Regional Reports from across the state
New Tower in Keithville
The Northwest Louisiana Veterans Cemetery lies near Keithville in a quiet green hillside forest that slopes in gentle angles — it’s fitting for servicemen and -women who defended us to have this tender part of southwestern Caddo Parish as their resting place.
According to the Shreveport Times, the arrival of a carillon, a bell tower that tolls melodies, is the culmination of a longtime dream for area veterans and their family members. Composed of a rising series of bells, the tower was installed by Pennsylvania manufacturer Schulmerick Bells in the cemetery just in time for this past Memorial Day.
Retired Air Force Col. Steve dePyssler, who heads the Retirees Activities Office at Barksdale Air Force Base, reported that the national veterans group, AmVets, contributed more than $40,000 for the cost of the carillon (priced at approximately $45,000). Since the cemetery opened in 2007, the idea of a carillon has been steadily pealing in the minds of the veterans.
“Something like that would make a huge difference, and I’m sure it will have a lasting impact,” said retired Navy Capt. Richard Hibbs Jr., whose father, Richard Sr., was a survivor of the horrific Bataan Death March during World War II.
Indeed, the sound of bells carrying over the soft green hills like a lullaby where the fallen sleep does have a profound effect on the heart.
“You have just so many senses,” said Hibbs. “It’s a fresh place, out in the country … a hearing dimension will be as important as anything else.”
Approximately 400 veterans have already been laid to rest there, just 30 minutes from Shreveport near Eddie D. Jones Nature Park. The bell tower will be rung for funerals and memorial services and on holidays.
To Debunk or Not Debunk
Tucked away off Sligo Road in Shreveport, the sugar-white clapboards, pale birdbaths and snowy wrought-iron benches of Oakland Plantation glow amid green grass and trees. The site is marked by an unusual historic marker that reads: “This house was built in stages between 1832 and 1848, and by 1850, was owned by Dr. Abel Skannal.
... Rumors about ghosts are sustained by the fact that Doc Skannal kept a coffin in the attic of the house. The family cemetery is located nearby in the woods.”
Missing from the marker is the fact that Skannal had a reputation for being an enormous practical joker,
a hobby that might have relieved the tension of running five interconnected plantations that totaled 8,000 acres.
Nevertheless, the legend persists that Skannal murdered his wife there on Oakland Plantation and hid the horrid deed by keeping his wife’s body in a coffin in the attic, where it was only discovered after his death. In an attempt to discover more about the eerie legend, I tried to find a recorded eyewitness account of someone who actually saw this coffin in the attic but was unsuccessful.
There have been reports of the paranormal supposedly made by a former Oakland Plantation resident named Melinda McCallon Coyer. Her father was renovating the house, which, in the opinion of parapsychologists, is highly likely to up spirits along with the dust.
One bitterly cold night, Coyer and her sister had retired for the night, tucked in with warm blankets by their parents. The children were awakened in the middle of the night in a paralysis of freezing cold. They were no longer covered by the snuggly warm blankets. Bewildered, the two girls turned on the light and saw their blankets folded in a corner of the room, as if someone had come in and removed them from the bed.
Something in the house apparently liked cold temperatures –– the thermostat was usually set at 80 degrees, but sometimes in the dead of night, the thermostat was found to be set on 0, with no family member having touched it.
House on Haunted Hill
In the mid-1700s, the tiny town of St. Maurice in Winn Parish was born on the banks of what the French called the Rigolette du Bon Dieu, or Little Channel of the Good God. This “rigolette” came to be known as the Red River.
Nearly 50 years later, the wealthy Prothro family built a sumptuous plantation home on a hill that overlooked the meandering river. The house and land were christened St. Maurice Plantation, possibly named for both the town and the priest who once ministered there.
St. Maurice itself was an important steamboat landing on the river, and the large imposing house on the hill became a landmark for river travelers. Thousands of settlers heading west on the old Harrisonburg Road in covered wagons found their way to St. Maurice and its ferry landing.
In 1850, a yellow fever epidemic struck the plantation, killing Prothro family members and slaves alike.
Like the westward-bound settlers and the yellow fever epidemic, Yankee soldiers also found their way to the plantation during the Civil War. The blue-clads robbed the family and slaves of all their food and burned all items in the plantation store — but the fact that Prothro and the Yankee commander were both Masons saved any of the plantation buildings from being torched. The house still rose silently above the river.
The plantation home changed hands throughout the years until 1980. Eerie stories about the place began seeping out like fog from a river. There were sightings of a man’s ghost who always hovered over the same spot on the plantation grounds a few feet from the house. It was said he guarded buried treasure. One owner dug over the spot where the spirit lingered and unearthed a buried pickax.
A child was regularly seen rising from a tomb in the family graveyard and running through the heavy front doors of the big house, and large groups of spirits, believed to be the ghosts of murdered travelers, have been seen flitting around the grounds.
Thirty years ago, the beautiful old house that escaped fire during the Civil War mysteriously burned to the ground — it was thought to be an act of vengeance wrought by the many ghosts who had been murdered there. One year later, the original gate to the mansion was stolen –– and recovered 16 years later. The white markers in the graveyard, where owners, freedmen and slaves rested side by side, were discovered knocked down and destroyed.
St. Maurice Plantation was recently investigated by a paranormal group. They refused to disclose their findings.
Worth Watching… Your Step
Fort DeRussy Cemetery in Marksville is the actual site of a Confederate fort that saw three major Civil War engagements and several minor skirmishes and was a defender of the Red River against Union forces. Local historians, battle re-enactors and ghost hunters revere this beloved area. One of the first locations to be investigated by then-novice ghost-hunter Brad Duplechien, director of LaSpirits Paranormal Investigations, who admitted being creeped out by the place, the fort now has regular visits from other ghost-hunting groups. Duplechien’s group caught photographs of ectoplasm masses forming; colored orbs; rampant Electronic Voice Phenomenon, or EVP, recordings of disembodied voices; and, as Duplechien expressed it, “altered states of equilibrium.”
According to Steven Mayeux, the president of the Friends of Fort DeRussy who also writes a spirited newsletter, ghost-hunters still flock to the dark old fort at night. In the December 2009 newsletter, Mayeux recounted the night he was supposed to join an all-female group of ghost-hunters: “I was nearly to the graveyard at about 10:30 when I got a call from the leader telling me that one of their members had fallen and broken her arm. Anyone who has ever made the trip after dark down the long winding tree-shrouded one-lane gravel road to the graveyard will understand how hesitant the ambulance crew was to make that part of their journey. But they finally arrived and were able to remove the injured investigator from the graveyard. Rest assured that the shrieks heard in the graveyard that night were very real. Apparently, dislocated and/or broken arms don’t travel well. And, no, the injured party did not feel any strange push or shove before she went down. She just tripped on her feet and fell onto a concrete slab. ”
The fort was designated a historic site in 1999, and $800,000 earmarked to help with its development was lost due to hurricanes Katrina and Rita. If you wish to donate, visit www.fortderussy.org.
If you wish to visit, it is recommended that you step carefully and avoid any “altered states of equilibrium” where possible.
There was a time when autumn breezes blowing mournfully through Cajun Country bayous would carry with them the sound of tinkling bottles gleaming like rainbows from trees in the sunlight. The cobalt-blue of empty Milk of Magnesia bottles or the lime-green of old 7Up bottles with their squares of red were generally hung on trees near people’s houses as protection. The roots of the “bottle trees” are deep in the soil of Congo culture: Legend holds that wandering spirits of ill intent can’t resist the beauty of colored glass and that any evil spirit mesmerized enough to enter the colorful glass would be unable to escape and ultimately would be destroyed by morning sunlight. Slaves who were brought to the New World continued this tradition, hanging blue bottles from huts and trees as talismans against evil. The tradition spread throughout the American South; in Europe, it took the form of single spheres known as “witch balls.”
If you want to revive this old folk ritual and make a bottle tree to ward off those color-loving gremlins, one of the simplest and most beautiful ways is to take traditional cobalt-blue bottles (blue being the color of water, something spirits cannot cross), tie two by the neck at opposite ends of a shoelace, and dangle them over tree branches. Repeat as many times as you desire. Bottle stumps are an equally effective way to protect your home. Drive a nail at an angle along the side of a stump, and then insert the colored bottle over the nail. To make your spirit bottle tree complete, purchase cobalt-blue bottles of Harvey’s Bristol Cream Sherry or Schmitt Söhne Riesling wine –– enjoy the liquid spirits before you trap the other kind on your tree. Children might find this an interesting Halloween-season project to undertake in the crisp autumn air.
Between Lafayette and Baton Rouge, just after you take the Ramah Maringouin exit on Interstate 10, lies a swampy area approximately 100 yards north of and parallel to the interstate. Here is an almost unpassable road made of old railroad trestles. In the past, local residents would clam up if anyone asked them about the strange lights that appeared with regularity along this isolated stretch of Louisiana highway.
Former Louisianian Stephen Wagner, now in his 50s, says he and his high school buddies were frequent visitors to this eerie landscape 30-something years ago as part of a tradition passed down to him by his older brothers. The road was an old railroad trestle composed of three passable bridges and one half-burned bridge. The evening ritual Wagner and his companions followed was to drive to the burned bridge and then turn the car back around to face the direction they had just driven from. A 15-minute wait would ensue –– and then, the “spook light” would cometh.
“Most often,” Wagner recalls, “ the light would appear far away, near the road’s beginning. It would look much like a single auto headlight or a strong flashlight but would pulsate, grow brighter and dimmer and swing back and forth like a pendulum. It would often go out for a few minutes, then return, closer and brighter, continuing to come closer with a swinging motion. Then it would go out again, only to return again, even closer, scaring the hell out of us each time it reappeared. Sometimes we’d see another car of thrill-seekers pull onto the road. We’d see their far-off headlights and orange parking lights bouncing along the bumpy, dusty road and negotiating those dangerous bridges. The car would get closer, to within about a quarter-mile, and then the headlights and parking lights would either separate left and right or ascend into the sky about 20 feet or so while gradually disappearing. Very weird!”
Wagner says that on his first visit, the inside of their car was illuminated by brilliant white light. The light would only fail to appear if skeptics had joined them. One local resident finally admitted to Wagner that she and her siblings frequently crept out at night to see the “spook light” when they were children.
Wagner, who now lives in Florida, recently returned to visit the old place and made a discovery: The road is now gated.
Baton Rouge/Plantation Country
Midnight in the Garden of Good … and Mosquitoes
On the first Friday of last October, the good staff of Nottoway Plantation in White Castle opened their stately doors to me and a group of Louisiana-based ghost hunters. Although it was October, it was still Louisiana-summer hot. In my enthusiasm, I forgot to pack my unerring summer companion, something that I almost think of as my summer fragrance –– a can of OFF! I was reminded of this omission when the first three (of what would total 34) nips on my bare legs struck before the sun had even set.
Exquisite as it is, Nottoway Plantation has the vibe of a haunted house, that curious vortex feeling of something humming beneath the current of everyday life. I felt it in the early ‘80s on my first visit and found it is still there. In recent years, a photographer captured the ghostly image of a young woman in an antebellum hoop skirt with ringlets dangling over her shoulders standing on the front upper gallery gazing toward the Mississippi River. They say she is Julie, a former daughter of the house.
When I was escorted into what had been the master bedroom of the Randolphs, the 19th-century builders of Nottoway, the sight of the beautifully decorated room struck me cold and filled me with dread, and I knew I would not be able to sleep in it. I was later told it was one of the most haunted rooms in the house. I had the all-pervading feeling I was not wanted in this room. I gave up this room to another investigator, a male.
Although the eight members of the team I was with set up video cameras, computer screens, cables and all the scientific equipment needed for proper skepticism throughout the plantation house, the night proved to be somewhat of a tease as far as catching actual evidence to support personal experiences.
Facing the front gallery, I sat on the floor of the wedding cake-white ballroom in the dark with two other investigators. We invited the spirits to visit us. For a moment, our attention was diverted to something nonsupernatural behind us, and then the second I turned my head back toward the front gallery, I gasped out loud. For one fleeting instant, I had seen the white shape of a woman in a hoop skirt with ringlets on her shoulders hovering in the window a few inches above the floor. She disappeared so quickly when I gasped that my companions did not see her. My imagination? Optical illusion? Or was it really a glimpse of poor Julie?
After repeatedly climbing the many steep staircases found in Nottoway, we ended the investigation at 3 a.m. I sat in the lobby until it was light enough to return home to New Orleans. I received an e-mail from the team member who had taken my room and slept in the bed I wished to avoid. He said that he kept feeling someone getting into bed with him, stroking his hair and back. It seems he was greeted with “open arms” while I felt definitely unwelcome in that room.
Of all the investigators present, Fred Stallings, now a former member of this team, seemed the most focused and serious that night, and perhaps that is the reason he caught the only scientific evidence. Stallings captured two Electronic Voice Phenomena, or EVPs, on his recorder. The first he played for me that night in the lobby –– I heard the plaintive voice of a very young girl saying, “Randolph,” but no children were on the grounds during the hours of the ghost hunt. While Stallings was in the dining room videotaping, his microphone caught the sound of a very raspy voice ordering him, “Go back up!”
Nottoway Plantation and Resort, 31025 Louisiana Highway 1, White Castle, (225) 545-2730
Greater New Orleans
Phantom of the Pooh-bah
When renowned psychic investigator Larry Montz and his crew of members of the International Society for Paranormal Research, or ISPR, were stationed in the Crescent City avidly pursuing legendary revenants, they caught a picture of a pronounced ectoplasm forming outside of a building in the French Quarter. The caption described the location of the picture as “the exterior of The Sultan’s Palace.” The Sultan’s Palace? Immediately, I flew to the Yellow Pages, the White Pages and the Internet, looking in vain for a club or lounge so named. What I eventually unearthed was a story that appeared in a 1979 edition of the Times-Picayune that not only identified the location of what is a private residence but also told its gruesome –– and legendary –– story.
According to writer Lorena Dureau, the large house at 716 Dauphine St. was built in 1836 by a wealthy Creole planter named Jean Baptiste Le Prete who spent the bulk of his time on his plantation in Plaquemines Parish. But Le Prete adored the opera and held lavish parties at his Dauphine Street residence whenever the French Opera Co.
was in town. When the 19th century was entering its second half, Le Prete was approached by a Turkish merchant who wanted to rent the house on behalf of a wealthy and powerful brother of a Turkish sultan who was relocating to New Orleans. The Turkish tenant took up residence in the house, now self-proclaiming himself a sultan. Also residing with him was a large harem and an even larger treasure trove of gold and jewels, young serving boys and eunuchs. And thus, on Dauphine Street in New Orleans, did the young “sultan” a stately pleasure dome decree –– and he celebrated there with wild abandon.
The sounds of music and laughter, along with the overpowering smell of incense, wafted outside every night –– except for one, when the raucous palace remained shrouded in silence. Neighbors who passed the house the following morning were horrified to see blood streaming from beneath the door onto the steps and called the police.
The sight that greeted the police after they broke in was one of absolute carnage. Every member of the household, including harem girls, eunuchs and servants, had been hacked to death. Body parts lay scattered throughout the house and trailed down the grand staircase. The “sultan,” who was fair-haired despite his heritage, was found buried alive in the backyard and died shortly after excavation. The jewels, gold and treasure were gone. Police blamed it on a crew of pirates who had docked briefly in New Orleans, but the accepted belief is that it was the true sultan, the brother of the bogus potentate, who ordered the massacre to avenge the theft of his treasure, harem and servants.
According to Dureau, since that bloody night, the sounds of shrieks emanating from the house, combined with the tinkling sounds of exotic music and the heady smell of incense, have been reported throughout the years. Some residents of the French Quarter make it a point to cross to the other side of the street instead of walking near the house. Dureau interviewed a former resident who had lived in an apartment in the house during the ‘50s. The woman woke up several times to see a fair-headed man standing at the foot of her bed watching her. (Other people on the street have seen him standing in the windows.) When she turned the lights on, he was gone. She also heard a disembodied blood-curdling scream coming from the grand staircase where all the body parts had been strewn. The woman moved out immediately.