The Old Ursuline Convent
1100 Chartres Street
I shot this pic of the convent with my iphone. The shutters were tightly closed. Having walked this street many times, I have never seen them open. What lurks behind those shutters?
In my latest novel, Sex, Blood, Rock 'N' Roll, and Vampyr, all hell breaks loose when vampire Nadia goes on a vampire tour in New Orleans. In chapter seven, titled Myths, Legends, and Real Vampires, she is offended that vampires are portrayed as evil by the tour guide and calls him out on it.
People often ask me if it's true that New Orleans has vampire tours. The answer is yes. Why would vampire and paranormal tours be unusual in a city that has so much haunted history? If you visit our magical city, you should plan one. They are walking tours that begin after dark and take you to various landmarks giving you the history of each one. They are entertaining and fun, but are they factual? Well. I'll let you decide.
One of the most famous tales is of the Compte St. Germain; an alchemist of great wealth, knowledge, and charm. He arrived in Paris in the 1700s and was known for throwing lavish dinner parties although he never touched a bite of food. Guests told tales of him sipping wine and telling stories of things that happened hundreds of years ago as if he were there. Records show he was born in 1710 and died in 1745, but the one record of his death was written under king's orders and is not believed to be true.
Two hundred years after his alleged death, a strange gentleman from France named Jacques St. Germain arrived in New Orleans and moved into a home on Royal Street. He threw lavish dinner parties, never touched a bite of food, drank wine, and told stories of long ago as if he were there. One night, Jacques threw a party with many elites in New Orleans. Later that night, he asked a lady to accompany him up to the balcony. Legend has it, when he attempted to bite her, she flung herself over the balcony and landed in the street with blood trickling from her neck. People surrounded her and notified the police. When the police investigated St. Germain's home, they found clothes from different periods in time and numerous bottles of wine, which upon further investigation turned out to be human blood. Jacques mysteriously disappeared before the police could question him. Legend has it Jacques is the real Compte St. Germain and has been seen since then in New Orleans and in different parts of the world.
Among the macabre tales, you are sure to hear the story of the notorious Carter Brothers. In the 1930s, John and Wayne Carter worked as longshoremen on the Mississippi River. One evening, before the brothers returned home from work, a young girl escaped from their French Quarter apartment and ran to the police. Her wrists were cut but not severely enough for her to bleed to death. She claimed she had been locked up for weeks and the brothers had been feeding on her blood. The police immediately investigated and found four other young women tied to chairs with their wrists cut. Over a dozen dead bodies turned up in the apartment drained of their blood. The brothers were arrested, tried, and executed for their crimes with their remains interred in the family tomb. Later, when another Carter family member passed away, the tomb was opened to make room for his remains, but there were no remnants of John or Wayne in the grave to clear. To this day, there have been reports of sightings of the brothers wandering the French Quarter.
One of the most talked about stories is the legend of the casket girls and the Ursuline convent. The old Ursuline Convent on Chartres Street is the oldest building still standing in the Mississippi River Valley. The building no longer functions as a convent. The first floor is a museum; the second floor is the home of the Archdiocesan archives dating back to 1718. But what's on the third floor behind those mysterious shutters that are always tightly secured? Nobody seems to know the answer to that question, but there are speculations.
The Ursuline nuns were sent to New Orleans from France in 1725 to establish a hospital and educate the young girls. Most of the early settlers were pirates, scoundrels, murderers, and thieves; prisoners who had been exiled from France and promised if they reformed in Louisiana, they could return to France. The men outnumbered the women five to one, so, in 1727 the city's founder, Jean Baptiste LeMoyne Bienville, sent two nuns back to France to ask the king to send over marriageable young women. In 1728, a group of orphans arrived to marry the colonists and populate the swamp called La Nouvelle Orléans.
When the girls arrived, they each brought with them one wooden chest shaped like a coffin which held their trousseau consisting of clothes, linens, and sometimes a bridal gown. Since their eccentric luggage looked like caskets, they became known as the casket girls. The girls were brought to the Ursuline convent to live among the nuns until they were married.
After the arrival of the fille à la cassette, nobody could explain why the mortality rate, especially the infant mortality rate, drastically increased. Suspicion mounted when the girls later opened their chests, and they were found empty. Fear of what the girls may have smuggled into La Nouvelle Orléans prompted the nuns to contact the Archdiocese. After an investigation, the caskets were transferred by day to the convent attic. The convent attic was sealed off; the doors nailed shut, and the attic shutters sealed with eight hundred nails, each one blessed by the pope.
Legend has it the caskets were used to smuggle vampires into La Nouvelle Orléans. They remain sealed in the attic to this day, and that is the reason why the attic shutters are always tightly closed. No one can explain why occasionally, late at night, someone will see them suddenly fly open followed by a mist that surrounds the convent.
In 1978, two curious paranormal investigators set up a video camera in front of the convent and waited through the night for paranormal activity. Sometime during the night, the camera stopped filming. The next day, they were both found dead on the steps of St. Mary's Catholic Church next to the convent with their throats torn open and their bodies drained of eighty percent of their blood. This crime was never solved.
Now let's take a closer look at this murder. Legends have been passed down by word of mouth, but this alleged crime that supposedly occurred forty years ago is something we should be able to find proof of, so it leads to the question. Is it fact or fiction? It may be challenging to verify something reported to have happened almost three hundred years ago, but it seems if this murder occurred in 1978, it should have been a major news story.
I was curious to see if there were any news reports to corroborate this tale, so I started digging for information, but my investigation turned up nothing. The only stories I could find about it were related to the vampire legend. It seems if this murder happened, there would be something about it in the news archives, but so far nothing has surfaced. There doesn't seem to be anything to validate it so unless there's a special paranormal division of the New Orleans police department we don't know about, I have to assume it's either false or an exaggeration of another murder that happened around the same time, but what do I know?
Another reason for doubt is there are many variations of the tale of the casket girls, including stories that the girls themselves were vampires. If you tour the Ursuline Convent museum, the story they tell is when the girls arrived, they were pale and gaunt after spending six months at sea, mostly below deck, and some of them had tuberculosis that caused them to cough up blood, explaining the vampire connection. That could be, but, on the other hand, why are those shutters always tightly closed? Shutters on attic windows are also extremely rare in the French Quarter. Why isn't anyone allowed on the third floor? Is it possible that something evil lurks in that attic? Is it possible they are keeping something locked in?
More recently, in 1984, nine people were found in and around the French Quarter with their throats ripped open, drained of their blood. The police had no suspects in this case at the time, and the murders ended as quickly as they began. Rumor has it; a rogue vampire was responsible, and he was destroyed by the city's elder vampires for bringing attention to the vampire community. Again, no evidence can be found to corroborate this story, and it is believed to be a variation of the 1978 murders.
So that brings us to the question; are the vampire legends fact or fabricated? Could they be based on some truth? Legends are legends so let's just say nobody knows. Whether there is any truth to them or not, I still recommend going on a vampire tour in New Orleans. Real or made up, they're always fun, but don't be surprised if a real vampire shows up and protests.
Photography by Karen M
So you're going to visit us in New Orleans soon. That's great! We are happy to have you, and we hope you will enjoy your stay with us in the Crescent City. We love visitors to our beautiful, historical three-hundred-year-old city, and we welcome you with open arms. To ensure your stay in the Big Easy is a fun, memorable, and safe one, here are a few things you should know.
The People of NOLA:
At the mention of New Orleans, most people think of Bourbon Street, alcohol, Mardi Gras, and debauchery. New Orleanians have something of a reputation as party animals and heavy drinkers, but that's not exactly true. Even though we do like to pass a good time, and most of the time our grocery carts do contain beer or wine; along with dodging hurricanes six months out of the year, we have careers, mortgages, families, children, and we plod along with day to day life just like everyone else.
Strangers will talk to you:
Natives are friendly. Don't be surprised if you find yourself in a bar or public place and a local strikes up a conversation. It's fine to talk to them. By the time it's over, you will know what part of the city they live in, their Katrina experience, all about their family, their pets, reading preferences, music preferences, and you may wind up making a new friend.
You don't have to call me darlin':
Ladies and gents, don't be offended if someone calls you darlin', sweetie, or honey. They are not flirting with you. It's just the way we talk down here.
Native Tongue - Talkin' that New Orleans talk:
New Orleans is pronounced New Or-lins by the locals, not New Aw-lins, Nawlins, or New Or-leens. Geographically located in the south, don't expect to hear any southern accents unless the individual relocated from somewhere else. New Orleans is a melting pot with French, Spanish, Canadian, Italian, German, Irish, African, and Native American influence. There are many different variations of New Orleans dialect depending on what part of town you grew up. When the Mississippi river became a working river and the longshoremen came down from New York and started interacting with the natives, their accents evolved into something that sounds like Brooklyn-on-the-southern-Mississippi-river, or what the locals refer to as a "Yat" accent.
Aside from our dialect, there are many words and phrases used here in New Orleans that are unheard of elsewhere. Here are a few you are sure to hear and their meanings:
That's a big one. The neutral ground is the terrain in the middle of a divided street known as a median everywhere else. There's a history behind that. In the old days, the French and the Spanish didn't get along, but they had to do business with one another. To solve that problem, they created a section in the middle of the street designated as the neutral ground where they managed to get along long enough to handle their business. It stuck because nobody uses the word median in New Orleans. It's always called the neutral ground. If you ask a local from which side of the street they are going to watch a parade, they will tell you either the street side or the neutral ground side.
It may be called a trolly everywhere else, but locals will look at you funny if you call it anything other than a streetcar here.
Every menu has po-boys on it. We even have po-boy restaurants. It's a sandwich consisting of meat or seafood between two slices of French bread.
Do you want that po-boy dressed?
If you order a po-boy, your server will ask you that. Dressed means you want it with mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomatoes.
French colonists from the Canadian region of Acadia. Many settled in the Louisiana territories and have had a strong influence on Louisiana culture.
Laissez Le Bon Temps Rouler (Lay-say le bon tom roo-lay):
A Cajun French phrase meaning: Let the good times roll.
It's a greeting. It means "how are you doing?" If somebody asks you where ya't, you respond by saying "all right, where ya't?"
A French word meaning something extra.
A fluffy square donut lightly fried and sprinkled with powdered sugar.
Louisiana doesn't have counties. We have parishes.
Much, many, a lot.
Did you know?
New Orleans has its own compass:
Forget north, south, east, and west when you visit New Orleans. If you ask a local for directions, the only four points they will use are uptown, downtown, lake, and river.
Is it true it's legal to drink alcohol outdoors?
Yes, as long as it's in a plastic cup or container. No glass bottles or containers are allowed. If you leave a bar, you can take your beverage with you. Just pour it into a "go-cup" first. All bars and restaurants have them. You can walk all over with it. Just don't drive.
Can you buy alcoholic beverages on Sunday?
There are no restrictions on when alcohol can be purchased in New Orleans. You can purchase it twenty-four hours a day seven days a week from any bar, restaurant, grocery store, drug store, convenient store, or Wal Mart. (Yes, even Wal Mart sells alcohol)
Am I going to get murdered?
More than likely not. Just like any other city, New Orleans has its share of crime, but most visitors come and go without becoming a victim. I used to work in the tourist industry and dealt directly with many visitors to the city. I got asked that a lot and I would tell them to be on the safe side, when strolling through the French Quarter or city streets, be aware of your surroundings and stay on well-lit populated main streets. Stay where there are people. Don't wander down isolated side streets. It's always a good idea for gentlemen to carry their wallet in a front pocket or backpack. Ladies, watch your purses.
Tip from a local: The best indication to petty thieves that you are not from NOLA is wearing Mardi Gras beads when it isn't Mardi Gras. You can get them everywhere, and they are fun to wear, but locals only wear them during the carnival parade season.
Is it safe to visit the cemeteries?
New Orleans cemeteries are tourist attractions because we bury our dead above ground. There is a reason for that. The ground underneath New Orleans is swampland. If the dead were interred six feet under, they would wash up after the next hard rain. Most of us don't want to meet our loved ones once interred, so we bury them in mausoleums or above-ground tombs. If you plan to visit our cemeteries, I advise going with a tour group. There are numerous cemetery walking tours. Never venture into the cemeteries after dark alone. The ghosts won't jump out and harm you, but you never know when criminals might be lurking.
Is it worth it to go on a vampire tour?
Yes, absolutely. There are many legends of vampires in New Orleans. From Jacques St. Germain to the Casket Girls and the Ursuline Convent to accounts of mysterious vampire-related murders in and around the French Quarter, your vampire tour guide will keep you entertained with stories and show you the landmarks.
What about a paranormal tour?
Paranormal tours are a must. Your ghost tour guide will take you to haunted places. Some people have even claimed to have had paranormal experiences on some of these tours.
What New Orleans cuisine should we try?
We have some of the best restaurants in the world, and favorite local dishes such as red beans and rice, jambalaya, crayfish, po-boys, oysters on a half shell, and seafood gumbo are all a treat to the palate. For breakfast, be sure to treat yourself to a cafe au lait (New Orleans signature coffee made from coffee and chicory mixed with boiled milk) and beignets, preferably at Cafe du Monde.
Are there any New Orleans original cocktails we should try?
We're always happy at happy hour. If you're interested in having an original New Orleans cocktail at the places they were created, be sure to indulge in a Sazerac at the Carousel Bar, a Hurricane at Pat Obrien's, or a Pimm's Cup at the Napoleon House.
Show me your tits:
No! Don't! Never! Ever! This may happen on the balconies on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. The French Quarter is adult-oriented where you will find risque costumes and flashing for beads during the carnival season. While the Vieux Carre has its share of debauchery, outside of the French Quarter, Mardi Gras is a family event.
Bet I can tell you where you got dem shoes?
Don't fall for it. This is New Orleans biggest scam. The correct answer is: I got dem shoes on my feet, on the street, in New Orleans.
Here's my experience:
One day I was walking on Bourbon Street in my comfy walking boots. A young man approached me with a big smile and said, "I like dem shoes."
"Thank you," I replied and kept walking.
He started to follow me and said, "I'll bet you $20 I can tell you where you got dem shoes."
I looked at him, laughed, and said, "I'm a local. Go pull that on somebody who doesn't know what you're up to."
"Okay," he said. His smile turned into a frown before he turned and walked away.
If I had been somebody who didn't know the scam and entertained it, he would have harassed and intimidated me for that twenty dollars he bet me. If anybody approaches you and says anything about your shoes, unless you just want to make a donation, give them the correct answer or ignore them and walk away. It's a scam.
One of the many reasons to be intrigued by New Orleans is there is no other place like it in the world. Use good common sense. Have fun. Enjoy all that New Orleans has to offer. It has been said: New Orleans is a city with many faces, but only one soul. Its mystery and ambiance will seduce you, and once you surrender, it will never let go. By the time you get home, you will be planning your next trip. When you leave, a piece of it goes with you, and that will always draw you back.
We look forward to seeing you soon.
Laissez Le Bon Temps Rouler