Sticky and slick with sweat from the humid heat in New Orleans, I weaved in-and-out of the labyrinth-like pathways between 700 haphazardly laid out tombs in the oldest cemetery in New Orleans, the St. Louis Cemetery #1. Built in 1789, the cemetery is one square block filled with above-ground vaulted tombs, effectively creating a city of the dead with a population over 100,000. I was by myself and rarely saw any other tourists. It was just me and the varieties of tombs, or at least, that’s what I thought till I started taking some selfies.
On my way to the cemetery, I got lost and ended up at the relatively more dangerous St. Louis Cemetery #2, not dangerous because of the paranormal, but because of the crime. Theses cemeteries are bordered by the Iberville housing projects, a neighborhood with a reputation for violence, drug use, and prostitution. It used to be Storyville, the historic red light district, and although Storyville is gone, the crime isn’t. The cemeteries are frequently targeted with muggings, vandalism, and worse, making being a lonely tourist, like me, a risk. I walked, as confident as I could, straight through the projects and into the cemetery. In my peripheral, I could see suspicious characters or groups that did not look like tourists passing through the maze of tombs. After snapping some photos and hiding between tombs, I made my way back through the dodgy streets to finally find the St. Louis Cemetery #1. Technically, I still wasn’t out of the clear, but I made it through the day without harm.
The cemetery is full of dead-ends and slanted alleyways, and although it is not laid out in an orderly fashion, it is loosely organized by religion. There is a section for Catholics, non-Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and slaves. Some of the vaults are family tombs others are society tombs meant for specific groups, clubs, or societies like the New Orleans Musicians Tomb, which houses musicians or the Orleans Battalion of Artillery Tomb, which houses soldiers who fought for New Orleans.
Some tombs are crumbling and some are still visited by loved ones. Some are surrounded by metal fences with sharp points and latticed sides. Some have an elaborate metal cross at the front and others have statues, like the one with the praying woman that prays over the entrance. Some, like the Italian Mutual Benevolent Society tomb, tower high and can hold over 1,000 remains, while some are family tombs that hold multiple generations. Some house prestigious historical figures and some have unknown inhabitants.
Unlike most other cemeteries, the tombs are all above-ground vaults. This is mainly because of the swampy terrain which has been known to cause coffins to resurface. Traditionally, when someone died, he or she was placed in a coffin in the tomb for a year and a day. After that time, the coffin was removed and the bones were placed in the tomb in a labelled bag among the other inhabitants.
This cemetery was built when the Saint Peter Cemetery, the prominent cemetery at the time, reached max capacity. Saint Peter Cemetery ended up being enveloped by the city, and to this day coffins lie beneath homes and roads throughout the French Quarter. In 2011, fifteen soaking wet coffins were recovered from someone’s backyard.
There are countless ghost stories surrounding this cemetery. Some say the dead appear in solid form and even converse and you don’t even realize till they mysteriously disappear or walk through a wall. Without getting into religious beliefs and what have you, I can say that I don’t rule out the possibility of ghosts and like paranormal activities because we haven’t been able to conclusively prove otherwise. But, as a general rule, I tell myself that ghosts aren’t real, because I get scared pretty easily and I feel like the more you believe, the more likely you will have some sort of encounter. That being said, something happened while I was in the cemetery that I can’t explain.
I always bring two cameras with me on my adventures, my DSLR and my point-and-shoot. The point-and-shoot makes it easier for me to get selfies or have others snap a photo for me. On this day I would set the self-timer for my point-and-shoot, put it on a ledge, and then run into frame to get a photo of myself in the cemetery. Sometimes though, the shot would be inexplicably blurry. Changing nothing and holding all else constant, sometimes the shot would be perfectly composed and other times it would be blurry. I never had this issue with this camera before or after this event; it only happened that day.
Being the type of person who dedicates myself to understanding things, I tried to sort through why my shots were coming out blurry. There could be some logical explanation that would cause my camera to be finicky…on just that day…from minute to minute…with little to no obvious changes in settings, movement, subject matter, weather, light, etc. Or, the explanation could be in the paranormal. Could it have been a spirit either photo bombing my shot or trying to get in on the picture with me? Perhaps it was Bernard de Marigny, a nobleman born in 1785 to the wealthiest family in New Orleans. He inherited his family’s fortune when his father died at 15, and lost it all spending frivolously and gambling. Maybe he knew I was from Las Vegas and wanted to play a game of Craps, or as he knew it, the game of hazards.
Or maybe it was Henry Vignes, a seaman who foolishly trusted his landlady to hold the papers to his family’s vault while he was at sea. She sold them and he ended up being buried in an unmarked grave at the back of the cemetery in the pauper’s area. Or maybe it was Paul Morphy, a world famous chess champion, or the architect turned pirate and smuggler Barthelemy Lafon.
More likely it was the infamous Voodoo Priestess, Marie Laveau, who died in 1881. She was feared and sought out by many for her dark powers and abilities in the black arts. Even after death, people will leave three x’s on her grave with an offering in hopes she will help make their wish come true.
If ghosts are real, then this is the place you would find them. Maybe I captured more than tombs in my photos – maybe I got a selfie with a ghost.
Update: Starting in 2015, mainly due to vandalism, the Archiocese enacted a rule that visitors to the cemetery must be accompanied by an established tour guide. No longer can visitors enter and explore the cemetery on their own.
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“Go to heaven for the climate; Hell for the company” – Mark Twain