Friday, 25 October 2013

Deep South Pt 6: New Orleans: Voodoo to Vampires, Jambalaya to Jazz, Or "The City That Care Forgot"

“Thursday 22nd August – New Orleans is a hybrid of cultures, religions and traditions. I arrived at my hotel, just minutes from Jackson Square. Apparently this spot is the second most photographed spot in the country (the first is the castle at Disney). I have no idea how they work these things out but it’s beautiful nonetheless. Opposite the park stands St Louis Cathedral, the largest Catholic cathedral in the United States. I set out to explore the French Quarter in the early evening, and it wasn’t long until I found myself on Bourbon Street, the liveliest and craziest stretch of the city. So many sights, sounds and smells I had no idea where to look first. There were street dancers, drunken men dressed as devils, strippers trying to entice you into their clubs, Jazz musicians drawing large crowds, playing their sax and trumpet...alongside all of this were tacky shops selling t shirts, Mardi Gras beads and plastic Hurricane cocktail containers, a famous drink that was created in New Orleans. I found a restaurant in the mix of all the action and tried seafood gumbo, red rice and beans and crawfish etoufee on a platter, then a chocolate-style bread and butter pudding dessert (a Southern delicacy). Wherever you are on Bourbon Street, you can hear the sound of Jazz, and it’s such beautiful and uplifting music particularly when you are in a place with so much life.

New Orleans is also a fantastic place to learn about Voodoo, a religion that has become misrepresented – even twisted into something completely different by society. Voodoo has its origins in Africa. Our idea of Voodoo, as in sticking needles in dolls and causing pain, is quite different to reality. Voodoo dolls do exist, but the pins are used to concentrate positive energy to a particular point of the body. It can be used to send negative energy, but the religion is really based around peace, love and sex. Voodoo has been described as a ‘three-tiered system’ of God, spirits and ancestors. A single God is part of the religion, but spirits are consulted and worshipped on a more regular basis. Ancestors become spirits and protect each individual throughout their life. To summon or communicate with a spirit, a gris-gris can be used. Gris-gris are objects used in Voodoo as a source of magic. An African word, there are several different types of gris-gris but they are usually split into four – love and romance (used to attract or keep a lover, or even to break up other relationships), power (to gain a foothold over someone or in the world generally), luck and financial gain, and healing or uncrossing (resolving an act or spell that someone has done against you). In the c19th, Voodoo horrified much of the elite, but wealthy businessmen did consult a famous Voodoo priestess, Marie Laveau. Laveau was the daughter of an African American woman and a white plantation owner, and she was so well respected that the Catholic church allowed her to practice feet away from St Louis Cathedral. Unfortunately, the Voodoo Cultural Center regularly has visitors asking how to direct pain to an enemy and some of the tacky shops on Bourbon Street tend to perpetuate that myth rather than prevent it. I suppose that’s unsurprising.

“Sunday 25th August – First thing this morning I had a tour around St Louis Cemetery, the oldest and most famous burial ground in New Orleans. If you open any tourist guidebook, or speak to any local, a cemetery tour is one of the best things to do in the city. It might sound odd, but these burial places are famous throughout the world because of the elaborate tombs and crypts. St Louis was founded in 1789 and holds the graves of, among others, Marie Laveau and Homer Plessy, an African American activist who challenged segregation laws in the Plessy vs Fergusson case in 1896. Most people think the tombs were built because the city is below sea level, but our eccentric tour guide informed us it was purely to emulate tombs in Europe. We learned about the 1853 Yellow Fever epidemic, the worst epidemic to hit an American city, where over 11,000 people died. In fact, the death rate was so high that people could not build coffins fast enough, so people were buried in mass graves, or simply just left. Yellow fever was a nasty disease, and was very often fatal: victims would suffer for a few days and then appear to get better, only to vomit black bile and expire pretty much on the spot. After this particular epidemic, New Orleans earned the nickname, “the city that care forgot.” It was a very humid day, so it was actually quite difficult to take in everything that was said (even for a history nerd like me). It is the middle of August so it’s not surprising, but walking around there made me feel like I was being shut in my own tomb of overwhelming heat. I walked back to the French Quarter and stopped for a quick hot chocolate for me in Café du Monde, the most famous eatery in the city. It was founded in the 1860s, and it’s open 24 hours a day for coffee and beignets, a French doughnut-type thing that is sprinkled with a lot of icing sugar. While my parents took a rest from the humidity, I ventured to the Pharmacy museum, the only one of its kind in the country. It preserves some of the medicines used to treat c19th illnesses, childbirth, herbal remedies (often involving heroine and cocaine) and some Voodoo potions (mainly for luck and fortune), which proved popular even among elite members of the community. This made the museum unique and incredible interesting. There were also some surgical kits from the Civil War, some horrible looking tools for amputation and a short history of the origins of anesthetics. During the war, a skilled surgeon could amputate a limb in 15 seconds, but you would still hope that poor soldier fell unconscious during that time. In the pharmacies and apothecaries of New Orleans, if an epidemic broke out different vases, called Show Globes, were placed in the window with coloured liquid to illustrate what type of disease it was – so there were different colours for cholera and Yellow Fever. The really interesting thing though, is that this was the standard way New Orleanians learned of an epidemic, as it wasn’t published in the newspapers. New Orleans was a port city, and depended on trade for survival, and panic in the newspapers about an epidemic would potentially frighten away investors. The Show Globes (below) were a quiet way of communication. Fascinating stuff.

We had an amazing meal on a balcony overlooking the street performers on Bourbon Street - I had chicken and sausage jambalaya, a pasta dish that tasted incredible. Listening to live Jazz and watching the sun go down was perfect. In the early evening, Dad and I decided to brave a ghost tour, another ‘must-do’ in the city. It began in a seedy pub in the French Quarter, and initially we weren’t sure what we had got ourselves into, but our enthusiastic and wonderfully sarcastic guide brought the city to life (well, back from the dead). His introduction to the city included the fact that more people go missing in New Orleans than any other city in the States, and stories of vampires and ghosts are rife, and frankly, too many to count. It was really interesting to consider the origins of vampires, and how we see them today (not as sparkly handsome beings). The guide explained that the idea of a vampire has been around for centuries, and often emerges from mysterious cases of someone apparently dead from an illness suddenly waking up. Victims suffering from a severe form of tuberculosis would stay away from the light, experience mood changes and often wake up with covered in blood from coughing all night…you can see how the rumours of the modern day vampire can start. This led to story number 1:

In the 1930s, a little girl burst into the police station in the French quarter, covered head to toe in blood. She had come from a house not far away, and she told a horrible tale of torture: two men had kept her and four other victims strapped to beds, drinking their blood at the wrist. The police recognised the house as the Carter residence - two brothers had lived there for some years and were well respected in the community. They went to the house and found four victims still alive, and twenty bodies stacked together in a room, all completely drained of blood. The coroner estimated they had been there for roughly three weeks. The next morning, the police waited for the brothers to arrive home, and promptly seized them to take them away for questioning. After a long hard day working at the docks, you would think the brothers would be easy to arrest, but it took 8 policemen beating them with clubs to finally subdue them. Strong individuals you might say. The brothers were tried and executed, and their bodies were placed in tombs in St Louis Cemetery. A year later, to make room for other bodies, their tomb was opened but of course, there were no remains. No body or ashes to speak of. Since the 1930s, there have been several break ins recorded at the Carter House, and sketches were taken from witnesses to try and catch the intruders. In most cases, the sketches looked exactly like the Carter brothers…

A street away from the Carter house, stands the Lalaurie Mansion. This was probably the most gruesome story I have ever heard, and it’s not for the faint hearted:

Madame Lalaurie was born in 1775. She was married three times, after the first two died in mysterious circumstances (read: she killed them). In 1834, Madame Lalaurie and her husband hosted a large party at their house. Within a few hours, a fire broke out at the mansion and as the guests evacuated the house, the wealthy socialite and her husband were nowhere to be found. Police entered her house to try and find the source of the blaze, but instead, they stumbled upon a hellish scene. They found a 70-year-old slave in the kitchen, who confessed to starting the fire, and urged the police to go upstairs since “anyone who had been taken there, never came back.” Behind a thick, oak door was a torture chamber: bodies of mutilated slaves were stacked against the walls, and as the police entered the room, they found slaves still alive who had suffered horrific injuries. Hands and feet had been amputated and sewn onto other body parts, men were suspended by the neck by iron pikes; lips were branded or sewn shut, and one poor woman had all her bones broken so she could be placed inside a small travelling suitcase. The tortured slaves were rescued from the house (only to be put on display in the local jail for a while) and were then taken to the hospital. Madame Lalaurie was never found. Some say she died in Paris, but evidence remains elusive.

The last story our guide told once again concerned vampires. Two or three years ago the guide and a friend cycled past the old convent house in the French Quarter. They noticed a shutter on the window hanging loose, as though someone had escaped from the inside. It remained in that state for several days, something the guide thought was odd since the New Orleans Historical Society usually worked fast to restore old buildings. The guide decided to look into the history of the convent further, and discovered that the particular room with the broken shutter was used to lock up certain individuals – vampires. The bolts and nails of the shutter were made from silver and blessed by the Pope himself. It took the convent nine days to repair that broken shutter. Apparently, the same length of time it takes for the Pope to bless silver nails, and send a missionary over to the convent to put the nails in place…

A cracking good story.

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