The cemeteries of New Orleans emulate the city in the richness and depravity of a strange but captivating place. They go from beauty to ruin and back again. As the city does, they hide secrets of which will never be exposed.
The people of New Orleans have buried their dead in little, aboveground mausoleums built along streets like in a small city. These "cities" give a sense of discovery to those who wander through them. Ghosts and thieves alike prowl here.
To comprehend the unusual cemetery customs, one must look at the start of the city itself. New Orleans original location was what is now the French Quarter, and it's water table was close to the top of the soil. The land sloped back from the river, falling soon to below sea level. With the water level so high the problem the people had was where to bury their dearly departed
Originally they picked the high banks of the Mississippi River. The water left soil along there making levees. Only problem was that when it flooded, the dead would float out of their graves and through the town.
They finally made a cemetery outside the town, they did this due to the health problems that they thought were associated with cemeteries
From 1787 to 1788 they were hit with plague and disease. Malaria, smallpox, and influenza caused hundreds of deaths. In 1789 a fire burned down a lot of the homes and buildings. Within a few months a hurricane was responsible for many more deaths.
Because of all of the deaths a new cemetery, the first of the now characteristic St. Louis cemeteries, was erected in 1789. It was enclosed by a brick wall, the main entrance being off Rampart Street. There were many unmarked graves of the poor and, as the spaces became less available, they were buried in layers of new dirt that was added because of sinkage. It is said that there are layers of bones several feet thick under the cemetery.
Aboveground tombs were the rule for all but the indigent. The reasons were obvious: In the wet ground of Louisiana, coffins would often float to the suface, despite gravediggers' placing heavy stones or bricks on the lids. Such conditions did not appeal to those with the wealth to be buried in style.
Most of the early tombs were simple but functional enclosures, and most of the doors were bricked over once the burial had taken place. Years later architects would design more elaborate tombs for the city's elite, but few of those can be seen in the older graveyards.
Perhaps one of the most famous residents of St. Louis Cemetery I is Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. Her tomb, the most frequently visited, looks like most others in the cluttered cemetery, until you notice the markings and crosses that have been drawn on the stone. Apart from these marks you will also see coins, pieces of herb, beans, bones, bags, flowers, tokens, and all manner of things left behind in an offering for the blessings of the queen. Legend has it that Marie's ghost sometimes walks here, and one man claims to have been slapped by her spirit one day, after making a disparaging remark at her tomb.
Another legend of the cemetery is the New Orleans version of the "Nail in the Tomb." This tale has crossed the country in many variations, but local folklorists swear that it had its start at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. The story goes that three young men spent a night drinking and carousing in the French Quarter. Their talk soon turned to death, voodoo, and Marie Laveau. Before long one of the men was enticed into a wager. His friends bet him $30 that he would not climb the cemetery wall and drive a spike into the wall of Marie's resting place. He accepted the wager and a short time later entered the demetery.
His friends waited for him to return, but minutes turned into hours. Dawn came and, with it, the opening of the cemetery gates. The worried young men huried to the tomb and there they found their friend...lying dead on the ground! In his drunken state he had hammered the spike through his coat while hammering it into the stone wall of the crypt. As he started to leave, what he believed to be an unseen force (actually the misguided nail) held him in place. Panic and fear overwhelmed him, and he literally died of fright.
By 1820 New Orleans was outgrowing its boundaries, reaching Rampart Street, and the old cemetery became overcrowded. The city chose another site, not too far away for the funeral processions, but far enough to avoid contagion, and called it St. Louis Cemetery No. 2.
The new cemetery was laid out in a perfect square with large houselike mausoleums on orderly streets. Over time the tombs here became much larger and grander than in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.
As the city grew, more cemeteries were added, but only one other boasts a ghost story. It is called Metairie Cemetery and has always been known as the most fashionable in the city. This opulent, parklike resting place was organized by a group of local businessmen and promoters in 1873. It was the epitome of the classic Victorian graveyard, far removed from the jumbled chaos of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.
Josie Arlington & Her Glowing Grave
One of the city's most facinating tales comes from Metairie Cemetery and involves the ghost of Mrs. Josie Deubler. also known as Josie Arlington, the most coloful and infamous madam of New Orleans.
From 1897 to 1917 New Orleans was the site of America's largest district of prostitution. The city officials realized they could not get rid of of prostitution, so they decided to segregate and control it instead. Based on a plan created by an alderman named Sidney Story, a district was created in which only licensed prostitutes could ply their trade. Much to the alderman's chagrin, it was dubbed Storyville in his honor.
It was here that Josie Arlington operated her house of ill repute and became very rich. The house, known as the finest bordello in the district, was stocked with beautiful women, fine liquor, wonderful food, and exotic drugs.
The women were all dressed in expensive French lingerie and entertained the the cream of New Orleans Society. Josie had the friendship of some of the most influential men in the city, but was denied the one thing she really wanted: Social acceptance. The men who were her willing companions at night shunned her in the daytime, especially if their families were nerby.
But what Josie could not have in life, she would have in death. She got her revenge on the society snobs bu electing to be buried in the most fashionable cemetery in the New Orleans—Metairie.
The notorious madam purchased a plot on a small hill and had erected a red marble tomb, topped by two blazing pillars. On the steps was a bronze statue showing Josie ascending the staircase with a bouquet of roses in the crook of her arm. The tomb, an amazing piece of funerary art designed by an eminent architect named Albert Weiblen, cost a small fortune. But Josie considered it well worth the money for the scandal it created.
No sooner had work been finished, in 1911, than a strange story began making the rounds of the city. Some curiosity-seekers had gone out to see the grave one evening and were greeted with a sight that sent them running. The tomb seemed to burst into flames before their very eyes! The smooth red marble shimmered with fire, and the tendrils of flame appeared to snake over the surface like shiny phantoms. Word quickly spread, and people came in droves to witness the bizzare sight. The cemetery was overrun with people every evening, which shocked the cemetery caretakers and the families of those buried on the grounds. Scandal followed Josie even to the place she had chosen for her final resting
Josie passed away in 1914 and was intered in the "flaming tomb," as it was often called. Soon an alarming number of siteseers began to report another weird event. Many swore they had actually seen the statue on the front steps move. Even two of the cemetery gravediggers, a Mr. Todkins and a Mr. Anthony, swore they had witnessed the statue leaving her post and moving around the tombs. They claimed to follow her one night, only to see her disappear.
The tradition of the flaming tomb has been kept alive for many years, although most claim the phemomenon was created by a nearby streetlight that would sway in the wind. Regardless, no one has ever been able to provide an explanation for the eyewitness accounts of the "living" statue. Perhaps Josie was never accepted in life, but she is still on the minds of many in New Orleans long after her death.