I'm tying my shoe in the kitchen of the Turtle Bay bar and restaurant on Decatur Street when I'm suddenly aware that I may be about to die in a horrible and grisly manner. It's a sunny late-summer afternoon, and I've stopped by to try and snap some digital pictures of the three knives that allegedly were thrown at Turtle Bay's cook, Chisesi Simpson, by a cranky ghost or a sneaky, malevolent, unseen force. Simpson leads me back into the kitchen where the first two knives are lying on the stainless steel countertop.
"I don't know where that other one's at," says Simpson. "Oh, there it is." He strides down the length of the small, airy courtyard kitchen, toward the capped sewer drain where the ghost, which the bar has named "Boudreaux," lives. It's then that I notice that the lace of my left Converse All-Star has come undone. As I bend down to tie it, Simpson says, "Man, Boudreaux was pissed after you were here yesterday. He was really acting up, throwing stuff around. He threw this pan here all the way out there."
I look up briefly to see the cook holding up a steel pan and gesturing with it to a spot at least 10 feet away. I flash on how this would all play out in a predictable horror movie. Nosy reporter girl angers ghost ... returns to bar on innocent errand ... knife mysteriously missing. While everyone in the theater is silently yelling Get out of there! Don't tie your shoe! Run, girl! the cook is possessed and murders me while the audience grumbles how they saw it coming a mile away.
I straighten up quickly and realize Simpson is standing over me, brandishing a large knife. "Found it," he says.
The Turtle Bay ghost is only the most recent bar haunting investigated by Kalila Katherina Smith, a tour guide for the Haunted History Tours who both founded the New Orleans Paranormal and Occult Research Society and is the Louisiana state head of the National Ghost Research Society. Her book New Orleans Ghosts and Vampires notes several haunted bars in the French Quarter including Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, Cosimo's, Yo Mama's and O'Flaherty's. She believes that the violent atmosphere of the locales, many of which have been saloons of one kind or another over hundreds of years, predisposes them to the kind of tragic or gruesome on-premises deaths that cause spirits to linger. The 1100 block of Decatur Street where Turtle Bay is located is a particularly fertile area for haunting. Most of that land once belonged to the Ursulines Convent on Chartres Street and served as a potter's field for yellow fever victims in the 18th century.
"There are probably more haunted bars in the French Quarter than we could ever put on a tour," she says. "We pick the ones with the most activity and that are the best documented historically. But you've got death on top of death on top of death, from yellow fever, fires, hurricanes, violence — a high concentration of death in such a small area. Plus voodoo activity calling up spirits. And people who are drinking are more open to spirits, more open to those experiences."
Smith recently participated in an investigation of the Turtle Bay ghost in conjunction with the Sci-Fi Channel show Ghost Hunters. She still isn't ready to explain the ghost's behavior, although she's clearly intrigued. "It's been turning equipment on and off in the middle of the night, throwing hot water," she says. "And it's usually pretty rare for a ghost to attack."
Simpson, the cook at Turtle Bay, is reasonably relaxed about working seven days a week in an unpredictable and actively haunted atmosphere. "We usually keep a table over here in the corner for Boudreaux," he says, gesturing toward a shady spot in the courtyard. "He's been living here a long time. He's not a bad spirit from my point of view. But when the owner's around — he don't like him at all, period. Once he slid a table right into him. And one time, we were standing in the kitchen, and that knife just flew up off the steam table and went straight through the cooler door."
Smith believes one of the most haunted bars in New Orleans is MRB. French Quarter resident Stephanie McCorkle lives above the St. Philip Street bar, and says the ghost in her apartment — one of the rear slave quarters on the property that was once a brothel — is relatively benign. "My husband's seen him standing at the end of the bed, staring at me. That's a little unnerving," McCorkle says. "He talks to my husband. Apparently I remind him of someone he cared about, so he's very protective, which is a nice thing in a ghost."
The bar's own female ghost is more aggressive. It appears most often in MRB's ladies' room, and Smith's research has the spirit pegged as a former prostitute who hanged herself in the courtyard when her fiance, gone to sea one last time to earn money to marry her, came home in a wooden box.
"She's a very vindictive ghost," says McCorkle. "You'll see a face behind you in the ladies' room mirror right before you get slammed into the wall. Once they had to replace the mirror because it got knocked off of the wall."
The property at 615 Toulouse St. has long had a reputation for ghost activity, with bartenders freely telling stories of falling bottles, flying glasses and general creepiness. Rio Hackford and Ryan Hesseling, the current owners of One Eyed Jacks, remember that the real estate agent who first showed them the building declined to enter with them. Manager Corey Allen says taking photos of the bar for the bar's Web site was a problem because of the ghost activity. "It shows up in almost all the pictures you take in here," he says. "It's like a big, glowing spiral. Rio and I were in the Matador Room once taking a picture and there were five of them in it. He was like, "We're going now.'"
A paranormal investigator reported at www.southernghosts.com that he believes the showroom of the bar was a speakeasy and the site of a gangland murder in the 1920s. The murdered man's sweetheart, the daughter of a prominent gangster who had stood in the way of their courtship, died of a broken heart. The two now return to the club and haunt the upstairs bar and balcony, where their favorite table had been.
"There was one bartender at the Shim Sham Club who didn't believe in ghosts," says Allen. "He was closing alone and he saw someone walking across the balcony to the DJ booth. He yelled at him to get down, and then he went up there to kick him out, and there was nobody there. I see things here and there — there are cold spots when the AC's not on, weird feelings. I see people walking on the balcony. The thing is, I don't think it minds we're here. And from the story, it's just a sad ghost, not an angry ghost."
Or, considering that the 615 Toulouse ghost is reunited with his lost love and still has access to his table, it's possible he's just another New Orleans drinker, reluctant to leave his favorite bar.