New Orleans blends the past and the present into an interesting mix where almost anything seems possible and, despite we are firmly in the twenty-first century, it’s not so hard to image it in her early days.
The exact year the city was founded is still today up for debate, falling somewhere between 1718 and 1721 when the fledgling place was described by Jesuit Pierre F. X. de Charlevoix literally as “a place of a hundred wretched hovels inhabited by criminals hostile to the crown and likely prone to flooding”.
But It is a fact that New Orleans was repeatedly ravaged by malaria and yellow fever throughout the ages, and an unsettling sense of plague and pestilence remains in several corners of the city still today. After all, the casualties are found interred in the above-ground graves located in the St. Louis #1 cemetery, one of quaint “city of the death”, with these strange structural graves, and It doesn’t take much imagination to see that many could shelter a live human, or even a vampire.
In 1721, New Orleans was populated by frontiersmen and other hearty characters, and the majority of inhabitants of that distant outpost were single men, explorers, trappers, and traders who established encampments along the lower part of the Mississippi River.
From 1716 to 1722, vagabonds, deserters, and smugglers were exported from France to Louisiana as an administrative measure, basically to relieve overcrowded jails.
The French established three main outposts along the Gulf Coast: Mobile, Biloxi, and later, New Orleans.
As questionable as those early settlers may have been, Catholic priests in the region became concerned that, without wives, the future of Christian evangelism in the French territory was at risk.
Also the French Crown spotted the obvious gap and endeavoured to supply the new settlement with females, who were exported to New Orleans let out of jails and brothels, rough and unsavoury like most of their male counterparts.
And nowhere near enough in number.
Then came the year 1726, when the Ursuline Order from Rouen, France arrived in New Orleans tasked with establishing and providing a suitable orphanage for young girls along with an education for young women, as well as evangelize the natives.
It is said that the French King Louis XV himself took an interest in the next shipment of young girls to the fledgling colony, girls who would one day mature into brides. According to legend, he sought girls of virtue who had been recruited from French orphanages or convents, and although they were poor, were guaranteed to be virgins, and they were shipped off to New Orleans, with or against their wills.
The “consignment” of women came on the merchant ship “Pelican.”
Arriving in 1728, the poor girls disembarked in the port, pale and unwell after the journey that was supposed to take three months ended up lasting at least five.
However, appearing to the eager male on-lookers as almost more dead than alive, these poor fever-ridden girls carried their belongings in small cases which resembled burial caskets.
A far cry from the healthy and hearty young women the settlers had been expect, they were called filles à la cassette (literally “women with suitcases”). The word “cassette” morphed into “casquette” over time, and that translated to “casket”.
And needless to say, joy upon their arrival quickly faded, replaced with doubts and suspicions. Had the girls transported vampires with them into the new world? And what exactly was inside of those caskets? No one knew.
What people did know is that the mortality rate seemed to noticeably rise in New Orleans after the girls arrived. Of course, the climate was notoriously unhealthy at that time, and epidemics and diseases occurred with regularity.
In any case, deposited behind the Ursulines’ convent walls, those girls became boarders, and their cassettes/caskets were said to be stored on the third floor, perhaps with the girls themselves, locked away under the pretense of keeping them safe and cloistered.
And It is the same third floor that sparks the imagination and gives rise to vampire tales.
In any case, The city built the order’s first convent in 1734, a building that building was replaced by the existing convent in 1751 and now it is the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley.
The convent lies at 1100 Chartres Street where, not by chance, the shutters on the third-floor windows are always closed, even in New Orleans’ oppressive sultry summers.
It is further said, that each individual window shutters are nailed shut with nails blessed by Pope John Paul II, the first pontiff to visit New Orleans in 1987, despite locals have seen those shuttered windows fly open of their own accord.
And somewhere in history the tale of vampires escaping from the third floor to prey upon the hapless in the French Quarter was born.
Interestingly, it seems that, in 1978, a pair paranormal investigators snuck into over the walls in the darkness of night to see if the casket girls were, in fact vampires. And the following morning, their bodies were found ravaged and drained of blood.
Myth or truth, tourists love to hear it, and what we do know is that the Casket Girls went on to make some brilliant marriages in their initial years in the French Quarter. And it’s said that almost of all of New Orleans can trace their lineage back to one of the young women sent from France to become the French Creoles’ brides.
Images from web – Google Research