More Macabre Tales

This article originally appeared on Teleport City in October of 2013. Needless to say, a lot of things have changed since then, not least of which was the St. Louis Cemetery in New Orleans closing to the public, even before COVID-19. So, use this as a fun historical document, not so much a dependable tourist’s guide.

Last year, we took you on a lantern-lit tour of some of the most famous haunted locations in my home of New York. Once again, we don our novelty cloak and top hat and beckon you come with us for another round of macabre tales and spooky legends. Join me, won’t you, as we visit voodoo queens, gangland massacres, Edgar Allan Poe, and a ghostly garrison in the wilds of northern New York.

Marie Laveau’s Grave, New Orleans

One is spoiled for creepy destinations in New Orleans, a town that seems to have been designed specifically for hauntings and macabre tales. Looming over the city’s countless spectres, however, is Marie Laveau, the voodoo queen of New Orleans. She was born sometime between 1794-1801 and married to a Haitian immigrant in 1819, him part of the mass exodus of Haitians into New Orleans after the Haitian Revolution. Beyond that, little about her life can be verified from the records of the time. She worked, it is known, as a liquor importer for a spell, but her occupations beyond that are unknown. Hairdresser they say, and mistress of a cathouse. Her husband, Jacques Paris, died a year after their marriage, in 1820. Shortly thereafter, her reputation as a voodoo woman grew, and she was able to divine all manner of secrets about the town’s richest and most powerful families — though this was usually accomplished by scaring their servants into telling secrets.

Almost everything that is “known” about Marie Laveau is rumor, hearsay, and legend — which seems appropriate. She was rumored to have had some fifteen children, the most famous of which was her daughter Marie Laveau II, in her time an even more famous voodoo queen than her mother. Marie the elder had a snake, it is said, named Zombi, and ran a brothel where she would harvest further secrets to use in her “divinations.” Her magic, or so it was told, was a mixture of African voodoo by way of Haiti mixed with Western occult and Roman Catholic saints and iconography. After she passed away, peacefully and at home in 1881, it was said that she could still be seen walking the streets of the French Quarter—even stopping in at the Old Absinthe House from time to time.

She was buried in the Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1, though whether or not the crypt noted as hers is actually hers is a subject of some contention, which again fits the mystery surrounding this most unusual of women. The crypt is covered with scrawled X’s, the legend being that one could draw XXX on the tomb, turn around three times, knock on the tomb, and speak a wish, which the spirit of Marie Laveau would then grant. Upon successfully granting your wish, it behooved a person to return to the crypt, circle their X’s and leave Marie Laveau an offering. After all, you did not want to snub the ghost of a voodoo priestess. Her grave is surrounded by such offerings, and is also surrounded at prime times of the day by swarms of tourists who sometimes learned he hard way that, despite what they’ve heard about the legends, writing on Marie Laveau’s grave is actually illegal. It also turns out that the rise of this ritual—which varies in its details depending on who is giving you instructions—corresponds suspiciously with the rise in freelance tour guides bringing groups to see the grave.

Less often visited, even though it is nearby, is the slightly more anonymous alleged grave of Laveau’s powerful daughter who added an additional air of theatrics around her rites and rituals, garnering her a massive crowd of onlookers and followers. Marie Laveau II’s grave does not attract the same crowds of tourists. It is not adorned with a historical marker. But it is still covered with scrawled X’s, and it’s more forlorn nature makes it the more interesting of the two crypts.

As for why the tombs are covered with XXX’s, the answer is not as menacing or supernatural as it might look on the surface. That you should write your name on her grave when you asked Marie Laveau’s spirit for a favor was, unlike all the spinning and yelling, an old tradition. But many of the people coming to ask her for a favor could not read or write—or they did not want it to be public knowledge that they were asking the old voodoo priestess to help them out—and so the X stood in place of their name. Once a year, the tomb is whitewashed to remove the graffiti that has accumulated on it despite the better efforts of the local church. Even with all of that, even with the scores of tourists and yammering guides, it’s very easy to stand at the (possible) crypt of Marie Laveau and her daughter and lose yourself in her legend. I was there in broad daylight, on a sweltering July afternoon, yet the air of mystery and legend surrounding the place was intense.

A Tale of Two Ravens, Manhattan

Edgar Allan Poe history is strewn across Manhattan and The Bronx, including the Poe Cottage and a rumored residence on the most haunted block in New York City, across from the “house of death” once occupied by Mark Twain. The facade of another of his former residences exists in Soho, though the rest of the building was knocked down during an expansion of NYU. But it is in uptown Manhattan, on the corner of Broadway and West 84th Street — hilly farmland in Poe’s day — where Manhattan makes its best known claim to a bit of Poe history. It was while living here, in a farmhouse owned by one Brennen family, that Poe wrote The Raven, his most famous and enduring poem. And while Poe may have struggled in life, his posthumous fame makes the location where he wrote his best known work a sure bet for a historical marker. There is only one problem: people cannot agree on where the Brennan farmhouse actually was.

Because, of course, that part of Manhattan island has changed dramatically in the past century and a half. Pinpointing the exact location Poe called home becomes difficult. It has not existed since 1888, and precise records of where it sat on the Brennan property are not so accurate that it can be firmly placed on the modern landscape. The first to claim to be the spot upon which the farmhouse stood was The Alameda building at 255 West 84th Street, on the corner of 84th and Broadway. Upon the imposing facade of this large apartment complex is a plaque, placed there in 1922 by the city’s Shakespeare Society, commemorating Poe and The Raven and designating it as the spot at which the farmhouse once stood (unrelated — there are some fantastic gargoyles on the building across 84th).

Ah, but not so fast! On the east side of Broadway, at 215 W. 84th Street, is another building claiming to be the location of the farmhouse where Poe wrote his macabre poem. The Eagle Court Apartments got their plaque from a local historical society in 1986, and to cement the veracity of their claim as the more accurate location of Poe’s abode, they got a fancier plaque and have two large stone ravens flanking the entrance to the building. Considering that scant feet separate the two rival locations, it’s hard to take sides. Instead, one can simply wander from one to the other down the stretch of 84th Street that has been named in Poe’s honor.

Wah Mee Massacre, Seattle

Trapped for decades behind an improbable lavender door down a narrow, nondescript alley in Seattle’s Chinatown are thirteen ghosts whose presence is so angry that the owners of the building have kept the door padlocked and unopened since the tragedy that cursed these revenants first occurred. On February 8, 1983, Willie Mak, Tony Ng, and Benjamin Ng knocked on the door of a semi-secret nightclub and gambling hall called Wah Mee, located in the basement of what had once been one of the area’s more opulent hotels. The entrance to this Chinatown speakeasy was located down Maynard Alley South, an imposing set of double doors flanked by thick frosted glass, a single pane of which was clear so that the man working the door could look outside before admitting anyone. A network of additional doors served as security and had done so in Chinese gambling halls for centuries.

But Willie Mak was a regular at the club, which attracted a number of local business tycoons, restauranteurs, and other well-heeled high rollers in the Seattle Chinese community. So when it came time for him and his two friends to pass through security, they had no problem getting through the doors. The club had opened during Prohibition, when the Louisa Hotel above it was roaring. Back then, it was known as Blue Heaven, and since then, it was known as Chinatown’s most elegant “members only” club, specializing in a game known as pai gow, which members of the exclusive nightclub would play beneath romantic red lights, undoubtedly while the hits of Zhou Xuan tumbled out of tinny speakers or the live band cycled through hits of old Shanghai. That lavishness faded in the 1970s, as police crackdowns on illicit gambling halls and building code violations expanded. The hotel went out of business, its bottom floors rented out as retail space while the top floors remained vacant. Wah Mee persisted, though by 1983, it could hardly even be considered a shell of its former self. Even though it still attracted a notable clientele, young hoodlums like Willie Mak were more common.

It was too late when the doorman noticed that the three young men were toting machine guns. Willie, it turned out, had lost a considerable sum at the club and wanted to get it back, along with all the rest of the money in the club. Knowing that he would be recognized, his plan was simple: kill everyone. Fourteen people. Willie’s crew gunned them all down after binding them hand and foot then strafing the club with automatic weapons fire, even sending bullets hurtling through the front window and into the alley beyond. It was the bloodiest mass killing in Washington state history. But it was only thirteen dead at the end of the massacre. The fourteenth man, Wai Y. Chin, survived. And despite the violence, he was willing to testify. A manhunt began for the three trigger men, who might normally have hoped to disappear into the shadows of a protective Chinatown population but in this case could expect no quarter from the community. Benjamin Ng and Willie Mak were arrested on February 28. Tony Ng, however, managed to elude capture for over a year, finally being arrested on October 4, 1984 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

After the police investigation, the owners padlocked the club. With only one or two exceptions, it has remained padlocked ever since. The owners will not sell, will not renovate, will not turn it into an attraction for morbid tourists like me. It remains sealed, a tomb, and within it they say are the suffering ghosts of the thirteen doomed revelers who met their end during the massacre. It is a cursed place they say. To approach the remnants of the club now — which has not only been off-limits and neglected but was also damaged by a later fire — is to get a serious case of the creeps. There are still bullet holes in the glass. Peering through the single unfrosted pane, one can see the dusty detritus of decades left to rot.

Fort Ticonderoga

Looking out at the vast sea of trees covering the Green Mountains, cut through by meandering Lake Champlain, it just seems like it should be haunted. Perched on the border of New York and Vermont, this is the sort of rugged, remote country that terrified HP Lovecraft and hid within its dark, unexplored mountains, forests, and valleys the sort of ancient creatures that would send his protagonists into fits of terrified hysteria. I came for the pencils, which was the only way I and many Americans had ever heard of Ticonderoga, or at least whatever Americans left who remember wooden pencils. Oh, yes, there was also the fort from the Revolutionary War, and true to the setting, more than a few ghosts still patrol its lonely ramparts. In fact, the dead of three nations walk the grounds at Fort Ticonderoga.

Constructed by the French in 1755, and then known as Fort Carillon, it began notching up a bloody history just a couple of years later during the French and Indian War when, on July 8, 1758 nearly 2,000 British and Provincial soldiers were killed or wounded during a day-long battle during which they attempted to seize the fort from the French. It was, until the Civil War, the single bloodiest battle in American history. A year later, the British attacked again, this time defeating the French and claiming the fort for their own. Shortly thereafter, they let it lapse into a state of disrepair, making it a prime target for a wily band of guerrilla fighters in the days leading up to the American Revolution. In 1775 when Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold (he was still a good guy then), and the Green Mountain Boys crossed Lake Champlain from Vermont on May 10th and seized the fort from the British. The fort was retaken by the British in 1777, and despite another raid by Americans that same year, the British managed to retain the fort until their surrender in 1781. While most of these skirmishes were not major engagements, the harsh environmental realities of a fort in northern New York state resulted in many more deaths from disease and exposure.

Fort Ticonderoga is replete with ghosts and supernatural mysteries. It’s most notable specter is Nancy Coates, the mistress of one of the garrison generals, a feller by the name of “Mad” Anthony Wayne. Thinking he had abandoned her for another woman, Coates drowned herself in the lake. It is said that her spirit can be seen still walking the footpaths of the fort in search of her former lover. It is also said that, in a particularly gruesome display, her lifeless body appears from time to time floating in the lake. She is kept company by an anonymous British soldier who is often seen staring out of the window of one of the buildings. Mad Anthony himself is said to still walk the garrison grounds, no doubt ducking in and out of the shadows in an attempt to avoid the ghost of his spurned mistress. Also still occupying the fort long after having departed this mortal coil are men like Scotsman Duncan Campbell, who seems the most likely source of the distant ghostly bagpipes some people hear. And then there are the riderless horses seen sometime standing near the old garrison cemetery, looking for their long fallen riders. Spectral weeping, ghostly fife and drum music, footsteps, hoofbeats, and the requisite sightings of strange glowing orbs and objects that have been mysteriously moved about round out the sundry supernatural chills at this most haunted of places.

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