Haunted NOLA: The wandering statue of Storyville madam Josie Arlington’s Metairie Cemetery tomb

In life, and death, the legend of Storyville madam Josie Arlington is that of a woman unafraid to ruffle a few feathers.

by Michael DeMocker
October 8, 2019

If you are walking past Metairie Cemetery some moonlit evening and see a young woman walking by carrying an armload of flowers, don’t be alarmed. That’s just the statue from the grave of the infamous Storyville madam Josie Arlington out for an evening stroll. You may also notice that the stone flames atop Josie’s tomb have ignited and burn like the red lights of the brothels that made Josie her fortune.

Who Was Josie Arlington?

Mary Deubler was born in the Carrollton neighborhood of New Orleans in 1864. Some stories say she had strict parents she wanted to escape, others say she was an orphaned at the age of 4 and raised by nuns. Regardless, as a teenager she absconded with the “scoundrel” Philip Lobrano, also known as “Schwarz,” who put her to work as a prostitute in some of the city’s higher-end brothels. Josie’s beauty (and formidable temper) put enough money in her pocket that she was eventually able to open brothels of her own.

Storyville madame Josie Arlington (Josie Arlington Collection, Earl K. Long Library, University of New Orleans)

She ditched Lobrano after he shot her brother Peter to death during an altercation in 1890. Having changed her name to Josie Arlington after the popular saloon The Arlington, the prostitute-turned-madam opened a four-story, 16-bedroom high-end establishment in the 200 block of Basin Street at the heart of the infamous Storyville District. The Chateau Lobrano d’Arlington offered exotic-looking and educated girls at exorbitant prices. All manner of discreet debauchery was on the menu for the Big Easy’s rich and powerful, and Josie became an extremely rich madam able to buy a stately home at 2721 Esplanade Ave.

Josie Arlington’s home at 2721 Esplanade Avenue. (Josie Arlington Collection, Earl K. Long Library, University of New Orleans)

Planning For The End

Try as she might, however, her wealth could not buy her admission into high society in life, so she tried to do so in death; she purchased a fashionable plot in Metairie Cemetery for $2,000, to the consternation of the proper ladies of the city. At the enormous expense of over $5,000, she had an elaborate tomb designed by the German architect and sculptor Albert Weiblen. The red marble and granite tomb is topped by a pair of stone flames and features the Grecian bronze statue of a young woman, carrying an armload of flowers, pushing on the copper double doors to the tomb.

There are several theories about the identity of the female statue on her tomb, from it being a teenage Josie banging for admittance to her angry parents’ Carrollton home to a virgin being refused admittance to one of Arlington’s brothels (she contended no girl ever lost her virginity within the walls of her brothels). A simpler explanation put forth is that the statue is a just a replica of a statue Arlington took a liking to.

The former tomb of infamous Storyville madame Josie Arlington. The statue is said to come to life and wander the cemetery and the granite flames on top ignite into real flames on the anniversary of her death. Arlington’s remains were removed from the tomb after her heirs spent all her money and were forced to sell the tomb. (Photo by Michael DeMocker)

Arlington enjoyed the scandal her intended final resting place was causing, commenting that if only the twittering matrons of the city knew how many of their husbands were her regular clients. After years of battling illnesses, including dementia, Arlington passed away on Valentine’s Day 1914.

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After Her Death

But if she thought her tomb caused a stir when she was alive, the tomb after her death brought downright chaos.

It wasn’t long before passersby reported that light was coming from her tomb and that the stone flames atop her tomb were flickering with red light. Huge crowds came out to see the phenomenon. Some blamed a nearby flashing traffic beacon for the effect. To calm the public, the light was removed, a cross was carved into the back of the tomb and things quieted down.

Temporarily.

The statue on the former tomb of infamous Storyville madame Josie Arlington is said to come to life and wander the cemetery. Arlington’s remains were removed from the tomb after her heirs spent all her money and were forced to sell the tomb. (Photo by Michael DeMocker)

The day after the first anniversary of her death, Arlington was taken from her tomb. While some say families from neighboring graves demanded she be removed because of the crush of curious visitors, it would appear that her heirs, her paramour and business partner Tom Brady (no relation… I assume) and her niece Anna Deubler (who married Tom a week after Arlington’s death) recklessly spent her fortune, eventually causing the tomb to be sold off to another family, that of prominent local lawyer J.A. Morales (J.A. are also the madam’s initials… just sayin’). Arlington’s remains were removed to another part of the cemetery. The location of her body remains a guarded secret to this day.

Josie Arlington’s niece Anna Deubler was secretly sleeping with Josie’s paramour Tom Brady, marrying him a week after Josie’s death. The pair then squandered all of Josie’s money, eventually selling her tomb and forcing the removal of Josie’s mortal remains. (Josie Arlington Collection, Earl K. Long Library, University of New Orleans)

This posthumous relocation at the behest of her profligate heirs apparently did not go over well with the late Ms. Arlington. Since then, it is said the granite flames of her tomb reignite into real flames every year on Valentine’s Day, the anniversary of her death. Neighbors have reported ghostly pounding on the door of what has come to be known as “The Flaming Tomb” as the restive spirit tries to regain entry to her hard-earned resting place.

After Josie Arlington died in 1914, eerie lights were said to emanate from her tomb in Metairie Cemetery and the granite flames atop the tomb appeared to ignite, so a cross was carved into the back of the tomb to quell public hysteria. (Photo by Michael DeMocker)

Of course, there are the tales of the wandering statue; two gravediggers named Anthony and Todkins swore that on two separate occasions they witnessed the statue come to life, descend the steps and take a nocturnal stroll around the cemetery. The statue has indeed repeatedly been found in the light of day elsewhere on the grounds and returned to its spot outside Josie’s former tomb.

The statue on the former tomb of infamous Storyville madame Josie Arlington pushes on the copper doors. Arlington was removed from the tomb after her heirs spent all her money and were forced to sell the tomb. (Photo by Michael DeMocker)

Today

In addition to the strange goings-on in the cemetery, one ghost-hunting book claims a recurring spectral apparition of a woman dressed in black that appears in the 900 block of Esplanade Avenue on the French Quarter side of the street is the madam, post-mortem. A resident, when asked if she’d ever seen the spirit which is said to fade in and out while wandering the avenue replied, “No, I haven’t heard that one, but we do sure have our share of ghosts around here.”

Sightings of a ghostly woman thought to be Josie Arlington have been reported in the 900 block of Esplanade Avenue on the French Quarter side of the street. (Photo by Michael DeMocker)

References:

Dwyer, Jeff. Ghost Hunter’s Guide to New Orleans. Pelican Publishing: Gretna, LA, 2016 (page 211)

Murphy, Michael. Fear Dat. Countryman Press: New York, New York, 2015 (page 49)

Storyville New Orleans website. Josie Arlington. https://www.storyvilledistrictnola.com/Josie_Arlington.html (accessed October 2019)

Stuart, Bonnye. Haunted New Orleans: Southern Spirits, Garden District Ghosts, And Vampire Venues. Globe Pequot: Guilford, CT, 2012 (page 209)

Pontchartrain, Blake. What happened to the remains of Josie Arlington, the Storyville madam?. Gambit weekly, 23 November, 2015. https://www.theadvocate.com/gambit/new_orleans/news/blake_pontchartrain/article_eee72f61-2274-5deb-a53f-d5d6bf8726bb.html (accessed October 2019)

Storyville New Orleans website. Josie Arlington. https://www.storyvilledistrictnola.com/Josie_Arlington.html (accessed October 2019)

Metairie Cemetery
Getting there
5100 Pontchartrain Blvd, New Orleans, LA 70124, USA

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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