I have a special holiday treat for you here at the Scarlet Order Vampire journal. We have a special guest post by Steven P. Unger, author of the fascinating and informative book, In the Footsteps of Dracula. He presents for us, “A Vampire’s Guide to New Orleans.” Without further ado, here’s Steve.
I wrote this article on New Orleans as an homage to one of my favorite cities, one still fresh in my mind and heart after a long-postponed revisit there as an invitee to the Vampire Film Festival’s Midsummer Nightmare last year.
All of the photos in this article are my own, except for the portrait of the Compte de St. Germain and the two pictures otherwise credited. Most of the text is a compendium of others’ words and research. With apologies to anyone I may have inadvertently left out, my online research for this chapter led me to articles from hubpages.com; Kalila K. Smith (whose Vampire Tour I can recommend from personal experience—see http://www.zoominfo.com/p/Kalila-Smith/178024410); New Orleans Ghosts.com; GO NOLA; Brian Harrison; Haunted Shreveport Bossier.com; and Frommers.com. I’ve borrowed freely from all of these sources and recommend them highly to those who would like to delve more deeply into the secrets of this unique city.
- If you have ever walked the dark, rainy streets of the French Quarter at night, you have seen the voodoo shops selling their gris-gris and John-the-Conqueror Root. You’ve seen the old woman in the French Market whose pointing finger foretells your death And if you know the right person to ask and you ask in the right way, you’ll be shown to the vampire clubs.
I’ve been in those clubs and seen people who believe with their heart, body, and soul that they are real, live vampires. And some of the people in those clubs are scared to death of a select group of vampires who have only appeared there a few times, and always in the darkest of night.
By day, of course, the vampire clubs are closed and locked or turned back into regular tourist bar…
—Crazy Horse’s Ghost
Like the Spanish Moss that drapes the trees of the nearby bayous, mystery and the occult have shrouded New Orleans since its birth. For hundreds of years, families there have practiced a custom called “sitting up with the dead.” When a family member dies, a relative or close family friend stays with the body until it is placed into one of New Orleans’ above-ground tombs or is buried. The body is never left unattended.
There are many reasons given for this practice today—the Old Families will tell you it’s simply respect for the dead—but this tradition actually dates back to the vampire folklore of medieval Eastern Europe. First, the mirrors are covered and the clocks are stopped. While sitting up with the deceased, the friend or family member is really watching for signs of paranormal activity, e.g.,. if a cat is seen to jump over, walk across, or stand on top of the coffin; if a dog barks or growls at the coffin; or if a horse shies from it, these are all signs of impending vampirism. Likewise, if a shadow falls over the corpse. At that point, steps are taken to prevent the corpse from returning from the dead.
Ways to stop a corpse—especially a suicide—from becoming a vampire include burying it face down at a crossroads. Often family members place a sickle around the neck to keep the corpse from sitting up; stuff the mouth with garlic and sew it closed; or mutilate the body, usually by decapitating the head and placing it at the bottom of the feet. But the most common remedy for impending vampirism is to drive a stake into the corpse, decapitate it, then burn the body to ashes. This method is still believed to be the only sure way to truly destroy the undead.
THE CASKET GIRLS
Ask any member of the Old Families who the first vampires to come to New Orleans were, and they’ll tell you the same: it was the Casket Girls.
Much of the population that found their way to New Orleans in the early 1700s were unwelcome anywhere else: deported galley slaves and felons, trappers, gold-hunters and petty criminals. People who wouldn’t be noticed if they went missing.
Sources vary on the specifics, but the basic story is that the city’s founders asked French officials to send over prospective wives for the colonists. They obliged and after months at sea these young girls showed up on the docks, pale and gaunt, bearing only as many belongings as would fit inside a wooden chest or “casquette,” which appears to have been the 18th Century equivalent of an overnight bag. They were taken to the Ursuline Convent, which still stands today, where the girls were said to have resided until the nuns could arrange for marriages.
Some accounts say they were fine young women, virgins brought up in church-run orphanages; some say they were prostitutes. But there are many who swear they were vampires, vampires who continue to rise from their “casquettes” on the third floor to break through the windows and hurricane shutters—windows and shutters that always seem to need repairing after the calmest of nights—to feed upon the transient crowds that for centuries have filled the darkened alleys of the Quarter.
Finally in 1978, after centuries of rumors and stories, two amateur reporters demanded to see these coffins. The archbishop, of course, denied them entrance. Undaunted, the next night the two men climbed over the convent wall with their recording equipment and set up their workstation below. The next morning, the reporters’ equipment was found strewn about the lawn. And on the front porch steps of the convent were found the almost decapitated bodies of these two men. Eighty percent of their blood was gone. To this day, no one has ever solved the murders.
LE COMPTE DE ST. GERMAIN
If there is one person who encapsulates the lure and the danger of the vampire, it is the Compte de Saint Germain. Making his first appearance in the court of Louis XV of France, the Comte de Saint Germain endeared himself to the aristocrats by regaling them with events from his past. An alchemist by trade, he claimed to be in possession of the “elixir of life,” and to be more than 6,000 years old.
At other times the Count at claimed to be a son of Francis II Rakoczi, the Prince of Transylvania, born in 1712, possibly legitimate, possibly by Duchess Violante Beatrice of Bavaria. This would account for his wealth and fine education. It also explains why kings would accept him as one of their own.
Contemporary accounts from the time record that despite being in the midst of many banquets and invited to the finest homes, he never ate at any of them. He would, however, sip at a glass of red wine. After a few years, he left the French court and moved to Germany, where he was reported to have died. However, people continued to spot him throughout Europe even after his death.
In 1903, a handsome and charismatic young Frenchman named Jacques Saint Germain, claiming to be a descendant of the Compte, arrived in New Orleans, taking residence in a house at the corner of Royal and Ursuline streets. Possessing an eye for beauty, Jacques was seen on the streets of the French Quarter with a different young woman on his arm every evening. His excursions came to an abrupt end one cold December night, when a woman’s piercing scream was heard coming from Jacques’ French Quarter home. The scream was quickly followed by a woman who flung herself from the second story window to land on the street below. As bystanders rushed to her aid, she told them how Saint Germain attacked and bit her, and that she jumped out of the window to escape. She died later that evening at Charity Hospital in New Orleans.
By the time the New Orleans police kicked in the door of Saint Germain’s home, he had escaped. However, what they did find was disturbing enough. The stench of death greeted the nostrils of the policemen, who found not only large bloodstains in the wooden flooring, but even wine bottles filled with human blood. The house was declared a crime scene and sealed off. From that evil night to the present day, no one has lived in that home in the French Quarter. It is private property and all taxes have been paid to date, but no one has been able to contact the present owner or owners. The only barriers between the valuable French Quarter property and the outside world are the boarded-up balcony windows and a small lock on the door. Whispers of Jacques sightings are prevalent, and people still report seeing him in the French Quarter. Could it be the enigmatic Compte checking up on his property?
Be sure to drop by the Scarlet Order Vampires Journal a week from today to see the rest of Steve’s exciting look at the vampires of New Orleans.