A tour guide well-versed in the ghoulish tales of the French Quarter's history finds the present day offers its own spooky circumstances.
- by Glennis Waterman
- photos by Ellis Anderson
I like to think of leading French Quarter walking tours as performing improv in the world’s most unpredictable room. You never know what’s going to happen out on the street. I’ve had my tours interrupted by bad weather, weddings, parades, thumping music from cruising cars, and once when my group was trapped on the wrong side of a freight train.
My audience varies, too, not only in size, but in expectations. Do my guests believe in the supernatural, or are they skeptics? Are they into New Orleans history, or do they want theme park-style entertainment? Do they want risqué horror and depravity, or a PG-rated, family-friendly tour? Each tour I perform is different. I have to think on my feet, revising my stories as we walk.
The past year has given us all lots of practice in quick changes — 2020 has been one long improv. New Orleans’s tour guide business has been hit especially hard by the new coronavirus pandemic. When the city shut down in March, walking tours immediately ceased. Bars and restaurants closed, and the French Quarter became a boarded-up ghost town. To add insult to injury, tour guides were omitted from the list of professions receiving assistance from the New Orleans Business Alliance’s “gig worker” fund, leaving many in financial jeopardy.
I worked for Gray Line, whose varied offerings include not only ghost tours, but also the steamboat Natchez, plantation and swamp tours, and walking tours focusing on the French Quarter’s history. I began conducting ghost tours last autumn, but Gray Line, like most entertainment businesses, closed in the March lockdown.
In mid-June, with the inception of Phase 2 re-opening, walking tours were allowed to operate again but with strict restrictions on group size. With this phase, the touring community was full of optimism. On June 13, I got a call from my boss telling me Gray Line was resuming ghost tours. Did I want to hit the streets again?
Tour guides do what we do for many reasons — love of our city, love of history, the thrill of performing — and the money is pretty good, too. We work as private contractors for fees and tips. Some of my colleagues were still not ready to work, but I felt okay about it, so I agreed.
During the week before my first post-COVID tour, I refreshed my memory, walking my route in daylight to see what had changed. Passing plywood-boarded stores and bars made the impact of the pandemic really hit home. Many of the sites where I had previously brought guests inside were still shuttered and dark.
My tour started near the steamboat Natchez, where the breeze off the river is cool. Even so, on the evening of my first tour, it was 92 degrees, the sun still blazing. I filled my water bottle and went to meet my guests. There were just three. A couple from Atlanta, here for a long weekend, and a young woman from Ohio. Masks were required, both for customers and guide. My guests wore blue disposable masks; I wore a black embroidered mask from Mexico, a black cocktail dress and my Halloween hat with a bouncing spider on top.
The June streets were strangely empty, artists and street performers gone from the square. I saw mostly locals clad in chef’s pants or waitstaff blacks, coming and going from work, wearing masks on faces or tucked below chins. It was a luxury to tell stories without having to shout over amplified music and bucket drummers.
Coming away from the river, my route crossed Decatur at St. Peter, into Jackson Square. The iron gates to the square are locked at this hour, so we lingered in the Upper Pontalba’s shade. The restaurant on the corner had added outdoor tables, now a city-sanctioned practice to help ease the challenges of reduced capacity.
In the square, I tried to conjure up the 18th century for my guests. In colonial days, this was the Place D’Armes, the grim site of the French colony’s gallows and flogging post. The French Quarter is a rich motherlode of ghostly stories, with 302 years of crime and cruelty, death and disaster in its recorded history. People are eager to hear them. The revival of ghost tours — not as many as before, but a definite presence in the streets — attests to that. Guides passing one another nod at their colleagues as if to say, good luck.
My tour route continued past the cathedral and into Pirates Alley, where I regaled my guests with tales of Pére Dagobert and Pere Antoine, two historic religious leaders of the colonial era. “Do their spirits still haunt these thoroughfares late at night?” In the echoing quiet of the alley, you could almost believe they do.
Tour companies arrange with local bars or restaurants for refreshment and bathroom breaks. Our break stop this evening was on Toulouse Street at New Orleans Creole Cookery, the site of an oft-told New Orleans ghost story. The staff there were welcoming and glad to see us. I’ve always enjoyed bringing guests into the restaurant’s pretty courtyard, the alleged scene of a historic murder.
Typically, these breaks are quick; the group gets their drinks to go and get back on the streets. But not after reopening. The Phase 2 rules prohibited go-cups. Discarded on the street, the cups could be teeming with virus particles, hazardous for other pedestrians and for cleanup crews. Since tours now had to linger while guests finished their drinks, I needed more stories to fill the time.
This hot night, we gathered at a courtyard table, trying to find the fabled supernatural “cold spot” near the fountain, haunted by the ghost of Angelique, who plummeted to her death here.
Though New Orleans was an early COVID hotspot, at first it seemed the lockdown had taught us a lesson. We successfully flattened the curve. Entering Phase 2 gave people hope we were coming out of the pandemic: everyone from bartenders to card readers, the tamale man and the shop keepers seemed happy to be back at work.
By mid-July, the streets were busier. Street performers returned, and there was more activity. The temperature increased, approaching the high 90s. As I strolled through the narrow streets of the French Quarter, beads of sweat trickled down my back beneath my cocktail dress, and my face beneath the mask was damp. Walking past stores and restaurants, my group would catch the cool breath of air conditioning wafting from open doors and sigh, lingering a moment.
One night in early July I led a quartet from California to Royal Street, where I told of the ghost of Melissa haunting the LaBranche House, and the murderous Doctor Deschamps of St. Peter Street. I planned to return to Jackson Square with a tale of ghostly monks singing chants, but in Pirates Alley, just next to Trashy Diva, police barricades blocked the way.
“What’s going on?” I asked the tarot card reader set up there.
“Another protest,” he said.
Well, let’s try going down St. Ann, I thought, and we did, only to find another set of barricades at the Presbytere, and a police officer standing sentinel. All of Jackson Square was blocked off.
Yet another shifting condition.
During the summer, I sometimes checked the Facebook group pages for local tour guides. Some, like my friend Martha, had chosen not to return to work. Many shared my confusion about the changing rules. On the page were the usual disputes between competing companies — the history of New Orleans tour guiding has long been fraught with infighting. Some guides posted photos of other guides they claimed were violating the number limit; others ratted out guides without masks. There were reports of guides stalking other guides, and also posts refuting these rumors.
My colleague Kate’s take was more positive. She sees ghost tours as a good, safe form of entertainment since they take place outside and it’s easy to socially distance. The limited group size makes her feel more like she’s part of a group of friends than with customers as they explore the Quarter together.
As the summer continued, the nationwide number of infections began rising. But in New Orleans, the mood remained carefree. Cases in our parish remained lower than the national average. Was it due to our political leaders’ mandates? Or had we learned from our early spring breakout? By autumn, the authorities relaxed restrictions again, with the reopening of New Orleans bars in early October, though only for curbside service at first.
Tourism seemed to be flourishing anew in the French Quarter, despite the ominous statistics in the rest of the country. Wedding second lines appeared, some with participants masked, others unmasked. It was surreal to see webcam footage of Bourbon Street teeming with revellers while the daily graphs in the newspapers started to climb. Throughout the weeks, I continued leading guests through the streets of the Quarter.
“Where y’all from?” I always ask.
“Illinois,” they say. “Kentucky.” “Oklahoma.” All states where cases are soaring.
The pandemic hasn't changed one thing: people love a good scare as long as it’s experienced second-hand. A well-told ghost story will always send a shiver up your back. The stories are scary, but they take place in the past, removed from us in the present. Ghosts are either people who behaved badly in life and are getting their just desserts, or they are virtuous victims crying out for justice. Like roller coasters, paranormal tourism is thrilling but carefully engineered to be safe. We can enjoy the thrill without fearing it will truly touch us.
My guests have always been lovely people — friendly, engaged, and interesting, often generous. But as autumn arrived, fewer people wore masks. And enforcement is tricky. It’s hard to be a “mask cop” when you depend on tips from the people you’re admonishing.
One of my more memorable tours was given to twelve guests — two families from Tennessee and Virginia, and a couple from North Carolina. The weather was cooler with an overcast sky and temperatures in the 70s. My guests were engaged and enthusiastic, laughing at my jokes and shivering deliciously at the scary bits. At the end of the tour, they tipped me handsomely. But while they carried masks — required for entry at our refreshment stop — these visitors chose not to wear them as we walked the streets, pushing them below their noses or dangling them from their ears.
Breathing through a mask is cumbersome, I get that. Especially when you’re trying to tell stories. But I wear mine consistently. I do it out of consideration for our guests, to prevent them from potential contagion from me. I can’t help but feel that despite the kind words and the folded dollars pressed into my hand, my guests aren’t being equally considerate to me.
Ghost stories are, at their purest, about death, aren’t they? Yet many of the people who flock to hear them, who cluster avidly around ghoulishly costumed tour guides, seem to dismiss the very real danger of death in our presence. In real life, the COVID-19 death toll continues to rise. What happens when reality eclipses fantasy?
Having to balance making customers happy with concerns for my own health seemed to take all the fun out of the job. And though I love being a tour guide, I decided to quit after Halloween. I no longer want to deliver up death as entertainment.
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Glennis Waterman came to New Orleans in 2015 and never looked back. After a long career in professional theatre production in New York, Seattle, Los Angeles and on the road, she retired. A self-described history geek, she now works as a licensed tour guide for the City of New Orleans. She is a recent MFA graduate of the Creative Writing Workshop at University of New Orleans.
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