There are some places where the living constantly brush up against the dead. This doesn’t always work out too well, but there are exceptions. Some hauntings are benevolent. Some places with a tragic past can still be warm and inviting--such is the case with the ghosts of the Columns Hotel in New Orleans, Louisiana.
The hotel is a beautiful Italianate mansion that sits right on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line in the Garden District. Walking up the front steps, it’s hard not to notice the beautiful front façade of stately columns and a large, third-floor balcony. People mill about on the porch eating brunch or having a cocktail before they head out for the evening.
The Columns Hotel can be described in just two words: lavish extravagance. Its most notable feature is the grand spiral staircase just through the front doors; the smooth mahogany wood circles all the way up to the ceiling to meet a beautiful domed stained glass window, which boasts an intricate sunburst motif.
Such an ostentatious structure could not have existed if not for a man named Samuel Jarvis Peters. He and a bunch of other American entrepreneurs purchased the land that encompasses the Garden District today in the early 1800s. Unlike the French and Creoles who inhabited the French Quarter and the Faubourg Marigny, the Anglo-American businessmen who built this new suburb of New Orleans wanted a place where they could showcase their wealth and power.
Peters purchased the land in 1832 from a wealthy widow named Madame Jacques Francois Livaudais for $490,000. He then quickly began planning this new suburb. The simple street layout and lack of parks and monuments belied the grandeur that would soon arise. This was a home for rich, English-speaking, Protestant business leaders whose architectural tastes were much grander than their surroundings.
Many of the homes, especially those along St. Charles Avenue, were built by the famous New Orleans architect Thomas Sully. In fact, the Columns Hotel is the only remaining example of the beautiful, Italianate style houses he designed in this district.
It is this backdrop of wealth and prosperity that will set the tone for the beginning of this story.
The structure was originally built in 1883 for tobacco merchant Simon Hernsheim as a private residence for his family. Hersheim, born in 1839, made his fortune as the owner and operator of Hersheim Bros. and Co, a cigar manufacturer. He was a self-made man by the age of twenty, and he and his brothers enjoyed all of the spoils of their ingenuity and business acumen.
Unfortunately for many businessman of that time, the Civil War broke out. Hersheim did his duty and enlisted in the Confederate army. The outcome of the war would take a toll on businesses all over the south for many years. But by the 1880’s, the Hersheims were back on top. They even managed to open a new factory called La Belle Creole Cigar and Tobacco, which put over 1,000 New Orleanians to work.
By 1883, Simon Hersheim and family had moved into their opulent home on St. Charles Avenue.
All seemed to be well. But suddenly, tragedy struck.
Hersheim’s beloved wife and sister died in 1895 of unspecified causes. Can you imagine the despair he must have felt at experiencing such a loss? It wasn’t too long after their deaths that poor Simon decided to join them in the afterlife. In 1898, he committed suicide by swallowing potassium cyanide. The effects of cyanide poisoning are brief but not pretty. Symptoms of dizziness, rapid heartbeat, and shortness of breath would have hit Simon Hersheim within a few minutes of ingestion. He would then end his days on earth with seizures, decreasing heart rate, loss of consciousness and finally, cardiac arrest. Not a great way to go.
The tobacco business also took a hit at this time, and not long after, the house fell out of the hands of the Hersheim family.
Such tragedy would be enough to create a haunting on its own, but the stately building on St. Charles would see a lot more action in the coming century.
It became an upscale boarding house in 1917. Its boarding house days lasted for quite a while until the building changed hands again. It officially became a hotel in 1953 but nowhere near the kind of hotel it is today. There was a point when the building was in such disrepair that one local recounts the bar ceiling once collapsing during cocktail hour. The unfazed patrons simply finished their drinks on the verandah.
The Columns Hotel today recalls the demure elegance of a bygone era, but in the 1960s and 70s, the hotel was home to some of New Orleans’ least savory characters. Politicians used the building as a location to hideaway with their female escorts, and low-class women utilized the upstairs rooms as their own personal boudoir.
Louisiana is known for its corrupt politicians. There are too many to name. But there was perhaps no one more corrupt in Louisiana politics than governor Edwin Edwards.
He served as governor of the state three separate times in the 70’s, 80’s and 90s. From racketeering and bribery to kickbacks and extortion, his career was never far from scandal. Always an enterprising man, he was finally convicted for a crime in 1999. He was sentenced to prison for ten years for extorting $3 million from people in exchange for casino licenses all over the state.
Edwards was not just known for his colorful deeds but also for his colorful language. Upon wrestling the 1992 gubernatorial seat from former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, Edwards snarked, “We’re both wizards in the sheets.”
He also once famously stated that, “the only way I can lose this [1984 gubernatorial] election is if I get caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.”
Clearly, he was not only corrupt but cocky.
Edwins was eventually found out, but many other politicians of that era did their dirty deeds in secret at The Columns Hotel.
To add to its seedy character, in 1978, the hotel was transformed into an early twentieth century brothel for the scandalous film Pretty Baby. The director made quite a stir when he cast 12-year-old Brooke Shields as a prostitute who makes her way in the infamous Storyville red-light district of New Orleans. Today, the hotel pays homage to this controversial screen gem with their “Pretty Baby Suite.”
The current owners, Claire and Jacques Creppel, purchased the property in 1960. After many decades, they have managed to restore its original splendor and reputation.
Of course, the restoration process may have stirred up a spirit or two.
The Columns Hotel is indubitably one of the most recognizable buildings along the streetcar line. And it is perhaps one of the few locations in the city that tourists and locals both flock to regularly, even just to sit and have a drink in the Victorian Lounge, the hotel’s bar. Despite all of this beauty and luxury, the Columns’ intriguing past still peppers its present.
While the Columns is highly active, all of the spirits described are pretty harmless. Even so, guests have still been spooked. Cold spots are felt in certain rooms, sending shivers down one’s spine. The voice of an older man can often be heard in the lobby. The old mahogany bar too holds its secrets. If you visit it for a cocktail, you just might feel the presence of revelers and reprobates past.
From personal experience, this writer warns you to be careful in the ladies restroom. It can sometimes feel like you’re not alone in there.
Some ghosts don’t seem to like electronic devices, as chargers and other devices have been known to disconnect through unseen forces. Perhaps the ghosts simply want you to unplug on your vacation.
Many of the ghosts at the hotel are benign or friendly; some are even helpful.
People often report seeing a well-dressed gentlemen either in the lobby or at the door to their rooms. He seems to like playing host. Visitors have even claimed to have spoken with him. He’ll often ask if guests need anything to make their stay more memorable. When they tell him no, his job is done, and he disappears. A memorable experience indeed!
Could this be the ghost of Simon Hersheim, a man so proud of his home that he simply must share its wonders with whoever enters it? Or perhaps architect Thomas Sully wants to protect and ensure everyone enjoys the last of his extravagantly designed homes on St. Charles Avenue. Whoever this man is, he clearly has a great respect for the space he inhabits.
Some guests of the hotel mention seeing the spirit of a little girl wandering about on the third-floor balcony and in and around Room 21.
Who is she?
No one quite knows, but some suspect that she may have been a victim of disease or an accident, as she looks visibly ill.
As for the White Lady?
No one is sure who she is either, but she has been seen by many floating across the ballroom in a long white dress. Her presence can be quite startling, but it is benign. Though she has been spotted quite a bit, no one has ever heard her speak, and she mostly keeps to herself.
And if you dare, request Room 10.
Guests report on waking up in the dead of night, only to see a middle-aged woman sitting on the bed beside them. Unexplainable freezing spots also occur in this room, the sort that sends chills skipping down the spine and hair standing on end. And if that isn’t enough, the toilet is known to flush on its own.
One guest in particular reported seeing two middle-aged women in the bathroom area of room 10. When asked about them, the guest said she wasn’t frightened of the apparitions. They just seemed sad. No one knows who these doleful women are either, but they seem to be seeking empathy from beyond the grave.
The Columns Hotel boasts twenty various guest rooms, from the quaint to the luxurious. All include a complimentary breakfast. Each Sunday morning the hotel offers a Jazz Brunch, and every day of the week the Columns showcases a new music performer—you will never be bored here . . . especially if the ghostly entities are in the mood to play.