Vampires and vampire-like creatures have been found in the folklore of every civilization, every culture and every religion since the beginning of recorded time. New Orleans is no exception. The city was settled in the early 1700’s and it was during this time in Europe that massive vampire hunts were occurring.
The vampire tradition began in the early 1200’s in Eastern Europe and spread into Western civilization over hundreds of years. Vampire hunters, usually church representatives, were digging up the dearly departed, driving wooden stakes through the corpses, then beheading and burning the body.
The causes of vampirism varied and one could be predisposed at birth for vampirism. Having been born at certain times of the year (New moon, Holy days), born with a red caul, with teeth, or with an extra nipple were sure signs of a vampire. If the child was born with excess hair, white hair, red hair, a red birthmark or with two hearts, the theory persisted. The 7th son of a 7th son was believed to be doomed to vampirism. If the child was weaned too early, suckled after weaning or died prior to Baptism, vampirism was suspected upon death. If the pregnant woman received a curse or was stared at or attacked by a vampire, the child would be cursed to vampirism. This type of predisposition was considered a genetic defect, like a mutation and vampirism was inevitable.
Vampirism happened after birth as well. Being fed upon seven or more times by a vampire without dying would guarantee one to become a vampire. Numerous things could happen before or after one’s death that could lead to vampirism; committing suicide, practicing sorcery or witchcraft, eating sheep killed by a wolf, leading an immoral life (prostitutes, murderers, alcoholics, rapists), dying without last rites, having a cat jump over the corpse/coffin, having a shadow fall on the corpse, no burial or improper burial rites, death by violence, or death by drowning.
There are ways to prevent vampirism should any of the above occur and a number of different things might be done in order to take steps to prevent that body from ever returning from the grave. Weighting the eyes down with coins, tying the mouth closed or stuffing the mouth with garlic were common practices as was placing coins or dirt on the eyes. Our ancestors would cover mirrors in the house and stop the clocks in the home of the deceased.
In Louisiana, many families still practice a custom called “sitting up with the dead”. When a family member died, a relative or close family friend would stay with the body until it is placed into one of our above ground tombs or is buried.
The body was never left unattended. There are many reasons given for this practice today; most commonly respect for the dead but, this tradition actually dates back to vampire folklore in Eastern Europe. While sitting up with the deceased, the friend or family member was watching for signs of paranormal activity i.e. if a cat was ever seen to jump over, walk across, or stand on top of the coffin; if a dog was seen to bark or growl at the coffin; or if a horse shied from it, these were signs of impending vampirism. At that point, steps would be taken to prevent the corpse from returning from the dead.
Ways to stop a vampire included burying the corpse face down and burying it at a crossroads. Often family members would place a sickle around the neck, tie body parts together or mutilate the body, usually by decapitation and placing the head at the bottom of feet. The most common remedy for impending vampirism was to drive a stake into the corpse, decapitate it then burn the body to ashes. This method was the only way to truly destroy the undead.
By the 1700’s, these practices were going on all throughout Western Europe, particularly in France and Germany where many were migrating to New Orleans. Believers insisted that vampires could have been smuggled over in ships with the settlers. The early French settlers brought over brides from Europe who transferred their belongings in large wooden casket-like boxes. According to folklore, even though vampires prefer the night, they are not destroyed by daylight. It was common for the vampire to walk about during the day but they generally hunted and fed at night. They would not have needed to be smuggled in coffins in the hulls of ships. This idea is that of fictional writers such as Bram Stoker. More than likely, vampires would have entered the ships like anyone else and blended in well with society.
If being a murderer, rapist, or other criminal element would predispose one to vampirism, it is easy to see how they would have become so prevalent in New Orleans. The city started as a penal colony. All of the original settlers would have been predisposed to it! Once they blended in with the mortals, they could easily feed on the population without raising much suspicion. With people dying in great masses from diseases such as yellow fever, who’s going to notice another corpse here or there?
Nonetheless, our folklore has remained true to the casket girl theory. These women were housed and educated in the Ursuline Convent, located on Chartres and Ursulines Streets in the French Quarter. They were eventually married off to the settlers in the city. It is believed by many that the original caskets of these brides are stored in the attic of the convent and that the vampires still reside in them. The convent is no longer a working convent but now is a repository for the archives of the archdiocese. Legend states that late at night one of the attic shutters will open and the vampires escape. They attack unsuspecting victims, return and close the shutters before dawn. But is it more than a legend?
By Kalila K. Smith New Orleans Paranormal & Occult Research Society, Read the full article at: http://www.neworleansghosts.com/vampires.htm
Amaranth by Rachael Wade