Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Ghost hunting in New Orleans

            The lights dimmed in the historic ballroom of the Bourbon Orleans and only the sound of Chip Coffey’s voice could be heard. The medium known for A&E’s “Psychic Kids: Children of the Paranormal” was in New Orleans to promote his latest book, “Growing Up Psychic,” and after an introductory session wanted to see if the ballroom’s ghosts were real.
            The French Quarter hotel owns a long and varied history, first built as the Théâtre d’Orléans (Orleans Theater) with accompanying ballroom, then as the site for the Quadroon Balls, where light-skinned African American women became mistresses to Creole men through “plaçage” or a strict social arrangement. One of those women, Henriette DeLille, chose the church instead, forming a small congregation known as the Sisters of the Holy Family. The nuns later purchased the Orleans Ballroom.
            Today, the Sisters have moved to a different area of the city and the old buildings have been torn down and replaced for the gracious Bourbon Orleans hotel, complete with restaurant, center pool and patio area and lounge. The historic ballroom remains, however, the only original structure of the early incantation.
            Also remaining are a few ghosts.
            “We’ve done a lot of investigations in here,” explained Etienne Skrabo, an intuitive and tour guide with Gray Line Tours.
            Skrabo identified one of the ghosts as “Giselle,” a woman who received two contracts while visited the balls. The first gentleman died and the other left, Skrabo explained, and Giselle presently hangs out by the ballroom’s chandelier or looking forlorn while gazing out the ballroom windows.
            Another ghost is the Confederate soldier, a hazy apparition who floats through the hallways. On one occasion, a tourist captured the soldier in a photo, standing right behind Skrabo as he performed his tour.
6th Floor Hallway
            But the ghosts that Coffey picked up on the night he visited were the small children playing about, causing havoc with his flashlights. Coffey demonstrated an easy way to perform ghost hunting, by turning an LED flashlight off but by a hair, so that a small movement would cause it to turn back on. Once the two flashlights were off and sitting on the desk before him, Coffey asked the spirits present to turn them back on.
            They came on instantly. And then it happened again. And again.
            Back and forth the flashlights flickered while he asked questions, sometimes in response to his questions, sometimes just for fun.
            “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Coffey said.
            During his appearance in the Bourbon Orleans ballroom, Coffey felt the presence of two children and he believed their actions with the flashlights were mischievous. Skrabo confirmed that children have been seen in the hotel — the non-living kind — including a blond girl who plays on the staircase and enters hotel rooms, causing mischief. When the nuns owned the building they operated an orphanage and many children died in 1888 during a yellow fever epidemic.

Room 644
            I recently returned to the Bourbon Orleans to learn more about the apparitions haunting the hotel and the owners graciously placed me in the most haunted corner, Room 644. I’m not afraid of ghosts. After spending my career writing about ghost stories for south Louisiana newspapers and magazines, and just finishing my “Haunted Lafayette, Louisiana” book for The History Press, I was eager to see one for myself.
Room 644
            Legend has it that a nun committed suicide in Room 644, although the Sisters of the Holy Family have never confirmed such an event. The hotel claims that cries can be heard in this rooftop room over looking the city and actor James Franco, who stayed in the room during a recent film shoot, experienced the water faucet turning on and off on its own accord.
            Sadly, I experienced nothing. However, another travel writer in my party, only a few doors down, was kept up all night by an unseen hand turning the television on and off. She later related to me that she’s a sensitive, someone who picks up the paranormal easily and, like me, aren’t afraid of ghosts. But she did move to a different hotel to get some sleep. That night, I lingered in the hallway and invited whatever ghosts might be traveling the sixth floor into my room. But again, nothing.
            I spent the rest of my weekend in New Orleans sampling spirits of another variety, such as the refreshing cucumber martini in the Vive! Lounge of Hotel le Marais, a sazerac in the Sazerac Bar of the Roosevelt Hotel (does Huey Long haunt his old stomping ground?) and some amazing wine selections at Patrick’s Bar Vin in the Hotel Mazarin.
            What I did experience, however, was a long parade of stories from everyone I met. From the young ghostly girl who “travels” through the French Quarter, being seen at various hotels, to the smoking Confederate soldier who hangs out on the balcony of the Audubon Cottages. Muriel’s Restaurant in Jackson Square has its share, and then there’s the infamous Lalaurie Mansion, which could be its own story.
            Bottom line, if you visit New Orleans looking for ghosts, chances are you’ll find them, whether in person pulling your toes in the middle of the night, or in a great story told over a delicious cocktail.

This story was originally published in October, 2013, in City Social of Baton Rouge. Cheré Coen is the author of “Haunted Lafayette, Louisiana,” now on sale from The History Press.           

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