Nuns, Fires, Girls, Vampires

Our story begins in 1718, almost twenty years after brothers Bienville and Iberville found their way to the Bayou. Iberville died of Yellow Fever in 1706, but Bienville continued his quest for the Crown and was ready to settle on the Mississippi. 

In 1718, the King of France obliged new Governor Jean-Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville’s request for warm female bodies to populate his new city, Nouvelle-Orléans. King Louis XIV‘s “Filles du Roi” – the “King’s Daughters” would be shipped over tout suite. 

1800s New Orleans

Rex Frank Leslies Illustration Wikimedia

Filles du Roi

The King had sent 800 young women to Canada to help populate the French settlements. (I’m sure those women were thrilled to become “breeders.”) They arrived with one singular piece of luggage – a wooden box about the size of a small carry-on. These boxes contained all of their worldly possessions and were called “cassettes” or “casquettes.” These women promptly became wives to the trappers and settlers who had made Canada their new home. 

However, King Louis had different plans for the swamp. 

Be More Specific 

Per Bienville’s request, the King ordered his guard to start emptying France’s women’s prisons of prospective baby makers, as well as the asylums and orphanages. They scrounged up about 260 young women and corralled them onto ships to sail to their new homes. Tied together and kept in the ship’s hull, it’s impressive that any of them made it to the New World alive. 

As they departed their Hell-on-water vessel, they were not what the love-hungry men who had been fighting gators and mosquitoes had in mind. Most of these gals had their own ideas and were not down for the poorly arranged marriages. 

Bienville explained to the King the predicament he was in, these women were not so keen on loving and obeying, and the men were not excited about the lot on auction. So, King Louis got a new group of girls rounded up with the help of some nuns. 

Arrival of Ursuline Nuns 1727

The arrival of the Ursulines Nuns 1727

Ursuline Nuns

On August 7, 1727, the Ursuline Nuns arrived in New Orleans to provide education to the citizens and help improve the city – in accordance with The Church, of course. Their Mother Superior was MarieTranchepain, and the youngest of the group was the bright and eager nun, Marie-Madeleine Hachard. 

They cloistered themselves in the home of a wealthy patrician in the newly developed Vieux Carré, until their first Convent was completed in 1734. The nuns gave the first public Eucharist procession, modeled after a seventeenth-century ceremony staged by Ursuline nuns in the town of Dijon. This public, elaborate form of procession was designed to communicate the eternal nature of the convent’s political authority in the area.  

By 1745, the new, now Old Ursuline Convent was being designed, and the grand structure that stands today was completed in 1752. The Old Ursuline Convent is the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley and has withstood natural disasters and tragedies. While other buildings burned to the ground in the great fires of 1788 and 1794, the Convent on Rue de Chartres remained untouched. 

New Orleans Fires

The Great fire of 1788 started on Good Friday. Don Vicente Jose Nunez, paymaster of the army, left 56 tapers in his home chapel on Chartres burning. The fire started at 1:30 PM while Nunez was out to lunch and quickly began to reduce the Vieux Carre to ashes in just a few hours. Except for the Old Ursuline Convent. 

The Ursuline Nuns in their convent on Chartres began praying to Notre Dame de Bon Secours, Our Lady of Prompt Succor, patron of Rouen, their hometown. As the fire traveled Chartres – “down river” if you’re a local, the wind shifted. The blaze headed toward Dauphine, leveling over 850 buildings. But it never made it passed Du Maine; Ursulines was safe. 

In 1794, children set a hay fire behind a building in the French Quarter, not far from the Convent. In just three hours, 212 houses burned to the ground. Once again, missing the Old Ursuline Convent. 

Divine intervention twice over? The power of prayer. 

Education and Husbands

But back to pre-fire Vieux Carré, the nuns were on a mission to make New Orleans a God-fearing settlement. After the first round of undesirable ladies, the nuns received the King’s second shipment in 1728. This new group of young women was more “acceptable,” according to historical records. 

This is where the legend begins, and the dates don’t jive. 

Filles a la Cassette

Arrival of Casket Girls

Casket Girls from Historic New Orleans Collections

The ship from France left in 1727 and arrived in New Orleans in 1728. Once docked, a group of young, rather pale girls walked off the ship and into their new home’s heavy, damp air. They carried their tiny wooden luggage, their casquettes, just small enough for their frail bodies to hold and big enough for one pair of knickers and a hand mirror. Soon, these pale travelers would become known as the Casket Girls. 

The legend starts with the reactions of the men who were waiting for them. They remarked that many of these young girls were strange looking, which made it difficult to get that ring. Without any wannabe husbands grasping at their caskets, they fell under the protection of the Ursuline Nuns and moved into the Ursuline Convent on Rue de Chartres. 

“Legend” should be emphasized, as the dates and events don’t add up, but it sure makes for good story-telling. 

Legends of the Casket Girls

The Casket Girls arrived in 1728, but the Ursuline Nuns didn’t move into the Convent on Chartres and Ursuline until 1752. Now, prior to the amazing structure that is still standing today, there was a two-building compound there in the 1730s-1740s. It wasn’t structurally sound, which is why today’s building was built. But that still makes for a timeline of gaps and question marks. However, there are a few things that we know for sure. 

The Ursuline Nuns ran an orphanage, infirmary, and school on the first floor of the convent, and upstairs on the second floor were their living quarters. The third floor is an attic. Today the attic holds records of the Diocese that date back to the 1700s, but legend says the attic is where the Casket Girls lived. 

Legend #1: Lock’em Up!

In the attic, the Casket Girls slept on simple beds, and their “mini-coffins” carrying all of their belongings were placed at the foot of each bed. One day, each girl noticed that their handheld mirrors had disappeared from their caskets. 

Then, locals began falling ill and dying. (Reminder: 18th Century New Orleans is a mosquito mecca.) Bad luck amongst the citizens seemed to be spreading. And ala witch trials, the weird girls were to blame for all misfortune. 

The nuns sealed their window shutters; why depends on who you ask. Some say to keep the girls safe – possibly from a mob of blame shifters; others say to keep the city safe from the evil the Casket Girls brought with them.

Legend #2: Caskets in the Attic

After their arrival, the Casket Girls were under the watch of the nuns until their suitors made wedding plans. But, as time passed, some remained single. And those who married found their suitors to be abusive husbands.

Word got back to France, and the King was pissed. The girls were to be returned to France. 

The Ursuline Nuns climbed the three flights of stairs and unlocked the door to the attic to gather the caskets of the girls’ belongings. When they opened their luggage, all of their things were gone. The caskets were empty. 

The nuns were baffled and alarmed. Who were these girls? The pale skin, the tragic illnesses, and deaths plaguing the city… Were the rumors true? Were they here to curse the new settlement? Were they Vampires? 

The doors to the third floor were bolted shut. The shutters were nailed closed with nails made of silver and blessed by a Pope. They went all out on their security systems. 

Two Hundred Years Later

If one thing can be said about New Orleans, it’s that her mystery and legends never die. Like vampires. The Casket Girls lore and stories of the mysterious Ursuline Nuns kept growing through the centuries, morphing into stories of vampires and nun ghosts.  

In the 1970s, a couple of ghost hunters decided to hide in the courtyard of the Ursuline Convent, to monitor the attic windows. Unfortunately, staring at shut windows is exhausting, and they both fell asleep. 

The next morning, their bodies were discovered. They had been brutally murdered and drained of blood. 

Today there are stories of ghostly apparitions of what looks like a nun in her habit seen wandering the grounds and navigating the staircase inside the convent. Some say they have seen her tending the sick and dying, stuck in the days it was an infirmary. 

Other stories say you can hear the sound of children playing in the courtyard late at night. And if that sound doesn’t send you skipping towards Bourbon Street, stick around and watch for the ghostly apparition of a nun roaming the grounds. People claim to see her float through the courtyard towards the door, where she fades back inside the building. 

Stairway Old Ursuline Convent

Stairway Old Ursuline Convent

RIP Ms. Anne 

Legends and lore are usually created to explain something unexplainable at the time. It’s obvious that something was going on, and the settlers found it unsettling. But we will never know when, historically speaking, the story of the bloodsucking preteens first surfaced. 

But (un)rest assured, New Orleans does not have a shortage of vampire and ghost stories. It’s hard not to feel the city’s eeriness when walking down the streets of the French Quarter late at night. Perhaps it’s the heavy humidity that lays on your skin like a blanket. Or the way music floats out of the walls and into the night air, wrapping around your head, making you feel pleasantly dizzy. Maybe it’s the constant reminder of the tragedies and trauma the Big Easy has endured. 

New Orleans is magical and mystical. Just remember to respect her resilience and honor her past. There’s a reason her legends will outlive all of us. 

*If you are in New Orleans and would like to visit The Old Ursuline Convent, check out the museum’s hours of operation here