The Ghosts of the Court of Two Sisters

It’s safe to say New Orleanians are serious about food. A well-dressed po’ boy is perfection, and gumbo is practically a way of life. There are many places to find great food in the Crescent City, but a few places are simply a cut above the rest. At 613 Royal Street in the French Quarter sits one of the most famous restaurants in all of the world: The Court of Two Sisters.

They are world renown for their daily Jazz Brunch, just as they are for the property’s gorgeous architecture and illustrious history. Step inside past the building’s famous gates, and you will be greeted by a spacious, high-ceilinged bar with walls dripping in antique weapons and other oddities. You can even sip on a sazerac as the actual death mask of former president Andrew Jackson stares down at you ominously.

But the real stunner is the courtyard. The back courtyard at The Court of Two Sisters just may be one of the most beautiful places in the French Quarter, and that’s saying something. Many locals will tell you that they’ve seen fairies and other dreamy sprites dancing in the canopy of wisteria that completely covers the area. When the wisteria is in bloom, the entire space is blanketed in purple and green. It’s a truly beautiful place.

History of The Court of Two Sisters

While things may seem tranquil now, this building has seen some instances of turmoil. A place with such a long history is bound to have some colorful stories attached to it.

Known originally as Governor’s Row, 613 Royal Street and all the properties on the 600 block of Royal Street were once home to some of the wealthiest politicians in New Orleans. As in, five governors, one future Justice of US Supreme Court and two State Supreme Court Justices. Oh, and the twelfth president of the United States, Zachary Taylor. The original home, which no longer stands, was built in 1726 for Louisiana Governor Sieur Etienne de Perier.

If the stories are true, the Marquis de Vaudreuil also lived at 613 Royal for a bit of time, too.

Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil de Cavagnial governed Louisiana from 1743 - 1753. Before that, he rose to prominent rank in the French Canadian army. Vaudreuil was known as the “Grand Marquis.” He was treated like royalty by some and scorned by just as many. Not only did he make New Orleans into the “Petit Paris” but he was also known to be entirely too extravagant and scandalous for good society.

Another famous name mentioned in connection with 613 Royal street is gentleman pirate Jean Lafitte. In the early 1800s, he supposedly fought a whopping three duels in one night in the courtyard under the old willow tree. That would be impressive enough, but legend says he did this at the ripe old age of twenty. The famed willow tree stood as testament to this tale until 1965 when it was destroyed in a hurricane.

The Origin of the Name

While the building that stands today was originally built to be the home of Jean Baptiste Zenon Cavalier in 1826, the name The Court of Two sisters refers to two sisters, Emma and Bertha Camors, who purchased the building in 1886. It was in the year that Bertha and Emma opened “The Shop of Two Sisters.” The shop catered to wealthy creole women and sold costumes, gowns, and expensive perfumes for fashionable ladies of the day. It is said that the enterprising ladies would occasionally have tea out back for their favorite clients. This was the beginning of the courtyard tradition.

Unfortunately, the sisters closed their eponymous shop in 1904. After the death of Bertha’s husband and the exodus of rich creoles from the French Quarter due to Italian immigration, it just was not feasible for Bertha and Emma to keep the shop going. They still remained together for the rest of their lives. Their sisterly bond was so close that they died within months of each other during the winter of 1944. If you don’t see their spirits tooling about the courtyard, you can still go visit them at their tomb in St. Louis No. 3 cemetery on Esplanade Avenue. The tomb itself was fully restored by the current owner of 613 Royal in 1990 to honor the inseparable sisters.

The Court of Two Sisters Today

Between 1925 and 1934, the property at 613 Royal Street declined greatly. The building’s value plummeted to a disappointing $14,000. During this time, it became many things such as a bistro, a refreshment stand and even a speakeasy. In 1940, a man named Jimmy Cooper bought the property and began the long journey of restoring it to its former glory. As a former military officer, he was able to bring in a lot of servicemen to bolster tourism during WWII. At long last, this architectural and cultural treasure was beginning to see life again.

The current owner of The Court of Two Sisters is Joe Fein, Jr, who purchased the building in 1963. First and foremost, Fein strove to protect the historical integrity of the building. The third generation of his family continues to do so today while providing a pleasing atmosphere and gourmet creole dishes.

Of course, no building could escape the 1980’s unscathed, as this charming 1986 commercial for the restaurant illustrates. I hereby put forth this link for historical records; bad hair, poor acting, and all.

The Legends of The Court of Two Sisters

New Orleanians love tall tales, and the Court of Two Sisters holds its fair share of them. It can often be very difficult to separate fact from fiction. Could it really be possible that a barely post-pubescent Jean Lafitte dueled and defeated three men under the courtyard willow tree? No records survive of this incident, but there is nothing that completely discredits the events either. Nevertheless, it serves as a good story.

The same goes for the fairies and sprites who cavort in the wisteria, but seeing is believing. You’ll just have to make a trip and see for yourself.

The Charm Gates

The Charm Gates that stand poised at the entrance of the building are world famous. Composed of iron, it is said that the gates were manufactured in Spain and blessed by Queen Isabella before being brought to New Orleans. As the legend says, those who touch these gates will be similarly blessed in life.

Yet still others say that if you press your fingertips to the iron, the charm of the gates will ensure that you return to New Orleans at another time. Literally thousands have placed their hands on those gates. If that cold iron could talk it would have countless stories of people looking for love, charm, and prosperity. Even if you don’t have time to eat at this haunted restaurant, be sure to come and touch these gates to receive your own bit of luck.

Marie Laveau, Voodoo, and The Devil's Wishing Well

In the middle of the courtyard, amidst tables full of brunchers enjoying made-to-order omelets and turtle soup, sits a very unassuming brick well. Often guests will toss in a coin or two and make a wish, but who exactly might grant that wish is where our next legend lies. Some people call it the wishing well. Others call it The Devil’s Well.

Why is this?

Legend has it that infamous New Orleans Voodoo Queen may have practiced rituals in the picturesque courtyard. So if you toss a coin in, make sure you have good intentions. Otherwise, the devil may be the one to grant your wish.

Voodoo and New Orleans

It’s almost impossible to talk about New Orleans without talking about Voodoo. Anyone who has visited has felt the deep and sacred magic that runs through the city. New Orleans also has its own special brand of Voodoo.

Voodoo came to New Orleans during the Antebellum period thanks to enslaved Africans who brought their religious beliefs with them to North America. Later, their beliefs melded with Haitian and Caribbean religious practices to form something entirely new. Voodoo also incorporates a lot of Catholic practices as well, as things like Saint worship and ritual sacrifice are common parts of both religions.

To be very clear, there is nothing inherently evil about Voodoo. As with any spiritual or magical practice, intention matters, and most Voodoo practitioners have good intentions. Even so, we often fear what we don’t fully understand. Many sinister legends about Voodoo and those who practice it have cropped up over the years merely because people are scared of what they perceive as dark and mysterious.

Marie Laveau

That being said, Voodoo can be powerful. One of the most powerful practitioners of Voodoo was just recently portrayed on the television show American Horror Story. That is Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, whose story also encapsulates the murky veil between legend and reality.

According to James Caskey, author of Haunted History of New Orleans: Ghosts of the French Quarter, almost none of the tales we typically hear of her exploits are verifiable. There are too many tales to list here, but if all were to be believed, Marie Laveau would not only be the most powerful woman in New Orleans, but also probably the world.

What Caskey was able to dig up on Laveau through researching birth, marriage, and death records was this:

There was a woman named Marie Laveaux born in 1801 to Charles Laveaux and Marguerite D’Arcantel, two free people of color. This Laveaux married a man named Jacques Paris in 1819. Somehow, within a few years, she became a widow. A short time after that, she became mistress to a wealthy white gentleman named Christophe Glapion. Marie Laveaux died in 1871 at the age of 88.

How many of the stories outside of that timeline are true? We can’t say for sure. But clearly in that time she became a powerful force to be reckoned with. At her death, she was the only free woman of color to have had her 2,200 word obituary published in the New York Times. That’s not something that happens to people of little significance.

Her legend lives on in New Orleans and elsewhere to this day. In many ways, it feels like her hands still touch the city in certain places, especially The Court of Two Sisters. There is no way to know if Laveau ever set her altar underneath those wisteria vines, but many people choose to believe she did. That belief definitely adds another layer of mystery and occult fascination to an already enchanting place.

The Ghosts of The Court of Two Sisters

A property with nearly 300 years of history is bound to have a spirit or two. The most commonly seen apparitions are former proprietors Emma and Bertha. Many claim to see the ghostly visage of two amiable older women. They seem to be very pleased with the state of their former store, and perhaps they lend a pleasant aura to the building and grounds.

This intrepid writer and a colleague decided to see for ourselves whether or not any former occupants still remain in The Court of Two Sisters. Armed with a digital audio recorder and an Ovilus V device, we sat in the famed courtyard and attempted to speak with the dead.

The results were mixed but cacophonous.

We cannot draw any concrete conclusions from our experience, but the steady stream of words emanating from our Ovilus V -- a device created specifically to detect environmental changes and that allows spirits to manipulate the device to form words -- the energy of the courtyard was electric. In the span of about fifteen minutes, the Ovilus spouted out 252 words. There was almost no period where it was inactive. Even the tiny chirping birds that make their home in the wisteria seemed more anxious than usual, though that could also be conjecture.

Could there be many spirits residing at The Court of Two Sisters? You’ll have to conduct your own investigation to find out for yourself.

Visiting the Haunted Court of Two Sisters

This New Orleans restaurant offers their famous Jazz Brunch, which features the talents of a Jazz trio while you eat Creole favorites, Monday through Friday from 9am - 3pm. Dinner service is from 5:30 - 10pm. If you’re like me, come armed with a digital recorder, and don’t forget to make a wish in The Devil’s Well!