Folklore or Fakelore?

Kevin Kelly, the affable owner of Houmas House Plantation in Darrow, is perplexed over his unusual predicament: Visitors and staff describe the ghosts of his antebellum home on a daily basis, but Kelly says, laughing, “I can’t understand why they see them, and I don’t.” He’s prepared to be a genial host – if the two male phantoms will just show up. “I tell everybody that I go to bed at night with my favorite drink, Wild Turkey and 7UP. I have three drinks ready, one for me and two for the other ghosts in the house, and I always have to drink all three.”

Witnesses who have seen the male spirits declare that one is exceedingly tall and lanky and the other appears dressed in uniform. “The one in uniform, he’s probably a riverboat captain … he walks around on the rooftop, the widow’s walk.” The magnificent belvedere at Houmas House offers sweeping views of the Mississippi River, a perfect vantage point for any river pilot, real or phantom, to spend his leisure hours.

The second male figure strolls the grounds. “There is a tall, tall black man, very gentle and slow-moving,” states Houmas House historian Jim Blanchard. “When I first saw him, he went behind me, and I went, ‘Who’s that?’ And then he walked through the wall!” Later, Blanchard understood that this ghost knew exactly where he was going. “I was redoing the cottage in the back, opening up the paneled walls that had been added on, and discovered a doorway that had been covered up. He was walking through a doorway that was original to the back cottage.”

Kelly agrees that this particular ghost sticks to familiar paths, ignoring any contemporary obstacles. “When I bought the property, I put a big circular fountain right behind the house,” he says. “People tell me he walks right through the fountain but doesn’t get wet. He walks from the rear of the house to what used to be a slave cottage in the back.” This restless spirit is also spotted near the front portico. Blanchard adds: “There is an old Fonville Winans photograph … and in it is a 7-foot-tall black man stepping off the front porch. It’s an incredible spooky photograph when you think about it.”

 In addition to the adult spirits, a tiny specter causes considerable consternation. “Everyone describes her in the same way: She has on a blue dress with a pink ribbon in her brown hair,” says a baffled Kelly. Kelly purchased Houmas House in the spring of 2003 and immediately began a massive restoration. Along with regular updates on their progress, the workmen began reporting the sight of a little girl wandering about. She appeared so real to one electrician that he was concerned for her safety in what was then a construction zone. She is often seen descending the freestanding spiral staircase, and her constant presence inside the house and playing in the gardens has earned her the nickname La Petite Fille, which means “The Little Girl” in French. In the early stages of his occupancy, Kelly allowed a séance to be held. “The séance people talked to her when I was in the room,” Kelly says, but he emphasizes: “I didn’t see her. I didn’t hear her.” The exchange between medium and spirit produced a few interesting moments. “The séance person said the ghost would like to be friendly with me, but she is afraid of me because I am so big. So I said, ‘Well, how am I supposed to be friendly?’” Kelly was informed that the ghost child would like to play hide-and-seek with him. “Evidently, this is her favorite game in the yard because most people that talk about her say that’s what she does.”

The early owners – the Hamptons, the Prestons, the Beirnes and the Porcher Mileses – all raised children at Houmas House. An antique doll’s dress may hold a clue to the identity of the diminutive spirit. Blanchard relates the history of the delicate garment: “I acquired it from the Preston family through an auction. There was a little handkerchief attached to the dress with May Preston’s date of birth appliquéd on it.” May was the daughter of owners John Smith Preston and Caroline Hampton Preston. According to Kelly, when May became ill with yellow fever, her parents made plans to return to their family home in South Carolina. May died on the way. “Her body is in Columbia, S.C., but her soul,” says Kelly, “is here. I am quite certain it is May Preston. She was born May 20, 1840, and died in 1848 of yellow fever. Let’s put it this way: If the séance lady was right, it was May Preston because the doll’s dress belonged to May, and when the lady held up the doll’s dress, the ghost supposedly asked: ‘Where is my doll? I’ve been looking for it for a long time.’” Kelly quickly reiterates, “Of course, I’ve had no personal experience with her or our other ghosts.”

Near the carriage archway that connects Alexander Latil’s original 1773 French provincial dwelling with the main 1840s Greek Revival mansion is a marble statue of a young girl. Barefoot with one leg crossed over the other, she sits on a child-size ladder-back chair. Her eyes are downcast, her face pensive. Intrigued, visitors ask if she represents one of the children who lived or died in the house. Blanchard shakes his head. “It is odd that we have her here,” he says. “People comment, ‘How sweet.’” The statue adds a layer of mystery to the idyllic gardens. She appears to be merely catching her breath, as though she will soon pop up to join in another game of hide-and-seek.

In 1857, sugar baron John Burnside acquired Houmas House from the Prestons. Fellow Irishman Kevin Kelly’s lavish restoration pays homage to the Burnside era with its grand “Sugar Palace.” During efforts to reacquire the original furnishings, a few acquisitions arrived with phantoms intact. Blanchard attests to an incident with an antique French clock: “The clock was reputed to be from Napoleon’s collection, part of the collection that John Burnside bought. He adored this clock so much that he gave it as a wedding present to a good friend. We tracked it down . . . and I went to Baton Rouge to pick it up.” To avoid damage to the mechanism, the pendulum was removed for the return trip. “I pull up to Houmas House, turn the alarms off and bring the clock in. The minute I set it on the dining room mantel, it starts: dong, dong, dong.” Blanchard was incredulous. “It shouldn’t have been able to make a sound because the pendulum was not on. And then I hear voices of men all around the room as if the room is full of people. I just left the clock there, turned the alarm on, locked the doors and said: ‘I am not sleeping here tonight.

I am going to New Orleans.’” Blanchard’s only explanation for the phantom sounds? “The clock came home. After a hundred and something years of being gone, it let us know it’s back. I get goose bumps right now just talking about it.”

A haunted clock, disembodied voices, a tall specter, a ghost in the belvedere, and a playful spirit should be enough for any plantation, but Kelly wishes there were just one more. In 1963, Hollywood legend Bette Davis arrived at Houmas House to film scenes for Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte. “I would say that is our No. 1 draw; so many people come here just to see where Bette Davis stayed,” Kelly says. “They would love to see a ghost of Bette Davis. If I could get the world to believe her ghost was on this property, I’d get millions of people here a day.”

At Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, ghostly sights and sounds are a common occurrence: the outline of a man in gray wearing boots, a pale woman in the window of the lavender room, blinking gallery lights, a candlestick taking flight across the room – witnessed by a group of 35 visitors – and the steady clip-clop of horses’ hoofs pulling a phantom carriage up the gravel road. A visitor favorite is Oak Alley’s legendary Lady of Illusion. She inhabits a headless dressmaker’s form in the master bedroom once shared by original owners Jacques Telesphore Roman and his lovely wife, Celina. A Texas couple snapped a photo. When developed, the headless mannequin in the foreground had acquired a head of dark chestnut hair flowing to her shoulders and a human posture with her hands folded in front, yet in an oval mirror, the reflection of the same mannequin has no head. 

Director of Marketing Debra Mayhew is skeptical when it comes to ghosts. Mayhew’s husband, Executive Director Zeb Mayhew Jr., also had doubts until one fateful evening. “It was about five years ago,” Debra recalls. “The weather was really, really bad. At 1 o’clock in the morning, the alarm went off in the mansion. Zeb went to check it out. Upstairs in the children’s bedroom, the door to the gallery was open. The wind blew the rain inside the room, so he proceeded downstairs to get a mop, and when he got to the third to last step, he felt somebody push him, and he fell down the last three steps onto his knees. He turned around to look back up the staircase and said, ‘Don’t do that to me again.’ When Zeb told me about it, he said: ‘Somebody pushed me. I didn’t trip.’” Debra has an idea of whom the agitated spirit might be: “Mrs. Stewart, the last owner. She bought Oak Alley in 1925, and she died in the house in 1972. A lot of our guides have seen her in her bedroom sitting on the end of the bed when they bring tours in the room.”

Oak Alley’s other spirited pranksters have spread out to one of the circa 1890 cottages available to overnight guests.

“Cottage No. 4 – it seems to have ghosts in it all the time,” Debra says. On one occasion the paranormal activity became more than two visitors could handle. “We live right next door to that cottage. It was 10 o’clock at night.

Zeb looked out the window and saw two ladies packing their car, not unpacking. He thought it was strange, so he went outside and asked them if there was a problem. They said: ‘We can’t stay here. We heard all kinds of things in that cottage; there are ghosts in there.’ Zeb said: ‘Well, it’s late at night. Where will you go?’ Zeb told them that it was more dangerous for them to be driving aimlessly out on the road than to stay here. They just repeated, ‘We are too scared to stay,’ and they got in their car and left.” Debra has concluded that people who are true believers in the paranormal cannot be swayed.

Then there’s Chloe, who may well be the most popular ghost in Louisiana. At The Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville, senior tour guide Hester Eby weaves a tale of transgression, punishment and triumph: Chloe, a slave of the plantation’s second owner, Judge Clarke Woodruff, was caught eavesdropping on the judge’s private conversation. The judge ordered her left ear cut off and banished her from the house to the fields. Chloe had other plans. She baked a birthday cake for one of the judge’s young daughters and mixed the poisonous juice of the oleander into the cake batter. Her intent, explains Eby, was to make them ill and then nurse the family back to health and thus regain her status in the house. But Chloe miscalculated. The judge’s wife, Sarah, and two of the children died. Chloe was hanged and her body thrown into the river. In the legend, as perpetuated in local lore, Chloe’s indomitable spirit returned to haunt the Myrtles.

Owner Teeta Moss inadvertently captured the conniving Chloe when she documented the buildings on the property for insurance purposes. In one amazing photo, a transparent figure of a tiny woman wearing a tignon, or turban, lurks in a narrow passageway. Some believe Chloe wore a turban to hide the scar made when her ear was severed from her head. In the same photo there are the shapes of two children, kneeling and looking down from their perch on the roof. A postcard of the eerie photo is the most requested item in the gift shop. Moss concedes that the photograph can “just make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.”

As the lead ghost, Chloe does not disappoint. For years, she plucked the colorful hair ribbons of children on the tour. Now, says Eby, Chloe prefers shiny objects. Upon exiting the double parlors, female visitors are often dismayed to discover they are minus an earring. And in what may be a first in ghostly goings-on, Chloe has her own pen pal. Chloe and her No. 1 fan exchange letters, e-mails and presents. “Alyssa is from Castle Rock, Colo., and she saw a story about Chloe on television, and her mom told us that her daughter just felt connected,” says General Manager Teresa David. The fan mail addressed to “Chloe, The Myrtles Plantation, St. Francisville,” started arriving six years ago. “When I came here, there was this letter to Chloe that said, ‘Well, it’s almost our birthday,’ and I am asking, ‘What is going on?’” David learned that when 7-year-old Alyssa confided to Chloe that her birthday fell around Christmastime, a staff member in the guise of Chloe responded: “Well, so does mine.” “So they now share the same birthday,” announces David with a laugh. The exchange between a Colorado teen and a Louisiana apparition thrives. David reads from a recent Alyssa letter: “Dear Chloe, sorry I haven’t written in so long with graduation and homework. My friend Nick says hi. He thinks you are really nice. I’ll send pictures of us at graduation. … Did you like a boy when you were my age?” In 2009, 13-year-old Alyssa and her mom paid their first visit to The Myrtles. “Alyssa fit right in,” says David. “She is the sweetest girl ever.” 

Alyssa’s pen pal, however, does not have exclusive haunted rights. Chloe must vie with a cornucopia of spirits for attention. The Myrtles Plantation consistently ranks in the Top 10 of America’s most haunted homes. In a town begun as a cemetery by Capuchin monks, near ancient Tunica Indian hunting grounds, surrounded by oaks dripping with Spanish moss and a spectral troupe of weathered statues, the setting of The Myrtles provides the ideal breeding ground for haunted tales. Death by poison, hanging, gunshot, drowning and disease has plagued generations of inhabitants.

Visitors to this circa 1796 mansion on the National Register of Historic Places can choose either the History or the Mystery tour. During the Mystery tour, guides regale the curious with a laundry list of spooky activities: handprints in mirrors, footsteps crashing up and down the staircase, sweet perfume and pungent cigar odors, cold spots and voices young and old. The plantation operates as a bed-and-breakfast, and the $1 million dollar question posed by guests is, “Which room is the most haunted?” Eby feels it is the William Winters room where children’s voices are heard singing old nursery rhymes. David favors the John W. Leake room in the older section of the house: “It has a lot of strong activity. People get the sensation of being tucked in, their feet are played with, or their belongings are rearranged while they are sleeping.” Despite the ongoing paranormal antics, David, Eby and Moss are united in their belief that the entities at The Myrtles may be occasionally mischievous but never harmful.

When a liberal dose of attitude and ambiance, faith and fortitude, and folklore and “fakelore”  is cast over Louisiana’s cultural landscape, the spirits of former inhabitants often slip in. “With so many generations who have lived, loved, laughed, cried and died here,” says a delighted David, “what else would you expect?”

The guest cottages at Oak Alley Plantation are said to be haunted, too.

Houmas House Plantation’s girl ghost in the stairway

The Myrtles Plantation