The Casket Girls of New Orleans
March 4, 2014
I had gone to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. I had been there before.
I knew what to expect. This time I didn’t.
The gentleman was sitting alone at a street-side bar, nursing a bourbon and water, mostly water. He may or may not have been old. His face was ashen, his hair gray. He wore dark slacks, white shirt, and a long black coat. It may have been a costume. Who knows? It was Mardi Gras.
I was looking for someplace to sit, and he motioned for me to come to his table.
“You can sit here,” he said, “if you buy me a whiskey.”
I was tired.
My feet hurt.
His offer seemed like a pretty good deal for us both.
“Crazy night,” I said, trying to make the smallest of small talk.
“Not yet,” he said.
“Does it get wilder?” I asked.
I arched an eyebrow.
“It depends on the casket girls,” he said.
He had my attention.
“They came to New Orleans in the early 1700s,” he said. “They came from France. They were looking for husbands.”
It was an old story. The one he told me had a new twist.
France ruled New Orleans, which was wicked and rowdy and proud of its reputation.
Civilization politely went elsewhere.
New Orleans decided it needed wives for the men who had nothing to do but drink, gamble, fornicate with the girls of the night, and occasionally shoot each other at card tables, in dark alleys, on the dueling grounds.
New Orleans advertised in France for wives.
The men were rich, the ad said.
They were plantation owners, the ad said.
They were among the socially elite, the ad said.
They needed wives.
And France sent over five hundred young ladies.
They are beautiful is what the letter said.
They are of the marriageable age, the letter pointed out.
They are among the socially elite.
And they were in the market for husbands.
New Orleans and France had lied to each other.
The men were mostly convicts, blue-collar workers, drunks, gamblers, criminals, scalawags, and scoundrels.
The women were mostly orphans and prostitutes.
Some had been sold by their parents.
The women stepped on shore, and each of the them carried a trousseau, which, they said, were packed with linens and clothing and, sometimes, a bridal gown.
The trousseaus had an odd shape to them.
New Orleans noticed it right off.
The trousseaus looked like caskets.
The women were taken in the Ursuline Convent in the French Quarter and kept until marriages could be arranged for them.
New Orleans wasn’t all love and kisses.
In France, life had been difficult for the women. In New Orleans, it was virtually impossible.
Those who weren’t prostitutes were forced into prostitution.
So many vanished.
Maybe they went back home.
The nuns placed the abandoned casket trousseaus in the third floor attic and forgot them.
But strange things began to happen on the streets of New Orleans.
Could they be linked to the Casket Girls?
Years later, the caskets were finally opened.
“What did they find?” I asked.
“Nothing. The caskets were empty.” The gentleman said. He shrugged and ordered another bourbon, light on the water. “No clothes. No linens. No bridal gowns. Nothing,” he said.
“Why go to the trouble of hauling empty trousseaus across the ocean?” I wondered.
“That’s what New Orleans asked,” the gentleman said. “But some in New Orleans had already discovered their secret?”
“The casket women were smuggling vampires to the city,” he said.
“That’s why they nailed the shutters shut on the third floor attic,” he said, looking up and out across the darkness. “Every now and then, you would see the shutters blow open in spite of the nails, and you knew a vampire was on the loose.”
In 1978, he said, a pair of writers demanded to see the wooden caskets.
The archbishop refused.
During the darkness of night, the two men climbed over the convent wall. They were determined to check out the mysterious wooden caskets with or with the permission of the church.
It was disturbed by two bodies lying on the front porch steps of the convent.
Most of their blood was gone.
“Was the murder ever solved?” I asked.
“No.” The gentleman’s grin was devoid of any humor. “It was the work of a vampire,” he said. “Maybe more than one.”
“Who would believe such a tale?”
“The Catholic Church did.” He let the bourbon roll around in his mouth for a while before he swallowed. “The Catholic Church sealed the shutters tight with nuts and bolts.”
“Did it work?”
“What makes you say that?”
“The nuts and bolts were blessed by the Pope,” he said.
“Have you seen any vampires?” I asked.
“I don’t go near the convent after dark,” he said.
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