Cemetery curses revisited: is the Caesers Superdome really cursed?
Map of the area around Caesar’s Superdome. The red rectangle shows the outline of Girod Street Cemetery.
The Saints: Cemetery curses revisited
Portion of the Robinson Atlas of 1883 showing Girod Street Cemetery
As we approach Halloween, fans of the New Orleans Saints often return to the topic of the Superdome and the Cemetery. While much research exists on the boundaries of Girod Street Cemetery and the Superdome, the curse theory always returns. The talk always gets serious when the Saints aren’t playing well.
We’ve discussed this before and in detail: Girod Cemetery isn’t under Da Dome. Still, folks find remains in the vicinity of the stadium that are outside the perimeter of the cemetery. This happens all over the city, and there are reasons for burials outside established cemeteries.
Indigenous burial mounds in the city come as no surprise. The native tribes were here before the colonizers, after all. Most of these mounds stand on high ground. When the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority discovered human remains near Canal Blvd. and City Park Avenue as part of bus/streetcar terminal construction, it made sense. The area is on the Metairie Ridge. It’s high ground. Since cemeteries surround the intersection, those remains were a combination of indigenous people and colonizers.
It takes years for government to green-light cemetery construction. While the wrangling takes place, families often buried loved ones in the general vicinity of the proposed site. It’s not like they could wait for things to shake out, after all. So, figuring close was better than not, they did what they felt they had to do.
Section of the Robinson Atlas of 1883 showing St. Louis Cemetery No. 2, along Claiborne Avenue in Faubourg Treme
Even after a cemetery opened for business, people often couldn’t afford the price of a plot, much less an above-ground tomb. The same thinking as initial disorganization applied. Let’s get the departed close. A walk through the cemetery connected those still living with the dead, even if they couldn’t put flowers on a grave.
When a cemetery falls into disrepair, things get messy. This was the case with Girod Street. The chapter of Christ Episcopal did not adequately prepare for long-term maintenance of the cemetery. By the 1950s, the cemetery was in ruins. Grave robbers discarded coffins and remains all over the cemetery, in search of valuables. Naturally some of the remains ended up outside the cemetery walls.
This is also a complicated subject. It was important to Christians that those buried in “holy ground” were free of serious sin. For example, if a spouse committed adultery, but did not seek forgiveness for the mortal sin, the family who owned the plot might refuse that person burial. A priest might refuse to preside over the rites of burial. Those close to the deceased were told to find someplace else. Another reason for exclusion from consecrated ground was suicide. Clergy and family would reject any connection to a person who took their own life.
In most of these cases, there were relatives who disagreed with this harsh treatment. While they were unable to get the departed inside the walls, they buried their loved one close by. Therefore, numerous reasons exist to explain remains outside the cemeteries.
Twelve Months New Orleans November, continuing the series by Enrique Alferez
Twelve Months New Orleans November
This image is the eleventh in a series of images by Enrique Alferez, published by Michael Higgins as “The Twelve Months of New Orleans.” Higgins published the illustrations in 1940. The image features a New Orleans cemetery for All Saints.
Alferez was born in Northern Mexico on May 4, 1901. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1927 to 1929. He came to New Orleans in 1929. Alferez made New Orleans his home. He took advantage of various Works Progress Administration grants in the late 1930s. Alferez created a number of sculptures in the metro area, particularly in New Orleans City Park. Additionally, he designed the large fountain in front of Shushan Airport (now New Orleans Lakefront Airport.
Alferez drew and painted, as well as sculpting. So, he included many New Orleans landmarks in the “Twelve Months” booklet.
The title/cover page of the booklet says:
A set of 12 Romantic
Displaying 60 local subjects
drawn direct on the plate
with pen, brush, and crayon
Printed and published by Michael Higgins
at 303 North Peters St
Visiting the cemetery is the theme of November’s illustrations.
Top Left: Racing Season Begins. Horse Racing traditionally begins on Thanksgiving Day. New Orleans in 1940 meant going out to “Da Track,” the Fair Grounds in Gentilly.
Top Right: LSU Rodeo. The “Block and Bridle” Club at Louisiana State University presents an annual rodeo. This year’s rodeo is the 83rd annual, on 5-6 November.
Bottom Left: Loading cotton. Cotton planters harvested their crop, baled it, and shipped it to New Orleans on steam-powered riverboats. Cotton Factors, traders buying and selling crops, negotiated purchase with the ship captain. They transferred the cotton from the riverboat to cotton presses along the riverfront. The mill/press compressed the cotton into much denser bales, for transfer to ocean-going ships.
Bottom Right: Colored Nuns. Women of Color could be nuns, too! Several orders of nuns consisting of women of Creole and/or African descent called New Orleans home.
All Saint’s Day
The central drawing for November features a cemetery scene. The caption reads:
On All Saints Day, NOVEMBER 1st.,
The tombs, all whitewashed the day
before, are decorated with especial care.
November’s center illustration presents a second scroll:
on account of
water near the surface
till recently all our dead
were entombed ABOVE the ground
Alferez offers a scene from All Souls Day, November 2nd. He’s a day off, in that families went to the cemeteries on November 1st, because most had the day off. All Souls Day was more important, as families prayed for mitigation of time in purgatory for their deceased.
See you for the twelfth image in December.
Tombs, Ovens, All Souls, the preparation was all for today.
Tombs, Ovens, All Souls.
Illustration from the 1870s, A Cemetery Walk, (Tombs and “Ovens.”) shows the scene in a New Orleans cemetery. The tombs on the right are typical of the city’s older cemeteries, particularly the Creole/Catholic St. Louis Numbers 1 and 2 cemeteries. Both feature an outside wall. The wall surrounded tombs of many styles and designs. While St. Louis Number 2 is better planned, the older cemetery features haphazard layouts and walkways. Many people went out to the cemetery on All Saints Day, November 1st, to spruce up the family tomb.
Praying to the Saints
The Catholic Church observed a calendar full of honors to various saints. While some “saints” were fictional, most were real people, recognized by the Church to be in Heaven. Martyrs receive canonization for giving their lives to God. Other Saints require more detailed documentation. Some saints receive a sort of “fast-track” path to canonization. The cause of others may take decades to achieve the desired result. Once declared a saint, the Church designates a feast day for them. Their cult (not a derogatory term in this context) then celebrate the saint’s life on that day.
If everyone in heaven is a saint in the eyes of God, that’s a lot more saints than there are days in the year. So, the Church marks 1-November as the catch-all date. In New Orleans, offices and other businesses closed on All Saints, ostensibly so folks could go to Mass.
Praying for the Souls
Catholics pray to the Saints for intercession. (Note that the saints don’t perform miracles, etc. The faithful ask the saints to put in a good word with God for the request.) They pray for those who have passed away, in the hopes that they are in that number of saints. Families visited their dead in simple and elaborate tombs. They also prayed for those in the “ovens” — niches in the cemetery’s walls.
Metairie Cemetery traffic pattern was important on All Saints Day.
Metairie Cemetery traffic pattern
Ad in the Times-Picayune, 28-October-1962, for Metairie Cemetery. The cemetery stood next to the New Canal for over eighty years. The city filled in the canal in 1949-1950. They then built the Pontchartrain Expressway, connecting Lakeview with downtown, in 1954. It took a few years to complete the ground-level access at Metairie Road. By 1962, the cemetery decided to explain the traffic flow to visitors:
Highway service and traffic lanes are now completed in the Metairie Cemetery area to accomodate autos entering Metairie Cemetery. If you plan to visit the Cemetery on All Saints’ Day, or the preceding day to place flowers, we suggest that you use the road guide printed below.
Visitors driving in from the west turned off Veterans Highway at Bellaire Drive. Bellaire is the first street on the Orleans Parish side of the 17th Street Canal. As Veterans evolved, this pattern altered slightly. Now, drivers turn right at Vets and Fleur-de-Lis. Since Bellaire no longer connects directly with Veterans, drivers go up to the light at Fleur-de-Lis, then curve around from there.
This route didn’t change after the construction of the I-10/I-610 highways over the canal. Just follow the service road. The sights along the way changed over time, from the country club, to New Orleans Academy (a military school), to the local LDS Temple. Now, the area along the service road is all residential.
All Saints’ Day continues to be one of the busiest days for local cemeteries. Since All Saints’ is a “holy day of obligation” for Roman Catholics, many companies took the day off. So, folks would attend Mass at their parish church, then head to the cemeteries to spruce up the family tombs. This was important, because of the next day, All Souls’ Day. All the Saints were already in heaven. The Souls in purgatory needed to get out of the holding pen and up to heaven. You knew that maw-maw went on to her reward. Paw-paw, on the other hand, you had your doubts. So, fixing up the tomb to show you cared became an important ritual.
Freret’s Cenotaph remained on paper when the Washington Artillery chose another design.
“Front elevation design for the Washington Artillery Monument (tomb).” by James Freret. Like most architects in New Orleans, Freret worked on spec. He drafted concept drawings to accompany proposals for buildings and monuments. This drawing illustrates Freret’s concept for the Washington Artillery Association monument. The monument stands in Metairie Cemetery. So, when Freret lost the bid, he filed away the drawings. Those illustrations eventually found their way to the Southeastern Architectural Archive at Tulane University.
Washington Monument Association
The United States Army formed the Washington Artillery (WA) in 1838. The unit now operates as the 141st Field Artillery Battalion. While originally an Army unit, they’re now part of the Louisiana Army National Guard. After the Southern Rebellion, veterans of the WA formed the Washington Artillery Association. Their mission was mutual aid and remembrance of the members of the unit. In 1879, the Association decided to build a monument. It would be a memorial to fallen members of the unit. They raised funds and solicited proposals from architectural firms.
James Freret responded to their request for proposal. He submitted the concept shown above. He submitted a design for a tomb. The number of vaults isn’t clear from the drawing. Freret envisioned an obelisk. So, Egyptian pyramids and obelisks were quite popular in burial architecture in the late 19th Century. Therefore, Freret expected his design to be appealing.
Invitation to the dedication of the Washington Artillery Monument, 1880. Card features a sketch of Charles Orleans’ design, including the Doyle sculpture.
The Association passed on Freret’s design. They chose a design by architect Charles A. Orleans. Mr. Orleans represented the Hinsdale-Doyle Granite Co. of New York. The Association changed their original plans for a tomb. They shifted the specifications to that of a cenotaph. This reduced the construction costs. Orleans selected the sculptor Alexander Doyle to create a statue. Doyle produced a sculpture of a WA private, wearing the uniform of the rebellion period.
The WA moved past the direct connection of the Metairie Cemetery monument to the rebellion. So, the 141st expanded the scope of the monument. While the statue remains, they included other battle honors. The cenotaph lists honors from other. conflicts. Given the backlash against “Confederate monuments” in recent years, perhaps Freret’s design would have been better in the long run.
Metairie Cemetery is the site of the Washington Artillery Cenotaph.
Washington Artillery Cenotaph
George Mugnier photo (courtesy NOPL) of the Washington Artillery Cenotaph in Metairie Cemetery. A “cenotaph” is an empty tomb. They serve as monuments to people buried elsewhere. So, the United States Army formed the Washington Artillery (WA) in 1838. It is now the 141st Field Artillery Regiment. The unit is attached to the Louisiana National Guard. In 1861, the government of Louisiana took control of the unit. It was a battalion at the time. WA fought as part of the main rebel force. WA re-organized in the 1870s.
The Washington Artillery Association raised funds for a monument to the battalion in 1879. The unit consisted of four companies at the time. Additionally, a fought with the Army of Tennessee. So, the association accepted proposals from various architects, They chose the design submitted by Charles A. Orleans. Orleans proposal included a sculpture by Alexander Doyle. Doyle imagined a figure of an artillery private, holding a “sponge.” The sponge was fixed to a ramrod. Gunners used them to clean out a just-fired gun. So, the cenotaph’s price tag was $10,000. Donations ranging from $25 to $250 came in to cover the costs.
While the unit fought for twenty years in the Union Army, the monument honors the rebel years. The roll of the dead listed members of the unit killed during that period. The battle honors initially engraved on the cenotaph began with Bull Run. Mexican War honors were not listed. The list of engagements shows just how active and effective the unit was.
The Association dedicated the cenotaph on February 23, 1880. A thousand people came out to honor the unit. The unit and its veterans association updated the cenotaph, expanding the battle honors as the battalion returned to active duty with the Army. The 141st hold a memorial annually at the cenotaph, as part of the unit’s heritage and traditions.