Thursday, August 25, 2016



When it comes to the many haunts of New Orleans, ghost enthusiasts are quick to point to the infamous LaLaurie Mansion as the French Quarter’s most notorious haunted spot. But, as it is with so many lesser-known haunted houses across the country, there are other places in the Crescent City that have tales that are just as sinister – and spirits that are just as restless.

The Gardette-Le Prete Mansion, which has been dubbed the “Sultan’s Palace” over the years, is one of the French Quarter’s most imposing buildings and has long had a leading role among the city’s bloodiest mysteries and legends. It earned its horrific reputation as the scene of violent bloodshed, rape, and murder – tragedies that still linger behind as a haunting. 

A dentist named Dr. Joseph Coulon Gardette originally constructed the mansion at the corner of Orleans and Dauphine Street in the Vieux Carre. In 1825, it was the tallest house in the French Quarter, with basements that were further off the ground and ceilings that were higher than in any other private residence in the city. Four years after its completion, the house was sold to a wealthy Creole man named Jean Baptiste Le Prete. He made the house even more extravagant by adding the cast-iron grillwork to the balconies, which has become the mansion’s most distinguishing feature. With its top floor ballroom and spacious galleries, the house came to be regarded as one of the most luxurious mansions in New Orleans. Not surprisingly, it was the center of Creole culture in the French Quarter of the middle 1800s. 

Unfortunately, the wealth and power of many of the Creole families started to decline in the second half of the century, leading many to scandal and ruin. Le Prete was one of those who lost much of his fortune and he was forced to rent out his wonderful home in 1878.

His tenant was a mysterious Turk who claimed to be a deposed Sultan of some distant land. A short time before, a vessel of war had arrived in the New Orleans harbor at night. Men came and went from the ship on official business and finally, a wealthy Oriental man, dressed in a regal costume, came ashore and was received with great respect by city officials. Le Prete was called into a private conference and was asked if his property might be available for lease. He agreed to the generous terms offered, not realizing the danger he was bringing to the mansion.

According to what he could learn, the “Sultan” was a deposed ruler from a distant Asian country. It seemed that he had fled the land with his brother’s favorite wife. He had hidden away in Europe for a time and then had sailed for New Orleans. He had brought with him his entire entourage, including armed guards and a harem of women and young boys. They were of all ages and descriptions and rumors swirled about the Sultan’s unseemly desires. 

Le Prete had to take his wife and children, along with all of their belongings, and vacate the house completely. They went to live on their plantation while the Sultan went about transforming the house into an eastern pleasure palace. The Turk had transported with him a fortune in gold and established a line of credit at all of the banks. He used his wealth to begin work on the mansion. Soon, the floors were covered with carpets from Persia, soft couches were embroidered with colorful patterns, cushions were piled high in the corners, and carefully carved furniture, chairs, and chests were picked up from the docks. Soon, the move was complete and candles were lighted and braziers were heated to warms the rooms. The smell of heavy incense filled the air and passersby could hear the laughter of the women and their soft voices as they walked in the courtyard each day. Their foreign tongues tantalized the neighborhood men, as did the rustle of their rare silk garments.

And yet no one ever saw these beautiful women. Complete privacy was maintained at all times. The doors and windows were covered and blocked, the gated front portal was never opened and men patrolled the grounds with curved daggers in their belts. The iron gates around the property were chained and locked and the house became a virtual fortress.

Neighbors began to talk, their curiosity aroused by the strange and forbidding changes to the house. A few weeks before, the place had been open and filled with light but now was dark and menacing. They would not have much time to ponder these changes, though, for terrible and bloody events were soon to take place. 

A few months passed and one night, a terrible storm crashed over the city. Under the cover of darkness, an unfamiliar ship with a strange, crescent banner sailed into the harbor. In the morning, it was gone and it had taken the storm with it.

That morning, neighbors passing by the mansion noticed that trickles of blood were running out from under the iron gates. The authorities were summoned but could raise no one, so they forced open the doors and went inside. They found the gate to the courtyard standing wide open on its hinges and muddy footprints leading in and out of the house.  The people from the neighborhood soon found the first indication of the horror that awaited them in the bodies of a few servants had been slashed with swords and left for dead. They cautiously entered the house and found absolute carnage.

At some point in the night, a massacre had taken place. Blood splattered the floors and walls, headless bodies and amputated limbs were scattered about, and all of them had been butchered by sword or ax. No room was without a horrific scene. The bodies and limbs were scattered about, mutilated and burned in such a way that it was impossible to tell which body part belonged to what person. No exact count of the dead was ever determined.

And the horror didn't stop with murder. The beautiful harem girls, the Arab boys, the Sultan’s children and even the guards, were raped and subjected to vile sexual assaults. The scandal was so horrendous that the details of that night have still not been chronicled completely to this day.

The Sultan's mutilated body was found in the garden, where he had been buried alive. In his struggle to free himself from his earthen prison, he managed to partially tear himself from the grave, but it was not enough. He had choked to death on mouthfuls of pungent earth. Over his hasty grave, a marble tablet was placed, bearing an inscription in Arabic. It read: “The justice of heaven is satisfied, and the date tree shall grow on the traitor’s tomb.” It is said that a tall tree did indeed grow on this spot and was known locally as “the tree of death.”

While the tree has long ago perished, the legends of the house remain. The identity of the murderers was never discovered. Some say they were the members of some pirate's crew who had business with the mysterious Sultan and some say the crimes were the work of the Turk's own brother, seeking revenge for the theft of his wife and of the family wealth. 

No one will ever know for sure that night, but what soon became clear was that the Le Prete mansion was now haunted. For years after, the mansion rapidly declined and was almost a slum dwelling because the owners did little to maintain the place. It was rented out as apartments for a time during the great influx of Italian immigrants in the late 1800s. During this period of its worst decay, an Italian woman who lived there made a living washing clothes, which she then hung out to dry on the top gallery. One day, she fell over the ironwork to the pavement below and was instantly killed. She most likely leaned back too far while hanging the clothes on the line but other tenants in the building blamed the spirits for her death. She was pushed, they claimed.

In 1949, the building housed the New Orleans Academy of Art for a brief time but the whispers of ghosts and hauntings never really stopped. The stories said that strange sounds could often be heard there at night, like the soft piping of Oriental flutes and the pad of footsteps on the stairs. It was also believed that the faces of the women in the Sultan’s harem could sometimes be seen peering out of windows on the upper floors. Screams, moans and frantic running sounds were also commonly reported.

By the 1950s, the house was once again used as an apartment building. It was divided into nine units, several of which were two-storied. And still, the stories of ghosts continued. 

In a newspaper interview, one tenant of the house stated that she had been startled numerous times by a man in a garish Oriental costume. The tenant, Virgie “Gypsy” Posten, rented the downstairs front apartment. The place was rundown at the time but it was all that she could afford. “I didn’t know about the legend, or even that the place was supposed to be haunted,” recalled Posten, who later became a successful dancer, choreographer, and dance therapist with countless appearances all over the United States and abroad to her credit. “I was just starting out in my career and the cheap rent appealed to me.”

She soon learned that strange things were occurring in the building. One day, a man in garish Oriental robes suddenly appeared in her apartment. She vividly recalled the incident: “My two-room apartment had only one door, which opened into the main hall only a few yards from the foot of the enormous central staircase that wound its way up to the floors above. I always kept it locked, and even if whoever it was had had a key, I think I would have at least heard it turning in the lock. Yet there was nothing. Only silence. One minute he was there…the next he was gone! He didn’t seem hostile. He’d just stand there and look at me, but it was terribly eerie and nerve-wracking!”

Posten saw the man a second time a short time later. She woke up and he was standing at the end of her bed. “There was no sign of him when I turned on the lights and got up to check, but I abandoned everything there the next day and went to stay temporarily with a girlfriend until I could find another place to live,” she said.

A few days later, she had her last and most terrifying experience. She and her girlfriend stopped by the apartment to get some of her things, which she had left there until she could move out. She remembered what happened next: “We were standing in the dimly lit hallway in the empty house, as I locked the door, when we suddenly heard a blood-curdling scream come out of the inky blackness somewhere at the top of the staircase just a few feet from us! It was petrifying - a long shrill scream that ended in a horrible gurgle! We ran as if the devil himself were after us to the street door. For a moment we even got wedged in the doorway, as both of us tried to get out at the same time! We laugh about it today but it was pretty frightening at that moment! The very next day I got my things out of there.”

In 1966, the house was purchased by Jean Damico, her husband Frank, and a partner, Anthony Vesich, Jr. The house was in bad shape and desperately needed repairs. They decided to restore the place and turn it into luxury apartments. Soon after, neighbors began to tell Jean about the house’s bizarre history and the bloody incidents that had taken place there. Jean Damico recalled, “People would look a little curiously at us whenever they knew we were the owners. Some even told me how they used to cross the street and pass it on the other side.” However, she dismissed the stories as nothing more than supernatural gossip until she experienced something for herself. 

One night, while trying to sleep, Jean sensed a presence in the room with her. She looked up and saw a man standing at the end of the bed. “Thinking my eyes were playing tricks on me, I closed them for a moment and then opened them again to refocus, but the figure was still there,” she said. “When the form suddenly seemed to move toward my side of the bed, I panicked and turned on the light on my night table. Imagine my surprise when there was no one there! My husband laughed at me when I told him, but I know I saw somebody!”

Even today, the "Sultan’s Palace" remains a curious and intriguing mystery of New Orleans and the French Quarter. We may never know all of the secrets this old mansion still hides. What curious tales they might tell if only these crumbling walls could talk.  

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