Updated: Mar 12, 2020
A few weeks ago, I did a video on 10 haunted places in New Orleans. During my research for that video I came across a place called the Old Ursuline Convent Museum which, I realized later, I’d seen on a ghost tour years ago and forgotten about. I’d also heard the story of the casket girls that supposedly lived there back in the 1700’s. I was really interested in revisiting this legend, but wanted to save it for its own video. So here is the story of the casket girls of New Orleans.
Back in 1704, the United States as it is today was very different. I mean, it wasn’t even the “United States” yet…so that should tell you something. The few cities that existed, mostly along the coasts, were very newly established, and most of the colonists at the time were men. Obviously this was an issue because these men didn’t come all the way here from England just to die out within the first few generations. They needed wives.
At first, the city recruited potential mates for these men within their actual boundaries, looking to jails and brothels for women. Needless to say, these women did not make good wives for the largely religious colonists. So they had to look elsewhere.
Over the years, plenty more people than just the original colonists had been sent over to populate the new world. Many were convicts or prostitutes and made the journey against their will. But in 1704, the first of three groups of girls arrived in what’s now Mobile, Alabama with one purpose in mind: To be wives for the colonists.
These girls were usually between the ages of 14 and 19 and mainly chosen because they were virgins. They had been recruited from France, usually from orphanages and convents. Another group was sent to Biloxi, Mississippi in 1719 and another to New Orleans in 1728. Unfortunately, conditions on the ships were harsh, and many girls didn’t survive the trip. But those who did were allowed to mingle with the men of their respective colonies and choose husbands from them. Unlike previous settlers, both the journey made by these girls as well as their choice in husbands, was consensual.
Upon their arrival in the city, the New Orleans group experienced immense culture shock — as did the already established colonists. Often called ‘Pelican Girls’ because of the ship they came in, they were noticeably pale. Many of them also coughed up blood, and carried tiny bags with all their earthly belongings inside. And New Orleans residents couldn’t help but notice that these bags looked an awful lot like tiny coffins.
Because of these bags, these girls came to be known as ‘filled a la cassette’ or ‘women with suitcases.’ They were also called ‘casquette girls.’ (By the way, when it’s spelled like this, the word ‘casquette’ looks like ‘croquette’ and if you’ve never had a croquette before, they are amazing. You should try one if you get the chance.) Anyway, the word ‘casquette’ was also spelled ‘casket,’ so these girls have most notably been called ‘casket girls.’
The year before the casket girls came to New Orleans, a group of nuns had arrived. These nuns established a school that housed the casket girls as they looked for husbands. When the nuns’ Ursuline Convent was opened in 1734, the girls were moved to the third floor as they continued their search. The nuns would often arrange marriages for the girls, maybe if they couldn’t find husbands on their own.
But New Orleans residents were leery of the casket girls. Unlike most houses in the city, the windows of the third floor were shuttered and nailed shut, and after their arrival, the death toll in the city doubled. Pale skin. Coffin shaped bags. High death tolls. Tightly closed and nailed shutters in a city that rarely had them. To New Orleans, it was obvious that the casket girls must be vampires.
Like I said in my haunted places video, New Orleans is known as a hub for all things paranormal. Countless ghost tours are available to tourists, and several people (and websites) name it the most haunted city in the country. So it’s no surprise legends like this would spring up from locals' encounters with girls who were, from their perspective…strange.
But the reality for the casket girls wasn’t so exciting. Many of the girls had trouble finding husbands — if they lived long enough to find them before succumbing to yellow fever or tuberculosis. The ones who did marry often didn’t see their husbands for long periods of time, since many of them were fur trappers or traders — careers that required lots of travel.
According to legend, the king of France grew tired of so many of the girls failing to find husbands and being forced into prostitution, so he ordered them to be brought back home. But once the nuns got up to the third floor of the convent to get the girls, they were gone. They looked everywhere for them but, according to the legend, the windows had been sealed shut the whole time. This is when the vampire legends really kicked into high gear.
(Interestingly, though, legends also say that the casket girls are still on the third floor of the convent, trapped inside with nails blessed by the pope. So why couldn’t they be found when the nuns came to take them away? Did they come back at some point? Or is this perhaps a contradiction in the story? I’ll let you decide that for yourself.)
In 1978, two paranormal investigators allegedly visited the convent to see if the legends were true. They were kicked off the property for loitering but returned anyway to stay the night and see what happened. As they slept, security cameras showed the windows opening and shutting several times before they they stopped working altogether. The next morning, the bodies of the investigators were found on the property, ravaged and drained of blood.
Another, more recent story I found comes from a 2013 interview with a woman named Pam Keyes. In the interview, Keyes recalled a visit to New Orleans she made in 2001. Before going there, she knew about the legends of the casket girls, and had heard that the third floor shutters being open meant the vampires were out and about. That night, Keyes went for a walk by herself and, as she walked by the convent, noticed the shutters were closed. But on her way back to the hotel, she walked past the convent again — and the shutters were wide open.
But the casket girl legends have more holes in them than season 8 of Game of Thrones. (Seriously, what happened to Drogon?) For starters, the shutters on the third floor of the convent are hurricane shutters, not installed in the convent until over 100 years after the casket girls arrived. The nails couldn’t have been blessed by the pope either. No pope visited New Orleans until Pope John Paul II in 1987. And the girls’ paleness can easily be explained due to disease and being below deck on a ship for so long. Some of them contracted tuberculosis on the ship and might have still been infected upon their arrival in New Orleans, which is probably why they were coughing up blood.
But the casket girl legends persist today, as an interesting story if nothing more. The Old Ursuline Convent is now a museum, and you can visit it and book a tour if you like. The legends have also found their way into pop culture. An early episode of the popular show The Originals is titled ’The Casket Girls’ and takes places during the Casket Girls Festival. I’ve never watched The Originals, so I’m not sure how much of the legends (or true story) they incorporated into the show, or this particular episode. And as far as I can tell, the ‘Casket Girls Festival’ isn’t a real thing.
The legends have also inspired a stage production called, fittingly, 'The Casket Girls.’ This "modern rock dance theatre production” was inspired by the casket girl legends and their website claims it “brings their story to life.” The show premiered in 2018 in Indianapolis, but a pretty good portion of it is available on YouTube if you want to check it out for yourself. If you’re into ballet at all, I recommend you watch it because it’s pretty interesting.
So what do you think of the casket girls of New Orleans? Do you think they’re really vampires, still trapped in the Old Ursuline Convent? Or do you think it’s all fantasy, encouraged by the paranormal atmosphere that permeates the city? Let me know in the comments.