Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Visiting the dead in South Louisiana: Obligation, atonement or fun?

Diane Roberts, a professor of literature at Florida State, believes the South is obsessed with the supernatural because of our conflicted past.
"Ghosts can be a metaphor and the South has a history of grinding poverty, slavery, war and genocide of native people," she said in a recent Associated Press article. "We are collectively very guilty and haunted by our past in this region."
I’m a native of New Orleans, where we have a deep relationship with the dead, but I don’t see it as atoning for our sins. For centuries death existed within a short arm’s reach for South Louisiana residents, whether it was yellow fever, hurricanes or a bad sinus infection. People routinely died in great number.
Because of the high water table, the dead were buried above ground in tombs and mausoleums. These “cities of the dead” remain throughout town, which is why we spruce them up on All Saints’ Day, the day following Halloween. Christians appointed Nov. 1 as All Saints’ Day to honor the departed Saints of the Catholic Church, plus try to convert those elusive pagans who won’t quite honoring Halloween.
On La Toussaint, a Catholic Holy Day of Obligation on Nov. 1, we would visit our deceased loved ones and decorate their tombs, perhaps giving the vaults a white wash job, weed the grounds around them or add wax flowers. As a child, it was a chance to play in the cemetery, even having a picnic on the tombs, but the day means more than that.
“…just like Ash Wednesday, the day after Halloween, All Saints’ Day, is the time to gather and reflect upon the meaning of life and death, of mortality and immortality and how quickly we pass from one to the other,” writes David Cheramie in Acadiana Profile magazine.

Call it an obligation or a chance to rectify our past, but visiting the dead on All Saints’ Day is a natural holiday for South Louisiana residents. But then, most days are.

Weird South is written by Cheré Coen, who loves long-standing Southern traditions.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Ducks, beer and ghosts in cemeteries

            I was in Jeanerette, Louisiana, this past Saturday doing a gris gris bag demonstration and signing copies of my new book, “Haunted Lafayette, Louisiana” at the Jeanerette Museum. The latter book makes people want to share their ghost tales and I’m more than happy to oblige.
            We discussed personal ghost stories and old plantation tales of residents throwing themselves from second story windows. But wasn’t there something about the old Beau Pré house, someone asks?  Everyone nodded but the house, which was owned by the town’s founder, John W. Jeanerette, and which withstood Civil War skirmishes in the area, is no longer there. In fact, the house is long gone and a cemetery erected in its place.
            A cemetery, I inquired? This was too good.
            Indeed Jeanerette’s former plantation, which John Jeanerette purchased after success as a store and saloon owner, was titled Beau Pré, French for a lovely pasture or meadow. Later it was called Pine Grove Plantation (didn’t Americans realize that those French names were more romantic?). Part of the house was used for postal service — Jeanerette was the town’s first postmaster — so people sent letters care of Jeanerette, which is how the town got its name.
            But back to that cemetery. The Beau Pré Memorial Park Cemetery lies on the property where the old home stood, at 7605 East Old Spanish Trail in Jeanerette. The 12 acres include above and below ground burials, plus a mausoleum. Throughout the property are live oak trees dripping with Spanish Moss, a small pond and — like the name suggested — lovely pasture fronting the languid Bayou Teche.
            Which is where I found my ghost.
            He wasn’t a Confederate or Yankee soldier, specters rumored to be haunting the place. Instead, he was a reptile from another era, a link to the time of dinosaurs. A nice sized alligator was sunning himself along the pond’s edge, enjoying the solitude that a cemetery could offer.
       I thought, “Only in Louisiana would one see such a sight,” but then Florida may have a few gators visiting the dead as well. And then I spotted the grave of Robert Francis Bourg, a Vietnam vet whose loved ones decorated his tomb with duck decoys, Mardi Gras beads and beer. I can’t imagine finding such an image anywhere else — with an alligator to boot! 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Gone but never forgotten


Our loved ones may be gone, but they are not forgotten. In the South, you’ll find cemeteries filled with trinkets, wind chimes, religious statues, non-religious statues, toys, fishing poles, solar lights and much more. Here’s a couple from cemeteries throughout the South.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Saints fans even in death

            We love to decorate our cemeteries in the South.
            Along the Gulf Coast, tombs are mostly above ground due to the high water table that makes it difficult to place our beloved departed into soil. Visitors will find simple crosses denoting graves or elaborate tombs that resemble small homes. In New Orleans, we call these collections of above-ground tombs “Cities of the Dead.”
            With all this grave architecture, it’s no wonder people like to enhance them a bit. And in South Louisiana around All Saints Day (Nov. 1), residents spruce up their family tombs and give them a fresh coat of whitewash as well.
            So throughout this month of October, we’ll be spotlighting some interesting tombs we’ve found over the years.
            At right is a grave found in St. Louis No. 3 in New Orleans, just outside of City Park. Not only did “Mother” get her share of Mardi Gras beads, but a nod to the Saints as well. The living ones who play football in the Superdome, that is.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Former debutante becomes ‘Mother of Texas’

             You’ve heard of the brave men who fought at the Alamo, who struggled to free American residents from Spanish rule and form the Republic of Texas. But have you heard about the indelible Jane Long?
            Women always seem to get the footnotes of history but thanks to history lovers on the Bolivar Peninsula, Jane Long’s story continues — and grows. And this weekend, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 11, 2014, the fifth annual Jane Long Festival will take over Fort Travis Seaside Park, just east of Galveston. 
            A former Mississippi debutante, 18-year-old Jane Long followed her husband, Dr. James Long, and 300 troops to Texas in 1818 to free the territory from Spain. They settled in Port Bolivar in 1820 on an earthen levee created by Spanish explorer Frances Xavier Mina, protecting himself and his men from the Karankawa Indians. The outpost was situated on the tip of the Bolivar Peninsula, only a boat ride from Galveston.
            At first they tried to get Galveston privateer Jean Lafitte to join the cause, with Jane dining alone with the infamous Lafitte. The hero of the Battle of New Orleans refused, not willing to cause trouble with Spain since his time on Galveston island proved quite lucrative.
            Dr. Long then set out for Mexico and left Jane alone with her daughter and a maid and a few men for protection. An adoring wife, she promised to stay put until his return.
            That winter of 1821 was so cold that some say the waters between Bolivar and Galveston froze over.  The men fled, food became scarce, the Indians hostile and the maid ill. Jane was pregnant at the time and had to deliver the child on her own. It’s believed the child was the first baby of English descent born in Texas, thus giving Jane the nickname, “The Mother of Texas.”
            Word came later that Dr. Long had died in Mexico.
Fort Travis Seaside Park
            Jane then moved to Brazoria, Texas, but continued the struggle for Texas freedom, organizing meetings of Texas revolutionaries Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston, Mirabeau Lamar and others. She also entertained Mexican officials and Spanish representatives at her hotel and organized a ball when Austin was freed from a Mexican jail. It was at this ball that Austin incited Americans in the Texas territory to fight for independence.
            After the fight for a Texas Republic was won, Jane moved to Richmond, Virginia, but her determination, spirit and resilience became an inspiration to Peninsula residents, especially after Hurricane Ike blew through in 2008. They began the festival four years ago at Fort Travis and have named a stretch of highway in her honor. In front of the park are historical markers and a flag designed by Jane for her husband’s troops to carry, one she called “the lone star.”
            This weekend’s festival includes live music by Brian Burns, who had a hit with "I've Been Everywhere (in Texas)" (see anonymous comment below). Come dressed in period costume and enter the costume contest. You can be Jane for a day!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Visiting the Morgue

            The ghost tours at the Crescent Hotel start off fun. After all, it’s a gorgeous Victorian hotel at the top of a mountain overlooking Eureka Springs and a member of the Historic Hotels of America so I’m imagining I will hear tales of ethereal men in top hats and ladies playing croquet.
            We began on the third floor and indeed heard tales of these Victorian visitors who have refused to check out. But as we slowly descended, the stories got creepier and creepier. Then we ended up in the morgue!
The Crescent Hotel "Morgue."
            Yeah, you heard right.
             “Our morgue is one of those historic infamies that has made us famous in the world of the paranormal and those interested in that world,” said Bill Ott, the hotel’s director of marketing and communications. “It wasn’t part of the original business plan of the Eureka Springs Improvement Company who built this mountaintop spa resort more than 125 years ago, it just turned out that way.”
            The hotel began in 1886 as a retreat for the upper class — but mostly for the summer months. The rest of the year, from 1908 to 1934, the building was as The Crescent College & Conservatory for Young Women. The depression caused the college and the hotel to close its doors but Norman Baker, “the man from Muscatine” reopened them in 1937, this time as a hospital to cure cancer.
            The Baker Cancer Curing Hospital promised a cure Baker couldn’t deliver — and he made a fortune in the process. The building’s basement housed a morgue for patients who perished onsite.
The 'Ghost Hunters' locker
            “It is the sad years and sad tales of the Baker Hospital that are the genesis of the Crescent Hotel’s morgue,” Ott explained. “It was in the morgue where Baker used his large walk-in cooler to store cadavers and body parts, and his autopsy table more for studying the cancers removed from patients in an effort to discover ‘what went wrong’ when a patient died hoping to stumble upon a cure. Both of these gruesome artifacts remain intact as do the stories — and some would say the patients — that surround them.”
            Baker was arrested for mail fraud in 1939 and convicted a year later. The building was resurrected as a hotel in 1997 and with it the tales of paranormal activity. Lots of them, from the Irish man who fell to his death while constructing the building to the college coed who jumped — or was pushed — from a balcony.             
            And then there are the ones in the morgue.
            Ghost tours began, concluding each night at the now famous morgue. It was in the morgue that TV’s “Ghost Hunters” saw a full-body apparition on their thermal imaging camera, something they called “the holy grail of ghost hunting.”
            “The ghost tours, which have grown exponentially over the past 16 years thanks to exposure on national television programs and in national publications, have always included the morgue,” said Jack Moyer, hotel’s general manager since 1997, “but until recently that space has had a dual purpose: maintenance area by day, eerie morgue by night. But now, maintenance has been removed and the morgue readied for thrilling new discoveries by curious ghost tour patrons.”
            Throughout October, the 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa will reopen its morgue and allow visitors to view items such as a wheelchair from the Baker Hospital, medical artifacts from that era, the addition of a micro-theatre and easier access to the walk-in cooler, autopsy table and the locker made famous by “Ghost Hunters.”
            For more information regarding the morgue and other paranormal facts surrounding the 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa, visit americasmosthauntedhotel.com.