New Orleans Offbeat History

Posted on: Nov 26 2005 | Posted in: Archive

Think of New Orleans and jazz and Mardi Gras come to mind. And then other things like voodoo and the infamous red light district, Storyville. But New Orleans' history is full of odd footnotes. The first licensed pharmacy in the United States was opened in the French Quarter. And gambling owes a debt to the city's raucous past. Even Mardi Gras has a long and rich history that escapes most revelers.

Several offbeat museums shed light on some of the city's more exotic dimensions.

The Musee Conti Wax Museum (917 Conti St., 504-581-1993) offers a dramatic history of the city in tableau. Vignettes capture famous New Orleanians at the height of their impact on the city.

Many of the scenes showcase people and events that are amply memorialized around the city, such as General Andrew Jackson and his victory over the British in the last battle of the war of 1812. Then there's pirate Jean Lafitte, and Iberville and Bienville founding the colony. There's the sensationalized and mysterious voodoo queen Marie Laveau and recently convicted four-time governor of Louisiana, Edwin Edwards smirks and waves.

The wax museum also shows some less well known events. The dice game craps was introduced to the new world in New Orleans. Bernard Marigny, for whom the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood is named, enticed newcomers to the French dice game called "hazards." But it was soon renamed craps after a derogatory term Americans used to refer to the French, "crapauds", meaning toads. The card game of poker also developed its modern rules on riverboats shuttling between New Orleans and St. Louis. And in another high stakes confrontation, champion boxers John Sullivan and James Corbett squared off in the city in the state's first legalized prizefight in 1892. "I can lick any man alive," Sullivan had often boasted, but he met his match in 21 grueling rounds.

All the museum's figures were cast in France. The hair is sewn in strand by strand and they're equipped with glass eyes manufactured for human medical use. And no wax museum would be complete without a few monsters and frights, though some are from Louisiana's outrageous history.

Perhaps the most scandalized and distorted of local customs is the practice of voodoo. Popularly exploited in film and literature, voodoo has been cast as a dark magic filled with writhing dancers driven by wanton lust and wrapped into little dolls stuck with pins. The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum (724 Dumaine St., 486-2080) can help set some of the record straight.

New Orleans voodoo is a religion based on spiritual beliefs carried to the colony by slaves from West Africa. Those beliefs merged with Catholicism in Louisiana and the renowned voodoo queen Marie Laveau was a devout Catholic who went to mass every day. Yet she was also considered powerful and wise and was consulted as a healer, a nurse, a counselor in all matters and even a hair dresser.

The museum is full of altars laden with offerings of liquor, totems or "ju jus" including skulls and dolls and other representations of reverence for the pantheon of voodoo spirits. A continuously running video also details current practice of voodoo in the city.

The French Quarter is also the site of the first officially licensed pharmacist to practice in the United States. Louis Dufilho was licensed in 1816 and opened his shop in 1823. The site is now the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum (514 Chartres, 565-8027).

In the early 19th century, people were likely to consult a pharmacist before going to see a doctor. The state started licensing pharmacists to assure that they had adequate knowledge of the remedies they prescribed. But some pharmacies also fenced potions for people who didn't want to be seen associating with the voodoo priests and priestesses who concocted them. They were discreetly available off the shelf. Though the museum has some such jars, it is not known whether Dufilho actually sold them in his shop.

The museum has shelves lined with everything from perfumes and cosmetics to herbs and medicines and paints and varnishes. It even has an early soda fountain. The pharmacy was closed in the decades following the Civil War but the building was opened as a museum in the 1950s.

The oldest museum in Louisiana is the Memorial Hall Confederate Museum (929 Camp St., 504-523-8595). Created in 1891, and opened on the 75th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, it functioned for a long time as the state museum. But its founders were Confederate veterans and wanted to memorialize the contributions of Louisiana veterans of the Civil War.

The hall displays a wide array of Civil War memorabilia, from flags, pistols and uniforms to Confederate money and the personal effects of soldiers. Time pieces include a parasol and women's clothing from the era. Other holdings include the pistol used in the notorious assassination of police Chief Hennessey in 1890. While no-one was ever convicted of the crime, the acquittals set off a violent mob that killed eleven and created an international incident.

The museum has refocused to memorialize the war and not just the Confederacy. Vintage photographs and early portraits provide an intriguing view of the city's civic leaders during and following the war.

There's more to Mardi Gras than meets the eye. The annual rite goes back to the 18th century in Louisiana and has recently become grandly memorialized and celebrated. The Louisiana State Museum (at the Presbytere, Jackson Square, 568-6968) opened a large exhibit exploring carnival throughout the state. While the bulk of the artifacts concern the current practices both in New Orleans and in Cajun Country, there is also a section on the European roots of carnival and its relation to Christian and pagan rituals.

The most remarkable thing about Mardi Gras in New Orleans is how many different celebrations occur in the same small time frame. There is a Mardi Gras for everyone, from the oldest clubs of social elites to the newest bands of costumed revelers. Besides the famous parading organizations like Rex and Zulu, there are Mardi Gras Indians, gay balls, and too many smaller carnival clubs, parties and street scenes to mention. The State Museum does an excellent job of bringing them all together in living color under one roof. And then there is carnival in Cajun country, which, captured on video, looks like another world altogether.

More individual Mardi Gras legends are memorialized in hidden pockets around the city. Arnaud's restaurant (813 Bienville St., 523-5433) has a Mardi Gras museum dedicated to the founder's daughter, Germaine Cazenave Wells. She reigned as queen of more carnival balls than any other woman. The museum displays 13 of her gowns from the 1939 Prometheus ball mimicking the last emperor and empress of China to her reign as queen of the Krewe of Hera in 1968. Particularly stunning is her gown from the 1954 Sparta ball when she appeared as "Vintage Champagne" with a lavish dress and train in the pattern of grape bunches, vines and leaves. The dresses are accompanied by the faux jewels worn to the balls and by vintage photographs. The museum is free and open during regular dining hours.

Antoine's, one of the city's most famous restaurants, also has living memorials to Mardi Gras. The 160-year-old Antoine's (713 St. Louis St., 581-4422) has grown to occupy three buildings and has 17 dining rooms, four of which are dedicated to Mardi Gras krewes, the social clubs that stage parades and balls.

Founded by Antoine Alciatore, the restaurant was a natural and established favorite with New Orleans society by the time some of the older krewes formed in the 1870s. The official krewe rooms, however, weren't created for quite some time. Roy Alciatore helped create the first krewe room for Rex in 1942. An addition was built on to the restaurant featuring vaulted ceilings and a terrazzo floor. It is currently adorned with portraits of the kings of Rex and krewe medallions and years of photographs and news clippings. There are also intricately folded, sumptuously illustrated invitations to the balls of the 1880s.

Antoine's is also home to rooms honoring two other very early krewes. Proteus sits across the hall from Rex and features pictures of its queens. The Twelfth Night Revelers have recently redone their second floor room over the main dining room. A fourth room honors the relatively younger Krewe of Hermes, again with portraits, invitations and more memorabilia. When the krewes aren't using the rooms they are open to the public for dining and viewing.

One can even take a peek at next year's Mardi Gras. One of the biggest float designers keeps his prop shop and float dens open to visitors. Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World (233 Newton St., 361-7821) on the West Bank always has classic floats on display and new floats under construction.

The ancient world is bizarrely animated at Kern's studios. Greek, Roman and assorted figures of history and myth live on in the fantastic floats stored in Kern's dens. Gigantic glossy busts of Marilyn Monroe, William Shakespeare and Marie Antoinette perch alongside Spiderman, Lady Di and Darth Vader. The den also holds Mardi Gras monsters King and Queen Kong, as well as Bacchusaurus. The main den holds the most modern and grand float, Orpheus' Leviathan. The three-trailer Asian-style dragon is equipped with a kaleidoscopic fiberoptic lighting scheme.

The easiest way to get to Mardi Gras world is by hopping on the free ferry at the bottom of Canal Street. On the other side, a free shuttle van takes visitors to Mardi Gras World, or one can now opt for the short walk along the Jazz Walk of Fame. The walk along the top of the levee offers a great view of the river and the city. It is being completed with the addition of audio-equipped, French Quarter-style lamp posts heralding the city's greatest contribution to American culture.