New Orleans is known as an exotic, mysterious, spooky city, and for good reason. It has more than its share of ghosts, some of them that rare breed of flamboyant look-at-me ghosts that are sure to get attention. You might think the stories of these ghosts are merely fantastical, but I can assure you at least some of them are the real thing.
Why ghosts are so outgoing here is unknown, but they are. They seem to like to show what they can do. Well, this is after all a partying city, so it seems natural that our ghosts would hold onto their party spirit and try to have some fun. Unfortunately, they frequently have their fun at our expense, scaring the red beans and alligator boudin out of us.
A few of these New Orleans ghosts have been written about so much that they are rather famous, but I’d like to introduce you to a ghost that you probably have not yet heard about. She scared me clear out of a claw-legged bathtub way back in the summertime of 1960 when I was 14 years old.
It happened in my Uncle Pat’s house on Laurel Street not many blocks up from Jackson Avenue. The house was a beautiful two-story duplex with a façade reminiscent of New Orleans Greek revival architecture. It was rather elegant, I thought, but nonetheless creepy in its corners and crevices. Something a bit unsavory seemed to be lurking behind the renovated 14-foot high walls.
Still, my sister Sylvia and I, being the small-town girls that we were, found visiting there to be the height of our summer vacation. Uncle Pat and his wife Margaret took us to all kinds of fun places like Pontchartrain Beach, Audubon Zoo, movies at the Saenger Theatre, City Park and the art museum, and, of course, that homemade ice cream place in somebody’s yard uptown. As it turned out, Uncle Pat’s own house was one of the most interesting places we could go: It was haunted.
The house was in a neighborhood of large old homes built mostly in the late 1800s, some in the early 1900s. On Uncle Pat’s block of Laurel Street, few houses had any space around them. Most were very close together with mere walkways between them.
Uncle Pat’s house had a driveway on one side that went all the way to the back yard, a yard which neighbors considered to be large but which I considered to be very cozy. On the side of the house opposite the driveway and behind a half-oval shaped room that jutted out from that side of the home was a brick courtyard, charming and inviting like other New Orleans courtyards. Uncle Pat and Margaret had laid the brick and created this little oasis.
At the very back of his “big” lawn, Uncle Pat had a shed that extended almost all the way across the yard. Its dark and dank interior gave me goose bumps, so I never once ventured into it. I could see it was filled with ancient looking oddly-shaped sharp-edged tools for which I couldn’t imagine a benign purpose.I was told that most of these tools had been in the shed when Uncle Pat and Margaret and her family moved into the house, and they didn’t know the intended use of the tools either. They looked like antiques from a much darker era, and I felt they were somehow connected to the Mississippi River docks that were only a few blocks away. My mind dove into the nether regions when I tried to imagine what the tools had been used for in the old days.
The yard around the shed was bright and cheery, thanks to Uncle Pat and Margaret and their love for working, gardening, and staying busy. Giant hibiscus and other bright flowers bloomed there throughout the summer.
Margaret’s side of the house was as bright as her flower garden. Tall windows, almost floor to ceiling, let the sunlight pour in, and the magnificent old wood floors glistened. Margaret herself was a bright spirit, a rather overly endowed woman on toothpick legs who sang opera as she cooked delicious New Orleans meals. She seemed a good match for Uncle Pat, whose eyes always sparkled and who loved to tell jokes.
Margaret’s entire family were good natured. Their eyes twinkled, and they always smiled as if they had startlingly good news to tell. At the same time, they seemed to be keeping silent about something ominous, protecting me and Sylvia from things unseen. Margaret’s parents, her sister Lillian, and her brother Henry lived in the other side of the house, but her younger brother and his family lived in a different part of the city. He, too, was good natured but more ordinary than the rest of the family. That’s right: Margaret and her family were a little strange.
Margaret belonged to a group of spiritualists and frequented their meetings and séances, and the rest of her family apparently were believers. Uncle Pat had never believed in that kind of stuff. He was a practical down-to-earth retired army captain who didn’t take to supernatural nonsense - not until Margaret had dragged him to one of the spiritualist meetings. Afterward, he didn’t mind telling people what he had seen with his own eyes and had heard with his own ears: messages from beyond coming through the mediums and a shape-changing medium who took on the appearance of different spirits.
I remember how intense Uncle Pat became when he told about the shape changer. I myself, even at the age of 14, found that hard to believe, but I could see that Uncle Pat had become a true believer. That séance had to be convincing to make him desert his skepticism so quickly. It was scary to hear him tell about it.
The stories weren’t the only scary things at the house on Laurel Street. The other side of the duplex was dark and foreboding. Neither Margaret’s mother nor her sister had her talent for interior decorating or her housekeeping stamina. Their side of the house was dusty and disorderly and heavy with the smells of strange concoctions cooked and eaten in the not too recent past.
The siblings, Lillian and Henry, though adults who were employed full-time at ordinary city jobs, reminded me of genies from a faraway land, and I half expected them to be swallowed up by some small exotic vase at any moment. The parents, on the other hand, old and bent and slow and shrunken, appeared to be more like gnomes and full of secrets that even their children didn’t know.Though I liked all of them for their cheery friendliness, I couldn’t shake my wariness when I was around this odd family.
But what I was most wary of were the parts of the house that I had never seen and didn’t have the courage to want to see. The stairs on Uncle Pat’s side led up to only two bedrooms and a large walk-through closet. That left the remainder of the sizeable second floor opening only to the other side of the duplex, and I never saw any of those rooms.
Sylvia and I slept in Uncle Pat and Margaret’s two upstairs bedrooms. Their bedroom was the half-oval shaped room downstairs and was nowhere near the stairs. That left me feeling a little too far separated from my best protection at night. Sylvia, always a brave and bold spirit, laughed at my fear. She did, however, by right of age take the least scary room for herself. I had to sleep in the bedroom with the huge closet full of dreary looking boxes and draped objects of unknown identity. This deep closet also opened into the other side of the house. Knocks, bumps, and a variety of weird and frightening sounds came from the closet at night, so I always wound up in Sylvia’s room long before daylight.
Margaret, Lillian, and Henry laughed at my fear and started a running joke about the ghost of their Uncle Willie, who supposedly had lived in the house at one time. I think Henry even went into the closet one night and added to the sounds that I already had heard. I told everyone that I knew Henry had gone into the closet to scare me. They all laughed, Sylvia too, and said the knocking wasn’t Henry but Uncle Willie.
One night Sylvia stopped laughing when the knocks and bumps followed me into her room. We both were scared out of our wits and shouted at the noises, “Go away! Go Away!”
When I told everyone about it the next day, they were silent and looked at each other with dread. Sylvia, obviously feeling their tenseness, denied that the bumps had gone into her room. I was surprised to see that the others still seemed to believe me.
The following night Sylvia, Uncle Pat, Margaret, and I watched the Democratic Convention on television. Then we sat on the porch, and I listened to the adults talk about Kennedy and Johnson and their ideas of why Johnson should have got the nomination for President. When we came back inside, we played Monopoly for awhile. Then everyone was ready for sleep except me. I had not yet taken a bath, and Margaret would not let me go to bed without one.
Things had quietened down, and I remembered the bumps of the night before and didn’t want to go all the way back to the bathroom at night when no one else was in the back part of the house. (The house had been built long before the luxury of indoor plumbing in that section of the city, so the bathroom had been added onto the back of the house years later.)
“There’s nothing back there that can harm you,” Margaret assured me. “Get your pajamas and go take your bath now.”
I followed Sylvia upstairs, got my pajamas, and came back downstairs where everything already was dark. My knees shook, so I started singing to give myself courage. I recently had heard someone sing “Bill Bailey” on television, so that’s what I sang as I made my way through the kitchen and into the bath.
I kept singing as loud as I could as I turned on the water, undressed, and climbed into the big old claw-legged tub. I was trying to scare away anything and everything from the beyond and keep all living souls awake in case I needed a quick rescue.
I shook with fear as I tried to bathe, and I kept looking around to check out all corners of the room. Then what I feared most happened: bumps and knocks and other weird sounds. They weren’t loud, but they were in the very next room, the kitchen. It sounded like someone was putting groceries onto the shelves of the pantry, as if they had just come in from shopping.
Then there was what sounded like the rustling of a long stiff skirt and petticoats against the floor. And there was the strong feeling of a presence in the kitchen, a presence who was not any silly made-up ghost and certainly not Henry or any other living soul. I sang “Bill Bailey” even more loudly and stared at the closed door. Then I heard the rustling of the skirt approach the door, and my voice shook.
The rustling reached the door then stopped, and my voice cracked into silence. My eyes were glued to the door, and my whole body shook with fear as I sat in the bathtub. A strange haze started coming through the door, a haze from the floor up to about five and a half feet. It entered the bathroom and stayed next to the door, and, even as afraid as I was, I couldn’t look away from it. Within several seconds it began to take form before my eyes, and I could see it was the spirit of a young woman who was dressed in the apparel of the late 1800s. I let out a loud gasp, and the apparition disappeared immediately.
I hurled myself out of that tub like a catapult, hit myself with a towel a few times, and yanked my pajamas onto my dripping wet body. My voice came back, and I was belting out “Bill Bailey” again as I bolted through the dark kitchen and into the next room then up the stairs. I bounded into Sylvia’s room and slid to a stop.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, and I had the gall to say, “Nothing.”
I was angry over the ridicule I had received about my fear when all along there was at least one very real ghost in the house, and I suspected Uncle Pat and Margaret knew about the real ghost. I decided to keep my mouth shut about the entire experience.
Little good did my silence do. For the rest of their lives, Uncle Pat and Margaret kidded me about singing “Bill Bailey” and bounding up the stairs in only three steps to get away from the ghost of “Uncle Willie.”
There was a ghost all right, but not any Uncle Willie. She was a lovely young woman who looked as perplexed and frightened at seeing me as I was at seeing her. I think she must have died unexpectedly at a young age and still was confused and reluctant to leave her home. Hopefully, she has made her adjustments to the next life by now.
Recently Sylvia and I rode by the house when we were in New Orleans for the day. It and most of the houses on the block had survived Hurricane Katrina, and that section of Laurel Street had been beautifully renovated. It looked better than it ever had, and the house where Uncle Pat and Margaret had lived was still the most impressive. It had been painted a bright cheery color, and comfy looking lawn furniture sat on the front porch. The pretty wrought iron fence was still there, and the yard still flourished with shrubs. The crepe myrtle that Uncle Pat had planted, now at least 55 years old, still stood in front of the house.
That day I wondered if the young woman in rustling petticoats still came home from shopping to put her groceries in the kitchen pantry. I felt certain that she was an innocent spirit but not the only spirit in the house. I wondered about the unidentified tools that had been in Uncle Pat's shed and about the unsavory spirits I sensed near the walls and heard in the closet. Are they still there? Do they pose a threat to anyone? Is the house still haunted as it was in the summer of 1960?