Strange as it may seem, one of the most common tourist attractions in New Orleans are the city’s cemeteries. Author and steamboat captain Mark Twain once referred to them as the Cities of the Dead, and the nickname has stuck over a hundred years later.
You see, the nickname simply makes sense. The cemeteries of New Orleans are not commonly found elsewhere in the United States. For one, they aren’t dug six feet under the ground’s surface. Thanks to New Orleans’ high water table, below ground graves were quickly discarded by early colonists after they realized that, more often than not, those coffins popped back up after a heavy rain shower.
No doubt that seeing their deceased relatives after the burial caused quite a scandalous shock.
So necessity made it so that the deceased were placed inside aboveground tombs, safe from the treacherous water under the top soil—but, also showcasing Colonial French and Spanish tradition. If you were to find yourself over in Europe, many of the cemeteries would appear just the same as those here in the Crescent City.
There are nearly forty cemeteries in all of the New Orleans Metro Area, but perhaps the most famous is St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Located on the cusp of the French Quarter on Basin Street, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. claims famous Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau as one of the most famous people interred within, as well as architect and pirate Barthelemy Lafon, and (supposedly) the remains of Madame Delphine LaLaurie.
Despite these rather famous names, there are a few other top tombs that must be seen when visiting St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.
Here are our Top 5 Tombs to See in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 (in no particular order):
The Tomb of Etienne de Bore (1740-1820):
Although Etienne de Bore is generally a name not bandied about anywhere else than in high school classrooms, his was a name that everyone knew in eighteenth century Louisiana.
Born in the Illinois Territory of Louisiana, Etienne was a descendant of old Norman nobility. Etienne was treated to the custom of French Creole boys in the French colony and shipped off to France for an education. In fact, his ancestry was so well-off that upon completing schooling Etienne was named one of the King of France’s Mousquetaires (guardsmen).
Since the title of Mousquetaire was off-limits to those not of the nobility, you can imagine the prestige that came with the position. (And probably the wealth, too).
When Etienne returned to Louisiana in 1768 it was only to realize that nothing was as how he’d left it. For one, it was no longer French as the Spanish had purchased the territory.
And secondly, it was no longer French.
As Etienne was a French Creole to his very core, he purchased a ticket and made his way back to Paris where he then became Captain of Cavalry. (Another illustrious title, but would we suspect anything else?) It was only after Etienne’s marriage to Marie Marguerite, who was the daughter of D’Estrehan des Tours and the French Royal Treasurer of New Orleans, that he decided to come back to Louisiana once more.
The de Bore family settled on Marie Marguerite’s inherited plantation six miles upriver from the French Quarter. (Today, Audubon Park comprises the original plantation). Although Etienne attempted to make a go of cultivating Indigo, he realized that it was sugarcane which would make him wealthy.
Which is how Etienne de Bore, once the King’s Mousquetaire and Captain of Cavalry in France, successfully granulated sugarcane in the year 1795 and changed the production of sugar and plantation life forever.
His first batch sold for $12,000, a ridiculous sum of money that solidified Etienne’s station in Louisiana. (And for the reason he is now mentioned in those high school classes). When the Louisiana Purchase was signed in 1803, Etienne was named the first Mayor of New Orleans by the American Governor William C.C. Claiborne.
But once again, Etienne’s distaste of anyone not French (i.e. those uncouth Americans in particular) had him resigning in 1804 after only months in office. He claimed his resignation was due to private affairs, but it was known about town that Etienne had not invested that much effort in building a bridge of tranquility with the newly arrived Americans.
Today, Etienne de Bore’s name is synonymous with the granulation of sugarcane in Louisiana. Upon visiting his tomb, you’ll have the chance to glimpse history in the making—and unfortunately for Etienne, he doesn’t quite have a say as to who is doing the visiting in the afterlife.
The Tomb of William Claiborne (1775-1817):
A native of Virginia, William C.C. Claiborne would ultimately find great success as the first American Governor of Louisiana. In the years leading up to his position as Governor, he had already served on the Tennessee State Supreme Court and as the Governor of the Mississippi Territory. Even prior to Louisiana’s recognized statehood in 1812, Claiborne had stepped into the role of Governor of the Territory of Orleans from 1804 to 1812.
Still, throughout all of this time Claiborne was never able to pick up the intricacies of the French language.
(You can imagine that meetings between Etienne de Bore and Claiborne must have been one for the books with translators and miscommunications everywhere . . . enough that Etienne through his hands up in the air and quit, anyway).
Even so, Claiborne is perhaps most well known for his utter hatred and disgust at none other but New Orleans’ beloved privateer Jean Lafitte.
By 1807, Lafitte and his merry band of pirates had been making quite the scene in the French Quarter. So much so that Claiborne was determined to see Lafitte locked up and jailed for not paying his proper taxes, in addition to just doing as he pleased.
Claiborne ordered every citizen of New Orleans to ignore the blasted pirate.
Jean Lafitte was said to have strolled down the streets of the French Quarter with a fashionable walking cane, a hat perched devilishly on his head and a confident swagger.
The ladies all swooned. (From lust, not fear).
Claiborne stewed. (From anger, not resignation).
Claiborne’s next method in taking down the piratical Lafitte came in the form of a Reward. Listed in newspaper was a notice advertising a reward of $500 for Jean Lafitte’s capture.
Not to be outdone, Lafitte posted his own advertisement claiming $5,000 (some sources argue $2,500) for whomever could capture Governor Claiborne himself.
As one might imagine, Claiborne was not pleased by this change of events.
Unfortunately, it was not Jean Lafitte who was ultimately caught but his brother Pierre. One has to wonder if Claiborne figured any Lafitte brother would do. As it happened, Pierre Lafitte escaped the Old Parish Prison on September 7, 1814, and another newspaper ad was posted, this time offering a $1,000 Reward for the capture of Pierre.
When the Battle of New Orleans broke out in 1815, Jean Lafitte was propositioned by the British to become one of their sea captains. But Lafitte had alliances to Louisiana and so after telling the Redcoats that he needed time to “think,” he traveled from his smuggling operation base in Barataria Bay to New Orleans. He hoped to speak with Claiborne and offer his own services.
Claiborne had had enough and rejected the offer immediately.
As the more popular aspect of the story goes, Lafitte was then approached by General Andrew Jackson and agreed to lend his pirates to the cause. As they say, without the pirates the Battle of New Orleans would not have been won.
And as for Governor Claiborne, he continued to serve out his term of Governor until 1816 when he then was elected to the U.S. Senate. Unfortunately, less than a year later Claiborne passed away from a liver infection and was interred in a tomb in the Protestant Section of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.
There’s a bit of speculation as to whether his body was later moved to Metairie Cemetery with the rest of his descendants, or whether his remains have stayed in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Either way, his tomb can still be found in the back of the cemetery and is well worth a stop.
The Tomb of Daniel Clark (1766-1813):
If Etienne de Bore was a born-and-bred French Creole, and Claiborne was an American living in a city that was decidedly French and Spanish, then Daniel Clark was perhaps a blend of the two.
Born in Ireland in 1766, Daniel Clark made his first trek to Louisiana at the young age of twenty. Upon his arrival, it soon became apparent that Clark would know much success in the Louisiana Territory. He was fluent in Spanish and French; had connections with the Governor’s office; and, after a few short years in which his merchant business thrived, he became one of the wealthiest men in town.
During the mid-1790s he was bestowed the title of Vice-Consul for the United States. Not only was he personably responsible for convincing Spain to lessen their grip on trade in the port of New Orleans, but he also had a hand in (or so they say) convincing Thomas Jefferson that it was a brilliant idea to purchase the Louisiana Territory.
The Louisiana Purchase was signed at the governing seat, the Cabildo, in 1803. As for Clark, his work within the political and economic field was not over in New Orleans.
But when William Claiborne was elected governor in 1804, Clark was furious. He felt as though the position belonged to him, that he should have been elected in Claiborne’s stead. His anger was demonstrated by the fact that he “left” the Americans to side with the French Creoles as they fought for political control of Louisiana.
Then, matters became only more convoluted when rumors spread that Daniel Clark had involved himself in the conspiracy to separate the southwest from the United States with Aaron Burr. It’s not known how involved Clark was with Aaron Burr’s traitorous plans, but his political career was effectively over due to the rumormongering all over the city.
Allegedly Governor Claiborne verbally accused Clark of this involvement, and the hot-tempered Clark took great offense. What ensued was a very public duel in June 1807 with Clark shooting his biggest foe. The Louisiana Gazette wrote of the event: “A duel was fought on Monday last, near Manchac Fort, between his Excellency Governor Claiborne and Daniel Clark, Esq. The first fire the Governor received Mr. Clark’s bell through his right. His Excellency has reached town, and is out of danger.”
It’s safe to assume that one’s career does not make it past shooting a man referred to as “His Excellency.”
By 1810, Daniel Clark had completely retired from the political sphere in New Orleans and passed away in 1813.
Ironically enough, Daniel Clark’s tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. can be found just a few paces away from the Claiborne family tomb.
As they say: Enemies in life, neighbors in death.
(They don’t say this, but they ought to for these two men).
The Tomb of Homer Plessy (1862-1925):
Plessy vs. Ferguson is a US Supreme Court case generally known throughout the United States. It was referenced in 1954 when the US Supreme Court passed the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education.
But who was Homer Plessy?
A New Orleans native, Plessy was born in 1862 to two “white” parents. In the Crescent City he would have then been called a gen de couleur libre, or a free person of color. His great-grandmother had been brought to Louisiana from Africa, making him 1/8th African. And, more importantly, 1/8th that was not white.
Like many other gens de couleur libres in New Orleans, Homer Plessy’s family passed as white but Homer refused. By trade he was a shoemaker, but he was more than just that. From a young age, Plessy involved himself in social activism groups. In 1887, he served as the Vice President of the Justice, Protective, Educational and Social Club, whose mission it was to reform the city’s public education system.
However, it was in 1896 that Plessy’s determination to create a wholly equal environment attracted national awareness.
Just a few years earlier in 1890, the Louisiana government had given the green-light for the Separate Car Act. The Act relegated separate cars for those who were white and those who were black. Plessy, on behalf of the Citizens’ Committee, purchased a first-class ticket on the East Louisiana Railroad in 1892 and sat down in the “whites only” section of the car.
The conductor began checking tickets and apparently thought nothing of Homer Plessy seated there. Based on appearances alone, Homer looked just like the fellow seated beside him or the woman two rows up. It was then that Plessy announced that he was indeed 1/8th black.
The conductor demanded that Plessy move to the “appropriate” car. Homer adamantly refused.
Homer Plessy was thrown out of the train and was subsequently imprisoned for the remainder of the night. The next day he was released on a $500 bond.
Plessy protested the violation of his 13th and 14 Amendment Rights and promptly found himself in court against Judge John Howard Ferguson. Ironically, it is said that Judge Ferguson agreed with Plessy’s arguments but caved under the pressure of his peers. Plessy was deemed guilty, and the case rose all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896.
There the infamous Separate But Equal Law was pushed and instated by Justice William Billings Brown. It argued the legality of segregation, as well as the Jim Crow laws, as long as each race’s public facilities were made equal.
Following the national case, Plessy returned to New Orleans wherein he worked as an insurance salesman. He passed away in 1925, but it was his determination and steadfast courage that inspired the formation of the NAACP, the Civil Rights Movement, and the later turning of the case during Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954.
His tomb can be found in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1., and shouldn’t be missed.
The Tomb of Paul Morphy (1837-1884):
Better known as the unofficial World Champion of Chess, Paul Morphy literally changed the game of chess during the nineteenth century, and he did so before the age of twenty.
At just nine years old, Paul Morphy sat with his father and uncle in their home in New Orleans (the current location of Brennan’s Restaurant) as the two older gentlemen played chess. After a few hours, the elder Morphy’s declared it a day and went to put the chess pieces away. Paul, however, reached out a hand and began to explain how and all the ways his uncle could have won had he played differently.
Paul Morphy had never once played chess before but his natural talent for the game was unheard of.
When Major General Winfield Scott came to stay in the Crescent City before continuing on to the Mexican War, he demanded to play against the city’s best chess player. He was brought Paul Morphy—who, as it happened, was wearing a lace shirt and velvet knickerbockers. Murphy ended the game in just ten moves.
Paul Morphy’s aptitude for the game of chess swept the country and he was deemed a prodigy. Hungarian political refugee Johann J. Lowenthal arrived in New Orleans to play Morphy, as well. Lowenthal was well known in Europe as being a fantastic chess player, but like everyone before him, was no match for the unbeatable Morphy.
After attending school at Spring Hill College in Alabama, Paul returned to New Orleans with the hopes of attending the University of Louisiana for law. As he wasn’t even twenty-one, the university did not allow him to enroll yet.
Naturally, Paul Morphy returned to the game of chess. Not, however, because he had any particular liking for it but because he hoped to continue trouncing his opponents. He did so with Louis Paulsen, who frustrated Morphy by taking nearly 75 minutes on just a single move, and then hoped to tackle the legendary Howard Staunton next.
An Englishman, Staunton refused to travel to New Orleans for the match as it was too far—even with the lucrative deal of an all-expense paid trip and a thousand dollar bonus should he lose to Paul. The rejection annoyed Morphy, but no matter, he would simply travel to England.
Staunton continued to ignore Morphy’s invitations. One month turned into two, and two turned into three. Completely exasperated, Morphy traveled to Paris to continue with his European Chess Tour. He even competed in a blind tournament, in which Morphy sat in a room facing the wall, and his eight opponents all sat together in a different room. In order to make a play, he would call out his moves. He did so in French, to boot.
The tournament lasted ten long hours, and Morphy did not eat or drink the entire time. Still, he was declared the winner against all eight other men.
The name “Paul Morphy” became internationally synonymous with the game of chess.
When he returned to New Orleans, it was only to find that the Civil War had broken out. He traveled to Richmond, Virginia to speak with his family friend, General P.G.T. Beauregard about contributing to the cause. But Morphy was slim in frame and only 5’4”. With little evidence, it’s been assumed that Beauregard turned Morphy away.
Morphy never quite recovered. While he traveled Europe and continued to play chess, his heart was not in it and he felt extreme anxiety. He’d since attempted to open a law office but potential clients were always more interested in playing a game of chess. His offices were then shut down.
Soon, he began to fear being poisoned; being watched. Sometimes, if he caught sight of a woman he particularly fancied, he would follow her for hours . . . though always at a distance. He would not eat food unless it had been prepared by his mother or sister.
And then, in the late 1870s, Paul Morphy allegedly ran through the streets of the French Quarter with an axe clutched in one hand. He threatened to kill the first person who crossed him, and he did so all without wearing a single stitch of clothing.
The chess prodigy had succumbed to madness, and it was while taking a bath in 1884 that Paul Morphy suffered a stroke and passed away.
For all chess fans out there, you may fight Paul Morphy’s tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1., in which you can pay your respects.
Did you enjoy hearing about some of the interesting people who are buried in New Orleans’ oldest cemetery? If so, we highly suggest taking a cemetery tour! Due to laws instated by the Archdiocese of New Orleans, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. has been closed off to the general public since 2014. Should you choose to venture inside, it must be done with a tour guide—don’t let this deter you in visiting New Orleans’ most famous City of the Dead!