The History of Vampires in New Orleans

By Kalila K. Smith

New Orleans Paranormal & Occult Research Society, ©1996

Vampires and vampire-like creatures have been found in the folklore of every civilization, every culture and every religion since the beginning of recorded time.  New Orleans is no exception.  The city was settled in the early 1700’s and it was during this time in Europe that massive vampire hunts were occurring.

The vampire tradition began in the early 1200’s in Eastern Europe and spread into Western civilization over hundreds of years. Vampire hunters, usually church representatives, were digging up the dearly departed, driving wooden stakes through the corpses, then beheading and burning the body.

The causes of vampirism varied and one could be predisposed at birth for vampirism. Having been born at certain times of the year (New moon, Holy days), born with a red caul, with teeth, or with an extra nipple were sure signs of a vampire. If the child was born with excess hair, white hair, red hair, a red birthmark or with two hearts, the theory persisted.   The 7th son of a 7th son was believed to be doomed to vampirism.   If the child was weaned too early, suckled after weaning or died prior to Baptism, vampirism was suspected upon death.  If the pregnant woman received a curse or was stared at or attacked by a vampire, the child would be cursed to vampirism.  This type of predisposition was considered a genetic defect, like a mutation and vampirism was inevitable.

Vampirism happened after birth as well. Being fed upon seven or more times by a vampire without dying would guarantee one to become a vampire.  Numerous things could happen before or after one’s death that could lead to vampirism; committing suicide, practicing sorcery or witchcraft, eating sheep killed by a wolf, leading an immoral life (prostitutes, murderers, alcoholics, rapists), dying without last rites, having a cat jump over the corpse/coffin, having a shadow fall on the corpse, no burial or improper burial rites, death by violence, or death by drowning.

There are ways to prevent vampirism should any of the above occur and a number of different things might be done in order to take steps to prevent that body from ever returning from the grave.  Weighting the eyes down with coins, tying the mouth closed or stuffing the mouth with garlic were common practices as was placing coins or dirt on the eyes.  Our ancestors would cover mirrors in the house and stop the clocks in the home of the deceased.

In Louisiana, many families still practice a custom called "sitting up with the dead".  When a family member died, a relative or close family friend would stay with the body until it is placed into one of our above ground tombs or is buried. 
The body was never left unattended. There are many reasons given for this practice today; most commonly respect for the dead but, this tradition actually dates back to vampire folklore in Eastern Europe. While sitting up with the deceased, the friend or family member was watching for signs of paranormal activity i.e. if a cat was ever seen to jump over, walk across, or stand on top of the coffin; if a dog was seen to bark or growl at the coffin; or if a horse shied from it, these were signs of impending vampirism. At that point, steps would be taken to prevent the corpse from returning from the dead.

Ways to stop a vampire included burying the corpse face down and burying it at a crossroads. Often family members would place a sickle around the neck, tie body parts together or mutilate the body, usually by decapitation and placing the head at the bottom of feet. The most common remedy for impending vampirism was to drive a stake into the corpse, decapitate it then burn the body to ashes.  This method was the only way to truly destroy the undead.


By the 1700’s, these practices were going on all throughout Western Europe, particularly in France and Germany where many were migrating to New Orleans.  Believers insisted that vampires could have been smuggled over in ships with the settlers.  The early French settlers brought over brides from Europe who transferred their belongings in large wooden casket-like boxes.  According to folklore, even though vampires prefer the night, they are not destroyed by daylight.  It was common for the vampire to walk about during the day but they generally hunted and fed at night.  They would not have needed to be smuggled in coffins in the hulls of ships. This idea is that of fictional writers such as Bram Stoker. More than likely, vampires would have entered the ships like anyone else and blended in well with society.

If being a murderer, rapist, or other criminal element would predispose one to vampirism, it is easy to see how they would have become so prevalent in New Orleans.  The city started as a penal colony.  All of the original settlers would have been predisposed to it!  Once they blended in with the mortals, they could easily feed on the population without raising much suspicion.  With people dying in great masses from diseases such as yellow fever, who’s going to notice another corpse here or there?

Nonetheless, our folklore has remained true to the casket girl theory.  These women were housed and educated in the Ursuline Convent, located on Chartres and Ursulines Streets in the French Quarter.  They were eventually married off to the settlers in the city.  It is believed by many that the original caskets of these brides are stored in the attic of the convent and that the vampires still reside in them.  The convent is no longer a working convent but now is a repository for the archives of the archdiocese.  Legend states that late at night one of the attic shutters will open and the vampires escape.  They attack unsuspecting victims, return and close the shutters before dawn.  But is it more than a legend?   

New Orleans has always had a high murder rate, not to mention, a lot of missing persons.  The French Quarter has always been a very mysterious and seductive place.  Many a person has mysteriously disappeared, many of whom were never known to have been here in the first place.  Runaways commonly come to the French Quarter to hide out, as do people with "pasts."  If no one knows you are here, how will they know if you should disappear?  If you just "drifted in" people will assume you just "drifted out", as well.  New Orleans’ history is filled with vampire murders throughout time with the most recent occurring in 2003.

Vampires and Disease

In certain areas of rural Louisiana, some plantations had the exterior keyholes turned upside down to prevent entry of the "undead". Unhappy spirits of the dead were believed to bring disease into households.  For many years, yellow fever epidemics were blamed on such "evil spirits". It is documented that early settlers in New Orleans would fire cannons into the air to repel these spirits. Plagues, as well as tuberculosis, in Europe were often blamed on vampirism.  Tuberculosis patients often coughed up blood which caused doctors in the Middle Ages to believe that they had been ingesting blood; thus the belief that the disease was the product of a vampire bite.  The word Nosferatu literally means "plague-carrier". Early cemeteries in Louisiana were often placed far from towns, many times at a cross roads, to discourage the spirits from finding their way home.  Often these tactics were called "confusing the spirit".

In many cultures, vampirism is believed to be nothing more than aberrant behavior resulting from adverse mental or physical conditions.  Porphyria, a human blood disorder, is believed by many to be a condition that has resulted in many "diagnosed" Vampires.  The patient suffering from porphyria becomes extremely sensitive to light. In addition, skin lesions may develop, and the teeth become brown or reddish-brown in color.  The gums recede giving the canine teeth a "fang-like" look.

Like the diabetic who replaces insulin with injections, blood transfusions can be effective in reversing the effects of porphyria.  It is believed that in medieval Eastern Europe, nobleman may have been instructed by their physicians to drink blood to reverse the disorder. Because many royals had a tendency to marry within the same family, it is easy to see how recessive genetic disorders such as porphyria may have been more prevalent among the nobility.

Vampire Lore

The word vampire was first used in 1734: "The bodies of deceased persons animated by evil spirits, which come out of the graves at night time to suck the blood of many of the living and thereby destroy them."

By 1862, vampire meant a terrible BORE of a person.

By 1911, vampire meant "a woman who intentionally attracts and exploits men" and by 1918 (July 9) the New York Times mentions a play called "The Vamp" starring Enid Bennett.  The verb “to vamp” means "to behave seductively and exploit"

There are 2 kinds of vampire: the spirit of a dead person or a corpse reanimated by his own or another person (ethereal or physical)

Who Becomes a Vampire and How

ϖThe 7th son of the 7th son

ϖA cat jumping over corpse turns the corpse into a vamp (England); in Romania the same but the cure (antidote) is to put a piece of iron into the corpse's hand or place Hawthorn in the coffin

ϖA baby born with teeth or a caul or stillborn

ϖA dead body that has been reflected in a mirror

ϖSomeone bitten by a vampire


ϖPeople who die suddenly & violently

ϖThose who do not receive proper burial

ϖPeople who have eaten the meat of a sheep that has been killed by a wolf

ϖHaving red hair

ϖSomeone who has renounced the Eastern Orthodox Church (perhaps the reason many peasants thought Vlad the Impaler was a vampire)

ϖBeing excommunicated by the Eastern Orthodox Church

ϖWild dogs jumping over a corpse

The art of fooling and controlling Vampires (and the dead in general)and methods for turning away evil

ϖTake the most tortuous route home from the cemetery in order discourage ghosts from following you

ϖWear unfamiliar clothing (disguise)

ϖWear grotesque makeup (disguise)

ϖImpaling the corpse or breaking its legs and severing its head (it can't see and can't run ... that ought to do it!). A severed head was sometimes placed underneath the buttocks to prevent the corpse from putting its head back on

ϖPelt the corpse with pebbles as it is being lowered into the grave

ϖSpread poppy seeds on the path from the graveyard ... vampires must stop to pick up every one and if you spread enough of them, by the time they have picked them up it's dawn and time to go back to bed (the graveyard)


ϖTo detect a vampire, place a young virginal boy or girl on a horse of a solid color.  The horse must also be virgin and never have stumbled. If the horse refuses to pass over a grave then you know a vampire lies there

ϖThe wooden stake of impalement has to be made of rosebush, ash tree. Sometimes a red-hot iron will do.

ϖAll vampires have to be buried face down after they have been killed


ϖIn Romania, young women seeking to avoid giving birth to a vampire should eat salt (for its purifying powers)

ϖCrossing the arms of a corpse

ϖBurying the corpse with a sickle around its neck so if it sat up it would decapitate itself

ϖPutting a thorn under the tongue to prevent it from sucking blood


ϖInserting a needle into the navel


ϖPlacing the heart on the head


ϖCutting off the feet

ϖCutting the knee ligaments (very common)

ϖStaking can be accompanied by driving a sacred nail into the head


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