Saturday, March 18, 2017

New Orleans and the Spirits of the Dead

Belief in the paranormal is a purely subjective experience. There are many people who spend their entire lives proclaiming that ghosts do not exist and anything that has to do with the paranormal is just a bunch of gibberish. And it may very well be true that they never do see a ghost, hear a disembodied voice, feel the cold chills of a nearby presence or watch an object move without any scientific explanation. And that is fine.

However, folks like myself have a very different perspective. We have experienced all of those paranormal activities and more. Our dealings with the spirit world encapsulate things that may not be seen nor fully understood. Having an openness to ghosts and all of their activity seems to be key to the real experience. Here is where the Big Easy sets the standard. In New Orleans life is more laid back, people take time to live in the present moment, and... they keep tabs on what's going on with their dead.

In this article we'll explore a couple different avenues that this Creole French city gives reverence to their deceased and how it has had a direct impact on the paranormal activity there.

Who Will the Men Marry?

The earliest records we have of the Big Easy date back to the early 1700's. At that time New Orleans was becoming a French settlement, having folks who arrived from both Europe and Africa. As the town began to take shape, many of the men were looking for women who they could either marry or simply have flings with whenever they wanted. In response, the king of France sent over what were to be known as "casket girls."

These ladies came across the Atlantic by ship, having only a few belongings with them - enough that might just fit inside a small casket. "[Y]oung society women were imported from France with the promise of marrying a proper New Orleans gentleman.... But they didn't know that the men who awaited them were far from proper, and not at all gentle."¹ Once in the colony, the women had to fight to restore their honor. I would imagine that for some, this became impossible. Perhaps a few of them even met with domestic abuse, or worse yet, untimely deaths. At one point rumors of the "casket girls" being vampires spread throughout the colony:

"...these girls endured a long and arduous journey across the Atlantic. At best, they were pale and gaunt from traveling below-deck much of the time. At worst, they were deathly ill. A nasty case of tuberculosis could cause a girl to cough up blood – hence the vampire link?"²

Although there does not seem to be any mentions of how the dead were treated during this time period, this activity by the new colonists had begun to set the stage for the environment that New Orleans is today. I mention these ladies as well because of the obvious rhetoric choice of the word "casket."

The hauntings that permeate the streets of New Orleans are believed to be tied to the restless spirits of thousands of the deceased. They continue to roam the city for reasons that may not yet be understood. Perhaps one of the biggest explanations for paranormal activity lies in the fact that most people have a very open mind and deep reverence for those who have passed on. The culture of the Big Easy is very conducive to the fact that its residents still treat the dead as important parts of their lives.

Since the environment is laid back, living in the moment and giving attention to the spirits keeps them hanging around. Think about your daily life. Do the people you know and associate with take the time to recognize the possibility that perhaps their deceased relatives are still hanging out with them? Here in the United States our lifestyles tend to be very busy, as we move from one task to the next, many times multitasking. If the spirits are not being given any attention, why would they want to hang around? Would you?

The Haunted Mortuary

Today the Haunted Mortuary is best known for being a haunted house attraction that brings in thousands of scared patrons each year. Originally this Victorian mansion on was built in 1872 by Mary Slattery. Generations later the property was eventually purchased by the McMahon Undertaking Company who transformed it into one of the most beautiful properties on Canal Street. Their business of taking care of the deceased grew rapidly and become very successful. It is reported that over 20,000 bodies were processed through here. 

"PJ McMahon and Sons was a full-service funeral home. There was an autopsy room and an embalming room. There was a crematorium onsite, cold storage for the dead, casket storage, casket sales and a flower sales facility. The property was designed to anticipate and take care of every aspect of the funeral business."³

In the video below you will learn about the Haunted Mortuary, its history, and some of the intense paranormal activity that has been occurring on the property over the past 100 years:

In the video you heard about some of the activity that makes this site so amazing. 

  • "A phantom woman in white was often seen on the top floor crying for her husband who had long since passed on."³ Her apparition has been seen in the home since the 1930's.
  • Statues have been seen moving by several different people and there usually has been more than one witness.
  • An old man in blue pajamas was seen by paranormal investigators.
  • "Legends told of a tall well-dressed man who appears when he believes people are disrespecting the cemeteries that lie beyond the walls of the home, admonishing the offenders to silence."³
  • "A former mortician was often seen by employees, continuing his bloody work in the bowels of the basement. Footsteps and whispering voices supposedly carried throughout the building when no one was there. Tales traveled far and wide of poltergeist activity, of pieces of furniture moving on their own, while shocked eyewitnesses stared in disbelief."³
  • Children are very common in the mortuary. You learned about Daniel and Agnes Elizabeth who love to play tricks and make appearances to visitors and workers. The EVPs of "Talk to me" and "Stop, Daniel" are perhaps the clearest I have ever heard. You can even hear the personalities of these child ghosts in their voices. On Haunted Mortuary's MySpace page they have the infamous image of one of these children. Here's the link:

Another paranormal aspect of the mortuary is mentioned by the medium that paid a visit. He or she stated that there are many spirits that come and go through the house because they are transient ghosts. That means that they pass through the property, but do not necessarily continue to linger, as they are heading to another destination. This happens because there are cemeteries surrounding the property - with as many as one million souls buried in them. This leads us to a wonderful, yet sometimes controversial practice by the locals in New Orleans with their treatment of the dead.

The Jazz Funeral

The jazz funeral is essentially a two-part celebration of a deceased family member. They begin with a march from the church, home or funeral home and travel through town to the cemetery. Music is played along the way. Jazz is one of the common genres used; however, families may choose whatever style they prefer. Generally the songs are hymns and somber dirges meant to focus on the grieving aspect of death. Those who follow the band just for the sound of the music are called the second line.

Once the deceased member has made it to the cemetery and the body has been entombed or the hearse leaves the premises, then the music changes into songs of celebration. Oftentimes spiritual music is played in swinging fashion while everyone dances to classics like "When the Saints Go Marching In."

This custom of the dead dates back almost four centuries to the African kingdom of Dahomey and the spiritual practices of the Yoruba people of Nigeria and other parts of West Africa. The ceremony in this continent is extremely elaborate:

"When the breath has departed from the body there is the usual outburst of exaggerated grief, with loud cries, lamentations, and frenzied gestures, and the eldest son of the deceased, or the brother, if there be no son, at once sends for a babalawo, to ascertain if the deceased died from natural causes, or through the machinations of witches." 

Once the babalawo arrives, he consults an oracle to determine the cause of death and to see if witchcraft is tied to the deceased or any members of his/her family. After this there are a myriad of ceremonies performed and a death feast is prepared. If you would like to read about this ceremony in more detail, please visit this link.

Final Thoughts

When cultures like the Yoruba people perform their elaborate customs and locals in New Orleans perform ceremonies like the jazz funeral, it can give a sense of permanence for spirits. Not only will the deceased watch all of the celebrations in their honor, but they also know that long after death, they will still be remembered and honored. This attention will keep spirits around and would certainly explain why it is that the Big Easy is such a haunted place.

The history of New Orleans goes back centuries and it this deep past that will also contribute to the amount of paranormal activity. History shapes the ghost activity of the present moment and so, the more history a site has to draw upon, the greater the activity. The Haunted Mortuary is a great example of this -as there are hundreds of different paranormal occurrences on its grounds. There are many, many other locations that will attest to this fact as well.

Perhaps you have visited one of these haunted locations. What were your experiences there and what do you think about them? 

I encourage you to share your story of haunted New Orleans in the comment box below or anywhere on social media that you find this article! 

Works Cited:






  1. Tim, what a conscientiously researched and fascinating article on paranormal "Nawlins." One of out fave cities personally, but now we have to go back to check out some of the many intriguing aspects you've so wonderfully covered! Be well, and hunt on! K-n-M

    1. Hello Kym-n-Mark!
      Thank you for the kind words! Sometimes creating articles with different "insights" can be challenging, but this one sort of created itself. "Nawlins" is an amazing place and it's definitely on my bucket list.
      Hope you work is going well and that both of you are doing fine. It's great to hear from you!