort and revel in them.

Christmas celebrations are too close to the dawning of a new year. We are inundated with remembrances of family traditions, obligations, layered with an overabundance of food and drink. We resolve to do better but there is no breathing room. No time to reflect. We may scribble a list of good intentions but they are lost in a flurry of Xmas cards, party invites, and bills to be paid.

My ghostly memories ramble about in my brain. They play an irritating version of hide-and-seek. I have lots of shelves in my closet and endeavor to keep it as tidy as possible. Yet, for some perverse reason, I cannot help peering into the closets of every historic home, museum, and hundred-plus-year-old structures I visit. I am disappointed when nothing tumbles out and overjoyed when it does for then there is another story to unravel, another haunted tale to tell.

I may have the occasional holiday blues, regrets and sorrows, but the new year will bring new chapters to fill, and new ghostly mysteries to explore.

May all your ghosts bring Comfort and Joy!

Blog #14 Halloween: The Backstory

Witch’s Altar

Ghoulies and Ghosties and all things scary are hard to avoid this time of year. As Halloween approaches we are inundated with horror movies, blowup ghosts waving from every front yard, tales of witches flying high on broomsticks, and pumpkins sprouting eerie face. We trek to haunted houses, reveling in the thrill of monsters jumping out at us. Our inner child as well as our inhibitions are set free. In the United States, Halloween means trick or treating, costume parties, and over-indulging that sweet tooth.

Yet, centuries ago, October 31, meant Duck and Cower. For according to the ancient Celts and Druids, October 31 was the feast of Samhain, the night when the barrier between the natural and the supernatural world was lowered, and spirits of the dead rose, free to roam and terrorize. All our present-day Halloween traditions stem from those beliefs.

The short, cold, dark days of winter were approaching. The Celts gathered (safety in numbers?) and built huge bonfires to ward off the deepening darkness. As evening descended and frost blanketed the ground, families hallowed out gourds and placed an ember from the dying bonfire inside. They held these carved out gourds aloft as they made their way down the winding paths to their homes. Many wore mantles of animal skins for their warmth and as a disguise. The hope was to hide their identities from the menacing spirits and escape unharmed. If they reached their doorsteps safely, they left treats outside to appease the dead. Do all of these practices sound familiar?

Today our hallowed out gourds of choice are pumpkins. The animal skins have become costumes from Walmart or Party City. Masks are worn when trick or treating in the hope that neighbors won’t know who is out there begging for goodies. So while we retain some vestige of the fears that haunted our ancestors, we have transformed October 31, Halloween, from a night of fright to an all-out party.

According to former priest and Catholic theologian William Maestri, the early Christian church saw the “pagan” celebration of Samhain (Celtic New Year) as an opportunity. They seized the day and made it their own. Samhain became All Souls Day, or All Hallows Eve. And when the sun rose the next morning, surprise, it was All Saint’s Day, a day to honor the dead. As then Father Maestri liked to point out, “It’s not the dead we should be afraid of, it’s the living.”

There is one other concept to consider. What if ghosts or spirits are not out to harm us? What if they are here twenty-four-seven because they never left? As ghosts they retain the same personalities they had in life. Grumpy in life, grumpy in death. Playful in life, playful in death. So while we may encounter some disgruntled characters, on average, the spirits we bump into are friendly. Think about it this way: if we are poking around in their space like an attic or abandoned building, we’re more likely to startle them awake then they are waiting to jump out at us.

So my advice is this: On Halloween, the Celtic Feast of Samhain, stay tuned. Stay Alert. The ghost you seek, may be standing right behind you.

Blog # 13 Why Ghosts?

After decades of writing books and magazine articles about ghosts – all things that go bump in the night – the question often pops up: Have you ever been afraid crawling around a reputed haunted house? My answer, surprisingly is: Not really. I’ve been unnerved a few times, and when I have I simply choose not to linger further in a place where I am not welcome. I listen to my instincts, my gut, saying now may not be the time or place to investigate all things paranormal.

For example, I spend a fair of amount of time in old cemeteries, kneeling in front of decaying headstones trying to decipher inscriptions, dates, and when I am very, very lucky, read the epitaphs. I freely talk to the dead. I apologize for stepping over their final resting places. The headstones of the young, those who never truly got to walk the earth before their time here is up, these monuments fill me with grief and weigh heavily on my heart. I do my best to learn their stories and reassure the deceased that they are not forgotten. I do not believe the dead or their spirits are out to do me harm.

Over time, our perceptions of ghosts as menacing creatures patrolling the earth in search of their next victim has changed, and rightly so. Previous generations believed ghosts appeared rattling chains, clasping daggers dripping blood, and made menacing threats. Basically ghostly apparitions were akin to the “invasion of the body snatchers.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are certain celebrated cemeteries where a healthy fear of the living is required. Muggings had gotten so bad at St. Louis Cemeteries #1, #2, and #3 (on the outer edge of New Orleans’ fabled French Quarter) that visitors to these popular tourist attractions were banned from going in alone. Entry now to see the grave of the legendary Voodoo queen Marie Laveau, for example, is by escorted group tour only. As former Catholic theologian Father William Maestri once wisely said, It’s not the dead we need to be afraid of, it’s the living.”

Many legends tell us that ghosts started out as protectors: When the pirate Jean Lafitte buried his treasure on Ile Phantom, a small sliver of land in Bayou Barataria, it is said he cut off the heads of two of his pirate cohorts so that their spirits would stay behind and guard the treasure trove from future human predators. Jeannette Feltus, owner of Linden Plantation in Natchez, Mississippi, offers the same rationale for the lack of armed guards at her bed and breakfast operation. Feltus believes that even when she is alone at night in her sprawling mansion, the spirits of her husband’s ancestors provide a protective circle and prevent anyone from doing her harm. Underwater salvager Barry Clifford believes that one of the reasons it was so challenging to find the wreck of the Whydah, sink in 1717, was because the ghosts of Captain Sam Bellamy and his crew, who went down with the ship in a terrible storm off of Cape Cod, guarded their horde of gold, silver and jewels. According to Clifford, “Stealing another man’s treasure is never supposed to be easy.”

Many historic sites have found that having a resident ghost or two is a bonus when it comes to luring tourists. In South Louisiana, it’s called Lagniappe, a little somethin extra. Journalist Lyle Saxon in his seminal work, “Gumbo Ya Ya” collected and edited folktales. Saxon stated unequivocally that “Every old plantation house has to have at least one ghost or hang its head in shame. Today that’s not problem. Some historic sites like the Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana even put up giant billboards, proclaiming “America’s Most Haunted Home.” Visitors line up hoping to catch a glimpse of the main attractions, the ghost of Chloe, but will just as happily settle for any of the other ghosts who roam the property, from tiny spirits of children to adults who allegedly stroll about the grounds. Having bragging rights to a ghost often equates to economic gain.

So, whether they are guarding treasure or enticing visitors ghosts have proven to be a welcome sight. I encourage all of you to look and listen. Most importantly allow yourself to feel their presence. Ghosts, spirits of the dead, have one very human trait in common; they just want to be remembered. If they approach you, feel flattered for they are letting you know that they believe they have found a sympathetic soul willing to listen and share their story. There are so many spirits out there waiting to be adopted. No paperwork required.

The Madam Who Won’t Lie Still

I am often asked, WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE GHOST?  I have to admit that the ghost of Josie Arlington goes right to the top of my Haunted Hit Parade. Josie Arlington was the reigning Madam of New Orleans’ former Red-light district, known as Storyville. In its heyday from 1897-1917, vice flourished and prostitution had a place to call home. The ghost of Josie Arlington now visits former clients near her grave in Metairie Cemetery.

Born Mamie Duebler somewhere around 1864, her parents were certainly distraught when their seventeen-year-old daughter ran off with Philip “The Schwarz” Lobrano. For the next nine years, gentlemen callers could find Mamie working under the name Josie Alton or Josie Lobrano  within the darkened rooms of some of New Orleans’ most notorious brothels. Josie was a fiery beauty with a temper to match. Finally, shedding her previous aliases, she adopted the name she would keep until her death: Josie Arlington.

She built an elaborate four-story brothel on Basin Steet. Her brothel was considered the “crème de la crème” of bordellos and Josie Arlington was regarded as the “snootiest madam in America.” With her steady cash flow, Josie purchased a mansion on Esplanade Avenue smack in the middle of respectable society. Her shocked female neighbors tried to ignore her presence. Josie swept by them smug in the knowledge that she would soon be entertaining their husbands in her business establishment on Basin St.

Josie was the “First Lady of Storyville,” but a fire in 1905 rocked her world. Trapped in the fire, she narrowly escaped death. The fear of passing on to the next world without sufficient preparation tormented her. Josie’s concerns were not for her immortal soul, but rather she became obsessed with the disposition of her remains. She wanted her final resting place to reflect her sense of style and a signal to all that little Mamie Duebler had made it on her own. She purchased a two-thousand dollar plot in Metairie Cemetery surrounded by the tombs of the social elite. She summoned Albert Weiblen, the leading designer of tombs, who immediately hired a small army of workers to erect her tomb in record time. As a reward for meeting her deadline, Josie hosted an extravagant champagne supper for the workmen.

Josie’s design choice stirred an epoch of controversy that continues until this day. Her polished red marble tomb had matching pilasters or columns framing the immense double bronze doors of the crypt. These columns are capped with two matching urns each holding carved renditions of the eternal flame of life. The flip side of this somber interpretation is that in the early days of prostitution in New Orleans, flambeaux or torches were lit outside of small hovels along the river to let potential customers know that the prostitute was open for business. And the term “Red-light District” beame part of the world-wide lexicon. But Josie’s urns were just minor issues compared to the life-size bronze statue of a voluptuous woman standing on the steps leading to her tomb.

The controversial statue is draped in a flowing Grecian gown. In her left arm the female statue holds a bouquet of roses, but it is her right arm that generates the most gossip. The hand is raised as if she is about to enter. Those who live near Metairie Cemetery swear the statue of the woman comes back to life and “angrily pounds on the door with her fist, a din that can be heard for blocks.” They believe the statue symbolizes “poor young Mamie, locked out by her outraged father and she is banging trying to get back into her home. These Josie sympathizers think Josie (Mamie) did not run away at all. Like most teenagers, she stayed out one night beyond curfew, and her father wouldn’t let her back in.

But all sides ignore the facts. Josie personally selected every detail of her crypt. A closer look at the statue
finds that she is neither pulling on the large ringed door knockers nor pounding with her fists. If the statue occasionally comes to life, it is more plausible that this self-assured sensuous woman is simply returning from a stroll among the cemetery’s gardens, eager to fill the interior of her lasting abode with the fragrant aroma of freshly-picked flowers. The rumors persist that the “Maiden takes walks.” At night the statue turns, travels down the five granite steps and walks the grounds; Josie making a few “house” calls in the afterlife? It seems the Storyville Madam, who spent her life in the company of men, never intended to lie still.

Josie died on February 14, 1914. Despite her well-laid plans, her funeral and the aftermath were a fiasco. The evening of her burial, a passerby was awestruck by the phenomena before him. The two granite flambeaux atop her tomb were blazing red.  Crowds gathered nightly to witness the spectacle and shouted, “Look, Josie’s open for business!” Hordes of people converged on the shell road next to the cemetery. Cemetery officials were mortified.  The police were called to maintain order. Finally, one astute cemetery worker noticed a recently-installed light at the toll barrier next to the shell road. As the beacon swung in the breeze, it bounced off Josie’s tomb. An order was quickly given to plant a line of shrubs to block the reflection and a large cross was also etched on the back of the tomb – a little Christian gris-gris (voodoo) to ward off the devil’s work. Neither the shrubs or the cross had any affect. Josie’s tomb continued to send out its scandalous signal. So, after a little negotiation with the owners of the toll road, the signal light was extinguished, effectively pulling the plug on the nocturnal display.

End of story? No. Josie did not rest easier. A new wrinkle arrived in the form of Josie’s niece and Josie’s former manager. In her will, Josie had bequeathed her considerable assets to her niece and business partner, knowing nothing of their clandestine affair. The pair squandered their inheritance and then the financially-strapped couple sold her mansion, and when that wasn’t enough, Josie’s tomb went on the auction block.

A prominent family purchased the tomb, naively believing the prostitute’s notoriety and association with the tomb would magically disappear. And naturally, the new owners wanted her body removed. It must have been quite a site to see workmen in the dead of night pull open the heavy bronze doors and whisk Josie’s body to an undisclosed location. As gruesome as this might sound, moving bodies about is a standard burial custom in New Orleans still practiced today. According to the late “Irv” Zoller of Metairie Cemetery, “It’s called the Year-and-A-Day Rule: ” “Anytime after one year has passed, a burial can be disturbed. The casket is taken out of the vault, the remains are taken out of the casket and put in a small pouch or body bag . . . and put on a shelf in the back of the tomb.” In New Orleans there is always room for one more.

In Josie’s case, however, this was not a viable option. The new tomb owners had no inclination to share. And given Josie’s propensity to attact attention in life and in death, cemetery officials were not about to risk a repeat performance. Josie’s new burial site is one of Metairie Cemetery’s most closely guarded secrets. For a clue to where she might be buried read the final chapter of my book, THE HAUNTING OF LOUISIANA.

And Josie’s story may still have a happy ending for her spirit refuses to be contained. The ghost of the Storyville Madam seems well-suited to inhabit a statue and propel the seductive figure forward as she makes the rounds of  “special” friends buried nearby in fashionable Metairie Cemetery. At the end of the book, I created an epitaph for this indomitable woman: ” . . . her life and death remain glittering beacons in New Orleans’ storied past.”

Let me know what you think about Josie or tell me about your favorite ghost. Click on REPLIES and share.

Update: New Orleans Ghosts

I am happy to report that the haunted spirits of New Orleans’ fabled French Quarter are alive and well. Having just returned from a three week Mardi Gras assignment for a PBS television station (I produce the annual live coverage of the final events of Mardi Gras), I did manage to find time to wander around.

The lush courtyards, moss-covered patios, and narrow brick-lined alleys still provide enough nooks and crannies for the city’s resident ghosts. Perhaps it is the thick blanket of humid air that weighs them down and holds them in place or the casual acceptance of locals confirming their spirited presence with a nod, but they like it here.

To mark its remarkable fifth reprint by Pelican Publishing, I was asked to update chapters in my book, The Haunting of Louisiana. So I got to revisit some old haunts. One of my favorites had always been O’Flaherty’s Irish Channel Pub on Toulouse Street in the French Quarter. I was aware that after Hurricane Katrina, owner and Irish balladeer Danny O’Flaherty did not reopen the popular bar. It sat vacant for a number of years and reopened under new ownership as the Old New Orleans Cookery, an upscale restaurant. I wondered what had happened to its trio of ghosts: Angelique, Joseph, and Mary.

Standing in the courtyard with its trickling fountain, I cautiously asked New Orleans Cookery owner Anna T. what it was like working in this historic building. She said they loved the old architecture: the bricks, the timbers, the arches. “And the ghosts,” I asked, “do you know if they are still around?” She smiled and said, “Absolutely. The staff and our guests talk about them all the time.”

In a chapter in my book, I dubbed this trio of ghosts the “Celtic Love Triangle.” Theirs is a tragic tale of love, lust, jealousy, murder, and suicide.

On October 13, 1806 widow Mary Wheaton Sevre took possession of the property on Toulouse Street by virtue of the death of her second husband Don Guillaume. Mary wasted no time picking out husband number three-Joseph Baptandiere. Trouble soon arrived with the appearance of a dark Creole beauty named Angelique Dubois. In eighteenth and nineteenth century New Orleans there was a practice known as placage. In this arrangement wealthy white, often married, men had liaisons with demoiselles de couleux, free women of color. These liaisons often lasted a lifetime with the men providing dwellings and the women regarding themselves as “other wives.” In Angelique’s and Joseph’s arrangement, there was a hitch. Angelique was madly in love with Joseph and insisted on becoming his real wife.  As related by consummate storyteller and musician Daniel J. O’Flaherty, Angelique and Joseph had an epic fight, and she threatened to tell all to Mary, Joseph’s wife. According to Danny, “Joseph didn’t know what to do. He lost his temper and strangled Angelique; he killed her and buried her body in the courtyard.” On the night of the murder there was a witness. A little boy saw Joseph digging the grave and Joseph knew he was doomed. Says Danny, “Joseph knew he couldn’t face Mary so he went up to the third floor, put a rope around his neck and jumped off the building.” Danny adds, “Joseph is our grouchy ghost. If I jumped off the third floor, I’d be a grouchy ghost myself.”

Mary died in 1817. People continue to report that the ghost of an older woman rattles around throwing temper tantrums. They believe it is jealous Mary still in a rage over her husband Joseph’s affair. As for Angelique, she was often spotted looking down and listening to the music in the former Ballad Room. Danny explained, “She liked certain songs-usually traditional ones; sad ones. She would appear in the rafters and then disappear.” Luckily, for Angelique, the owners of the New Orleans Creole Cookery restaurant often invite local musicians to perform in the courtyard so Angelique can once again enjoy live music. In Creole New Orleans plus ça change plus ç’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they remain the same). Even the overwhelming force of Hurricane Katrina could not dislodge the city’s tenacious spirits from their favorite spots. New Orleans’ reputation as “Ghost Central USA” remains undisputed.

New Year for Ghosts and Spirits

For many of us the new year ushers in the opportunity to reinvent ourselves. We make resolutions to upgrade our physical, mental, and emotional selves. Our to-do list includes losing weight, improving fitness, eating healthier. We strive to be more generous, sympathetic, kinder. But what about spirits who linger in our world? Can they improve, or are they forever frozen at the time of their departure?

In short, can an angry spirit grow mellower over time? Can a sad ghost turn joyous? Can a poltergeist reform?

At the old South Church on the island of Nantucket, the ultra-conservative ghost of Seth Freeman Swift, the original minister (1810-1833), has not veered from his rigid ways. For over three centuries, this disgruntled ghost continues to express his displeasure. If the music director selects a contemporary hymn for Sunday’s service, Seth blocks the entrance to the choir loft. He is a bit of a poltergeist. He’s been known to bar access to the watchman’s level of the bell tower when the trustees allowed the installation of a web cam. Calling on his paranormal abilities, the annoyed Seth removed a seven foot wooden panel from the shaft that held the clock weights, slid the panel across the floor, and wedged it securely from the inside so that the bell tower door could not open. The battle of Seth vs. mortals wages on. The twenty-first parishioners, trustees, and staff grudgingly agree that their resident ghost is unwilling to reform. [The Haunting of Cape Cod and the Islands/Chapter 1].

Seth Freeman Swift

In sharp contrast to Seth, Chris Brinkley and Tom Pharr, genial hosts of Anchuca Mansion in Vicksburg, Mississippi, are pleased to announce that their ghostly couple is on their best behavior. Chris credits Mr. and Mrs. Hennessys’ reformation to the fact that they got their way. The Hennessys moved into Anchuca in 1875 and for the next forty years raised their children in the spacious home. The couple had formal portraits of themselves mounted in oval frames and on display. Following their deaths, the home changed owners until Brinkley and Pharr remodeled it into an elegant bed and breakfast establishment. From time-to-time, they both saw fleeting images of shadowy figures roaming through the halls. They shrugged off the occasional ghostly visitations until the day they discovered a leak in the dining room ceiling. They called a plumber. He inspected all three floors for the source of the indoor waterfall. His investigation uncovered no broken pipes, no faulty valves, no overflowing drip pans, no logical explanation. The frustrated plumber used his bare hands to dig through the attic insulation in search of any dampness. Then to his astonishment, buried in the insulation, he pulled out an oval portraits of a man. Plunging his hand in again, he extracted a matching portrait of a woman. Chris Brinkley swore that at that very moment, the leak in the dining room, three floors below, stopped. As he retold the tale to me, Chris laughed saying, “I never would have been able to make up a ghost story like that . . . I guess they just wanted out.” To keep the Hennessys happy and to insure the home stays waterfall free, Chris and Tom have rehung the portraits in the front hall. To date, the ghosts of the Hennessys appear satisfied now that they are once again on display. [The Haunting of Mississippi/Chapter 2].

So it appears that some ghosts are willing to amend their ways. And that we can on occasion appease the spirits if we can figure out what they need.

Danny O’Flaherty, former owner of O’Flaherty’s Irish Channel Pub in New Orleans’ French Quarter, believed his music soothed the tormented soul of Angelique, a young Creole girl. Angelique was strangled in the courtyard by her lover, the owner of the historic building. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the pub did not reopen. Recently, the nineteenth-century building and courtyard were restored. In an interview I did last year with the new owners, they said that their customers also report sightings of the ghosts of Angelique and her murderous lover Joseph Baptandiere. So even an hurricane can’t dispel ghosts. In New Orleans, a haunted restaurant remains “par for the course.” [The Haunting of Louisiana/Chapter 19]

Ghosts, like mortals, can evolve over time. They may start off mean-spirited (pun intended) but once their demands are met, they can be less troublesome. If your resident ghost has an annoying habit of slamming doors, clamoring up stairs, or moving things about, there is hope. Perhaps, like the Hennessys, a simple fix such as the rehanging of portraits is all that is required.




Will we ever know with certainty if spirits of the dead can slip back and forth between our world and theirs? Perhaps not. In the meantime, maybe the best resolution for 2018 is to learn to co-exist and enjoy life in all its forms.

Epitaph: What will you say?

Etched on gravestones, epitaphs reflect our humanity in all its refined and ragged forms. As we approach the new year we are confronted with nagging resolutions to do better. If we knew this would be our last year as earth-tethered humans, how do we want to be remembered? What do we want on our tombstones? If we don’t plan ahead, our wishes may be preempted.

One enterprising young widow seized the opportunity and turned her husband’s tomb into the ultimate dating site. She was intent on finding husband #2:
Sacred to the memory of Mr. James Bates,
who died Aug. 6, 1800.
His widow, age 24, who mourns as one
who Can be comforted,
lives at 7 Elm Street this village and
possess every qualification
for a good Wife.

Then there’s the widower who fashioned an eternal Do Not Disturb sign on his wife’s grave:
Here lies my wife, let her lie,
Now she’s at peace and so am I.

Two pernicious parents in Vermont penned this dubious verse for their young son:
Here lies our darling baby boy
He never cries nor hollers
He lived for one and twenty days,
And cost us forty dollars.

When I stumbled across this two-word epitaph in a Natchez cemetery, I had to find out more about the woman buried beneath a neglected headstone bearing only a first name:
The Unfortunate
In my book, The Haunting of Mississippi (Chapter 24), I delve into the story of poor Louise. It seems she was a prostitute who worked in Natchez-Under-the-Hill, the city’s red light district. In the spring of 1849, Louise fell ill. A local minister, Rev. Stratton, offered assistance. Louise accepted his offer of food and medicine, but would reveal only her first name. When she died, the reverend raised money for her burial and erected the simple headstone. Researched conducted by Don Estes, former director of the city cemetery, finally produced a last name-Leroy. Yet no one seems to be in any hurry to claim her as their own. If Louise’s feisty spirit could return and change anything, the first task on her list would likely be to erase her rather ignominious “Unfortunate” epitaph.

One gentleman from Topsfield, MA, made his feelings known and issued fair warning on his tomb:
Reader pass on and ne’er waste your time
on bad biography and bitter rhyme
For what I am this cumbrous clay insures
and what I was, is no affair of yours.

Nobel prize winning author William Faulkner was asked by a reporter what he would like for his obituary. Faulkner responded that he wanted the same one sentence for his obituary and his epitaph:
He made the books and he died.
Unfortunately, the prodigious author’s wishes were not carried out. On his tomb his widow Estelle had engraved
“Beloved, Go With God.” During my research on Faulkner and his fondness for ghost stories (The Haunting of Mississippi Chapter 14), I visited his grave in St. Peter’s Cemetery, Oxford, MS. One Faulkner fan left a beer bottle. Other tributes have included bottles of hard liquor as sustenance for Faulkner’s weary spirit. William Griffith, the curator of Faulkner’s home of Rowan Oak, is not surprised. “Sometimes fans leave a bottle of bourbon, but he preferred whiskey.”

Life and death for Henry Clay of Gilford, VT, were one and the same. The epitaph on his tomb reads:
My life’s been hard
And all things show it;
I always thought so
And now I know it.

Aaron Burbank of Connecticut was quite specific about the disposition of his remains. His relatives did their best. They carved his instructions on his tomb while ignoring his request:
Bury me not when I am dead.
Lay me not down in a dusty bed.
I could not bear the life down there
with earthworms creeping through my hair.

For others, an epitaph becomes a commentary on changing perceptions of who we are. When Air Force Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, a gay Vietnam Veteran (honored for his valor with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star) learned he had AIDS, he wrote his own epitaph. He wanted his grave to be a monument for all gay veterans:
When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men
and a discharge for loving one.

Winston Churchill chose:
I am ready to meet my maker,
whether my maker is prepared for
he great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.

For his final curtain call, Mel Blanc, the “Man of 1000 Voices,” went with the sentiment of Bugs Bunny:
That’s All Folks!

So whether you choose to be buried or cremated, your final words matter. Think about someone wandering through a cemetery a hundred years from now. They stumble across your tombstone.
What will it say?

I’ve given it some thought. I think I would like to borrow the words of poet Flavia Wheedn:
Life is brief and very fragile.
Do that which makes you happy.

Perhaps, someone will smile as they read it. I’d love to hear your choices.