Haunted NOLA: The ghostly hands of children at the Gally House

The Yellow Fever epidemic of 1853 ravaged New Orleans, leaving behind something more ghostly than just grief.

by Michael DeMocker
July 19, 2022

The group wanders off Toulouse Street and into a parking lot lit by security lights and a waning moon. One by one, they step up and extend their arms into a lone window set in the concrete wall, partially blocked by four iron bars that mark it as the prison it once was. Some jerk their hands away, convinced their hands have been grasped by the ghosts of enslaved children who died while locked in these former slave quarters during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1853.

The barred window on the former slave quarters of the Gally House off Toulouse Street in the French Quarter. (Photo by Michael DeMocker)

A pandemic in the past

These abandoned former slave quarters are at the rear of the Gally House, also known as the Keuffers building, which has stood at the corner of Toulouse and Chartres in the French Quarter since the early 19th century. Major Louis B. Gally (1787 – 1856) had it built several years after the devastating Good Friday fire of 1788 which started at 619 Chartres St., across the street from the current building. For years, passersby have reported seeing the forlorn faces of children staring out the street-level window, their small spectral arms reaching out through the bars. According to paranormal researchers, about three in 10 people who reach into window say they feel the touch of the ghostly children who succumbed to the terrible yellow fever outbreak which decimated New Orleans in 1853.

The 1853 outbreak was particularly nasty. It struck in the summer and by late July was killing about 100 people daily. The authorities downplayed the outbreak for fear of the economic impact quarantine would bring but after about 1,000 people had died (insert long, ironic pause here), they FINALLY admitted the danger the virus posed and took measures to combat it. Over 4% of the city’s population, nearly 5,000 people, were taken by yellow fever in August alone. By the end of the outbreak, over 7,800 people died.

Historic American Buildings Survey: Gally House, 536 Chartres Street, New Orleans on June, 1936. Richard Koch, Photographer (Wikimedia Commons)

Death from this acute hemorrhagic virus was horrific, as the victims suffered high fever, jaundice, convulsions and black vomit. About half of the people who contracted yellow fever died seven to 10days after contracting it, with blood coming from their eyes, nose and ears as they writhed and screamed with their last breaths. New Orleans medical professionals at the time repeated the old myth that slaves were highly resistant or even straight-up immune to yellow fever, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

A man leaning over the side of a bed vomiting, from a broadside entitled ‘Death of Aurelio Caballero due to yellow fever in Veracruz’, print, José Guadalupe Posada 1892 (Wikimedia commons)

It’s not surprising there are so many stories of restless French Quarter spirits taken by this ghastly virus; not a lot of famous NOLA ghosts died choking on a delicious char-broiled oyster. The ghosts of the Gally House children are by no means the only French Quarter spirits tied to outbreaks of “Yellow Jack.” Several lingering victims can be found just a beignet’s throw away. The ghosts of yellow fever victims are said to haunt a nearby former quarantine hospital in the 500 block of Toulouse, later the site of the famed O’Flaherty’s Irish Pub. Apparitions of yellow fever victims and the nuns who cared for them are said to roam the Ursulines Convent on Chartres Street. Guests at the Bourbon Orleans say they’ve heard the crying of young yellow fever victims in the hallways, a ghostly echo from the outbreak that struck the halls of the Sisters of the Holy Family orphanage the hotel once was.

1905: Screened horse-drawn ambulance during last outbreak of Yellow Fever in New Orleans. Photographer unknown. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Gally House ghosts

Also, the young victims of yellow fever at the Gally House are not the only ghosts to be found on site. In the late 19th century, the building was purchased by tailor Henry Dering and his wife Johanna. Johanna is said to have died for unknown reasons in 1895 at the age of 24 with poor Henry following her in death less than two years later, succumbing to heat stroke while toiling away in the NOLA heat which, face it, we can all empathize with.

Gally House, 536 Chartres St., New Orleans, Orleans Parish, Louisiana. Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston, Created / Published between ca. 1930 and 1939 (Wikimedia Commons)

Things get confusing when other sources reported that Johanna was actually 66 at the time of her demise. It isn’t cleared if her age was misreported at the time or if she was reported dead (again) 42 years later. Regardless, the figure of a young woman has been seen peering out the Toulouse Street-facing windows, watching the traffic in the street or tourists weaving in and out of the Quarter. The shutters on the window of the empty second floor have been seen to move on several occasions. Nobody seems to know if this is Johanna circa age 24 or some other poor soul who appears in the windows. In addition, there have been sightings of the apparition of a hulking man with a whip pacing the second-floor balcony which wraps around two sides of the Gally House.

Today, the restaurant on the ground floor is dark on a Saturday night, closed down for the time being. The shutters of the windows on the upper floors are shut tight. Coincidentally, that restaurant’s previous location in the Reynes Mansion building across the street at 601 Chartres has its own haunting. One account says there is the ghost of a young man who was shot to death in a drug deal gone bad sometime in the 1970s. Other accounts say he killed himself. He is said to appear in the middle of the day on the second-floor balcony wearing a white T-shirt and blue jeans. Those who see him don’t even realize they are looking at a ghost without being told. Potential renters of his former apartment were reported to have felt a great sense of unease and even nausea upon entering the dwelling and rarely got farther than the living room before looking to rent elsewhere. The spirit watches people in the street below, including walking tours that make their way to the rear of the Gally House to be touched by hands from another world.

The balcony and second-story windows at 601 Chartres Street in the French Quarter. (Photo by Michael DeMocker)

Works Consulted

Berry, Jason. City of a Million Dreams: A History of New Orleans at Year 300. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2018

Dwyer, Jeff. Ghost Hunter’s Guide to New Orleans. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 2016

Montz, Larry, Smoller, Daena. Ghosts of New Orleans. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2000

Nolaghosts.com. “The Ghosts of the Chartres House Café”. https://nolaghosts.com/the-ghosts-of-the-chartres-house-cafe/ Accessed July 2022

Powell IV, Lewis O. “Street Guide to the Phantoms of the French Quarter—Chartres Street” Southern Spirit Guide, June 4, 2016. https://www.southernspiritguide.org/phantoms-of-the-french-quarter-chartres-street/ Accessed July, 2022.
Saxon, Lyle, Dreyer, Edward, & Tallant, Robert. Gumbo Ya-Ya. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 2012

Stuart, Bonnye. Haunted New Orleans: Southern Spirits, Garden District Ghosts, and Vampire Venues. Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 2012

World Health Organization. “Yellow Fever: Key Facts”. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/yellow-fever Accessed July 2022

Wulf, Karin. “How Yellow Fever Intensified Racial Inequality in 19th-Century New Orleans.” Smithsonian Magazine, April 19, 2022. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-yellow-fever-intensified-racial-inequality-in-19th-century-new-orleans-180979934/ Accessed July 2022

Michael DeMocker has been a photojournalist in New Orleans for over twenty years. He’s been the National Press Photographer Association’s Regional Photographer of the Year three times and loves photographing all things New Orleans. He lives Uptown with his wife, son, and two dogs of varying intelligence.

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