The Devil’s Empire

Esteemed mortal: They have never caught me and they never will. They have never seen me, for I am invisible, even as the ether which surrounds your earth. I am not a human being, but a spirit and a fell demon from hottest hell. I am what you Orleanians and your foolish police call the axman.

~The Axeman of New Orleans

It took a lot of deliberation to settle on a destination for our annual post-Christmas road trip this year. Normally we try to do something that involves a lot of nature and at least some adventure sports, but this year we bandied about an array of underwhelming options. The problem with taking a vacation that lasts from December 26th to January 1st is that flights are exorbitantly expensive on those particular dates, so we have to choose something within driving distance. I knew I was pushing the limits on what can be considered “driving distance” for such a short trip when I tossed out the option of going to New Orleans. It’s a fifteen hour drive from home, so I didn’t quite expect anyone to go for it. To my surprise, the rest of the group was excited about the idea, so the morning after Christmas we managed to cram five people and all of our luggage into Vince’s Dodge Journey, and we headed south.

Vince is practically a robot when it comes to driving long distances. He drove the entire way through to New Orleans and even got us there in time to get a decent night of sleep before our first big day out exploring the French Quarter. This was the first visit to New Orleans for me, Vince, Bonnie, and Meagan. Travis had been there once before on a work trip, but hadn’t had much time to see the city, so we were all eager to take in the sights as we walked from our airbnb into the nearby French Quarter.

The air was thick with humidity, and carried the distinct briny smell of the ocean. Combined with the brightly painted French and Spanish architecture, this gave the city a somewhat Caribbean feeling. Houses still wore their Christmas decorations, but many were already outfitted in preparation for Mardi Gras, which was just around the corner.

We wandered down to the famous Jackson Square, where I was immediately swept away by how many different things competed for my attention. The iron fence around the square was decorated with colorful paintings by local artists, and carriages drawn by festively decorated mules clambered along the road. St. Louis Cathedral towered above us, and the loudest mime I’ve ever seen performed a precarious knife juggling act in its shadow.

We also stopped and looked through Voodoo Authentica which was packed with so many interesting wares that it was impossible not to miss something; and Dark Matter Oddities & Artisan Collective, where Vince and I admired a collection of beautifully taxidermied moths and beetles.

Around midday, we returned to our house and all hopped into the car so that we could meet up with our first guided excursion of the day with Witches Brew Tours. We found our guide, William, and he led us to St. Patrick Cemetery No. 2 as he explained that cemeteries in New Orleans have to be built above ground because the water table of the area is incredibly close to the surface.

Over the next couple of hours, William showed us around St Patrick No. 2 and No. 1 while he explained a lot of history about the Irish settlers who were buried there, and the various yellow fever epidemics that swept through the city. He also pointed out that multiple family members could be interred in the same tomb as long as 366 days had passed since the last burial. After weaving through rows of seemingly endless shining white tombs, William brought us to the Hurricane Katrina Memorial, and then led us behind the memorial to show us a field where thousands of Irish people who couldn’t afford tombs were buried in unmarked graves. He said that he liked to take his tour groups there to acknowledge the immense contributions these people made in building the city of New Orleans. The tour was hugely informative, and I was glad that we had decided to hire a guide instead of just visiting the cemetery on our own. We learned a ton of information from William that we otherwise never would have known.

After parting ways with William, we had enough time to cook dinner at the airbnb and then make a first visit to Bourbon Street before we had to be at Louis Armstrong Park to start our French Quarter ghost tour. I had booked us a tour called “Walking the Devil’s Empire” with a company named Hottest Hell Tours. As luck would have it, our guide was one of the founders of the company, Christo, and he was infectiously enthusiastic and a captivating story teller.

It was already dark by the time Christo started his first story, and his animated recountings were enough to paint a vivid picture of some of the darkest stories in New Orleans history. He told us stories of the pirate Jean Lafitte, brought us to the infamous LaLaurie mansion, and told us the gruesome story of the Trunk Murders in which a scorned husband murdered and dismembered his wife and her friend, stowing their body parts in trunks. Perhaps the most intriguing story for me was that of the Axeman of New Orleans, a serial killer who tormented the city from 1918 to 1919, sneaking into homes and killing people with their own axes before disappearing into the night. He famously wrote a letter that was published in the newspapers of the day, in which he claimed responsibility for the murders, and threatened to kill again on March 19, 1919 unless citizens followed one simple request.

“Now, to be exact, at 12:15 (earthly time) on next Tuesday night, I am going to pass over New Orleans. In my infinite mercy, I am going to make a little proposition to you people. Here it is: I am very fond of jazz music, and I swear by all the devils in the nether regions that every person shall be spared in whose home a jazz band is in full swing at the time I have just mentioned. If everyone has a jazz band going, well, then, so much the better for you people. One thing is certain and that is that some of your people who do not jazz it out on that specific Tuesday night (if there be any) will get the axe.”

That evening, jazz music could be heard from every corner of the city. The Axeman didn’t kill that night, and eventually his spree ended with no explanation. To this day, no one knows for certain who the Axeman really was.

By the end of the tour, we had walked over ten miles that day and we were all feeling exhausted and sore. We pretended that we might go out and look for a jazz club for about five minutes until we all admitted at once that we’d rather just go to bed. I was massively relieved when I finally crashed into bed and got to rest my aching my aching feet.

The next day was a free day, but we had already amassed a list of places we wanted to visit, and the first thing we did was to drive over to check out Audobon Park, which had been recommended to us by William. Before Vince could even park the car, we were all excited by the sight of the twisted and sprawling arms of massive live oak trees. We were up a tree in no time, climbing around on its winding branches as though it were a jungle gym.

Then I spotted something that pushed all thoughts of the beautiful trees to the back of my mind. There were several wood ducks floating close to the bank of a nearby river. In a flash, I had switched to my zoom lens and gotten myself as close to the ducks as they would allow. Shockingly, they stayed put, which afforded me ample time to photograph them. Whenever I’ve seen wood ducks in the past, they’ve been far away, or to skittish to get a picture of, so I was delighted to finally be getting a really good look at their beautiful coloring.

When the others realized that I was looking at something cooler than mallards, they joined me on my birdwatching quest, and we continued walking along the river’s edge. Soon we came across a species of bird I had never seen before, an anhinga. It was busy drying its feathers in the sun, which gave us plenty of time to watch it. I even showed some of my pictures to an adorable little kid who shyly asked me if he could see what it looked like up close.

In the distance we could hear a cacophony of bird songs, so we went further to investigate. What we found was an island that was completely filled with ducks. There were ducks in the water, ducks on the dirt banks of the little isle, and even the trees were filled with perching ducks. Every so often a group of ducks would take flight, sending a chorus of songbird-like whistles into the atmosphere. I had never seen anything like it, and I had to do a little googling to find out that they were black bellied whistling ducks, making that two new species for me in the span of twenty minutes.

Next we encountered a flock of white ibises, and shortly after that, a cattle egret and great egret posing next to each other on a picturesque log. Needless to say, I was having the time of my life, but eventually we had to move on if we wanted to get any more sight seeing in that day.

Our next stop was City Park, where we immediately got distracted by more incredible live oaks. We went through another round of tree climbing before walking over to the entrance of the Besthoff Sculpture Garden.

The weather was vacillating quickly between glorious sunlight and threatening clouds by the time we got into the garden, but we planned to take advantage of every minute that the rain held out. We enjoyed looking at the art in the garden, and had particular fun walking through “Mirror Labyrinth” by Jeppe Hein.

There was a very conveniently placed Café Du Monde nearby, so when we left the sculpture garden, we bought beignets and cafe au lait for an afternoon snack. After that, it was back to the French Quarter for another evening of exploring the city. It started to downpour just as we made it into a restaurant for dinner, and thankfully eased up to more of a heavy drizzle by the time we were ready to hit the town. This time we walked the entire length of Bourbon Street, stopping to get a round of hand grenades in garish neon yellow souvenir cups.

We ended our night listening to live jazz at The Spotted Cat, which was incredibly fun, especially for Vince who used to play guitar in a jazz band. I was grateful yet again when we finally crashed into bed. It had been a busy couple of days in the city, but the next two days would be considerably different as we would be out in the swamps.

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