On a trip to the Musee Conti Wax Museum (now closed), I was introduced to a topic I had never heard of before: Casket Girls.
Sounds creepy, no?
Sources vary on the specifics, but the basic story is that the city’s founders asked France to send over prospective wives for the colonists. France obliged, and all these young girls showed up, bearing only as many belongings as would fit in a little “casket,” or “casquette,” which appears to be the 18th-century equivalent of an overnight bag.
Some accounts say they were fine young women, some say they were orphans, some say prostitutes. Some even say they’re the ones who brought vampires to New Orleans. And, yet, I’m told New Orleanians are proud if they can trace their heritage back to these women. Prostitutes? Vampires? Intriguing!
After exhausting my online search, I decided to get to the bottom of this. So, I headed over to the Ursuline Convent, where the girls were said to have resided until the nuns could arrange for marriages. Actually… first, I headed over to Croissant d’Or, a block north on Ursulines Avenue. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t open when the mademoiselles arrived in the 1720s, which is a shame. A sublime raspberry croissant and French Market coffee might have softened the blow of arriving in what must have been a sweltering, mosquito-infested swamp-village. But, I digress.
Wouldn’t you know? I arrived at the convent, only to find it closed for the day while they installed a new exhibit (the subject: Pere Antoine. Yet, another interesting historical Crescent City character and restaurant namesake). But, as luck would have it, a friendly employee who was coming through the gate was all too happy to share her considerable knowledge about the girls.
As it turns out, yes, France had sent plenty of shady characters over to populate New Orleans. Convicts, prostitutes, and all-around ne’er-do-wells — but not in this group. So, where did all the creepy vampire stories come from? The Ursuline ambassador shared a few theories.
First of all, these girls endured a long and arduous journey across the Atlantic Ocean. At best, they were pale and gaunt from traveling below-deck much of the time. At worst, they were deathly ill. A nasty case of tuberculosis could cause a girl to cough up blood, hence the vampire comparison. Also, their suitcases were called “casquettes,” or “caskets.” A-ha. Nothing says Nosferatu like a coffin handbag!
But, wait – what about the convent’s third-floor windows, said to be nailed shut to keep in (or out?) the vampires? Pish-posh. I’m told those are fully functional hurricane shutters that weren’t installed until a century after the Casket Girls’ arrival.
- For more on the Old Ursuline Convent, read NOLA History: The Old Ursuline Convent in the French Quarter.
- Croissant d’Or is located at 617 Ursulines Ave., (504) 524-4663