NEW ORLEANS -- It's a generally accepted fact that New Orleans is unlike any other American city. Where else will you find people willingly boarding buses marked "Cemeteries"? Where else will voodoo priests and priestesses be lauded as rock stars, their graves decorated with floral tributes? What other city deifies its sinners and names its football team the Saints?
And where will you find stately homes -- from the French Quarter to the Garden District to the River Road -- offering quite the same testament to a rich, colorful and often haunted history?
If these houses could talk, theirs would be a conversation peppered with tales of lost pirate treasure, doomed love affairs, political intrigue and grisly murders. The elegant facades belie the secrets within their walls and the skeletons noisily clanking in their closets.
The Haunted House
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At the corner of Governor Nicholls and Royal Streets in the French Quarter is the building known simply as "the Haunted House." In the 1830s it was owned by Delphine LaLaurie, a Creole socialite heralded throughout New Orleans for her glamorous soirees.
She was less well-known -- until a fire exposed her horrific secret -- for the torture chamber she maintained in the attic to punish her slaves.
Upon discovery of Madame LaLaurie's perfidy, outraged neighbors razed the mansion, and she and her family fled to France. Later rebuilt, the house is featured on French Quarter ghost tours, with some claiming they can sense the tormented souls of those who perished here.
While not as lurid as the LaLaurie residence, the Beauregard-Keyes House has its own tale to tell. Once the residence (a century apart) of Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard and novelist Francis Parkinson Keyes, the antebellum mansion on Chartres Street was also home at one time to the virtuous and the vile.
The virtuous were Ursuline nuns from the convent across the street, who occupied an earlier dwelling on the site, and the vile were members of the city's Mafioso -- three of whom were shot to death on the premises in 1909.
The ghost that roams here, however, had no ties to religion or organized crime. It's the shade of General Beauregard himself, who has allegedly been seen on balmy nights strolling in the formal French garden, his wife Caroline by his side.
Things are equally lively at the Hermann-Grima House on St. Louis Street, which bears testimony to the unfriendly acts committed by occupying Yankee soldiers during the Civil War. Among their indignities were raiding the owners' wine cellar and using the grand staircase for target practice (bullet holes can still be seen under the stairwell).
Any lack of congeniality on the part of the Yankees has been more than made up for by the ghosts who today inhabit the four-story house museum -- "a positively friendly bunch," as described by museum staff.
Two of those friendly ghosts are former owners responsible for the occasional lovely aromas inexplicably wafting through the rooms --lavender, favored by Mrs. Hermann, and roses, loved by Mrs. Grima.
Just upriver from New Orleans on the River Road, 225-year-old Destrehan Plantation positively swarms with spirits who roam the grounds and hide in the attic.
According to a tour guide, there are lovesick ghosts, one-armed ghosts, pint-size ghosts, weeping ghosts, and ghosts of slaves and pirates.
Destrehan's most famous ghost is that of notorious privateer Jean Lafitte. Legend has it that Lafitte buried some of his pirate treasure on the plantation grounds. On stormy, moonless nights, his ghost, draped in a black cape, is said to wander among the oaks, looking for the lost loot.
Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop
Lafitte's ghost must be a restless one, as both staff and patrons at his namesake Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop on Bourbon Street have reported seeing it manifested in a pair of glowing red eyes staring from the fireplace grate.
The Blacksmith Shop, now one of the Quarter's most atmospheric bars with its sagging floors, wooden beams and walls, and candles, was built in 1722 as a base for the pirate and his crew, who operated out of Barataria Bay off the Louisiana coast.
The ghosts of Lafitte and company have to share table space with those of writers such as Tennessee Williams and Noel Coward, who frequently drank here in the 1940s when it was a popular night spot favored by artists and bohemians.
It's almost impossible to find a hotel in New Orleans that isn't haunted, and guests will happily pay extra for rooms that are. From the Hotel Provincial and Prince Conti in the French Quarter to Le Pavillon in the Central Business District to the Columns Hotel in the Garden District, these properties sport enough spectres to start their own Mardi Gras krewes.
Le Pavillon Hotel
If you pass Le Pavillon Hotel just down Poydras Street from the Superdome, you'll see an imposing structure with 20-foot tall Italian statues, crystal chandeliers visible from the windows, and the largest gas lantern in the United States.
If you check in, however, you'll "see" a lot more, according to paranormal researchers.
Among the hotel's lively assortment of ghosts are a 19th century teenage girl, an aristocratic couple from the Roaring 20s and a gentleman who loved to prank the housekeeping staff.
No New Orleans hotel can hold a candle -- flickering or otherwise -- to the Monteleone on Royal Street in the French Quarter for the sheer number of live-in ghosts.
Among the dozen or so resident poltergeists are Red, a longtime hotel employee, and a former guest, a young boy who delights in playing hide-and-seek up and down the halls.
One recent guest reported seeing a man wearing only a feathered mask who disappeared before his very eyes in the hotel corridor.
However, it should be noted that this sighting occurred during Mardi Gras, so another call to paranormal investigators might not be necessary.
Muriel's Jackson Square
Some of New Orleans' legendary restaurants are just as haunted as its hotels, none more so than Muriel's Jackson Square, which anchors one quadrant of its namesake square.
The restaurant was once the home of an 18th century Creole aristocrat, who soon after purchasing the house proceeded to lose it in a game of chance.
The new owner got a gruesome housewarming gift -- the body of the former owner hanging from the rafters above the stairwell.
He continues to reside there, being described by some who have seen the apparition as a "long cylindrical luminescence with sparkles on the outside."
A less-threatening presence can be felt at Arnaud's Restaurant on Bienville Street.
The legendary Creole restaurant opened in 1918 by Arnaud Cazenave, known as "Count" Arnaud, is a favorite of visitors for its tiled floors, ceiling fans, fluffy pommes frites and sophisticated service.
The latter was a legacy from the Count, a real stickler for French-style service, and his ghost can still be found re-arranging silverware and napkins if they are placed incorrectly and changing set-ups at the bar if they are not to his liking.
New Orleans is a city where much that happens is inexplicable.
If on your next visit you find yourself walking through Jackson Square with the early morning fog rolling off the river, that presence walking behind you might not be quite alive.