Guest columnist: Sarah Read
Manchac Wetlands and Frenier, LA
It seems every paving stone in the city of New Orleans has its own ghost story. The claim that it is the most haunted city in America is well founded. A traveler in search of haunts could spend weeks there and only scratch the surface of the ghostly encounters offered by the Crescent City, but for some of the best haunted legends in Louisiana, you’ll want to leave those paving stones and city lights far behind.
Switch your suit jacket for waders, your Mardi Gras float for a pontoon boat, and head out into the Manchac Swamp, just a half-hour northwest of New Orleans. The swamp is on private land, so you’ll have to make arrangements with the Cajun Pride Swamp Tours company (https://www.cajunprideswamptours.com/). One of their Cajun guides will take you out on their boat and show you the fascinating and unique ecology of the southern Louisiana swamps. And, if you’re lucky, they’ll tell you a few ghost stories.
The Manchac swamp, you see, is one of the most haunted places in Louisiana. If you’ve ever stood outside of the Lalaurie Mansion at night, you’ll know that’s not a claim to take lightly.
Eerie tales of the swamp predate the French, Spanish, and German settlers who established their Cyprus logging towns along its banks, but the majority of the legends today begin with the woman Julia Brown. (Sometimes her name appears as Julie or Juliette, and sometimes it’s Black or White—but historical records show that Julia Brown is most likely accurate.) Aunt Julia Brown, born in 1845, was a free woman of color, a landowner, a Voodoo priestess, and healer who lived on the edge of the town of Frenier. She served as their doctor and midwife, and they relied on her entirely, as there were no roads in or out of the swamp—only the railroad line tied them to the world.
It’s said that the townspeople of Frenier took Julia for granted, made demands of her, and were generally ungrateful toward her. As this went on, she became bitter and angry, and those who passed by her home would hear her singing on her porch: “One day I’m going to die and take the whole town with me.”
When Julia did die, in September 1915, the whole town turned up for the funeral—whether out of reverence, fear, guilt, or gratitude, no one is sure. What is known is that, as they assembled, a hurricane blew in off the gulf and killed them all. The town of Frenier itself had only two survivors. Several other towns within the swamp were also destroyed. With the dead numbering in the hundreds and the railroad tracks washed away, the survivors did what they could to bury the bodies in a mass grave on the driest patch of ground they could find. Aunt Julia’s body was also recovered and buried a short distance away.
That mass grave will be one of the first stops on your tour.
The rickety fence and crosses are all props, added later to set the mood for curious travelers, but the bodies are there—or at least, the ones they could find are. It’s said that when the waters get moving, more show up all the time.
Keep your eyes on the murky water, not for skeletons, but for the fascinating wildlife of the swamp. Yes, there are alligators! Also, snapping turtles, raccoons, egrets, nutria, herons, a variety of snakes … Our tour guide assured us that all of it is delicious.
When the boat stops to allow you to observe the majestic fauna, its engine will be silent. Listen closely, and you might hear Aunt Julia singing. Many claim they have. Or, you might hear the screams of hundreds of families drowning. There are reports of that, too.
Over the years there have been several teams of paranormal investigators (some with more gadgets than good sense) who have spent the night in the swamp collecting evidence of its uncanny activity. If you think spending the night in a plush haunted mansion is dangerous, try frolicking in the dark with copperheads and gators, and the cursed souls of nearly a thousand lost villagers. It doesn’t need to be night, though. There are many reports of Aunt Julia being seen and heard in daylight. She’s known for approaching people and even speaking to them. So if you should meet an old woman in the swamp, be sure to show her the proper reverence.
As with any legend, there are a hundred versions of this story. I doubt any two tour guides will tell it the same way, and nearly every book shows some variation. But the towns were once there, and now they’re not. And Julia Brown really did live and sing and heal in Frenier. Some say she cursed the place. Some say it was a warning—one they didn’t heed and paid the price for it. The only thing that stays the same, story to story, is: weird things happen in the Manchac Swamp.
All told, I spent about two-and-a-half hours in the swamp. Not long. I did not hear any singing or meet any mysterious figures in the Cyprus trees. I did see alligators! And a number of other beautiful creatures, too. I don’t have any photographs of them, though—all my photos of the swamp had to be gathered from others on the tour. Because the one strange thing that did happen, happened to my phone. After I took the picture of the mass grave, my phone shut off. It had been at full battery. It would not turn back on. I tried several times, one time getting a strange photo-negative image of the start screen before it shut off again. It would not turn back on until we were outside of the old town limits of Frenier, back on the road to New Orleans, where the ghosts are a little tamer.