From one of the balconies overlooking Orleans Avenue at night, the sight of Touchdown Jesus’ haunting silhouette keeps watch over St. Louis Cathedral and the many pedestrians hurrying off to bars, restaurants or ghost tours. Laughter and the heavy bass of drums from nearby Bourbon Street catch on the breeze like the scent of jasmine in the springtime.
Though the scent in the air during the rest of the year is no less pleasant: the rich flare of gumbo from Roux, the Creole cuisine restaurant downstairs, is a very good alternative.
There is no better place to experience the vitality of the French Quarter, or the mystery of its illustrious past, than on the balconies belonging to the much sought-after and luxurious Bourbon Orleans Hotel. The Bourbon Orleans is one of the many haunted Hotels in New Orleans.
Nestled in a lot adjacent to the Cathedral, the Bourbon Orleans sits between ritzy Royal Street (an antique-lovers dream) and the notoriously infamous Bourbon Street (a night owl’s dream). Nothing could reflect the rich history of the Bourbon Orleans Hotel more appropriately than its placement in the French Quarter between heaven and hell, except for maybe the ghosts who still walk the corridors of the hotel.
In its earliest incarnation, the Bourbon Orleans was not a hotel at all, but a theatre. Although plans for the Theatre d’Orleans were drawn up initially in 1806, the War of 1812 put a damper on its construction and the structure was not finished until 1815. Architecturally built in the French-Provincial style, the theatre was said to rival even the most ornate opera houses in Europe. Fate dealt an unforgiving hand, however, and one year later the Theatre d’Orleans met its end in a round of arson and fire. Entrepreneur and Sante Domingue refugee, John Davis, rebuilt the theatre, and no sooner had it opened did the theatre became an international hit and the first of its kind in the United States.
In the first five years of its debut, 140 operas were performed at the theatre. In the winter months, Davis operated out of New Orleans; during the hot, scorching summers when yellow fever scoured the city and the number of dead laid in the thousands, his theatre company toured the United States. Within the border of the Crescent City, though, a rival opera house popped up on Camp Street. At one point, both theatres put on the same opera within a two-month span of each other! (For those wondering: apparently the Theatre d’Orleans sealed the deal and put on a better show.) The competitions ended in 1847 when the Camp Street Theatre was destroyed by fire--anyone else wondering how pleased John Davis must have been when he heard the news of his arch-rival’s demise?
Davis was not content with just the success of the Theatre d’Orleans. Soon after its opening, he constructed the Salle d’Orleans, also known as the Orleans Ballroom, directly next door. This ballroom was destined to be the hotspot for Creole society in New Orleans. Women danced, their eyes shining brightly--though it’s uncertain if the twinkle was due to their joy or the poisonous effect of belladonna--as they elegantly twirled around the ballroom like graceful apparitions barely skimming the floor though their swishing gowns were a dead-ringer for their mortality. Stately gentleman pondered the women from afar before making their move; offering a hand to the lady to dance or speaking to matchmaking mamas, whom were looking to make the best match for their daughters. Those who were unlucky at love found themselves downstairs in the gambling rooms. All around, the Salle d’Orleans gleamed with the promise of good fortune and wealth. It was a place for masquerade balls, carnival fêtês and military parades.
This is the former ballroom at the Bourbon Orleans Hotel. Today, it is used for weddings and more. It is said the ghosts of women are often seen dancing here.
But the Orleans Ballroom is probably best known for hosting the infamous Quadroon balls of the nineteenth century. After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, cultural life in New Orleans became muddled; cross-racial relations which had once been the norm took a new turn. Historically, the term “quadroon” referred to women in this region who were one-fourth African. They were considered to be the most beautiful and exotic of all the woman in New Orleans, and in 1781, one New Orleans governor even tried to tame their “exotic-ness” by mandating that their hair must always be wrapped up in a tignon, or handkerchief. But the tignon did little to stifle the desire of the wealthy French Creole men and so the Quadroon balls were created, for better or for worse. The balls in the Salle d’Orleans functioned as a meeting place where matchmaking mamas deliberated on the best options for their daughters and the Creole men followed their hearts, if not their passions. The system was termed plaçage. Women who were chosen were then set up as courtesans in the historical neighbourhood of the Treme; they were gifted a house, money, jewels. Any daughters they birthed were placed back into the plaçage system and any sons were educated in France.
Duels, too, were commonplace. Creole men were a hot-tempered bunch, and although no weapons were generally allowed within the Salle d’Orleans, if two men fought over a woman it was necessary to take it outside. Marching over to St. Anthony’s Garden, tucked behind the Cathedral, the men brandished their swords and fought until one man crumpled in defeat. The uninjured party would dust himself off, probably utter a scathing insult, before returning back to the ballroom to continue his courtship with the lady of his choice. (Random fact: St. Anthony's Garden was at one time a cemetery, too. Between death by disease, natural causes and duels, I can only imagine how many ghosts still haunt that particular plot of land).
The Civil War and the depression of Bourbon Street’s nightlife ultimately ruined the high success of the Theatre d’Orleans and Salle d’Orleans. In its next incarnation, though, the Bourbon Orleans Hotel would become much more like the demure and confident Royal Street. In 1881, the Sisters of the Holy Family, the first African-American convent, moved into the space of the old Salle d’Orleans. The ballroom became their chapel; over the door, the words “Silence, My Soul; God is Here” were inscribed. In a way, the nuns purchased the Salle d’Orleans as a way to strip the building of its sordid and unforgiving past by instilling the morally righteous there instead. (Only in New Orleans can a place of vice and mystery be exchanged for a venue of virtue and religion. One can only imagine if the ghosts are just as confused.) The property functioned as the sisterhood’s cloister, an orphanage, as well as the first Catholic school for African-American girls in New Orleans. In the 1960s, however, the nuns had outgrown their home and expansion was necessary--the academy had over thirteen hundred students and four hundred nuns within its walls on an everyday basis. Ultimately, they sold the property to the Bourbon Kings Hotel Corporation, who wished to restore the crumbling building.
Today, the Bourbon Orleans Hotel has been restored to its former glory, and it’s no surprise that the ballroom is the hotel’s most stunning feature. With 218 guest rooms--some of which actually overlook Bourbon Street and Orleans Avenue--there is no doubt that the Bourbon Orleans has something to offer everyone. Amenities included are a heated outdoor saltwater pool in the interior courtyard, free Wi-fi (which is always a necessity), complimentary welcome cocktails at their bar, the Bourbon O, and even a fitness center. (There are way more amenities that those listed here, and for those of you reading this who are interested in learning more, see here. With such a rich history, the Bourbon Orleans is also a destination place for weddings and other large-scale events. But for those of you looking for your own personal getaway, the Bourbon Orleans also has you covered. They offer a variety of different vacation packages, including a Holiday Package, a Girlfriends’ Getaway Package, a Romantic Rendezvous Package and a Spirits Package. For the latter, I’m not talking about the alcoholic version, but the spirits of people who have died but have never left.
Are you surprised?
The Bourbon Orleans Hotel is reportedly so haunted, that the hotel and its employees have simply embraced the dead. Spending the night at the Bourbon Orleans is more than just a luxurious stay in the French Quarter, it’s also a chance to get close and personal with the unliving--and with such a mysterious history, it’s hard to say who exactly you might run into during the course of your stay. Guests and employees have reported four main apparitions who grace the halls of the Bourbon Orleans.
When yellow fever swept through the city during the late 19th century, the nuns of the Sisters of the Holy Family prayed and cared for the sick orphans in their care. But the disease was deadly, devastating, and many of the children never lived to outlast the sickness that tore at their little bodies. It seems that some of those children have never left the site where they were last cared for by the nuns. The haunting sounds of lilting children’s laughter echo in the hallways of the hotel. Guests of the hotel have experienced the back of their shirts being yanked, only to turn around and find the hallway completely empty.
But hearing the sounds of children playing is not nearly as unnerving as hearing the tortured cries that emanate from Room 644, allegedly the most haunted room in the entire hotel. For nearly a century, rumors have circulated that a nun of the Sisters of the Holy Family committed suicide in this particular room. The nuns have never confirmed or denied this, and perhaps the lack of denial is confirmation all on its own. The anguished cries from Room 644 certainly suggest that someone--whether a nun or not--did take their life here. Multiple guests have reported climbing in bed after a long day out in the French Quarter, only to be woken in the midst of the night. Their eyes dart across the dark room, finally resting on the ghost of a woman dressed in a habit standing right next to the bed. And although the guest no doubt opens their mouth to scream bloody murder, the nun only watches with rapt attention, the expression on her face thoughtful and kind. Even the employees of the Bourbon Orleans imagine that this nun who committed suicide has remained on the plane of the living so that she may continue to pray for herself and for others who stay in her old home.
Know that if you hear those screams in the dead of night, you aren’t about to become lunch for the spirits of the dead.
A Confederate soldier has been spotted limping down the hallways; his uniform is always tattered, bloody, as though he has already tasted the horrors of battle and did not emerge as the victor. As you burrow under the covers of your bed, the sounds of his hollow and uneven footsteps linger in the dead of night, just as the scraping of his sword scratches against the flooring. Don’t worry, though, it seems that this wounded soldier is only seeking his own slice of eternal peace or perhaps the ghosts of his brothers-in-arms whom he left on the battlefield.
But if you get the chance, stop in the former Salle d’Orleans, the hotel’s pride and joy. Under the crystal chandeliers, you may even witness an apparition of a woman still dancing, the hem of her gown dusting the floor, as she dances with an imaginary partner. Stranger things than that having allegedly occurred in the Orleans Ballroom. It is said that a bloodstain appears quite often on the carpeted floors. Staff will spot it, heaving a sigh as they do and proceed to scrub the stain away. They clean it, knowing that it will reappear shortly after.
That stain is not the result of a clumsy guest who has spilled wine, but of a deadly duel from over a century ago. No doubt two fabulously wealthy Creole men fell for the same women and decided to duke it out right in the midst of the party itself. (Imagine the looks of horror and delight on the faces of all the partygoers!) Although we have no record and no way of knowing if one of the men died that night, blood was still spilled. And it has been spilling for over a century, over and over--here’s to hoping that’s not a metaphor for the man’s love life.
As it is, the Bourbon Orleans Hotel is a hotspot for paranormal activity, and the hotel welcomes anyone and everyone who seeks to experience the paranormal themselves. In the past, they have even offered their own Ghost Camp, where they held an overnight investigation led by the New Orleans Ghost Hunters. Seminars on the paranormal were offered to participants, and even a seance was conducted in the hopes of reaching the spirits that still haunt the Bourbon Orleans.
If you're looking to hear more about the paranormal activity occurring at the Bourbon Orleans, join us on our New Orleans Haunted Pub Crawl or are Killers & Thrillers Tours, where the Bourbon Orleans is often a stop along the way!
Seated between Royal Street and Bourbon and on the back door of St. Louis Cathedral, the Bourbon Orleans Hotel is a story of fame, power, love, faith, and death. For history-lovers, this hotel is probably the right for you.
And for those seeking a little more--something a little darker--look no further. Stay in Room 644, or the third or sixth floors where other paranormal activity has been experienced, and ask yourselves: who do you hope to find at the Bourbon Orleans?