NEW ORLEANS – Talk about spooky: a Halloween-themed tour of New Orleans’ grisly history opens next week and it’s not for the squeamish.
The Historic New Orleans Collection has given a PG-13 rating to “La Danse Macabre: The Nightmare of History ,” a one-hour, $5 guided tour of its history galleries. And there’s good reason for the rating. Stops along the guided tour include a photograph of a shrine bedecked with plaster body parts, a picture of a woman who tortured slaves in the early 1800s, even a ragtime composition inspired by a New Orleans serial killer and titled “The Mysterious Axman’s Jazz .”
It also includes such gruesome lore such as colonial executions on the wheel, amputations during the War of 1812, and the chained, tortured slaves found in Madame Delphine LaLaurie’s attic after her house caught fire in 1834. But Eli Haddow, the museum’s marketing assistant, said, “We won’t bar anyone from entry. We just suggest that they’re not intended for children under the age of 13.”
Daily 11 a.m. tours run Tuesday through Sunday, including Halloween.
“We wanted to do something special for the Halloween season. So we created this tour to kind of celebrate and tell these tales that we think are some of the most compelling in the city’s macabre history,” said Dylan Jordan, the visitor services staffer who created the tour. “It’s a mixture of true crime, ghost stories, voodoo, and war, sickness and health.”
The gallery tour starts with colonial executions and a slave named Louis Congo, who was freed for agreeing to serve as executioner. “He was given land, and paid for each punishment meted out, be it breaking someone on the wheel or branding someone who tried to escape with a fleur-de-lis or cutting off ears,” Jordan said.
Another exhibit: cannon balls dating to the War of 1812, muskets and a surgery kit used at the Battle of New Orleans. “The velocity of these musket shots and cannon fire was quite low. If they struck a limb they would shatter the bone, so amputations were really the only way to go,” Jordan said.
Even more gruesome is the story of Madame LaLaurie.
“There were rumors during her life that she was mistreating her slaves,” Jordan said. “One day in 1834, there was a fire at the house. People rushed in and found slaves chained – and they’d been tortured – in the attic.”
A crowd gathered, but LaLaurie and her physician husband sneaked out, fleeing to Paris, he said.
Later stops describe dueling and voodoo. For voodoo, the guide talks about two 19th century voodoo practitioners who became rich serving black and white people alike: “voodoo queen” Marie Laveau and fortuneteller Jean Montanet, or Doctor John – now the name under which a famous musician performs.
Doctor John was “the last really important figure of a long line of wizards or witches … who exercised an influence over the colored population,” Lafcadio Hearn wrote in an 1885 magazine article on which the tour’s information is based. He said Montanet claimed to have been – and may actually have been – a prince kidnapped in Senegal by Spanish slavers. Freed by a master in Cuba, he worked as a ship’s cook and eventually settled in New Orleans, where he hauled cotton on the docks and claimed to tell fortunes from marks on the bales.
After the eerie, horror returns to the fore with yellow fever outbreaks of 19th Century New Orleans. There’s a Harper’s Weekly article about the outbreaks in New Orleans, and photographs of the shrine where plaster legs, feet and hands were left by those thankful to be cured. A priest in the 1860s vowed “that if no one in his congregation died of yellow fever that year, he would anoint a shrine to Saint Roch, the patron saint of good health,” Jordan said.
St. Roch cared for victims of the black plague in the 1300s and himself survived the disease.
The next story is about the “Axeman” – a serial killer who terrorized the city from May 1918 to October 1919, and was never caught. This segment of the tour is illustrated by the cover of a ragtime piano solo published in 1919: “The Mysterious Axman’s Jazz (Don’t Scare Me Papa).”
Jordan said the piece was inspired by a letter sent to area newspapers in March 1919 by someone claiming to be “the great Axeman” and threatening to kill people who weren’t playing or listening to jazz at 12:15 a.m. the following Tuesday.
“Apparently all of the clubs that night were jampacked,” Jordan said.
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