So, apparently, my great granny may have been a vampire smuggler.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The “Casket Girls” of New Orleans
Our story begins in the earliest days of New Orleans when the governor of Louisiana at the time, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, made a request that the government back in France send marriageable women to help increase the population of the fledgling colony. The request was not without precedent; In the late 17th century, King Louis XIV sponsored a program called the “filles du roi” or the “King’s Daughters” which put around 800 young women onto ships bound for French settlements in Canada. In a painting called “The Arrival of the Brides,” the women are seen disembarking in Quebec carrying a small wooden suitcase called a “casquette” or “cassette” which contained everything they could bring to their new home. The boxes were so small they would be legal as modern airline carry-ons — and this was for a lifetime trip.
In a “not-what-I-had-in-mind” response to Bienville’s request, France drew from the country’s women’s prisons, poor houses and orphanages to send 258 girls and women of dubious repute to New Orleans during the years 1719 to 1721. The arrivals were not well-received and many were refused marriage. However, in 1728, it is said that a new group of girls of a more “acceptable” quality began to arrive in New Orleans. As they stepped onto shore in New Orleans, people were surprised at their pale, otherworldly complexions, likely a consequence of being kept below decks out of the sun for the long voyage. Their name “filles a la cassette” was anglicized to the very creepy name “Casket Girls”. The legends say some of the girls were found to be so strange-looking that they could not find husbands and the luckless lasses fell under the care and protection of the Ursuline nuns of New Orleans. The Casket Girls eventually found themselves living in the Ursuline Convent on Chartres Street.
Of nuns and vampires
The current Old Ursuline Convent at Chartres Street and Ursulines Avenue was completed in 1753 (twenty-five years after the first Casket Girl arrivals) to house the nuns that had been invited from Rouen, France in 1927 and who were in need of a new building. The sisters ran an orphanage, infirmary and school on the first floor of the new building while living on the second. The French colonial building itself is the oldest structure in New Orleans, having survived the two devastating fires that struck the French Quarter in 1788 and 1794. The nuns not only cared for the sick and dying during the outbreaks of yellow fever, they also are said to have tended to the wounded of the War of 1812 and the Civil War. Which explains the ghosts. We’ll come back to that.
It was here, legend says, the Casket Girls found a home in the third-floor attic, their coffin-like wooden boxes containing their possessions stashed at the foot of their beds. At some point, the nuns sealed off the third floor, shuttering the windows, ostensibly to protect the virtue of the young women in their care. But then, the hand mirrors the girls brought with them mysteriously vanished. Neighbors fell ill. Crops failed. Cats and dogs lived together. Whispers began that the vampire-pale Casket Girls had brought an evil with them from the Old Country. Eventually, the nuns threw the Casket Girls out and closed up the third-floor attic forever.
Sealed with screws blessed by the Pope himself
But years later, a guy repairing the leaky roof found the empty caskets and it all began to make sense, in an insane, 18th-century sort of way. The Casket Girls had smuggled in vampires from Eastern Europe, vampires who were now leaving blood-drained corpses all over the greater New Orleans metro area. Many believed the flying vampires wanted to return to their caskets on the convent’s third floor, which is why the windows were permanently sealed with 800 screws made of silver that had been blessed in Rome by the Pope himself. It turns out the windows were sealed not to keep the virtue in but to keep the evil out! Allegedly, Pope John Paul II even re-blessed the anti-vampire screws during his 1987 visit. If you look up to the third floor today, you can see that the windows are still shuttered.
But all the precautions were for naught, for the vampires and their stories were in New Orleans for good as anyone who has ever googled “New Orleans” and “vampires” can tell you. One story holds that in the 1970s, a couple of ghost-hunters ditched a tour of the convent and hid out in the courtyard with the intention of spending the night monitoring the sealed third-floor windows for vampiric shenanigans. Alas their corpses, drained of blood, were discovered the following morning. (Why they needed to trespass for this investigation when they could have set up folding chairs on the public sidewalk on Chartres Street with a clear view of the shuttered windows is not known.)
But the Casket Girls and their contraband bloodsuckers aren’t the only macabre legends tied to the Old Ursuline Convent; ghost hunters report that the apparitions of the nuns in their dark habits can be seen navigating the original 18th-century staircase between the first and second floors in the main foyer or moving about the lower rooms, tending to the spirits of the sick and dying. But these ghosts haven’t found the fame of the Casket Girls, who have been immortalized in musicals, fiction and even a “modern gothic vampire ballet” staged a few years back in Indiana.
Which brings us to my great great great great great great great great great grandmother, the fille du roi Anne Talbot, born in 1651 in Rouen, France (the same French city where the original Ursuline nuns of New Orleans came from! Coincidence?) and who was married off at the age of 19 in Quebec, Canada. Yes, just like Madonna, Tom Berenger and Angelina Jolie, I’m a descendent of a casquette girl. Were the Casket Girls of New Orleans the only (alleged) vampire smugglers or did the importation of the bloody-thirsty undead inconvenient, carry-on size begin with the first wooden casket carried, possibly by Granny Talbot, into a New World colony that was a smorgasbord of tasty, maple-flavored French colonists? Je ne sais pas…
The Museum at the Old Ursulines Convent at 1100 Chartres Street documents 300 years of Catholicism in New Orleans and is open to the public Thursday, Friday, Saturday & Monday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. with the last admission at 1:15pm. Tickets are $8.00 General Admission, $7.00 Seniors, $6.00 Students/Military. No, you can’t go on the third floor because the archdiocese uses it to house archival records and for miscellaneous, non-vampire storage.
Berry, Jason. City of a Million Dreams: A History of New Orleans at Year 300. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2018
Branley, Edward. NOLA History: The Old Ursuline Convent in the French Quarter. March 30, 2011 https://gonola.com/things-to-do-in-new-orleans/history/nola-history-the-old-ursuline-convent-in-the-french-quarter. Accessed October 2021.
Dwyer, Jeff. Ghost Hunter’s Guide to New Orleans. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 2016
New York Historical Society Museum & Library website. https://wams.nyhistory.org/settler-colonialism-and-revolution/settler-colonialism/casket-girls/ Accessed October 2021.
Quackenbush, Jannette. Ghost Stories and Folk Tales of New Orleans. 21Crows Dusk to Dawn Publishing, 2021.
Schlosser, S.E. Spooky New Orleans. Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot, 2016
Stuart, Bonnye. Haunted New Orleans: Southern Spirits, Garden District Ghosts, and Vampire Venues. Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 2012
Taylor, Troy. Haunted New Orleans: History & Hauntings of the Crescent City. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2011