While New Orleans cemeteries like St. Louis Cemetery #1, which is located on the boundary of the French Quarter, have claim to fame for being the oldest grave site still in existence within the Crescent City, Metairie Cemetery has a different claim to fame.
Of the forty-two cemeteries in the New Orleans-metro area, Metairie Cemetery is considered the most beautiful and elaborate. With tombs structured like Egyptian pyramids, abandoned British castles and grandiose mausoleums, it’s no wonder that this historic cemetery was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1991.
Over 7,000 tombs and 150-acres comprise this century-old grave site, and visitors can spend days meandering through the wide, open lawn space. Have I mentioned the ghosts which still haunt this grave site?
After all, it only makes sense that the dead buried at Metairie Cemetery that they simply may not want to pass over to The Other Side.
The subject of “burying” people was allegedly the prime reason for establishing Metairie Cemetery.
It was the year 1838, and the grounds with which the cemetery sits presently were then a horse racing track. Its name was Metairie Race Course and the track had only just opened. Quickly, though, the track became the most visited horse racing track for those in the area.
The French Creoles came. The Americans came. They gambled, won and lost—sometimes all in one breath. Legend has it that Charles Howard, who made it big by striking gold from the (corrupt) Louisiana State Lottery Company, sought admission to the privately owned, Metairie Jockey Club. During the early-to-mid nineteenth century, the Metairie Jockey Club held the reins and owned the track. Charles Howard applied for admission. The Metairie Jockey Club soundly rejected him.
Naturally, the refusal of the most elite club in the city would infuriate anyone, and Charles Howard was no exception. He swore right then and there that he would bury them all by turning the racetrack into a cemetery. (Nothing screams more “serious” than threatening to put people six feet under).
Locals claimed that the spat between Howard and the Metairie Jockey Club was just another tiff between the Americans and the Creoles. For years there had been no lost love between the two cultural groups, and Howard was accused of helping the American culture to pollute "[the Creoles’] beloved disappearing new Orleans society."
Howard succeeded in accomplishing his mission because he created the largest—not to mention the most beautiful—cemetery in the city!
And . . . Well, that’s not quite how the Metairie Cemetery came to be. (Although Charles Howard’s claim that he would “bury the Creoles" does make for a good story, doesn’t it?)
There are some key facts that ring true from the story told about Metairie Cemetery’s origins. Metairie Race Course did open in 1838, and it was the most elite track in the whole city of New Orleans.
But then the Civil War struck and the race course fell on hard times. During those battle-weary years of the 1860s, the Race Course was actually converted into an army training camp. By the close of the War, the Metairie Race Course had lost its luster and was unable to recoup from its military years. Some members from the Metairie Jockey Club left to form the Fair Grounds Racetrack, which still exists today.
That was when fortune-winner Charles Howard appeared on the scene in an attempt to rekindle the Metairie Jockey Club. Howard’s urgings didn’t quite work. The race course soon after came to an end, and in 1872, the cemetery was established under the name, Metairie Cemetery Association.
For visitors and locals alike driving into New Orleans on I-10 Eastbound, Metairie Cemetery is one of the first sites spotted over the beige concrete railings of the highway. Even the quickest glimpse is enough to show that this cemetery? Well, this cemetery is nothing short of enormous.
The initial surveyors did this on purpose.
Mark Twain once called New Orleans cemeteries, the “Cities of the Dead,” thanks to their architectural style of being aboveground tombs. But he also gave the nickname because, in reality, cemeteries in New Orleans tended to be rather claustrophobic and labyrinth-like. Sure, some were worse than others (St. Louis Cemetery #1, I am looking at you), but for the most part all of the tombs in the city were stacked next to each other like a miniature version of the townhouses in the French Quarter.
For the surveyors, Metairie Cemetery was meant to be something else. Inspiration was found in the sprawling, rolling green hill cemeteries of New England—nothing of its kind existed in New Orleans, and the Metairie Cemetery Association was determined to create a grave site that looked much like an urban park.
The designer Colonel Benjamin Morgan Henry refused to destroy the foundation of the horse race track, so the cemetery and its tombs were laid out within the concentric ovals patterns of the original track.
Though Metairie Cemetery is “newer” in comparison to many of the other cemeteries within the New Orleans-metro area, it’s certainly not lacking in famous people who have been interred in one of the 7,000 tombs on site.
Here are just a few interesting people you might find at the grave site:
Pinchback is, and was, Louisiana’s only black governor. He was born in 1837 to a white father and a mother of mixed race, but after his father’s death when Pinchback was quite young, he and his immediate family fled to New Orleans. He worked as a Mississippi River boat captain and also served in the Civil War. During Reconstruction, Pinchback’s political career leapt off. He became lieutenant governor in 1871, and when the governor was impeached soon after, Pinchback inherited the position. He was responsible for establishing Southern University, and was buried in a private family tomb in Metairie Cemetery at the time of his death.
Claiborne, another governor of Louisiana, was actually the first American governor following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The Virginia-born Claiborne had his work cut out for him. Not only could he not speak French, which rendered him pretty helpless in a French-dominated region, but he also faced the struggle of assimilating a French and Spanish colony into an American nation. Also, the fact that Claiborne struggled to imprison the infamous pirate Jean Lafitte for years shouldn’t be forgotten either.
Behrman can probably be most remembered by the fact that he wholly supported the civic implementation of Storyville, New Orleans’ legal red-light district, at the turn of the twentieth century. In fact, he supported it so much that when the US Navy threatened to shut down Storyville in 1917, Behrman traveled to Washington, D.C. to put his two cents in. Unfortunately, Behrman didn’t get his way, but his final comment on the matter was spread far and wide: “You can make it illegal, but you can’t make it unpopular.”
By 1969, the Metairie Cemetery Association was enveloped within Steward Enterprises, who have literally—in all nuances of the word—made a living off of the dead. Since 1910 when the company was founded, Steward Enterprises has amassed over three hundred funeral homes and over 120 cemeteries.
(Slightly creepy, right?)
While Steward Enterprises has infiltrated the “after-dead” market, Metairie Cemetery has found itself from a horse race track to a grave site with ghosts who just won’t quit. After all, they now have 150 acres to haunt and roam around to their hearts’ content . . .
“Who kill da chief?” were the words chanted as an angry mob swarmed the parish prison in Congo Square. But who killed him? Well, it wasn’t just one person but a whole slew of them.
David Hennessey was the New Orleans police chief during the late nineteenth century. The era was known for its police corruption, political corruption, and all around civic corruption. (New Orleans, more than any other city, has been unable to shake off its debauched origins). But Police Chief David Hennessey was a good guy, an honest guy, and was relatively well-liked within the city.
But disputes with the Italian mafia had struck up, occurring with more regularity, and Hennessey had had enough. When two mafia groups erupted into an all out battle amidst the streets of New Orleans, Hennessey ordered his officers to make a “Keep Watch” List. Others called it the “Lists of Undesirables” but it was all the same: the majority of the people on the list were of Italian descent.
The Italians called it “racist” and “discriminatory” while Hennessey no doubt probably would have viewed it as taking precaution against anyone who could have been involved with the mafia.
David Hennessey was shot in front of his house not long after. And the suspects? The police department targeted the Italians, rounding up nineteen that they suspected of having their hands red with blame. Ultimately the Italians were acquitted, as the prosecutor refused to use the confession from one of the accused.
Hennessey’s murderers were never arrested, and it is for that reason that the mob rallied together to take action. When they reached Congo Square, they brutally murdered eleven of the acquitted suspects, all in the name of “vengeance.” The United States was actually forced to pay reparations to the Italian government, as three of the dead suspects were Italian citizens.
The actions taken against the Italians that day in New Orleans remains the largest mass lynching in American history, but is it for that reason or the fact that Hennessey’s life was stripped away that his ghost still haunts Metairie Cemetery?
Visitors of his nineteenth century tomb have remarked upon seeing Hennessey’s ghost walk around the cemetery. His spirit is always dressed in his police uniform and, according to witnesses, it seems as though Hennessey has stuck around after death in order to look out for vandals and grave robbers threatening any of the tombs or memorials.
A police chief to his dying day—and after, too, it seems.
You read that correctly. How haunted would Metairie Cemetery be if the grave site’s own founder wasn’t still camping out?
While Charles Howard’s tomb is situated in the epicenter of the cemetery, people have claimed to hear his ghost . . . within his tomb. Disembodied noises emanate from the nineteenth century memorial; so distinctly loud are they that visitors passing by stop to glance at each other.
But no. It’s never the case of the living, and always the case of the dead. What could Charles Howard’s spirit be doing in his tomb, causing all of that ruckus and commotion? Your guess is as good as mine, but it’s safe to say that he’s just as much of a character now as he was when he was alive.
Before the US Navy Department shut down Storyville for good in 1917, it had had a good run leading back to 1897, when it was conceived by Alderman Sidney Story. The notorious red light district took off running, and one of its most famous madams was a woman by the name of Josie Arlington.
That wasn’t always her name—she’d actually been birthed Mary Anna Duebler in 1864. By the age of four, Josie was orphaned, however, and placed in St. Elizabeth’s Home under the Sisters of Charity. (It’s safe to say that the nuns’ “guidance” didn’t quite rub too well with Josie).
She was only a teenager when she turned to prostitution under the more masculine guidance of Philip Lobrano. Together, they operated a bordello. That it, until Lobrano
got into fisticuffs with her brother, Peter, and shot him right in the heart in the parlor of the brothel. Josie kicked Lobrano out, and decided to shed her violent reputation for a more luxurious one.
(By this time, she’d already bit off a fellow prostitute’s ears and lips).
Still, Josie did incredibly well for herself. She disallowed virgins from working at her brothel, and was known to charge visiting johns exorbitant fees for some time with one of her girls. Then, in 1905, her brothel the Arlington burned down. Josie never truly regained her same level of gumption from before the fire, and as the story goes, she grew obsessed with the subject of death.
She purchased a burial plot at Metairie Cemetery, among the uppercuts of society, for #2,000, and then built her elaborate tomb for a subsequent $8,000. The mausoleum was a masterpiece, though, and was equipped with a womanly statue who turned her back against all of the other tombs; the statue exists in motion, as if seeking entry into through the bronze door into the tomb itself. Two flaming urns are positioned on either side of the entrance.
When Josie died in 1914, her body was interred within her tomb. It didn’t stay there for long. Her lover had married her niece, and within a decade had squandered nearly all of Josie’s money. Her body was then exhumed and moved elsewhere, and it seems as though Josie Arlington has still not found peace.
Her tomb is allegedly the most paranormally active in all of Metairie Cemetery. Across the street from her tomb was a streetlight, its bulb glowing red. Except that the light was known to flash against Josie’s tomb, and reports surfaced that the matching urns were known to be lit with flame. Her mausoleum earned the nickname, “The Flaming Tomb."
Then, crowds began to gather on a near-nightly basis to watch. People claimed to see the statute crack from its frozen position and begin to bang angrily on the tomb’s bronzed door, demanding entrance. Some wondered if perhaps the statue was possessed by the spirit of one of the virgins turned away from working at Josie’s brothel.
The nightly vigil by locals and tourists grew to such masses that Josie Arlington’s body was once again exhumed and moved to an unknown location, where she is still buried today.
But the paranormal activity has not stopped. Gravediggers have witnessed the statue move from its position, and visitors have still spotted the urns glowing red with fire. If it is Josie’s spirit haunting the site of her first tomb, it’s quite likely that she has not found closure after death leaving her ghost to wander the plane of the living for all eternity . . .
Are you interested in taking a peek into Metairie Cemetery for yourself? There are buses you can take to the location, and it’s not all too far for a cab ride either. Make sure to save a good part of the day for wandering, though, because this cemetery is huge! (No, really, it’s ginormous)
They are open daily, from the hours: 7:30am - 5:30pm.
And if you’re interested in learning more about some of the people discussed in this article—Josie Arlington and David Hennessey, for example—be sure to check out our Killers and Thrillers Ghost Tour and Ghosts of New Orleans Tour where we visit the old location of Storyville or the site of a different mafia murder!