Friday, April 26, 2013

30 Days of Why I Love New Orleans - Day 23


It’s been a hot, sultry day. You’ve walked the city until nightfall and suddenly the air cools. The steam rises from the pavement and you’re walking in a field of mist by Jackson Square. And then you see him—a figure coming from the closed doors of the Cathedral. Perhaps he heads down one of the alleys that flank the Church, Pirate’s Alley or—Pere Antoine Alley..
                He turns to look at you with gentle eyes, kindness and compassion—and then
                You’ve just met one of the famous ghosts of the city, Pere Antoine, born Antonio de Sedella in 1748. Pere Antoine has a mixed history—but then, you see, he was a real flesh and blood man who came to New Orleans under the Spanish Crown as part of the Spanish Inquisition that took place in Louisiana.  And real human beings, we know, come with virtues and faults.
At first, a man rigid in discipline, he quickly became a humanitarian. He had no heart for any kind of cruelty and instead, tended to the sick and dying, cared deeply for the slaves and freemen of every color. He risked his own health time and time again to render help to those suffering from disease.
He is however, blamed by some for the Great Fire of 1788 that swept through the city—destroying 80% of the buildings, remember?—because it was Good Friday, and the Church dictated that bells not be rung on Good Friday. Whether he was directly to be blamed or not, the Church, as we know, burned to the ground and had to be rebuilt.
That didn’t stop Pere Antoine. He stayed in New Orleans until his death in 1829, loved especially by the poor and revered by the slaves.
If you encounter Pere Antoine—he also seemed to like misty mornings—you will usually feel a sense of peace and comfort.
But, this city is full of ghosts. Seriously, please, of course! You don’t go through all the history and trauma faced by one of our most unique and wonderful cities without accruing ghosts. I never want to leave NOLA—why would the dead want to go?
At 716 Dauphine Street, you will find another of NOLA’s more famous ghosts. The Sultan,
also known as Sultan Suleyman.
The story begins with local Monsieur LaPrete, a once-wealthy plantation owner, who also had a city mansion on Delphine when the Union took over the city during the Civil War. Property owners scrambled to find a way not to go completely broke—their Confederate currency was worthless. In the city, seeking the advice of friends, LaPrete met a man at a pub who had overheard his tale of woe. The man introduced himself as an emissary of a Turkish sultan. The sultan had a huge family and needed a big house and the four stories at the corner of  Orleans and Delphine seemed perfect. LaPrete checked out the sultan, found out he was incredibly wealthy, rented the house to the sultan and returned to his plantation.
The sultan had a huge family indeed. Wives, concubines, and even little boys, so the story goes, and plenty of children. He also had a small army of eunuchs to guard the house; they stood upon the galleries, ever watchful. It’s rumored that people disappeared into the house—people as in beautiful young women of every shade. It was a tough time in NOLA, with “Beast” Butler ruling things, the war going this way and
that—and it was hard to keep track of everyone.
Two years went by. Then, a neighbor walking past the house paused because she didn’t hear any noise. This place where so many lived, where the sultan entertained lavishly and enjoyed his many partners had gone silent.
Then . . . she saw it. Blood. Blood dripping from the gallery.
When the police arrived, they discovered that there was more than blood everywhere—there were body parts everywhere.
It was a nightmare. No one knew just how many people lived in the house, so it was difficult to put the body parts together and come up with an accurate count. One body, however, was mysteriously missing no matter how the parts were put together. That was the body of the Sultan, and he was eventually found in a shallow grave—one hand reaching through the earth. His lungs and throat were filled with dirt. In traditional Muslim funeral attire, he had
been buried alive.
The horrible massacre was never prosecuted because culprits could not be caught.  
Blame the pirates! Ahoy, matey, and why not?
Well, pirates were men of enterprise. They were fond of pistols and were known for killing their enemies with pistols or swords, but not cutting them into pieces. They liked women—women could be sold. And they were not known for the murder of children. But, for years, no one could think of anyone else to blame. Somewhere in history it was discovered that the Sultan wasn’t really a Sultan—he was the brother of the Sultan. Sometimes, the oldest son, the inheritor, was known to kill his siblings in order to make sure that an inheritance went directly to his oldest son.
Was this what happened in New Orleans? Were assassins hired to carry out the grisly task, slipping in and out by the darkness of the night?
No one knows. What they do know is that when the light in the city in misty, when morning first appears, when dusk takes claim, strange things may be seen at the Sultan’s house. Turkish guards appear on the gallery and sometimes passersby see a man in a turban and robes entering or leaving the house . . . or perhaps, they see when a hand reaches out of the dirt and the murdered man tries to dig his way back to the glory of the life he had so briefly known at the house on Dauphine.
Perhaps the city’s most famous haunted house is that which once belonged to Madame LaLaurie. Oh, the things that woman was reported to do—the horrors she perpetuated on others! For more on Madame LaLaurie, please watch the video located here:
Because, of course, you’re heading to New Orleans and want to experience all the wonderful tales for yourself!
There are many ways to do this. The city thrives on its ghosts stories. Ghost? You wouldn’t say that as a bad thing—certainly not! Ghosts are part of the fabric and character of a city.
So, first off—you can question carriage driver’s down on Decatur in front of Jackson Square and tell them you want some great history—and some great ghosts, too. Carriage drivers can be amazing guides and you can meet your mule, too, get to know the old boy, and enjoy a ride through the city.
There are also a number of wonderful tour companies to call upon. They include but are not limited to Big Easy Tours, Haunted History Tours, Dixie Tours, and French Quarter Phantoms. You’ll find pamphlets on many of these tours all over the city. There really is no such thing as a “best” tour except as each tour happens for each person. We all know that tour guide can make or break a tour—and that it also depends on your willingness to be part of the magic of a ghost tour.
If you want to plan ahead, just key in “New Orleans Ghost Tours” and choose what you see as the best.
Tired from all the sight-seeing? Take the carriage tour!
I couldn’t begin to introduce all the stories you’ll discover. This is New Orleans. A few cities do claim to be the most haunted. I promise you, New Orleans deserves to be in the top running!
Pirates, yes . . . .
Back to pirates!
But for now . . . .
You’re walking down the street. It’s very late at night and you’re far from the revelry of Bourbon Street. Before you, you see a woman in white and she is running, running down the

street . . . you turn! A phantom carriage is racing toward the river carrying Madame and Doctor LaLaurie as they try to escape . . . .
You run by Jackson Square. And it’s all cool again because gentle Pere Antoine is just leaving the Cathedral, reading his prayer book with his rosary in his hands, and he will comfort you!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

30 Days of Why I Love New Orleans - Day 22

Bayou Baby!

                “Ya seen one gator, ya seen ‘em all!” So said a visitor to NOLA I overheard one day.
    Hm. Okay, well, I’m from South Florida where, while I was growing up, it was a pretty common thing to get out in the Everglades. I’ve always loved our heritage here—heading out to Shark Valley where you’ll walk a path where there are snakes and birds and massive alligators and a wonderful tower where you can look out over our “river of grass.” I love visiting our Miccosukee villages and Big Cypress and the Seminole villages.
                Yes, an alligator is an alligator is an alligator. (Hey, down here, by the way, we have crocs, too, the only crocs in the Continental United States, other than the kind you put on
your feet.)
                But I promise you, swamp and airboat tours are different in different places. And in NOLA, you have several choices of getting out and enjoying nature!
                First of all, definitions can be confusing and lines can wobble. The tours are really of what are considered “wetlands.” Wetlands have bayous; bodies of water like creeks or small rivers that are tributaries of bigger rivers or bodies of water, swamps; seasonally flooded bottom lands with more trees than marshes; tracts of low wet lands with few to no trees but cattails, grasses, etc.
                When you’re visiting one, you’re probably close to another, and so, when you’re on a “swamp” tour, you’ll often see bayous and marshes as well as swamps. What’s spectacular to them all is the wildlife you’ll get to see.
                Heading north of the city, you can visit Manchac Swamp. Naturally, you’ll have to check with tour guides on how to get out there—and how you want to see it.
                Manchac, you see, is horribly haunted. Manchac is where you’ll find “the blood-red hanging tree.” It’s where, in 1915,  the Great West Indies Storm went through—creating a tidal wave of about 20 feet that killed over 300 people. Naturally, there was a voodoo curse, there’s a cemetery, a lost settlement, and—the rougarou. What’s a rougarou? Take a tour and they’ll tell you. No, nevermind, I’ll spill. The name comes from the French loup-garou. You can actually see the word written many ways now—Roux-ga-Roux, Rugaru, and more. But,
you’ve probably guessed it. Originally, we’re talking French werewolf here. Wolves are not at common in the swamp area, but a host of other animals are, so the rougarou may take on a variety of forms. The legend—as it was in Europe—has become pure Louisiana here. Being bitten by a rougarou is not an instant death-warrant; there are good endings and bad endings to encounters with rougarous. If you take a tour, your director can tell you what you must—and must not do!—should you encounter a rougarou.
                In the mid-eighteen hundreds, there were about 1200 people living in the area growing mainly cabbages and black-eye peas. They all knew one another, and when the train went through from NOLA to Jackson Mississippi in 1856, the vegetables grown here became prized all over the nation. People
knew one another and cared about one another. One famous resident was Aunt Julia Brown—she lived in the small settlement of Frenier. Creole and something of a voodoo priestess, Aunt Julia was to take her last breath the day before the devastating hurricane rolled in and she so loved her land and people that she prophesized that they would all die with her. The storm didn’t kill them all, but it did take approximately 300 people the next day. There are great tales of heroism here. A train engineer who knew the local residents determined to get some of them out. While the train had been ordered to cease running, he took the engine and a few box cars, trying to get in and get people out. He had twenty-two souls aboard before he could go no further. The storm swept in, the boxcar flooded—but! The next day, the water went down and he and those he saved walked back to survive. It’s a story of heroism that’s real—history is always better than anything we can make up!
                I have to say that you can head out, have an amazing Cajun meal at a “campsite” there, and then take a night tour and hear these stories told in the right atmosphere and by
guides who know them backwards and forward. And there are more ghost stories, of course. And nature. Put them together and-- spooky. At night, you see the red eyes of alligators as they peer at you from the water. Seriously—I’m not sure if movie magic has ever created a creature like a gator with glowing eyes at night. But, while the stories are heart breaking and can make you believe in ghosts, the nature in the tours in amazing.
                There are a number of places to call or see about swamp tours, and I don’t want to be prejudice toward one or against any. Key in Louisiana Bayou Tours and you’ll find a number of different companies. Make sure you read up on what each one offers.  Tours out of NOLA tend to be good—people really love their history and their place and most often, your tour guides are from the area and sometimes, their families have been there for decades—or even centuries. (Even if your guide happens to have come from somewhere else originally; they’ve been bitten by the love of the area!)
                Now, if you’re not heading in the direction of Manchac Swamp, you might want to go south across the Mississippi River to the Jean Lafitte/Barataria preserve. This is where the famous and infamous pirate hid his booty. It was his home turf, so to say, and it’s deep in Cajun country. Naturally, there are wonderful stories to discover this side, too. There’s an old Native American burial mound here that is estimated to be about two-thousand years old. You can see what a Cajun fishing village is like and if you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of Miss Vicki. Miss Vicki is huge and old—she’s the undisputed Alligator Queen of Bayou Barataria.
                You can also take an airboat tour in this area. Zipping over the wetlands is exciting—and it’s also great when your captain slows or stops to relate a story or point out wildlife that is lurking. Many of the guides are natives to the area and have great and amazing tales to tell.
                The Barataria Preserve is part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park service.  As always, remember with a national park that tours are set up so that people learn, look, and enjoy—and leave what it is as it is!  

30 Days of Why I Love New Orleans - Day 21


The pirate Jean Lafitte became more famous for joining Andrew Jackson to become a hero of the Battle of New Orleans than he was a pirate. (The French spelling of his name was Laffitte  and he didn’t even come through Ellis Island, but in America it became Lafitte and with the number of places named after him now, hopefully he’d just go with it!) Everywhere you go in New Orleans—and in much of Louisiana—you can be reminded of Jean Lafitte.         

                Lafitte once claimed to have been born in Bordeaux, France. His brother, Pierre, claimed to have been born in Bayonne. Several of the pairs biographers have claimed that they were born anywhere from upstate New York to Saint Dominique, in what is now Haiti, and there are a few who suggest a small city in Spain and some who say maybe even New Orleans. You’d think he’d know where he was born—except that claiming to be a French
citizen was helpful when dealing with American laws.

                So, he was born somewhere in the world sometime around the year 1782. By the late 1790s, his brother, Pierre, was in Saint Dominique and Jean was most likely with him. Due to the violence of the Haitian Revolution, they left—and came over to New Orleans.

                In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase made New Orleans an American city and in 1808, the country began seriously enforcing the Embargo Act of 1807. They’d been traders, really, until that point, dealing with the Caribbean countries and supplying New Orleans merchants with the goods they’d needed.

Off they went to Barataria Island which was sparsely settled and not easily accessible by the American navy. Here they set up their own little kingdom, essentially. They began their life of piracy with first one ship and then another, and soon they were rolling in ships and ill-gotten goods.

                Is there such a thing as a good pirate? Well, the Lafitte brothers were known for treating captives decently; after taking the goods, they sometimes even returned ships to their crews.

                The merchants of New Orleans were fond of the pirates. Without the pirates, they wouldn’t have any merchandise.

                Eventually, Governor Claiborne became furious with the situation; he posted handbills across New Orleans and in newspapers posting a 500 dollar reward for Lafitte.
(Big bucks in those days.) But Lafitte was loved; the next day, handbills posting a higher ransom for Governor Claiborne appeared all over the city.

                The Lafitte brothers had been very successful holding auctions of their goods at the Temple (the prehistoric mound/ancient burial ground you can now visit at Jean Lafitte National Historic Park)  on Barataria. They decided to try doing the same just outside NOLA. This didn’t go quiet as well—there was something of a skirmish, a revenue officer was killed. A grand jury indicted Pierre and he was arrested, tried, convicted, and jailed.

                War was brewing.

                The Americans feared the pirates would side with the British. The British feared that the pirates would join up with the Americans.

                Governor Claiborne sent troops out to Barataria. The pirates knew they were coming, burned some of their own ships, and fled. But ships were taken, goods were seized—and Jean escaped.  He later wrote a letter to the governor; he still had ships. He knew the Americans wanted him. However, it was hard to come to terms when his brother was in jail.

                Pierre most mysteriously escaped right after the letter was received.

                It was time for . . . a pardon, a truce—a way to save the day.

                By the war of 1812, the Americans were a little bit desperate. Britain—huge navy, queen of the seas. America—new nation, tiny navy, struggling to gain a position of authority against the country from which they had just broken.

                Letters of marque were offered; this meant the navy was going to hire privately owned armed ships. This was a great chance for a pirate to become a privateer—and receive a pardon.

                Andrew Jackson arrived in NOLA on December 1st, 1814. There were about a 1,000 raw troops at his disposal, and nothing much of a defense for the city.

                Jean Lafitte met with Jackson in the city in mid-December. Lafitte’s deal was simple; his men would serve if Jackson would pardon every man who served in the defense of the United States with him. Jackson was a shrewd military leader; when Lafitte noted that the defensive line was short and the British ships might encircle the Americans, Jackson had the line extended. This move assured American success; two of his men were the first to fire on the British—on that extended line.

                Yeah! We won. Okay, no one in NOLA had known that the war had already officially ended. What the battle proved was that the United States could—and would—fight a naval war.

                Soon after, the Lafitte brothers moved on to Galveston, Texas. There was some pirate-ing in there, some spying for the Spanish government—and even some protecting of American ships again. He was wounded in battle and it’s believed that he died of those wounds and was buried at sea somewhere in Honduras Bay, February 5th, 1823.

                He had forever left his mark in NOLA, Louisiana, and yes, the United States.  

                As mentioned earlier, you can visit the Barataria preserve. Wonderful trip! In the city, right in the French Quarter, you can head to Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop and Bar. It’s on the corner of Bourbon and St. Philip.  Built between 1722 and 1732 by Nicholas Touze, it’s
now supposed to be the oldest structure in the country operated as a bar.

                It’s believed that the Lafitte Brothers used the place many years in the late 1700s for their smuggling operations for the city. Much of what we know is legend that gets a little more embellished every year, but this was the perfect place for people to meet. A rich man on Royal wouldn’t want to talk business with a pirate in his parlor, and here, at 941 Bourbon Street, “sales staff” and merchants could easily meet on what would have been considered “neutral” ground.

                I enjoy coming here; it’s once again something that I really love—living history. It’s not a blacksmith shop at all, of course, but a lively bar. I like to just touch the walls and try to imagine life in the late 1700s. There’s a courtyard, and in all, you still have that wonderful feeling of the world here being casual. Yes! It’s nearly three-hundred years old. Sit down, have a drink, cool off. Wander into the courtyard.

                You can also wander to Café’ Lafitte in Exile (901 Bourbon Street,) the oldest continually operating gay bar in North America, and no one really cares what your sexual preference might be. Get your literary cloak on—Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote were known to stop by for a libation. Café’ Lafitte in Exile offers “Yappy Hour” from 3:00 to 5:00 so that your canine friends can do some bar-hopping as well.  

                The Lafitte Guest House and Gallery is just down at 1003 Bourbon Street. Once you get down this far, it’s quieter. The guest house is historic and beautiful. The guest house was built as a private home in 1849. One of the nice amenities here for an extended stay is that there is a full self-service kitchen
here.  Check her out on-line!

                You might want to give the elder Lafitte brother a boost and opt to head just out of the French Quarter—still close, easy walking distance--and stay at Maison Pierre Lafitte. Bedrooms are often little suites; the only complaint I’ve ever heard is that the bathrooms are small, but even then, beautifully appointed.

                You will find the Lafitte name over and over again—and as I said, there’s nothing like a tour out to the national park on so many levels. The history is far richer than I ever begin to tell in this space and so much fun to explore on your own.


                Ahoy Matey.

                Pirates! Yes, NOLA has them!