Thursday, July 1, 2021

Ep. 391 - New Orleans Absinthe and Ghosts

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Moment in Oddity - Unexplained Sleeping Deaths Inspired Wes Craven (Suggested by: Justin Rimmel)

Wes Craven claimed that his inspiration for the 1984 film, "A Nightmare on Elm Street" came from the real life aftermath of the Cambodian genocide. Craven had heard the story of a child refugee who refused to sleep because he was terrified that he would die in his sleep because of dreams that he had been experiencing. One night his parents heard him scream out and when they got to his room, they found him dead. This young child was not alone. The Hmong People were from Laos and they had helped the Americans fight back against the North Vietnamese in the Vietnam War. Many of these Hmong soldiers became refugees who fled to America and during the 1980s many of these young men in their 20s and 30s, died in their sleep with no apparent reason why. One 1981 newspaper article pointed out that the recent death of a 47-year-old Laotian refugee was the 13th nocturnal death among the Hmong since 1978. The only theory medical experts could come up with for the phenomenon was the chemical nerve agents that these people had been exposed to during the war. They thought perhaps the remnants of this exposure had led to the deaths. But there is nothing to support this and why did it only affect men in this way? The Hmong came to believe that they were being punished by the spirits of their ancestors since they had left their homeland. Perhaps it was the stress from these fears that caused heart attacks or something. No one knows, but the fact that a fictional serial murderer like Freddie Krueger was inspired by the death of Laos refugees, certainly is odd!

This Month in History - Jones and Morrison Die on Same Day, Two Years Apart

In the month of July, on the 3rd, in 1969 and in 1971, two well known musicians died, exactly two years apart from each other. The musician who died  in 1969 was Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones. Jones was a gifted musician who had been the original leader of the group, but years of decadence and drug use caught up to him and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards fired him. Jones was found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool three weeks later. Jim Morrison had the been the charismatic frontman and voice of The Doors. He too had issues with alcohol and drugs with mescaline being a favorite due to its hallugenic qualities. He was found dead in a bathtub at a Paris apartment he shared with his girlfriend at the time. The death was recorded as a heart attack although no autopsy was done. Morrison's girlfriend claimed he hadn't been doing drugs, but later recanted that before she died of her own overdose. Not only did Morrison and Jones die on the same day and in a similar manner, two years apart, but they both also died at the age of twenty-seven.

New Orleans Absinthe and Ghosts

The Green Fairy is the nickname for a once illegal liquor known as absinthe. There are a few places in New Orleans where one can get a shot of absinthe. The most famous place is the Old Absinthe House, but there are also the Mahogany Jazz Club and Pirate's Alley Cafe. These locations have not only that spirit, but some human spirits too. We figured, why not put together a legendary drink that claims to cause hallucinations with tales of ghosts? Join us for a jaunt down the streets and alleys of the French Quarter in pursuit of a special fairy and the ghosts connected to it! 

The French Quarter is what most people think of when they think of New Orleans. This is the old part of the city that is full of bricks and cast iron and wrought iron. This was originally founded by the French in 1718. The French Quarter's boundaries stretch from Canal Street to Esplanade Avenue and from the Mississippi River northwest to North Rampart Street. When we visited in December of 2020 during the Covid Pandemic, it was relatively quiet. This visit was quite different with many people and the partying that is famous in this part of New Orleans. Bourbon Street was hopping again. And the smells of the city were in full bloom. The French Quarter probably has more spirits per capita than anywhere else in the world. Here pirates mingled with ladies-of-the-evening and politicians, artists, musicians and many other people. This is an area rich with energy and is one of the few places that has several areas where one can get their steampunk on with a shot of absinthe. 


Absinthe is a funky green liquor derived from the flowers and leaves of Artemisia absinthium - from which it derives its name - and herbs that include sweet fennel and green anise. That fact is one reason, I'm not interested in trying Absinthe. I hate the taste of licorice. The other reason is the high alcohol content in this drink.It's between 110 and 144 proof. I'm a beer girl and one shot of this just might be too much for me. Absinthe is usually diluted with water because of that high alcohol percentage. Another name for Artemisia absinthium is Wormwood, which seems fitting based on the fact that Revelation in the Bible claims that a meteorite is going to hit the Earth in the future and cause the water to be undrinkable and the name of the meteorite is Wormwood. Egypt was probably the first region to use Wormwood and this was as a medicinal curative. French nuns would be the first ones to use Wormwood as an elixir in the late 1700s. This perked the attention of a doctor named Pierre Ordinaire and he distilled the elixir into an alcoholic beverage. He wasn't making this to start his own bar, but rather as a medicine. It would be given to French troops as a treatment for malaria. By the mid 1800s, bistros and pubs in France had grabbed hold of this green drink of the French soldiers and started serving it up. The drink soon took on the name la fee verte or The Green Fairy and the 5:00 o'clock hour became the green hour. 

Parisian artists and writers became the champions of the drunk-inducing drink and claimed that it bolstered their creativity. Men like Vincent Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde and Aleister Crowley were proponents of the glories of the Green Fairy. This caused absinthe to become very popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Absinthe made its way to America, specifically New Orleans. Rumors started circulating that Absinthe not only got people drunk quickly, but it had a hallucinogenic effect. For this reason, it was banned in the United States starting in 1912 and Europe soon followed. The Temperance Movement had a lot to do with that. A Temperance Petition in 1907 read, “Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant. It disorganizes and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country.” In 2007, absinthe could be legally made again, but it is highly regulated to make sure its level of thujone remains less than ten parts per million of thujone.Thujone is a chemical compound that was thought to create psychoactive effects. In high doses it can cause convulsions and is toxic to the brain, liver and kidneys.

The Wormwood Society is America's Absinthe Association and Information Network and they have a collection of historical documents about absinthe. One is a pamphlet published by the U.S. Brewer's Association entilted "‪A Solution of the Temperance Problem‬, ‪Proposed by the Government of Switzerland."‬ It talks about a late 19th century absinthe drinking club and reads, "In 1876 a number of Parisian women formed an Absynthe Club and adopted by-laws prescribing that on the days of meeting the members of the club must wholly abstain from the use of solid food, in the place of which latter absynthe was to be consumed to the extent of the drinker’s ability. This competitive drinking bout had for one of its incidental objects the election of a presiding officer, inasmuch as the member who could drink most without showing signs of intoxication, was declared president of the club."

La Galerie de l'Absinthe

Not far from the World War II Museum, one finds the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. The museum has several exhibits and one of these is La Galerie de l'Absinthe. This is a collection compiled by Raymond Bordelon and is the only one of its kind in the U.S. dedicated to absinthe. The collection features absinthe spoons, absinthe cocktail recipes, and absinthe fountains. Displays cover the history of the drink in general and in New Orleans. Some of the history connected to absinthe includes stories of Vincent Van Gogh being a heavy user of the drink and it is credited not only with helping him with his impressionistic paintings and his liberal use of the color yellow, but also with the removal of his ear. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was a heavy drinker of absinthe and even carried a hollow cane filled with absinthe. It is believed to have inspired his impressionistic scenes of the brothels and night spots of 19th-century Paris. And this talk of absinthe and brothels and night spots brings us to our first haunted location.

Mahogany Jazz Club

The Mahogany Jazz Club is located along Chartres Street just a half block down from Canal Street, so basically at the edge of the French Quarter. We passed by it every day while we were there, but it was never open. This had once been the Folk's Lodging House, owned by Fred Folk. Tragedy at this location would begin at this time. There was a young man of 26 named Charles Murphy who worked as a shoemaker in a factory in New Orleans. Murphy came down with a fever that left his body exhausted. He had it for several days and could not shake the illness. His weariness caused his work to decline and he fell into a depression. Mr. Folk went to give him a wake-up call at 6am one morning and the two men chatted. Mr. Folk returned to his downstairs office and Murphy tied a piece of clothing line around his neck and tied the other end to a hook on the wall and hanged himself. Mr. Folk realized a couple hours later that he had not seen Murphy leave and he went upstairs to check on him where he found him dead. This was in 1888.

The next tragedy would involve a man named George Kreis in 1890. This was a guy down on his luck that Mr. Folk befriended. He invited the man who was living on the street to come and stay at his establishment. He also helped George find a job in a bakery. The problem was that George was not a very good baker and he became depressed at his work. With the money he had manged to make, he bought a gun and shot himself at the boarding house. Poor Mr. Folk would end up finding another suicide victim in his lodging house. 

And there was yet another death. The Times-Picayune reported on November 22nd, 1892, “Shot in the Dark: Mysterious Killing on 125 Chartres Street.” This told the story of homeless man Scotty Boyle who made a habit of hanging out near the door to Folk's Boarding House. The article says he was “minding his business when a tall man in dark brown suit approached him. A bystander heard the man in the brown suit get angry and he yelled at Boyle, “I’ll shoot you for fun!” And he did just that shooting Boyle in the face. The man in the suit then fled down Chartres Street. Boyle was still alive, but unable to speak and he died before he made it to the hospital. The killer was never found.

We're not sure what happened to this location through the years, but today it is the Mahogany Jazz Club were patrons can get a drink and listen to great live jazz. But the real treat here is the burlesque show in the back where the Green Fairy is served up. This is a small, intimate venue where patrons get to hear a brief history of absinthe before being offered a sample. The burlesque is very tasteful we hear. The cost is $20 and many claim it to be a hidden gem. Not only do we have the Green Fairy here, but there are stories of ghosts.

Patrons claim to have been touched by something unseen and hearing disembodied whispers and voices. The employees claim that the spirits are nice here. Connie Fry had been a general manager her and told Ghost City Tours, “I’ve had staff members previously that have mentioned actually seeing a figure in the back room…I have had several customers who have mentioned having feelings of things brushing across their shoulder, fingers running through their hair shadows out of the corners of your eyes. Charles [Murphy] turned around and hung himself, so I’m pretty sure he’s one of the spirits that is lingering. We have one who we jokingly call Rebekah because we don’t know her name. But you’ll see a glass move a little bit on the bar or if you’re getting ice out of the ice machine, the lid will drop on your head.  She just wants to let you know that somebody’s here.”

Pirate's Alley Cafe 

Pirate's Alley is an alley that some claim was the scene of pirate commerce once upon a time, but there is actually nothing to prove that and it more than likely was just another alley in New orleans. But it is a cool name for an alley and a cool name for a restaurant. The Pirate's Alley Cafe is located at 622 Pirate Alley. This was originally a royal prison run by the Spanish in the mid-18th century. Jean Lafitte and his brother were imprisoned here for a time. It was eventually demolished in the late 1830s. The building that stands there now was built and eventually became the Pirate's Alley Cafe. Aleister Crowley hung out at this bar and even wrote two of his books here while sipping absinthe.
James Caskey writes in his 2013 book "The Haunted History of New Orleans: Ghosts of the French Quarter" that the bar has a poltergeist-like entity whom slams doors, shatters light bulbs and harassed a female bartender by undoing her bra and lifting her top, exposing the poor gal. Employees started leaving out some rum to appease the spirit. A guide for the Haunted History Tours company, Jerry Andersen, shared an experience a woman had on one of his tours in Kalila Smith's book "New Orleans Ghosts, Voodoo and Vampires, Journey Into Darkness." A woman on his tour got upset when she realized that her expensive wristwatch was missing. People in the group searched all around where they had been, but found no watch. The tour continued and the group went into the cafe for a drink. The woman reached into her purse to pay for a drink and found her watch. This was a watch with one of those safety clasps and she never took it off to put it in her purse. She was sure she had been wearing it. Ectoplasm has been captured in a picture around the sign of the Pirate's Alley Cafe.  

Old Absinthe House

At the corner of Bourbon and Bienville Streets, sits the Old Absinthe House. The original building that once stood here was built in 1752, but burned down in the 1788 Great Friday Fire. The only thing of the building after the fire was the fireplace. Pedro Front and Francisco Juncadelia were two Spaniards in the city who wanted to open a grocery store, so they rebuilt on this location and opened in 1806. This store operated for forty years and sold the necessities of life along with tobacco products and imported wines. This location became very important during the War of 1812. General Andrew Jackson met up with the pirate Jean Lafitte right before the New Orleans Battle in 1815 on the second floor. Jackson made a deal with Lafitte to release his men from prison with full pardons if they would fight in the Battle of New Orleans. These pirates were familiar with the lay of the land including the swamps and they were instrumental in America’s victory over the British. And you may remember from an earlier episode that this battle in New Orleans actually never needed to be fought because the war was over.

In 1846, Aleix's Coffee House took over the location. Now, this wasn't your local Starbucks. Or even your neighborhood coffee house. Places that served coffee were called cafes. When they were called a coffee house, that meant something else. This was a house of vice. All kinds of vice. Drugs were readily available and all kinds of liquor. In 1874, the site became The Absinthe Room and mixologist Cayetano Ferrer created the Absinthe House Frappe. The Coffee House had been popular, but the Absinthe House blew it out of the water. This was a location not to be missed. When absinthe became illegal and then Prohibition became the law of the land, the Absinthe House almost shut down. But, of course, it remained open as a speakeasy. It was so popular though that the authorities were well aware it was still running and some of them threatened to burn the building down. The owners moved everything a few blocks down to a warehouse and kept the operation going. Today, that location is the Mango Daiquiri Shop. When Prohibition was repealed, the Absinthe House reopened in its former location.
Many celebrities have passed through the doors from Frank Sinatra to P.T. Barnum, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman (fun fact: we had a quote of his on the wall in our hotel), Liza Minelli and even President Franklin Roosevelt. The saying here is that "everyone you have ever known or will ever know, eventually ends up at The Old Absinthe House." This location went through a major renovation in 2004, including the copper-topped bar.

There are several spirits that have made the Old Absinthe House their home in the afterlife. The pirate Jean Lafitte must like to reminisce about his role in beating the British during the War of 1812 because his spirit is seen here as a full-bodied apparition on the second floor. And many of his crew members join him as well. Their disembodied partying is heard with laughter and singing and glasses clinking and the sounds of beer mugs crashing to the floor. Some people even claim to have seen General Jackson standing with Lafitte, so perhaps some of this is residual, playing over that important moment in history. A Lady in White wearing a long white dress is seen sometimes and temperatures drop on a regular basis. A child runs across the third floor and doors open and close on their own. Disembodied whispers are heard, chairs move on their own and so do bottles. Interestingly, the ghost of Marie Leveau is seen in the bar. She steps up to the bar as though she wants to order a drink or two. She is also seen looking out of a window on the second floor.

Benjamin Butler was the General of the Union occupying force in New Orleans in 1862 and he was so brutal, people called him "The Beast." He was only rivaled by General Sherman. His father had served under General Jackson during the Battle of New Orleans. He tried politics for a while and was a lawyer, but during the Civil War he managed to get appointed as Brigadier General of Massachusetts militia. He was unscrupulous, ignored authority and completely disregarded military procedures. Although he did nothing to capture New Orleans, he took over charge of the citizenry. He issued General Order No. 28 on May 15, 1862 which read, "As the officers and soldiers of the United States have been subject to repeated insults from the women (calling themselves ladies) of New Orleans in return for the most scrupulous non-interference and courtesy on our part, it is ordered that hereafter when any female shall by word, gesture, or movement insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation." Butler would be removed for this egregious dishonor of the Southern women. Even though he died in 1893 in Massachusetts, his spirit is said to be seen at the Old Absinthe House.

Absinthe is a powerful drink, so its not surprising that three of the locations in New Orleans that serve it are buzzing with spiritual activity. Are any of these bars haunted? That is for you to decide!

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