A Haunted House With a Deadly Background
Each October, New Orleanians flock to The Mortuary Haunted House for one thing: terror.
As one of Louisiana’s most popular haunted house attractions, The Mortuary has found itself on more than a few national Best Haunted House Attractions lists, including on those compiled by The Travel Channel and the Discovery Channel. Throngs of people wait for their chance to go through the Greek Revival mansion.
It only make sense that these thrill-seekers rest against the iron gates to one of the city’s oldest cemeteries, the Hope Mausoleum, which was established as early as 1846. While music and screams puncture the otherwise silent night, guests wait in anticipation.
But what exactly are they waiting for? The always thrilling scrape of blood across the walls or the titillating thought of being chased down a narrow hallway with no chance for escape?
Or perhaps more appropriately, they are hoping to be grabbed or touched by one of the attraction’s many ghosts, because while the Mortuary Haunted House is known for its supernatural themes, 4800 Canal Street is, actually, a real haunted house. Why? Because for nearly 85 years, the Mansion was not a haunted house but a funeral home. The biggest funeral home in the city.
(Disclaimer: The Mortuary no longer offers ghost hunts or ghost tours of the property. Besides the chance to participate in one of its “Escape Rooms,” the property only opens during the Halloween season as an Attraction. If you’re hoping to do an actual paranormal investigation, be sure to check out our Ghost Hunt Experience down in the French Quarter, where you get to spend part of the night using equipment and are sent your evidence following the Hunt).
Before its infamous time as a funeral home, The Mortuary House was built in 1872 by Irish immigrants Mary Slattery and her husband, John (whose last name is thought to have been Devonshire), who had purchased the property from Mrs. Ina M. Hoyle. At the time of its construction, Mary Slattery had hopes of 4800 Canal Street being a family home for the generations.
Part of the land was acquired from the next-door cemetery, the Hebrew Congregation of Temme Derech (now Hope Mausoleum), spanning nearly two or three blocks in its entirety—from Gasquet Street (now Cleveland) to Canal, and Anthony to Bernadette. The Greek Revival that was erected was considered one of the most beautiful in the area, a perfect portrait of aristocratic New Orleans.
By 1880, Mary Slattery and her husband John were living at the Mansion with their six children and a couple, the Keanes, who were good friends. John Jr., records show, was working as a stone cutter for the Jewish cemetery just steps away from the white Greek Revival.
For as far as the Slattery’s could see, tombstones were all they could see. While the Jewish cemetery sat to their left, another (now extant) cemetery rested behind them. Not even two blocks up the road was Metairie Cemetery, which houses thousands of dead.
As The Mortuary’s owner, Jeff Borne, was once recorded as saying, “[The Mortuary] is a haunted house in a real haunted house! We’re probably in the middle of a probably a million graves within a square mile radius of this building—starting within inches away from the building."
Which made sense that 4800 Revival might then become a funeral home.
In October of 1905, the Slattery residence was sold to Mrs. Marie Lafontear and William Klein. Though it’s tough to prove one way or another, it’s thought that Mary Slattery and her young daughter died of yellow fever during one of the city’s last epidemics.
Lafontear and Klein kept the property until 1923, before selling it to Notary E. Howard McCaleb. From there, in 1928, McCaleb admitted that he’d purchased the property on behalf of PJ McMahon, and it was at that time that 4800 Canal was converted into a funeral home.
And, boy, was that funeral home both magnificently spooky but also just plain magnificent. By 1959, PJ McMahon's and Sons had added more than a few special features to the property, including an elevator and a garage for sneakily bringing in the corpses away from all-seeing eyes of the public. There were smoking parlors for men and extra private rooms for ladies; private bedrooms were added on this second floor for grieving families; and, if that were not enough, there were dining rooms and eat-in areas as well.
But enough about the fancy “amenities” because PJ McMahon’s and Sons was also far advanced when it came to the funeral services. The Mansion was also equipped with an autopsy room, an embalming room, an on-site crematorium, “cold storage for the dead,” (perhaps a morgue?), a casket and flowers store, and oh, yes, a place for the casket themselves.
PJ McMahon's and Sons was so large, so architecturally astounding, that it is said that the funeral home conducted over 20,000 funerals during its eighty-year long stretch. And, if you believe the rumors, the funeral home was able to conduct eight different funerals . . . all at once.
Impressive, don’t you think?
By the 1980s, PJ McMahon and Sons had merged with the Security Industrial Funeral Home Corporation and, less than a decade later, 4800 Canal Street was once again sold, this time in 1996 to Loewen LAHoldings.
According to various sources, it was during this period that the funeral home began getting rid of a lot of its more fascinating additions from the mid-twentieth century. The 14,000 square foot property soon became way too much to oversee, and the days of eight funerals at once slowly came to an end.
The upkeep of such an operation far exceeded what the management were capable of doing or spending to afford the luxurious status quo PJ McMahon and Sons had known and offered to generations of New Orleanians.
It didn’t come to much of a surprise by 2004 that Loewen LAHoldings (at that point known as Alderwoods), was unable to hold on to the funeral home. The whole property was bought out by EHN2 Holdings (or, rather, the Neil Corporation which also owns Aveda’s Spas).
The overall plan was to shed the property of its funeral home additives and covert it into an opulent day spa. But in the midst of all of the construction, all the demolition—Neil Corporation pulled out of the project, and out of 4800 Canal Street, leaving the Greek Revival to be a literal shell of its former self.
But who was to buy the old funeral home? As you can imagine, someone who would take a look at the property and not see it as a long-haul renovation, but the opportunity to create an attraction that would draw thousands every year.
On July 2, 2007, Jeff Borne (the owner of PSX Audio/Video Technologies) scrawled his name on the buying country as the new owner of 4800 Canal Street. His plan? To convert the old funeral home into the best haunted house attraction that Louisiana, even the South, had ever seen.
He intended to open it in time for that same September, leaving the crews only three months to finish what Neil Corporation had started. While some may have called Borne bonafide crazy, there was no stopping him.
It was during that three-month stint that a paranormal investigative group out of Los Angeles reached out to Borne about conducting a hunt at the Mansion. They’d heard of the place having some spooky paranormal activity and were interested to learn how operating as a funeral home for eighty-five years might then influence the number of spirits in the place (hint: it definitely has an influence on the phantom phenomena).
Apparently the paranormal group from Los Angeles had so much success that other investigative groups overheard and began reaching out to Borne, as well. Pensacola Paranormal followed up shortly after, and Borne realized something eerily spectacular: not only was he the owner of a Halloween-time goldmine, but he was actually sitting on a goldmine, in that the ex-funeral home he’d purchased was actually haunted.
Following the various paranormal groups who held ghost hunts at The Mortuary House, Jeff Borne decided to capitalize on the interest, and by that, we mean Jeff Borne went all out. He set up over thirty cameras all over The Mortuary, all the better capture any strange mists or apparitions roaming the halls. Those cameras included night vision cams, color and thermal types as well—Borne was ready to discover just what was haunting the Greek Revival Mansion. There were also microphones and audio equipment installed in the hope that some phantom’s voice might be caught over as an EVP.
During the first few years of being open, Borne didn’t just stop at operating just an Attraction—The Mortuary also offered people ghost tours of the building as well as actual overnight ghost hunts. Unfortunately, The Mortuary House no longer hosts tours or paranormal investigations, choosing instead to focus on the recently popular Escape Rooms which have garnered a lot of fame in the last year or two.
At the “Mystery Escape Room,” which is held year-around, groups have the chance to figure out how best to get out of these themed-rooms using various clues and your team. (Think of the movie Saw on a lesser scale, where death is not actually a given). The Escape Rooms at the Mortuary House cater largely to corporate teams, or groups from schools where the hopeful outcome is “team bonding."
And, in case you’re wondering, these themed rooms consist of the Serial Killer’s Lair, Fun Game Room, Embalming Room, Zombie Escape, the Ghost Lab, and the Pirate Treasure Hunt.
Fortunately or fortunately, there is no paranormal investigation involved with the Mystery Escape Rooms, though that doesn’t mean that the spirits of The Mortuary Haunted House might not discover you during those precious minutes where you and your team are trying to escape your temporary prison . . .
Over the years, there have been countless of ghost stories which have emerged from The Mortuary—after all, it is a Halloween attraction. Countless guests have come forward during the Fright-Time Season (September-November, in our book) to report that they were touched by something unseen while going through the Attraction. Others have commented that they’ve felt a little nauseous or uncomfortable, though they’ve given no particular reason as to why.
For the most part, we’d guess that those “feelings” guests experience while going through The Mortuary’s specialized exhibits can be directly attributed to the house as an attraction and not necessarily the ghosts of 4800 Canal Street themselves.
According to one article from 2015, people will pay good money to get frightened. And, apparently, there are at least 5,000 haunted attractions in the United States alone. As for the reason why people love getting their pants scared right off them? “From a psychological point of view,” the articles reads, “the standard features of haunted houses trigger feelings of dread because they push buttons in our brains that evolved long before houses even existed. These alarm buttons warn us of potential danger and motivate us to proceed with caution."
In short: we love haunted houses because they give us the absolute creeps. With our adrenaline pumping, blood rushing, heart pounding, we are walking Acceptance Letters that boldly say, “Do your worst.” But because we are offering that invitation, it’s very easy to believe that every inexplicable occurrence in a haunted house has got to be paranormal.
In reality, it’s pretty much the opposite. Going through a haunted house attraction pretty much nullifies any possibility of ghostly phenomena occurring.
So, if something weird happens to you while you’re creeping from one room to another, with hands grasping at you from hidden places, and fake fog swirling around your feet, just remember: there is an answer for everything. And that brush on your arm that scared you out of your shoes is probably one of the fake (or real) spiders that are set loose to freak you out.
Of the many phantoms which had been seen or reported at The Mortuary House, there are a few that stand our to staff members or guests who’ve had the “luck” to run into them.
A female spirit is known to haunt the top floor of the neoclassical building, crying, it’s assumed, for a husband who passed away decades ago. It’s uncertain if the ghost of a well-dressed man seen on the property is the female spirit’s husband, or if he’s an entirely different specter completely.
What can be said about the top hat-clad gentleman is that he is often seen clambering through the cemetery Hope Mausoleum next-door. According to local lore, his ghost is only known to appear when people are completely disrespecting the cemetery.
A note on the cemetery: established in the 1840s, Hope Mausoleum would give St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 a run for its money in terms of disorderliness. There is a lack of pathways, and many of the tombs and headstones lay directly on top of each other. This author (hey there) even found herself stuck in a corner of the cemetery taking photos, and the only way out was to climb over tombstones to the front of the graveyard. It was not respectful in the least—though she was actually worried that she could not get out—but sadly, the ghost of the gentleman did not appear to her. She certainly wasn’t silenced by him, though perhaps he knew how remorseful she was for doing so.
Other ghosts of The Mortuary House are the spirits of two young children who enjoy to romp around and play at all manners of the day. They are also known to play pranks on the living, as most kids are wont to do.
There is also the former mortician who haunts the property, though his presence and apparition is most commonly seen by employees downstairs in the old morgue. At the time of its construction in 1923, the small area beside the elevator in the basement was used as an old “workshop” or autopsy room.
The ghostly mortician has only been spotted down in the basement, but according to those who have seen him, they are more than a little convinced that he is unable to leave his bloody work even after death . . .
While there are a few distinct spirits known at The Mortuary, for the most part reports at the former funeral home generally include disembodied footsteps as well as the whispering of ghosts, though no one is ever there. In more robust situations, furniture has actually skidded across the floor, in full view of the shocked employees.
The Mortuary’s ghosts certainly aren’t shy whatsoever. Cody McLain, a former employee of The Mortuary but currently the Assistant General Manager for Hotel St Pierre and the Andrew Jackson Hotel, told us of a private, employee-only investigation that he, the manager Lance, and a friend did a few years ago.
They were set up in the “Red Theatre” upstairs, and it apparently wasn’t long before the strange occurrences started occurring. As Cody explained, “It was probably my imagination playing tricks on me, but I walked into the middle of the room and we called for Sarah [the female ghost, allegedly] to come visit us."
That was when Cody felt something grab his wrist.
Not willing to see what had wrapped their fingers around his wrist, Cody figured that was his cue to leave and bolted. While it’s possible that it was his imagination, there’s a good chance that it was not his mind playing tricks on him.
After all, he called out to the female spirit to join them—what are the chances that at just that moment, he’d be touched by an unseen force?
Slim, in our opinion.
If you’re interested in visiting The Mortuary House, please be aware that the “Haunted House Attraction” is only open during Halloween-time, from September to early November, and that it’s an Attraction and not a paranormal investigation. (As mentioned earlier, investigations and tours of the property are no longer offered).
However, if you are interested in doing a Ghost Hunt be sure to check out Ghost City Tours’ Ghost Hunt Experience, New Orleans’ only real paranormal investigation, where you get to learn about the property (one of the most haunted in the French Quarter), the equipment and embark on a night investigation you’ll never forget.
If you're looking for the perfect way to explore the haunted French Quarter of New Orleans, check out one of our New Orleans Ghost Tours. We look forward to showing you around our beautifully haunted city.