In my Pentecostal childhood I grew up watching evangelists pull spirits out of possessed parishioners while thinking, "Great. Now they're floating around the room." And I was married on Halloween, the scariest damn day of the year, so I'm not spooked easily. But this ghost story is spiraling fast.
Bridget Cox Dawson runs New Orleans' Rathbone Esplanade Mansions and knows from spirits. She's starting to miss her life in the Virgin Islands where there were spirits everywhere, but they were free to float among the trees instead of working out some dark past. "I've always felt that we're not human creatures having a spiritual experience, we're spiritual creatures having a human experience," Bridget says, making her the perfect innkeeper to the ghosts at 1227 Esplanade Avenue. With a Voodoo Queen buried in nearby St. Louis Cemetery, it's a spirited neighborhood.
The Southern Paranormal Researchers visited the Rathbone Inns this weekend and ran tests between the two Inns with their antebellum architecture, surrounded by Spanish oak trees and 19th century Creole homes, The ghostbusters gave Bridget the news that the spirit of a woman in a long black dress inhabits the third floor. With her dark hair in a bun, she has an imperious attitude and feels she should be catered to. Bridget added that, "They used the word scary." A mischief-making teenage boy is the next ghost, and the Inn's employees routinely walk into a room where the television was off and find cartoons blaring. Mystery solved, next? An elderly Creole man, the ringleader, who according to the lead paranormal investigator can pull visitors into nightmares so intense that he describes them as a doorway to another dimension.
I could have told him that. The first night we stayed in Room 301 my husband and I looked at each other in the morning and both recalled being terrified, but didn't want to remember why. At times like that it helps to call a gypsy herbalist. Bellavia gave us sage, a dried dragon's blood plant and started pulling leaves together with calm expertise. Armed with some ghost-begone to smudge, Jeff lit the concoction in an ashtray under the fireplace mantle. (We're really not people who do this sort of thing). I watched for the smoke to go up, but it circled the room not matching any discernible air patterns. Meanwhile, Jeff told whatever presence was there that we didn't want them to leave, just not to be so spooky. He's the kind of person who won't smash a bug or hurt a ghost's feelings. That night we both had a dreamless sleep.
Fast forward to Mardi Gras. On Ash Wednesday a doctor who had been staying in 301 told Bridget that not only did the bedposts shake every night, but once it felt as if a fist punched through the bottom of the mattress. The third floor had been shut down, and was first opened to guests at Mardi Gras, so the spirit in black was displaced. My friend Ali lives one street over and I call her to wave from the window when we're staying in the back room of the second floor. (Being displaced post-Katrina, you end up staying where there's room and thankfully there's always room at the inn.)
"I've seen faces in those windows. I thought they were people," she said and I debated whether to tell Bridget because I had just gotten this note from her:
The ghostbusters' recording equipment had picked up the word, 'Bridget" among the ghostly chatter and they played the recording for her. Like any sane person she turned around, walked back across Esplanade Avenue to the Rathbone II and regrouped.
Today the investigators added the finding that there's a 7-year-old girl in the mix, and something deeply disturbing in the Slave Quarters behind the house. "They seem to be choosing their words carefully," Bridget says. But it's telling that the investigators who were going to come back to New Orleans at Jazzfest now feel they should come back sooner and smudge the back room and slave quarters. She now has the distinction of running the Southern Paranormal Researchers' favorite haunted place in New Orleans, edging out Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop.
To get there before the ghosts are gone, I've booked 301 Tuesday night. In the newsroom we were taught that if it bleeds it leads. And if it hasn't bled in over a century and is still raising a ruckus it's worth looking into.
"Girl, you have the cajones of a bull elephant," Bridget said when I asked for the most haunted room in the house, and I remembered that I'd better get my husband's opinion on staying at the Inn. Turns out that he thinks the ghosts have had a tough enough weekend and maybe we should leave them alone, but that's something we can debate on the drive back down to New Orleans.
A little background on Henry Alanson Rathbone the namesake: he was a banker and one of the few Americans accepted into the closed Creole society. His wife, Celeste Forstall, was a society doyenne and they had five girls whose married names were Emma de Lallande de Ferrieres; Pauline Labouisse; Stella Gaspard deBuys; Alice Phelps Eno; and Rita dePoincy. To add to the ghost hunt mystery, I dug up records that describe Rathbone purchasing a 31-year-old Creole slave named Judith and a 34-year-old, Mary. Both would have lived in the Slave Quarters.
It's a stark difference from the Rathbone Inn II which was built for the first free woman of color in the City of New Orleans allowed to own property. Her name was Belle Elizabeth Aubert.
What we know beyond a doubt is that Rathbone Inn was at one point home to eight spirited women, at least one of them a grand dame. The elderly Creole man is said to leave the house often and roam up and down the street between the Inns. I can hardly blame him.