Unearthly Portals to the Past
Exploring the haunting beauty, spectral shadows and wandering souls of Louisiana’s storied plantations
Josephine Roman’s haunting entity appears on Oak Alley’s widow’s walk, where she searched for her husband’s boat in the 1830s.
Photographs by Sara Essex Bradley
Thunderclouds raging through a starless black sky cloaked the full corn moon as we approached St. Francisville. The two-mile-long town of 1,800 residents in West Feliciana Parish lies on a narrow, loessal ridge created by the dust storms of the last glacial period. It began as a cemetery for a nearby monastery in the 1700s and claims to have more ghost-ridden plantations than any other Southern city.
Seven plantations are located within 12 miles of town. Oakley (oakleyplantation.com) is famed for naturalist John James Audubon’s prolific yet brief sojourn while illustrating 32 of his Birds of America works in 1821. The 374-acre, circa 1835 Rosedown (rosedownplantationhomee.com), flanked by a 660-foot-long allée of live oaks and latticed summer houses, has 28 acres of formal gardens. Young William Turnbull, who drowned in the Mississippi in 1856, was the eldest son of owners Martha and Daniel Turnbull (one of the richest men in America and the owner of 445 slaves). Docents say Williams’ pranks from beyond the grave include turning lights on and moving furniture.
Spirits are largely reported in the historic mansions, rather than in the newly constructed guesthouses and outbuildings that have come along. Paranormal experts suggest touring the plantations in the fall to observe optimal activity, especially around All Saints Day.
The 218-year-old Myrtles Plantation (myrtlesplantation.com) is an outstanding example of the expanded raised cottage and is adorned with a 120-foot-long gallery supported by cast-iron railings of elaborate grape-cluster design. However, few visit the Myrtles to observe its architecture.
We searched for the mysterious Myrtles Plantation, where at least 10 homicides have occurred, in the dark, shadowy outskirts of town as the sky unleashed its hammering rain.
Our alarming overnight stay in a room with a view at “one of America’s most haunted houses” preceded the plantation’s devastating twilight fire in mid-August, when hell was unleashed.
Left: The Myrtles’ 1790s mirror (with reappearing handprints) is believed to hold the trapped, angry spirit of Sarah Woodruff (Mrs. Clarke). She was poisoned by slave Chloe, Clarke’s reluctant mistress. Right: The disturbing thuds of William Winter occur at night on the porch where he was killed in 1871.
Up In Smoke
The sudden blaze that blew up a hot water heater rapidly ravaged the oldest building on the plantation, which housed a gift shop, breakfast quarters, laundry and offices with decades of historic files, including thousands of postcards of a slave who died there and haunts the place.
Remarkably, the Myrtles mansion, located just 7 feet and 10 inches away from the 220-year-old original structure where owner “Whiskey Dave” lived while building the big house, remained unscathed. The two buildings are connected by an old wooden breezeway.
“The fire was licking out of the windows,” says owner Teeta Moss, who purchased the Myrtles with her husband, John, in 1992. “Of course, I didn’t believe in ghosts when we bought it. We thought it was just an advertising gimmick.”
But all of that changed within the first few weeks. Teeta began to hear voices. One saved the life of her youngest child. “I was folding napkins in the restaurant. The baby was taking his morning nap in the big house. A raspy voice sounding like Lauren Bacall whispered, ‘Watch the baby. Watch the baby.’ And then a howling, ‘WATCH THE BABY. WATCH THE BABY!’
“Terribly shaken, I jumped up, started walking to the house and couldn’t believe what I saw. My 10-month-old baby was toddling really fast, a few feet toward the pond. He had somehow gotten out of the tall iron bars surrounding the master bedroom, opened the very heavy locked front door and raced through the field. Walking? As I ran to pick him up, I felt something like a fuzzy blanket or cloth wrap around my shoulders. The same raspy voice whispered, ‘I won’t let your children be harmed here.’ That’s how it all started.” John and Teeta eventually moved out of the mansion and built a house nearby.
After the August gift shop fire, Teeta says, “The state inspector, fire marshal and insurance inspector said it was literally impossible that the mansion didn’t catch fire. It would have all gone down in flames in an hour. It was filled with overnight guests! I don’t know if it was a ghost or a guardian angel. Strangely, the front of the gift shop facing the courtyard was untouched. That’s where Chloe appears in photos, standing right there in the breezeway.”
The spectral slave girl, Chloe, whose image has repeatedly been captured on film, was hanged from a tree as punishment for making a poison birthday cake after the master cut off one of her ears for eavesdropping. The cake killed two of his children, who are said to also roam the grounds.
“Lloyds of London asked that I take pictures after we bought the property,” Teeta explains. “So I got a disposable camera. Of course, I didn’t see anyone there when I snapped the breezeway shot. They contacted me after they developed the film, and asked about the girl in the picture, a shadowy figure. Not long after that, National Geographic came to investigate.” The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, an Oprah crew and dozens of other media followed.
During the Myrtles Halloween tours each weekend in October, chilling stories of wandering spirits always attract big crowds. Visitors are also drawn to a nearby prison rodeo each Sunday in October that includes wild horse riding and convict poker with bulls chasing inmates.
Twenty-two miles down the road from St. Francisville is Angola, the nation’s largest maximum-security prison, built on the site of a slave plantation and named for the homeland of the slaves who used to work its fields. Between 1719 and 1732, nearly 6,000 men, women and children were carried into slavery from Africa to Louisiana. As the slave trade expanded, fortunes were made in cotton and sugarcane.
Some say that the plantations along the Mississippi River, built on the backs of thousands of slaves who suffered and toiled to provide sugar for the white landowners, are haunted with their restless spirits. Others assert that the ghosts of fallen Confederate soldiers, brutal slave masters, genteel planters and spectral children roam the mansions.
Name a plantation in Louisiana, and you can be sure there are ghosts involved. Before the Civil War, some 350 mansions lined the 100-mile stretch of the mighty river between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, considered the wealthiest area in America. Many fortunes were made in sugarcane first brought from St. Domingue to south Louisiana in 1751 by French Jesuits. Of the surviving mansions, what remains is one of the largest concentrations of antebellum plantations in the U.S.
Two of these architectural gems were investigated by the International Society for Paranormal research. The ISPR teams recorded footsteps and captured several adult and children entities on their thermal cams at Oak Alley (oakalleyplantation.com), which is unsurpassed for its breath-taking double row of live oaks, and San Francisco (sanfranciscoplantation.org), known for its six different architectural styles. After an extensive renovation, it reopened for tours in September..
The double row of original slave cabins shaded by an alley of oaks at Evergreen plantation (with 37 buildings on the National Historic Register) stands as a chilling monument to the hardships endured. The Old South was brought back to life during the filming of Django Unchained (2012) which depicts the brutality of slavery.
The house built in 1832-1836 by Jacques and Josephine Roman would later become known as Oak Alley for its canopy of 28 oak trees planted in the 1690s, a theme repeated in the home’s 28 Doric columns. Interview with the Vampire (1994; Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise) and the plantation’s notorious ghosts personify its other-worldly intrigue.
The Spirits Unleashed
When we finally arrived at the Myrtles mansion, long branches were snapping in the swirling wind at the close of the storm. We were led up to the Fannie Williams room on the second floor. At 10 p.m., it was dead quiet – until we locked our door. From a spectral howling cat scratching at our door all night (it was never there each time we opened it, until 4 a.m.) to the shadowy, opaque female figure running to and fro under our window and the muffled voices of a man and woman arguing and throwing things in the guest room adjoined to ours (the room was empty, the door, open), we didn’t get much sleep that night. My daughter wanted to leave before breakfast.
I always thought ghost stories were utter nonsense. It was only after we moved into our 19th-century house in Uptown New Orleans that I developed an interest. The former owner warned me of “two active spirits, a lady who cries on the upstairs balcony and an angry spirit in the basement.” She, too, was a non-believer until things got to the point, and with such frequency, that she hired paranormal investigators who documented profound activity.
Shortly after we moved in, bedroom door handles jiggled, then turned and the doors opened slowly by themselves, lights shone underneath the floorboard cracks from a darkened basement, and traveled just under our bare feet, as we walked down the hall at night when the lights were off (something we didn’t admit to each other until months later), objects flying off shelves and my young daughter taking me by the hand and pointing to the “nice lady” in her empty room finally convinced me to pay attention.
Young female spirits have appeared on the free-standing, three-story helix staircase that follows the curvature of an adjacent wall in Houmas House, known as the “Sugar Palace.” It was once the largest sugar producer in America with over 300,000 acres.
Slaves and Baby Dolls
It’s been said that wandering spirits actively roam Evergreen in Edgard (evergreenplantation.org), where the chilling sight of 22 virtually intact slave cabins rising from the morning mist face each other on a dirt road near the “big house.” Spectral beings are also reported at the nearby 2,500-acre St. Joseph and its sister plantation, Felicity in Vacherie (stjosephplantation.com) which is one of the few fully operating sugar plantations in Louisiana. Activity has also been seen around Magnolia Lane Plantation (search for Magnolia Lane Plantation on Facebook) in Nine Mile Point in Westwego.
Scenes from 12 Years a Slave, the historical drama produced by Brad Pitt that won the 2014 Academy Award for Best Picture were filmed at these plantations. A jarring scene was shot in the shadow of a huge 350-year-old “hanging tree” at Magnolia, which towers over the unmarked graves of slaves who were hanged from its branches in the 19th century. “Just out of respect, we said a few words before we started shooting here,” director Steve McQueen told the Los Angeles Times.
Jane Landry, house manager of Oak Alley since 1996, has seen numerous spirits at the plantation. “The latest thing just happened. I went upstairs to reset the alarm in the master bedroom, because it was showing motion,” she says. “I was with my assistant, Beth. I went to close the French doors. At the same time, a gentleman wearing a khaki jacket went to turn the knob. At the other end of the room near the other door, Beth saw a man dressed in a black jacket, leaning on a cane. And then, we hear them calling our names. They all know our names. Beth whispered, ‘Jane, let’s go!!’ We called the security company to reset the system. But it continued to show motion for four days.”
Landry experienced modest paranormal activities while working at Shadows-on-the-Teche (shadowsontheteche.org) in New Iberia and also at the Joseph Jefferson Mansion (ripvanwinklegardens.com), near Rip Van Winkle Gardens at Jefferson Island. “I would hear a woman weeping upstairs after closing up. It grew louder and louder until I just left.”
At Houmas House (houmashouse.com), known as the “Crown Jewel of River Road,” ghost hunters are among the many who have reported active spirits at the stunning Greek Revival mansion situated on 38 lush acres of gardens with more than 1 million plants in Darrow. Several elaborate outbuildings, including the luxury overnight accommodations and the stunning new Carriage House, attract at least two bridal parties each week. “We have a huge wedding in November with a seated dinner for 420,” says owner/preservationist Kevin Kelly, who lives in the mansion.
Shortly after he bought the plantation in 2003, construction workers claim they spotted – on multiple occasions – a small phantom girl with dark eyes, clad in a blue dress, on a staircase. Another spectral petite fille has recently surfaced due to the return of some old doll cloths. In 1810, Gen. Wade Hampton purchased the property and began construction of the mansion. “We had a little doll in the children’s bedroom at Houmas House,” says Kelly. “The Hampton family had just sent us some items including Wade Hampton’s granddaughter’s doll clothes, for the collection. The package had arrived just that day.
“A paranormal expert came to interview us for a story,” he continues. “She made contact with a little girl ghost, who told the woman that these were her doll’s clothes that had arrived and asked her to thank me for them. The child also said that she’d like to ask me to play hide-and-seek but she was kind of afraid of me.”
After communicating with the child, the paranormal investigator looked inside the pocket of the doll’s clothing. There was a handkerchief inside. It had the girl’s birthday sewn on. “It was the right date,” Kelly remarks. “May 20, 1850.”
“I never see the ghosts,” he says. “But Jim Blanchard, who lives on the third floor, sees it all. One night, he awoke when something grabbed him by the throat and was strangling him. The woman in the next room reported seeing a pale lady lying in the bed next to her. Before I go to bed, I always put out three drinks, one for me, and two for the ghosts. But I end up drinking all three!”
When visiting Houmas House, instead of supernatural encounters, I’ve had culinary encounters of the gourmet kind, particularly at Latil’s Landing, nestled in the original French house built in 1773. Last time, we began at dusk with refreshing juleps at the breezy Turtle Bar inside one of the twin garconierres. While taking a stroll under wisps of Spanish moss, I imagined all the forgotten faces that experienced grand wealth and poverty, war and brutality, romance and lost love 150 years ago. Some of them aren’t leaving, for whatever reason, preferring to wander in the mist, in the shadows.
A woman in antebellum dress with a booming, soulful voice began singing a cappella as the fire cast a glow on our clinking wine glasses and Limoges china. Stories about wrathful spirits beyond the grave faded away under the spell of rabbit gumbo, night-blooming jasmine, sweet magnolias and the ceaseless songs of the Old South.
Films and TV productions have included Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964; Bette Davis depicting an aging Southern belle descending into madness), Mandingo (1975; based on an abused male slave used for breeding and prize-fighting); A Woman Called Moses (1978; Cicely Tyson, portraying an escaped slave) and Revenge of the Bridesmaids (2010; Raven-Symoné); appropriate, since elaborate weddings are held here. The restored belvedere that crowns the luxurious eight-bedroom house complements the mansion’s faux marble exterior.
Ghostly grande dames are often seen wandering around the mansion in the golden late-afternoon sunlight.