Street Guide to the Phantoms of the French Quarter— Pirate Alley

The French Quarter has been lived in and died in; human energy has been manifested continuously and freely for 250 years. Where we find presently a sedate restaurant, we would have found—20 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago or more—a dry goods store, a grocery, a saloon, a coffeehouse, a patisserie, an apothecary, a gambling joint, a silversmith, a printer, a jeweler, a letter-writer, a whorehouse, a bank. They may have disappeared along with their proprietors, but they’ve left behind an aura that infuses the atmosphere.

–Andy Peter Antippas, A Guide to the Historic French Quarter (History & Guide). 2013.

New Orleans’ French Quarter—the Vieux Carré to locals—is among a handful of locales in the South that possesses a high concentration of haunted places. Encompassing nearly two-thirds of a square mile (.66 to be exact), the French Quarter has been said to have spirits in nearly every building and site. Even looking at the documented hauntings here, the number is quite impressive.

The French Quarter is generally defined as the section stretching from Canal Street to Esplanade Avenue and from the Mississippi River northwest to North Rampart Street. This section of the city is where the city was originally founded by the French in 1718. With buildings and sites spanning three centuries, the French Quarter is easily the most paranormally active neighborhood in the entire city.

This series of articles is meant to act as a street by street guide to those hauntings. While some of these stories have gained quite a bit of notoriety in the literature, like Royal Street’s LaLaurie Mansion, and Bourbon Street’s Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, some stories have only been explored in the literature once or twice. This is an attempt to synthesize information from the many sources that exist on the French Quarter into a succinct guide.

For more haunted places in the French Quarter visit the main page for my series, “Phantoms of the French Quarter.”

Sources

  • Antippas, Andy Peter. A Guide to the Historic French Quarter (History & Guide). Charleston SC, Arcadia Publishing, 2013. Kindle Edition.

Pirate Alley

Running from Chartres Street and Royal Street between St. Louis Cathedral and the Cabildo, Pirate Alley was originally called Orleans Alley South, as it is an extension of Orleans Street. Despite the official 1964 name change, there has always been contention on whether the name is singular (“Pirate”), plural (“Pirates”), or possessive (“Pirate’s” or “Pirates’”). A 2017 article in the Times-Picayune examines this issue and weighs in on the side of the paper’s own style-guide, which deems the name as the singular and non-possessive “Pirate Alley.”

Pirate Alley New Orleans
A view down Pirate Alley towards Chartres Street. Photo 2007, by Infrogmation. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Of course, this also begs the question as to the identity of the pirate for whom this alley is named. Most sources point to the infamous Jean Lafitte, the privateer and pirate whose legend is inextricably linked to New Orleans’ history. In his classic history of New Orleans street names, John Chase notes:

The other passage—Pirates’ Alley—is named in fanciful recollection of the legendary Jean Lafitte and his motley bank of pirogue-mounted cutthroats, the Baratarians. Lafitte’s outfit had no more connection with Pirates’ Alley than with the teachings of the church, which the passage flanks on the uptown side. But the name fascinates all visitors.

While tour guides continue to promulgate legends that Lafitte and his men met and did business along this passage, there is no evidence that it actually happened. In Lafitte’s time, this alley was the seat of power for both the church, in the form of the cathedral, and the law, which was issued and enforced from the Cabildo (see my entry on this building and its ghosts at 701 Chartres Street) and the prison behind it. While the romantic notion of a pirate rebelliously conducting his business in the shadow of the church and the law is a fascinating image, it is unlikely to have actually happened as such.

Jean Lafitte

In examining the ghostly tales of New Orleans, there are two names that are frequently encountered: Jean Lafitte and Marie Laveau. If even half the stories of their hauntings are true, these two must be the busiest spirits in New Orleans, making appearances and causing paranormal shenanigans throughout the city and the Gulf Coast Region.

Jean Lafitte
An anonymous, early 19th century portrait purported to be Jean Lafitte. From the Rosenberg Gallery.

About thirty years after Lafitte’s death, one researcher remarked, “I found in my researches, twenty years ago, romantic legends so interwoven with facts that it was extremely difficult to the historical truth from the traditional.” So couched in legend is the life of Jean Lafitte that scholars have argued about so much of his life, and writing a biography is a difficult exercise in speculation and conjecture. Even contemporary sources disagree and contradict one another.

Lafitte’s place of birth is argued to have been southwest France, though others have posited that he may have been born in the colony of Saint Domingue in what is now Haiti. Biographer William C. Davis argues that both Jean and his older brother, Pierre (who worked alongside his brother in New Orleans) were born in the town of Pauillac in the Gironde region of France, and that Pierre ventured to Saint Domingue around the turn of the 19th century where he eventually fled the turmoil for the prosperity of La Louisiane.

Jean Lafitte possibly appears on the scene around the time of the sale of the Louisiana Territory to the United States in 1803. Around this time, Pierre, possibly with the help of his brother, began to deal in slaves and also evade the newly established American trade laws. This piracy, which was all too common along the Gulf coast, created a reputation for the brothers. Their knowledge of the intricacies of the bayous and waterways of the area led them to providing aid—in terms of knowledge, material goods, and fighting men—to American forces during the War of 1812. This aid was provided on the condition that the brothers would be granted pardons for their crimes.

The notorious brothers were forced out of business by the government which forced them to close their business matters in New Orleans. They continued their pirating, though in different places: Pierre establishing a base off the coast of Mexico before being killed in 1821 and Jean dealing in Colombia before his death in 1823. William Davis notes that the legacy of the brothers was more as folk heroes.

Sources

  • Chase, John. Frenchmen, Desire, Good Children…And Other Streets of New Orleans. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 2007.
  • Davis, William C. “Jean and Pierre Lafitte.” 64 Parishes. Accessed 9 January 2020.
  • Davis, William C. The Pirates Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf. NYC: Harcourt, 2005.
  • Scott, Mike. “Pirate Alley: A history of the New Orleans street and its name(s).” Times-Picayune. 5 April 2017.

Pirate’s Alley Café
622 Pirate Alley

Since the mid-18th century, this space behind the Cabildo, the seat of Spanish rule in the city, was occupied by the Spanish Calabozo or Calaboose, a royal prison. This building remained until it was demolished in the late 1830s. It was here that both Lafitte brothers and some of their men were imprisoned. Some of the structures that now stand here were constructed thereafter, though may still be the residence of the spirits of some of those incarcerated here.

Pirate's Alley Cafe New Orleans
A bartender at the Pirate’s Alley Cafe prepares an absinthe drink in this 2008 photo by Infrogmation. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In an interview with the café’s owner, author James Caskey was told that one of the spirits in Pirate’s Alley Café tends towards “naughty” antics. While some bars and restaurants in the city regularly leave out an offering to appease the spirits, the spirit here was not impressed by the bread and water. The bar experienced doors slamming and light bulbs shattering until someone had the idea of leaving out a glass of rum. The antics quieted down after that. The spirit was also blamed for harassing a female bartender as it undid her bra and her top, exposing the poor employee.

Sources

  • Caskey, James. The Haunted History of New Orleans: Ghosts of the French Quarter. Savannah, GA: Manta Ray Books, 2013.
Pirate Alley New Orleans
The three haunted buildings on Pirate Alley. Faulkner House Books is the yellow building. Photo 2007, by Infrogmation. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Faulkner House Books
624 Pirate Alley

William Faulkner arrived in New Orleans as a poet and left as a novelist. During his stay here in 1925, he rented the street-level floor of this home and wrote his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay, with influence and support from his friend, writer Sherwood Anderson. This building now appropriately houses a bookstore named for him where some have encountered the odor of pipe smoke, attributed to Faulkner.

Sources

  • Dwyer, Jeff. Ghost Hunter’s Guide to New Orleans, Revised Edition. Gretna, LA: Pelican, 2017.
Pirate Allet New Orleans
A view of the haunted buildings of Pirate Alley from Pere Antoine Alley across St. Anthony’s Garden. The yellow building is Faulkner House Books, while the red building next door is the house at 626 Pirate Alley. Photo 2007, by Infrogmation. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

626 Pirate Alley (private)

During one of the many epidemics that swept through New Orleans during the 1850s, a little girl contracted one of these illnesses. To aid in her recuperation, the child lay on a chaise lounge in front of one of the large third floor windows of this home. Jeff Dwyer was granted a tour of the home and sensed a great deal of sadness near one of the windows. Others have reported seeing the face of the child pressed up against the windows overlooking St. Anthony’s Garden across the street (for information on the haunting of this garden, see my entry on Royal Street).

Sources

  • Dwyer, Jeff. Ghost Hunter’s Guide to New Orleans, Revised Edition. Gretna, LA: Pelican, 2017.
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