Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Sultan's Ghost: from the New Orleans Voodoo Handbook

According to the legend Jean-Baptiste La Prete, being short on funds, leased his winter home on 716 Dauphine Street to a turbaned gentleman who claimed to be the Sultan of Turkey. Upon signing the lease, the Sultan moved in along with an entourage of harem girls, beardless boys and eunuch guards who patrolled the balconies with drawn scimitars. Those who gained entrance to the Sultan's inner sanctum told wild tales of debauched orgies and banquets: those who stood outside the gates noticed the constant smells of opium and incense.

Then, one morning, police were called when neighbors noticed rivulets of blood running beneath the iron gates. When no one answered their summons, they forced the doors and entered the home. There they found body parts scattered throughout the house: the servants, guards, harem girls and slave boys had literally been hacked to bits.

Going into the garden, they found a hand sticking out from the dirt: the Sultan had been buried alive and suffocated before he was able to claw his way out of his shallow grave.  The crime was never solved. Some claimed the culprits were pirates who wanted the Sultan’s treasure. Others said the Sultan was really the Sultan’s brother, who had escaped to New Orleans after stealing gold and slaves only to find that an ocean was no shield against the Ottoman Emperor’s wrath.

Since that time, 716 Dauphine has gained a reputation as one of the most haunted houses in New Orleans. People have reported hearing the tinkle of Oriental music, the smell of incense, or bloodcurdling screams. Apparations of a light-haired man in Turkish garb have also been spotted, and some say that a gnarled tree in the garden is possessed by the spirit of the murdered Sultan, who has caused it to twist in the form of his death throes. Says Virgie Posten, a choreographer who lived at 716 Dauphine for a brief time in the late 1950s:
...I moved out of that place a few months afterwards because I saw a man in my apartment on two different occasions and could never really explain how he could have gotten in or out of there so quickly without a sound.

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!

After that second time, when I woke up in the middle of the night and saw him standing at the foot of the bed staring at me, I made up my mind to get out of there," continued the still-attractive brunette. "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. Of course, I still wasn't thinking about ghosts.

It wasn't until a few days afterward that I happened by chance to see an article in the newspaper about the house and its legend. Then I realized where I was living. The description that the paper gave of the "sultan" - how he was supposed to have been 'to the blond side,' despite his Turkish origin - seemed to fit the person I'd seen and set me thinking.

My third and last experience, however, was the most frightening of all. That was the night my girlfriend and I stopped by the house to get a few of my things, which I'd left there until I could move them out. 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.
Alas, details of this story are sketchy. Some versions of the legend claim the atrocity took place in 1792, even though the La Prete House was not built until 1836. And there is no contemporary mention of this Sultan or his murder in any of the local papers. (Even in the Big Easy a crime this brutal would surely have gained attention from the press!) I was tempted to write this off as yet another legend created for "ghost-hunting" tourists. Then I discovered an earlier story compiled in 1866 by local historian Charles Gayarré.
In the beginning of 1727, a French vessel of war landed at New Orleans a man of haughty mien, who wore the Turkish dress, and whose whole attendance was a single servant. He was received by the governor with the highest distinction, and was conducted by him to a small but comfortable house with a pretty garden, then existing at the corner of Orleans and Dauphine streets, and which, from the circumstance of its being so distant from other dwellings, might have been called a rural retreat, although situated in the limits of the city. There, the stranger, who was understood to be a prisoner of state, lived in the greatest seclusion; and although neither he nor his attendant could be guilty of indiscretion, because none understood their language, and although Governor Périer severely rebuked the slightest inquiry, yet it seemed to be the settled conviction in Louisiana, that the mysterious stranger was a brother of the Sultan, or some great personage of the Ottoman empire, who had fled from the anger of the viceregent of Mohammed, and who had taken refuge in France. The Sultan had peremptorily demanded the fugitive, and the French government, thinking it derogatory to its dignity to comply with that request, but at the same time not wishing to expose its friendly relations with the Moslem monarch, and perhaps desiring, for political purposes, to keep in hostage the important guest it had in its hands, had recourse to the expedient of answering, that he had fled to Louisiana, which was so distant a country that it might be looked upon as the grave, where, as it was suggested, the fugitive might be suffered to wait in peace for actual death, without danger or offense to the Sultan. Whether this story be true or not is now a matter of so little consequence, that it would not repay the trouble of a strict historical investigation.
The year 1727 was drawing to its close, when on a dark, stormy night, the howling and barking of the numerous dogs in the streets of New Orleans were observed to be fiercer than usual, and some of that class of individuals who pretend to know every thing, declared that, by the vivid flashes of the lightning, they had seen, swiftly and stealthily gliding toward the residence of the unknown, a body of men who wore the scowling appearance of malefactors and ministers of blood. There afterward came also a report, that a piratical-looking Turkish vessel had been hovering a few days previous in the bay of Barataria. Be it as it may, on the next morning the house of the stranger was deserted. There were no traces of mortal struggle to be seen; but in the garden, the earth had been dug, and there was the unmistakable indication of a recent grave. Soon, however, all doubts were removed by the finding of an inscription in Arabic characters, engraved on a marble tablet, which was subsequently sent to France. It ran thus: "The justice of heaven is satisfied, and the date-tree shall grow on the traitor's tomb. The sublime Emperor of the faithful, the supporter of the faith, the omnipotent master and Sultan of the world, has redeemed his vow. God is great, and Mohammed is his prophet. Allah!" Some time after this event, a foreign-looking tree was seen to peep out of this spot where a corpse must have been deposited in that stormy night, when the rage of the elements yielded to the pitiless fury of man, and it thus explained in some degree this part of the inscription, "the date-tree shall grow on the traitor's grave."
This "small but comfortable house" was located on the site of the La Prete House: the date palm in question grows in its garden. Could that old legend, retold and updated as time went on, be the basis of 716 Dauphine's evil reputation?  Does the ghost of that murdered Turk still wander the halls of the La Prete home, condemned to relive his murder over and over through the ages? Perhaps Gayarré had the best suggestion for those who would find out. "Ask Nemesis, or — at that hour when evil spirits are allowed to roam over the earth, and magical incantations are made — go, and interrogate the tree of the dead."