Ghost Stories of Old New Orleans as a Source and a Model

By Frank de Caro


Jeanne deLavigne's book Ghost Stories of Old New Orleans was published in 1946 by Rinehart and Company.1 For several years the book was out of print and available only at considerable expense from antiquarian book dealers. In 2013, however, Louisiana State University Press brought out a new edition in paperback,2 making the material in the book more accessible to readers and to folklore scholars. Minimal attention has been given to local legends of the supernatural in New Orleans and deLavigne's book represents one of the few attempts to make such legends known in print.3 As it becomes better known, it is likely to be considered an important source for studying New Orleans legends, and legends of the supernatural specifically. Although it is not a folklore collection, deLavigne, who was a journalist and writer of fiction, presents her narratives in literary versions that much expand on what must have been the oral versions of the legends she included. This book presents its material in a manner suited to its imprint of the 1940s and it includes material that today would be considered racist or otherwise inappropriate. On the other hand, it does give us material collected in a different time period and is valuable in preserving not only material that may no longer be part of oral tradition but also an older layer of legend and is thus an important source of material relating to the supernatural. Ghost Stories of Old New Orleans presents what can best be described as literary versions of legendary material.

Whether we are talking about New Orleans or another place, it is difficult to determine the extent of these legends. Such narratives tend to be highly localized, known perhaps mostly to the members of a family or to those who live in a restricted geographical location. This may be because a ghost is thought to have appeared to a family member or in a family-related place only or to haunt a particular place known to a small number of people, perhaps only those living nearby. This situation may be amplified by the stigma attached to believing in ghosts, which our “modern” society imposes. Those who know of a haunting may be reluctant to speak of it, lest they reveal their possible belief in its reality, and they certainly will not speak of it widely. deLavigne herself commented on this to a New Orleans Times Picayune reporter, Marta Lamar, in 1946, just before the book came out. deLavigne was interviewed for an article in that paper in connection with the book (Lamar 1946). She noted that she was surprised to find how many people believed in the existence of ghosts, yet were reluctant to admit to such a belief lest they be ridiculed by society.

How deLavigne found the stories she included in the book is not entirely clear, though we can surmise a few things from what she says in the book and what she told Lamar for the newspaper story. Evidently, she read old diaries and newspapers. Local newspapers would take note when people claimed to have seen a ghost; she mentions that in New Orleans, the old Crescent and Delta were particularly fruitful sources. Her story “The White Skiff,” for example, might be traced to an article which appeared in the New Orleans Picayune in 1874 (April 29, 1874:67). In the newspaper account the writer and his companions fire on a ghostly boat that appears in the New Basin Canal, and when the boat turns out to be quite real and corporeal its occupants become rather annoyed. Clearly, the phenomenon that people were discussing was appearing on the Canal to attract the paper's attention. deLavigne corresponded with a number of people, writing “hundreds” of letters, she says, to people she thought might know about ghosts, while she also conducted “scores” of face-to-face interviews with people who told her ghost stories. Her book includes one or two well-known ghost legends. Among such familiar stories is the the Lalaurie house on Royal Street, known in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries simply as the Haunted House and the location for what was probably the most widely-circulated group of ghost legends. Today, it is still a de rigeur stop for twenty-first-century ghost tours (De Caro 2015).4 Of course as time passes, the stigma attached to ghost beliefs has faded, and though some take ghost tours as pure entertainment, others no doubt are looking for possible encounters with the supernatural. In recent years, because the New Orleans economy has become so oriented to tourism, ghost tours have become very popular. In New Orleans, these tours are available almost every night of the year and are offered by more than one company. Typically a guide/lecturer, who typically wears some sort of costume suggesting earlier times and who might carry a staff used to direct the tour, will take a group of tourists to various locations in the French Quarter and dramatically recount legends of hauntings associated with those spots. How long these tours have been offered is unclear (ten to twenty years at most) but they have become the primary means by which ghost legends are orally told today. Although the guides seem to prefer stories told directly to them by people who believe they have encountered ghosts, one guide did indicate to me some awareness of deLavigne's book and its use in shaping these tours.

At any rate, by the time the Federal Writers' Project-produced folklore book Gumbo Ya-Ya appeared, the story of Lalaurie had become so well known that its authors decided only to mention and not retell it (Saxon, Tallant, and Dreyer 1945:293). Most of the legends in deLavigne's book, however, were not so widely known, a fact in keeping with ghost legends (and perhaps with many other local legends).

Jeanne deLavigne was not a folklorist but a journalist employed by newspapers in several Southern cities, and she also wrote short stories and novels, mostly with her husband, Pennsylvania- born James Rutherford Scott, who published under the name Jacques Rutherford. She was a somewhat obscure writer, and it was with some difficulty and the help of an LSU Press editor that I was able to find out that she had moved from New Orleans after her husband's 1949 death and settled across Lake Pontchartrain in the town of Franklinton, where she herself died in 1962 (though she is buried in New Orleans, where I found her grave in St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery). deLavigne may have started with the basic stories she collected, but she took author's license and developed characters, extended plots and added numerous details.

One thinks of Zora Neale Hurston's experiences a decade earlier with her own book Mules and Men (1935). Hurston, who had studied at Columbia with Franz Boas, spoke proudly of her membership in the American Folklore Society and had been deeply impressed by “scientific” approaches to folklore that stressed the need to reproduce texts and to reproduce them accurately. She found it impossible to interest commercial publishers in her proposed book until she added engaging accounts of her journeys in finding the folklore, including her texts in a narrative attempt to provide context. deLavigne does not provide context (and her book does not approach Mules and Men in quality) but does attempt to fill out what must have been relatively spare legend texts by undertaking the writing of developed, literary variants. (Obviously she invented some material, even basic plot elements. For example, her version of the Lalaurie story includes aspects found nowhere else, indeed some that might be seen as particularly gory.)

In general, we need to consider to what extent deLavigne may have changed legend to suit her own needs as a writer and to have her book published. In one chapter, more a tale of the supernormal than a ghost story, a woman called Josie Deubler constructed a tomb in Metairie Cemetery which exactly matches her family tomb in Germany. Then it was widely noticed that the tomb seemed to shine with a mysterious red light. Actually—and this is not part of deLavigne's account’a woman born as Mary Deubler became the famous madame Josie Arlington, who ran a celebrated brothel in New Orleans's semi-legal red light district Storyville (which was to play an important role in the development of jazz). She did indeed construct an expensive tomb where she was interred and it did seem to emit a mysterious red light (leading to the local joke that she was carrying on her profession after death). Later, the light was debunked as not being of supernatural origin but by reflections of a traffic light outside the cemetery fence. Much of deLavigne's chapter recounts the story of a bronze statue of a woman on the tomb (another local joke portrayed this as a woman looking for work in the brothel) which was supposedly seen moving about the cemetery. But why did deLavigne not identify the tomb builder as the notorious Josie Arlington and why did she say nothing of Arlington/Deubler's Storyville connection? Had she not heard the jokes? Did deLavigne come upon a variant of the story in tradition, or did she feel that the actual Storyville context and the subject's real identity made the story unseemly and censored it either out of concern for local sensibilities or to make the story more acceptable for publication? It is virtually impossible to say, though we need to wonder about the possibilities in order to judge the accuracy of deLavigne's material in relation to its underlying legendry.

As has been said, Jeanne deLavigne, though she certainly hunted for legends, was not essentially a folklore collector, but a writer—a journalist and an author of fiction. Because she turned the collected legends into more developed, more publishable stories, we can look at Ghost Stories of Old New Orleans as a repository of literary versions of oral stories, and we can look at how a writer develops spare oral narratives into more elaborately wrought written versions. We can do this for a number of deLavigne's stories because some of the ghost legends she recounts also appear, in a form closer to the oral, in Gumbo Ya-Ya: A Collection of Louisiana Folk Tales, the book which, as has been observed numerous times, is not a collection of tales at all (but which does include rewritten oral narratives) and was produced by the federally-supported, New Deal-era Louisiana Writers' Project, a local branch of the national Federal Writers' Project. Among other endeavors, the Project sent out whole teams to collect folklore, and these collectors found a variety of ghost stories that were told within the state. deLavigne includes some of the same stories. She may have encountered these stories in connection with her own research, or she may have taken them from the Project's collections; it's unclear. Though its material was collected in the 1930s, Gumbo Ya-Ya appeared in 1945,5 the year before deLavigne's book, so deLavigne could have known the Writers' Project book itself, but given the time necessary to produce a book she might not have had sufficient time to see the earlier book and make use of it. She did know at least one of the editors of Gumbo Ya-Ya, Robert Tallant, for there is a portrait photo of her and inscribed by her to him in the collection of photographs he gave to the New Orleans Public Library. It is possible that he gave her access to the Louisiana Writers' Project materials, which had been collected years earlier, but we just don't know.

Gumbo Ya-Ya's editors were, like deLavigne, primarily journalists and writers, and the book does not contain actual texts of ghost legends. It does contain, however, rather basic recountings of the legends that could be considered close to the actual recountings. Wherever she drew her material from, deLavigne wrote detailed stories, and it can be instructive to look at her embellishments in light of the earlier versions, indicating something of what a writer does to elaborate on oral narrative.

For example, deLavigne includes a narrative she entitled “The Golden Brown Woman” (29-34).6 In Gumbo Ya-Ya this is given as the story of “a quadroon slave girl” and the account is provided in a short paragraph:

This girl was the mistress of a young, aristocratic Creole. Ambitious, she demanded marriage, and her lover promised to give her his name if she would prove her love by spending the night on the rooftop naked. It was December and bitter cold, but the girl, determined to take her place as his wife, mounted to the roof and removed her clothes. Within a few hours she collapsed from the cold and died. Now this young and beautiful shade still does her phantasmal strip-tease on December nights. Or so say the neighbors (293).

deLavigne writes a five page account, provides the woman with a name, Julie, tells how people have climbed to the roof in search of her, gives Julie motivation for seeking an impossible marriage, provides dialogue for a scene in which the lover proposes the rooftop feat, and ends with a scene in the lovers' bedroom.

Or take the ghost of Père Dagobert, an early pastor of St. Louis Cathedral, said to still haunt the church and to be audible as he sings the sacred songs he loved in his lifetime. Gumbo Ya-Ya, in a bare two paragraphs (294), speaks of Dagobert's love of worldly pleasures, notably fine clothing and good food, and of how his ghost appears to be wearing splendid dress. deLavigne agrees, then, he was attached to worldly pleasures, but ties him in with the events of 1769, when the Spanish took over Louisiana and executed several French leaders who had led a rebellion (3-15). When the Spanish governor left their bodies to rot, Dagobert organized a decent burial for them, and deLavigne works into her eleven page account a description of the procession to the cemetery and the burial in the rain. She goes on to write of the Spanish bishop's unsuccessful attempt to remove Dagobert from his post, and includes dialogue in his conversations with local ladies. deLavigne may have been building on oral traditions she had collected or she may simply have decided to work historical information into the story, but she certainly created a much more nuanced account of the haunting that we find in Gumbo Ya-Ya. That is, we get a literary presentation of legend.

Jeanne deLavigne was not creating fictions out of the legends she encountered. Rather her literary presentations of legend are just that, written and developed stories which follow basic legend plots but elaborate the narrative with literary elements like dialogue. She did so because readers expect, or at any rate publishers think that readers expect more than the bare texts that oral legends, when written down, often are. Whether readers do indeed want more than the texts folklorists are usually wont to provide is an open question, but if they do, Ghost Stories of Old New Orleans presents one model—Mules and Men and J. Frank Dobie's Tongues of the Monte (1935)7 present others—for how a writer can turn the oral into the written, while it also provides a useful source, however removed its texts may be from the oral, for those looking at Louisiana supernatural legend.


1. Jeanne deLavigne, Ghost Stories of Old New Orleans (New York: Rinehart and Company, 1946).

2. Jeanne deLavigne, Ghost Stories of Old New Orleans, foreword Frank de Caro (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013).

3. See, for example, the series of books by Victor C. Klein, beginning with New Orleans Ghosts (Metairie: Lycanthrope Press, 1996).

4. See, for example, Frank de Caro, “The Lalaurie House, Ghosts and Slavery,” in Putting the Supernatural in Its Place: Folklore, the Hypermodern and the Ethereal, ed. Jeannie Banks Thomas (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2015), 24-48.

5. Saxon, Tallant, and Dreyer, op cit.

6. The LSU edition of 2013 is a facsimile edition and thus exactly reproduces the pagination of the original 1946 edition; the foreword to the LSU Press edition is separately paginated.

7. Dobie's book and Hurston's are discussed in Frank de Caro and Rosan Augusta Jordan, Re-Situating Folklore: Folk Contexts and Twentieth-Century Literature and Art (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2004), 239-263.


de Caro, Frank. “The Lalaurie House, Ghosts and Slavery.” In Putting the Supernatural in Its Place: Folklore, the Hypermodern and the Ethereal, edited by Jeannie Banks Thomas, pp. 24-48. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2015.

de Caro, Frank and Rosan Augusta Jordan. Re-Situating Folklore: Folk Contexts and Twentieth-Century Literature and Art. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2004.

deLavigne, Jeanne. Ghost Stories of Old New Orleans. Foreword Frank de Caro. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013.

_____. Ghost Stories of Old New Orleans. New York: Rinehart and Company, 1946.

Dobie, J. Frank. Tongues of the Monte. New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1935.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules and Men. Introduction by Franz Boas. Illustrations by Miguel Covarrubias. Philadelphia and London: J.B. Lippincott, 1935.

Klein, Victor C. New Orleans Ghosts. Metairie, LA: Lycanthrope Press, 1996.

Lamar, Marta. “Author Links Ghost Stories to Reality.” New Orleans Times-Picayune, August 4, 1946, 67.

New Orleans Picayune, April 29, 1874, 67.

Saxon, Lyle, Robert Tallant and Edward Dreyer, eds. Gumbo Ya-Ya: A Collection of Louisiana Folk Tales. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1945.

This article was first published in the 2015 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany. Folklorist Frank de Caro taught folklore at Louisiana State University, is now retired, and living in New Orleans.