A mysterious group of young ladies arrived from France in 1728, supposedly to become the wives of the colonists who built this unlikely city in a swamp. But each girl carried only one item: a coffin just large enough to sleep in. They were quickly whisked away to the third floor of the Ursuline Convent and the windows tightly shuttered. Rumor has it that shortly after the “coffin girls” arrived, the city’s death rates doubled. And the legend of New Orleans vampires was born.
Placage - 1840s
The battle for power across racial lines leads to a strange custom known as placage, a form of common law marriage. Many wealthy young Creole gentleman take quadroom (1/4 black) or octoroon (1/8 black) mistresses. Prized for their exotic beauty, these girls are presented by their mothers at elaborate balls whose sole purpose is to find them a rich white suitor. The girls are treated well, housed in fancy apartments and given lavish spending accounts, and their children are often considered legitimate heirs. But they are not allowed to marry, and most Creole gentlemen end up also taking a wife of "proper" lineage.
New Orleans Piracy
At the turn of the 19th century, New Orleans was a freewheeling, fabulously wealthy port city—a natural choice for those looking to make a quick buck. The most legendary were pirate brothers Jean and Pierre Lafitte, whose blacksmith shop at the corner of Bourbon and St. Philip was merely a cover. They were bold, openly selling their wares in the shadow of St. Louis Cathedral, but the authorities were cracking down. Shortly after the War of 1812 broke out, Pierre was indicted and jailed for piracy.
Jean was approached by the British with an offer to turn privateer, but he chose the American side instead. In exchange for a full pardon for Pierre and all his men, Jean became a hero during the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.
Although privateering remained an important part of warfare through the Civil War, piracy went into decline. Aggressive military action, coupled with a new generation of metal steamships, made it tough to make a living. Yet some pirates continued on, unwilling or unable to adapt to a new life.
Voodoo and Catholicism
Slaves were baptized Roman Catholic, and were unable to openly practice their ancient African religions. Then one fateful day in the 1820s, famed voodoo queen Marie Laveau struck a deal with parish priest Pere Antoine, who was struggling with declining attendance at the St. Louis Cathedral: "You leave me and my voodoo practitioners alone, and I’ll make sure there are butts in every seat at your church on Sundays."
Thus began a strange alliance that continues to this day. Marie and her followers began charging admission to public voodoo rituals in Congo Square, and many Catholics of all races began to adopt voodoo as another aspect to their religion. Of course, there were also secret rituals, hidden from public viewing and attended only by the most fervent voodoo practitioners.
Voodoo queen Marie Laveau, who lived in the charming cottage here, was instrumental in the development of Congo Square (now Armstrong Park). Located across Rampart Street next to St. Louis Cemetery #1, Congo Square was long a meeting place for slaves, who were given Sundays and holidays off work under the Code Noir (Black Code). Beginning in 1817, slaves were guaranteed the right to freely congregate, dance, and even set up a market to sell their wares. In the 1820s, Marie Laveau struck a deal with parish priest Pere Antoine that also gave slaves the right to openly practice voodoo in Congo Square, and even sell tickets to these rituals. Although the public voodoo rituals disappeared by the 1860s, Congo Square has remained a center of black life in New Orleans ever since, even contributing heavily to the development of the distinctive New Orleans jazz sound.
New Orleans was, quite literally, built by vagabonds. In November 1718, just 8 months after explorer Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, decided to build a city in the middle of the Louisiana swamp, Paris passed an ordinance directing authorities to arrest all of that city’s vagabonds and send them to Louisiana to help build the new city. Over the next decades, New Orleans was populated by dangerous men and the teenage girls who were tricked into marrying them.
Despite this inauspicious start, though, New Orleans flourished. Thanks to its location at the mouth of the Mississippi River, by the 1840s, New Orleans was the wealthiest and most glittering city in the United States.
Yet New Orleans never forgot its roots. From its earliest beginnings through today, New Orleans has always been the place that people go to disappear. But life on the streets is tough, and only the strong can survive.
French Creole Society
New Orleans’ earliest French settlers used the word “Creole” to describe people of color, including slaves, who were born in the New World. However, the word evolved following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the flood of immigrants that followed. Eager to differentiate themselves from those who were just moving in, by the 1840s, the descendants of the original French settlers were referring to themselves as Creoles as well.
French Creole society was highly refined, well-mannered, and extremely hedonistic. Creole life was filled to overflowing with hand crafted cocktails, all-night masquerade balls, and dazzling nighttime parades illuminated by "flambeaux" (African-American torchbearers who, to this day, walk alongside the floats to provide illumination, and are noted for their elaborate fire dancing routines).
Of course, in a city founded on impossible dreams, nothing is ever as it seems. Then, as now, the genteel veneer hid a web of intrigue and double-dealing. And in the 1840s, gentlemen’s duels with swords or pistols were the respectable way to settle a dispute.
Known as the Place d’Armes under French rule and Plaza de Armas under the Spanish, the French Quarter’s central plaza was renamed Jackson Square in honor of Battle of New Orleans hero Andrew Jackson in 1851. Jackson himself returned to New Orleans in 1840 to lay the cornerstone for a battle monument, which was unveiled in 1856 as a sculpture of Jackson on horseback.
During the 1840s, the Place d’Armes underwent rapid and dramatic changes. Under the influence of the tremendously wealthy and refined Baroness Micaela Almonester Pontalba, the square transitioned from a military training ground and public execution site to an elegant public park festooned with wrought iron. St. Louis Cathedral was remodeled, and the square was flanked by the massive Pontalba Buildings. Four stories tall and one block long, the Pontalba Buildings still feature shops and restaurants on the ground floor and high-end apartments above.
An open public meeting spot, the Place d’Armes was, and is, one of the few places in the city where people of different social and economic classes could freely mingle. To observe the rawest and most powerful aspects of the human condition, one needs only to hover in the shadows as a typical night in the square unfolds.