Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Southern Feast of All Souls—“Hellish Paradises”

My earlier articles on the haunted plantations of Louisiana’s River Road are among the most visited articles on my blog. Therefore, I’ve decided to revisit and update some of these articles.

The plantation is one of the most iconic images of historical South and Louisiana has preserved many of these cherished places. Some of these grand homes are run as museums while others host guests as bed and breakfasts. Others still have been reduced to ruins.

What is often forgotten, however, is that these plantations were built on the backs of enslaved labor, mostly African. While these grand estates served as paradises for the ruling class—which in Louisiana included people of French and Spanish origin as well as occasionally mixed race people and even freedmen—these same estates were often pure hell for the enslaved. It’s no wonder that these hellish paradises have been imprinted by all the tragedy and triumph they have been witness to. These are some of their stories.

Oak Alley Plantation
3645 Louisiana Highway 18
Vacherie

Of Louisiana’s plantations, Oak Alley is certainly the most iconic with its alley of 14 majestic oaks that frame the view of the house from the river. When viewed from the river, the main house appears tiny, but up close, the home’s 28 peripteral columns seem to translate the trunks of the oaks into classical architectural terms. The oak alley was planted some years prior to the construction of the grand, colonnaded house which was begun in 1837 and was completed two years later. Jacques Telesphore Roman, for whom the house was constructed, owned the house until 1866 when it was sold and passed through the hands of a number of landowners. When Andrew and Josephine Stewart purchased the property in 1925, the house was in a state of serious decay. With the help of architect, Richard Koch, the house was returned to its former glory. It was the restoration of this plantation that started the movement to preserve other plantations in the area.

The house and its majestic grounds have been used in a number of films including 1964’s Bette Davis thriller, Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte, Interview with a Vampire and Primary Colors. Additionally, the music video for Beyoncé’s 2006 song, “Déjà Vu,” shows the singer dancing under the canopy of the oaks in front of the house.
 
Oak Alley Plantation. Photo 2012, by Emily Richarson, courtesy
of Wikipedia.
Among the shadows of the oaks and the house’s massive colonnade numerous spirits have been reported. At least two female spirits have been seen in and around the house including one that appeared in a photograph in 1987. A couple from Texas was taking pictures in the master bedroom of the house. A dress form that stands in that room appeared in one of the photographs to have a head on it. Oddly, the “head” is not reflected in a nearby mirror. Perhaps, Monsieur Roman’s wife, Celine has returned to have her photograph made.

Jeff Dwyer in his 2007, Ghost Hunter’s Guide to New Orleans, describes the sound of a carriage, complete with the rattle of chains and the neighing of horses, has been heard on the drive leading to the house. The Oak Alley website features a page of ghost stories including a note from a pair of tour guides who recall witnessing billowing dust and sound of horse’s hooves upon the gravel driveway when there was nothing to be seen.
 
A view of the main house at Oak Alley Plantation. Photo 2011,
by Emily Richardson, courtesy of Wikipedia.
One of the home’s staff members related a story to author Jill Pascoe which she included in her 2004 book, Louisiana’s Haunted Plantations. The staff member had begun securing the house for the night and was waiting on the final tour to finish. She took a seat in the parlor to wait. As she was sitting there she saw a woman dressed entirely in black and wearing a black veil approach the bottom of the staircase. The staff member stood to confront this visitor when the figure turned towards her and disappeared.

Investigations by Louisiana Spirit Paranormal Investigators have produced EVPs and many recorded personal experiences. In 2008, Oak Alley was investigated by the The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) as part of the Syfy Channel series, Ghost Hunters. The investigators came up with some interesting evidence. One piece of thermal imaging video shows something with a heat signature moving outside of a window. When Jason Hawes asked Grant Wilson (the main investigators) to step outside on the veranda outside of the window, nothing can be seen. Other evidence include a flashlight coming on by itself and hits on a K2 meter in response to questions.

Sources
Dwyer, Jeff. Ghost Hunter’s Guide to New Orleans. Gretna, LA:
     Pelican Publishing, 2007.
Episode 408, “Oak Alley Plantation.” Ghost Hunters. Syfy
     Channel. Originally aired 8 October 2008.
Ghost Tales.” Oak Alley Plantation. Accessed 31 January 2015.
Goeldner, Paul. National Register of Historic Places nomination form
     for Oak Alley Plantation. 3 July 1974.
Louisiana Spirits Paranormal Investigations. Investigation
     Report for Oak Alley Plantation. Accessed 7 September 2010.
Louisiana Spirits Paranormal Investigations. Investigation
     September 2010.
National Park Service. “Oak Alley Plantation.” Southeastern Louisiana:
     A National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary. Accessed
     6 September 2010.
Oak Alley Plantation. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed
     30 Janurary 2015.
Pascoe, Jill. Louisiana’s Haunted Plantations. Gilbert, AZ: Irongate
     Press, 2004.
Sillery, Barbara. The Haunting of Louisiana. Gretna, LA: Pelican
     Press, 2001.

San Francisco Plantation
2646 Louisiana Highway 44
Garyville

It’s not hard to imagine that San Francisco Plantation was designed by a deranged carnival clown. The house is representative of Steamboat Gothic architecture, a style the National Park Service describes as a “potpourri of architectural designs.” A dozen highly skilled slaves were purchased to aid in the construction of this brightly painted home. The immense cost of the house’s construction in 1849, may have led to the name of the house, a bastardization of “saint-frusquin” or “without all that one possesses.” Edmond Marmillion started off in enormous debt after he purchased the land from a free man of color, Elisée Rillieux, for nearly $100,000, a huge sum of money in the early 19th century.
 
Facade of San Francisco, 2011, by Elisa Rolle. Courtesy of
Wikipedia.
Marmillion created an extensive sugar plantation and eventually found financial success in the 1850s. But a pall of sickness hung over this successful period. Marmillion’s wife contracted tuberculosis and died in 1843. The couple’s eight children also contracted the dread disease and six of them died over a period of about 20 years. The marvelous plantation remained in the family until the late 19th century when it passed out of the family. Following the disastrous Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, many riverside plantations, including San Francisco, were threatened with destruction as the Army Corps of Engineers constructed a levee to contain the river. Some plantations were saved and the levee was rerouted to save San Francisco. The house remains, though a massive petroleum plant looms behind the house museum.
 
Oblique view of San Francisco, 2011, by Elisa Rolle. Courtesy
of Wikipedia.
With the dearth of complex and rich history at San Francisco, it is surprising that descriptions of the plantation’s spirits only amount to a few paragraphs. Most sources mention that the spirit of Charles Marmillion, one of Edmond’s sons, has been seen in the house. Psychics with one investigation team noted his sickly form in the office and one of the bedrooms. The apparitions of two young girls have been encountered playing under the trees around the house.

Sources
Brown, Alan. The Haunted South. Charleston, SC: History Press,
     2014.
Dwyer, Jeff. Ghost Hunter’s Guide to New Orleans. Gretna, LA:
     Pelican Publishing, 2007.
Goeldner, Paul. National Register of Historic Places nomination form
     for San Francisco Plantation. 17 January 1974.
Malone, Paul and Lee. The Majesty of River Road. Gretna, LA:
     Pelican Publishing, 1991.
National Park Service. “San Francisco Plantation House.”
     Southeastern Louisiana: A National Register of Historic
     Places Travel Itinerary. Accessed 6 September 2010.
Plantation History.” San Francisco Plantation. Accessed 31 January
     2015.
Sexton, Richard. Vestiges of Grandeur: The Plantations of Louisiana’s
     River Road. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 1999.

The Cottage Plantation
River Road at Duncan Point
Baton Rouge

On the 18th of February 1960, firefighters battling the lightning-caused blaze that destroyed The Cottage Plantation reported that they saw a man looking out one of the upper windows of the grand home. The firefighters yelled at him trying to encourage the gentleman to jump, but the man didn’t seem to notice the firefighters on the lawn or the flames that were engulfing the house in which he stood. Shortly after the man’s appearance, the roof collapsed. Human remains were not found in the smoldering ruins of The Cottage. Perhaps this may have been the same man whose visage was captured on film just ten years earlier peering out of the moldering house through a broken window.

Only forlorn columns standing in a weedy privately owned field mark the site of The Cottage alongside River Road just south of Baton Rouge. The home was constructed in 1824 as a wedding gift from Colonel Abner Duncan to his daughter, Frances and her husband, Frederick Daniel Conrad. It was under Conrad’s ownership that a certain Ezra Holt was brought to work at the plantation, though stories differ as to what his function was. All stories, however, point to Mr. Holt’s dedication to the Conrad family and The Cottage Plantation.

Legend speaks of Mr. Holt returning to the house after the Civil War to maintain it for the Conrad family. Living alone in the huge house, Holt became a recluse and is said to have grown a long, white beard. After he passed, he was buried in a family cemetery on the site, though stories emerged describing his spirit as continuing to wander the house and grounds. There is some indication that these stories may have been produced to keep vandals and curiosity-seekers away from the decaying house. The house was restored by members of the Conrad family in 1920 and was used as a museum, even appearing in a few films including the 1957 Clark Gable vehicle, Band of Angels.

Even before it was destroyed by fire, visitors and staff reported seeing a man with a long beard wandering the halls of the house. Even now, many years after its destruction, stories of a man seen among the ruins persist. Some, who have trespassed beyond the electric fence that now surrounds the ruins (I cannot recommend anyone breaking the law to see the ruins up close), have reported hearing voices and the sounds of a spectral party among the decrepit columns of the once grand home.

Sources
Duvernay, Adam. “Several Baton Rouge sites said to be haunted.”
     The Daily Reveille. 27 October 2009.
Dwyer, Jeff. Ghost Hunter’s Guide to New Orleans. Gretna, LA:
     Pelican Publishing, 2007.
Franklin, Wade. “Ghostly Thought—Haunted House Tour.”
     Waukesha Daily Freeman (Waukesha, WI). 21 April 1977.
Pascoe, Jill. Louisiana’s Haunted Plantations. Gilbert, AZ: Irongate
     Press, 2004.
Steed, Bud. Haunted Baton Rouge. Charleston, SC: History Press,
     2013.
Stefko, Jill. “Haunted Cottage Plantation: One Ghost is Mr. Holt.”
     Suite 101. 21 October 2011.
Taylor, Troy. “The Cottage Plantation.” Ghosts of the Prairie. 1999.


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