Ghost stories aren’t exactly Robert LeBlanc’s favorite topic of conversation.
“I’m a total wimp when it comes to ghosts,” the New Orleans restaurateur says.
Even so, at his French Quarter gastropub Sylvain, the cheeky spirit of a female ghost is known to do mischief, sometimes causing doors to slam or lights to flicker, and the occasional dish or spoon to fly from a shelf.
But it wasn’t until a string of unsettling events occurred at his Uptown restaurant Cavan that LeBlanc really got spooked.
When his restaurant group purchased the 19th-century mansion at Magazine and Foucher streets, the building’s previous owners warned them of strange occurrences they’d observed. Music, as if out of nowhere, was often heard upstairs, and a white figure was sometimes seen walking up the stairs of the two-story building.
Then, in the restaurant’s first year, the motion sensors upstairs began to go off, even when no one had entered the building. Despite the renovated home’s brand-new electrical wiring, light bulbs would go dim and then shine bright, as if someone were turning the knob of a dimmer. And in an upstairs bathroom, the door — which latched from the inside — would lock itself, over and over again.
Others picked up on the spooky atmosphere. While dining at the restaurant one evening, local priest of the Archdiocese of New Orleans Monsignor Christopher Nalty suggested he perform an exorcism on the home, something LeBlanc waved off at the time.
But the events that unfolded next were by far the most unsettling, LeBlanc says.
One evening, the story goes, bartender Isaiah Estell’s girlfriend came to the restaurant, complaining that when she called his phone, a hostile woman had picked up. Estell explained that this was impossible: His phone had been tucked in his pocket all evening, and the battery was dead.
Later that same night, Estell, his girlfriend and another employee were standing outside of the restaurant when the girlfriend’s phone began to ring. The caller ID said it was Estell — who was holding his dead phone in his hands.
When his girlfriend picked up the phone, a loud voice boomed out of the speakers, as if on a megaphone. It kept repeating, over and over, as if on a loop, ‘Don’t look at my face. Don’t look at my face, Don’t look at my face.’
The group — scared and spooked — left the restaurant, unnerved. “It wasn’t a funny thing,” LeBlanc later said. “It was an unsettling experience … I was completely creeped out.”
Following that event, which took place in September of last year, Robert took Monsignor Nalty up on his offer, and the priest performed an exorcism — or blessing — on the building.
“After that, everything stopped,” LeBlanc said. “But I still won’t go upstairs alone.”
A Haunted City
New Orleans is said to be one of the most haunted places in the country, and the French Quarter, in particular, is steeped in ghost stories, paranormal lore and legend.
“We’ve had a heavy concentration of deaths and we’re a city filled with tragic events,” said Sidney Smith, who owns the long-running Haunted History Tours.
“The earliest French settlers were warned by the Indians not to build a city here — they said the area was cursed. We’ve had two major catastrophic fires in the 1700s that destroyed the city and terrible yellow fever epidemics. At the end of the day, violent death and strong emotion are what contribute to hauntings and ghostly activity,” Smith says.
Smith’s tour groups always pass by the infamous LaLaurie Mansion, where legend has it the socialite and alleged serial killer Madame Marie Delphine LaLaurie tortured and murdered her household slaves. Though the privately owned home remains inaccessible to the public, the horrors play out in the wrinkles of one’s imagination, Smith says.
The city is also filled with restaurants and bars surrounded by plenty of spooky folklore. Lafitte’s Blacksmith shop, which dates back to the 1720s, is thought to be the oldest bar in the United States and is believed to have been used by the Lafitte brothers, Jean and Pierre, as the base for their Barataria smuggling operation. Legend has it the bar is one of the most haunted in the city, and sightings of soldiers, pirates and a woman with long hair dressed all in black have been reported on several occasions.
At Arnaud’s on Bienville Street, a ghostly figure believed to be Germaine Cazenave, the daughter of the original owner Count Arnaud Cazenave, has been spotted by guests and employees. “It makes sense, I guess, that she’s still appearing in the restaurant, where she spent so much of her life,” said present owner Archie Casbarian.
Recently, a group of diners snapping photos in an upstairs dining room said they saw the floating torso of a man in one of their photos. Casbarian surmised that the ghost seen could have been the Count Arnaud himself.
“I’m not a believer, but I don’t want to be proven wrong,” Casbarian said.
Nearby restaurant Muriel’s on Jackson Square, where Haunted History tours routinely stop, is believed to harbor several spirits. The ghost of Pierre Antoine Lepardi Jourdan, who killed himself on the second floor of the building in 1814 after losing his dream home in a poker game, is said to haunt the structure. Patrons and employees at the restaurant have reported objects being moved around the restaurant, glasses flying from behind the bar, and a sparkling light seen “wandering” around the lounge.
While Smith’s tours draw masses of curious tourists, the excursions led by paranormal investigators Chris Melancon and John Gualtieri are tailored to those who fancy themselves slightly more adventurous.
Together with the Paranormal Society of New Orleans and French Quarter Phantoms, the team leads guests on ghost-hunting tours through several spooky city spots using ghost-hunting equipment such as REM Pods, which detect energy disturbances and fluctuations using colored lights and audible tones; K2 meters, which detect spikes in electromagnetic energy; and “spirit boxes,” which use radio frequency to communicate with spirits.
'You hear the word "leave" '
Gualtieri says the tour’s most popular venue — St. Vincent’s Guest House on Magazine Street — is rife with paranormal activity. The large red brick building, known as St. Vincent’s Infant Asylum, dates back to 1861 and was once a home for children orphaned by a yellow fever epidemic. The house is believed to be haunted by some of the children who perished at the home. On multiple occasions, Gualtieri says guests have reported seeing an apparition of a nun, while he’s heard the names “Ed” and “Paul” repeated over the speakers of his fine-tuned equipment several times.
“You also hear the word, ‘leave,’ all the time,” Gualtieri said. “It’s really creepy.”
The ghost-hunting team also makes frequent visits to the Bourbon Orleans Hotel in the French Quarter, where Gualtieri says his equipment has picked up several "intelligent responses" and disturbances.
The hotel was home to the historic Orleans Ballroom and a theater before it was converted to a convent in the late 1800s and is believed to be among the most haunted hotels in the city. Legend has it a Confederate soldier can be seen on the third and sixth floors, and an apparition of a little girl has been seen rolling a ball and chasing it down the sixth-floor corridor.
“The fun thing about being an investigator is that everywhere we go, we usually pick up on something,” Gualtieri said. “There are haunted places all over this town.”