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“THERE IS A HOUSE IN NEW ORLEANS, AND IT’S CALLED THE…”



CASA DO DIABO!!

 



THE TRUE TALE OF THE INFAMOUS DEVIL’S HOUSE OF NEW ORLEANS WHERE ONE OF THE OLDEST KNOWN LEGENDS OF LOUISIANA VAMPIRES CAME HORRIBLY ALIVE!

Story by A. Pustanio, Art by Ricardo Pustanio

It stands to this day, a fading monolith, bereft of all sense of time and mortality. A victim of modernization and the telltale passing of the years, what once was a grand home is now merely a shell – compartmentalized, austere.

In the grand old days of New Orleans the home was a symbol of possibility, an emblem of success worn proudly by the family who built it: a family that had collectively risen from poverty to become one of the most powerful of the great mercantile families of the old Port of New Orleans. The irony of this tale is that it was this very fact – the familiarity with poverty, the grasp at philanthropy – that very possibly simultaneously brought about the downfall of a dynasty and the creation of one of New Orleans’ most enduring and grisly creatures of the night.

Alberto De Leonne came to America from Santo Domingo in the 1830’s with little more than the clothes on his back. He had worked his way throughout the Caribbean on tramp steamers and merchant vessels, learning the sea trade first hand. When he at last came to the burgeoning port of New Orleans he set about making a name and a fortune for himself.

De Leonne first acquired work as a clerk among the merchants who jammed the docks along the Mississippi River, his particular trade being an interest in the export of sugar and cotton, and the import of Caribbean foodstuffs, most especially the sugary sweet limes of the French and Dutch Antilles.

Soon De Leonne found a suitable home, near the Esplanade end of Decatur Street, and not long afterward, a suitable wife from among the beautiful Quadroons, so prized by the Creoles and the white aristocrats who hungered after them. For De Leonne, this was an achievement in itself. The beautiful Clothilde agreed to become his bride; not only this, she came with a dowry. But Clothilde brought an additional burden in the form of her brother, Ramon, a shady character that De Leonne did not much care for. However, to appease his lovely bride, De Leonne agreed to take Ramon in, giving him charge of some minor responsibilities in the household, and together they all moved into De Leonne’s fabulous new home on the Rue Bourbon.

But Clothilde brought an additional burden in the form of her brother, Ramon, a shady character that De Leonne did not much care for. However, to appease his lovely bride, De Leonne agreed to take Ramon in, giving him charge of some minor responsibilities in the household, and together they all moved into De Leonne’s fabulous new home on the Rue Bourbon.



It was a huge structure, three stories high, built in the Spanish style with long galleries opening on a lush and tranquil central courtyard that was the pride of the socially mobile De Leonnes. Designed by the French landscape artist and ornamental gardener Jacques-Felix Lelièvre, the courtyard garden became a haven for De Leonne and Clothilde who would wile away long hours amid the tropic greenery, listening to the birds that flocked there in search of the many exotic fruits and seeds scattered throughout the little oasis. A beautiful conservatory stood adjacent to the garden where De Leonne enjoyed his most unique flora – Belizian orchids, poinsettias from the Honduran coast, and, most prized of all, a seemingly-immense Spanish lime tree whose verdant leaves shown saffron in the sunlight that warmed it’s fruit to ripeness. De Leonne had sent especially for such a tree from the exotic island of Cayo Dulzura off the Cuban coast. Sailors had tended it on its sea voyage and had gingerly carted it from the Decatur docks upon its arrival at New Orleans. Now it formed the centerpiece of De Leonne’s beautiful garden, a symbol not only of where he had come from, but how high he had climbed to get where he now was.

So it was with some reluctance that De Leonne gave in to Clothilde’s entreaties that he place this beautiful landscape in the hands of her brother, Ramon. De Leonne had not much use for his new brother-in-law and did not at all like his habits, least of all his fondness for rum and for the company of “undesirables” such as the swarthy dock workers and the superstitious immigrants who ran at the mere mention of the voodoo of the slaves. But eventually Clothilde won him over and Ramon was given oversight of the beautiful courtyard garden.

The arrival of children and the growth of his business kept De Leonne preoccupied and so it was that he perhaps did not notice the slow slippage of his brother-in-law into the unwholesome darkness of his negligent lifestyle. Though he managed to maintain the garden at the home on Rue Bourbon with almost obsessive reliability, Ramon’s bad habits only grew worse as time passed. Always an abuser of drink, eventually Ramon began to pay to many visits to the “Green Fairy” and sadly became addicted to both absinthe and laudanum, as well.

According to the legend, it was in one of his drunken, drugged fits that Ramon had the misfortune of coming upon members of a secret vodoun sosyete involved in a black magic ritual in one of the many festering alleys of the Old Quarter. Many believe that this is when Ramon – always weak and impressionable – came to believe he had been cursed by one of the vodusi men, whom, he later said, looked up at him with opaque maroon eyes and, holding up two fingers of his left hand, spat a curse through nasty yellow teeth. Ramon ran away in terror, but, as was later proved, the damage was already done.

Ramon- came to believe he had been cursed by one of the vodusi men, whom, he later said, looked up at him with opaque maroon eyes and, holding up two fingers of his left hand, spat a curse through nasty yellow teeth. Ramon ran away in terror, but, as was later proved, the damage was already done.



Ramon began to neglect his regular duties. Semi-nocturnal, he now began to sleep through the day, waking at sunset to take his only meal of the day. As the night hours wore on, De Leonne and dear Clothilde could hear Ramon working away in the garden and the conservatory – one responsibility he never let lapse. When his work was done, Ramon would leave the De Leonne house and prowl the streets of the Old Quarter only to come home at dawn, full of absinthe and running in terror from what most believed to be “imagined” terrors.

This life, of course, could not persist for long and sadly there came an evening when no sounds could be heard from the darkening shadows of the De Leonne garden. It was the master of the house himself who found Ramon, dead among the roots of the Spanish lime tree that he had tended with such care. Touched with pity, not least for his grieving wife, De Leonne ordered that all respect be given the body of his brother-in-law and that, because he had never neglected his duties, that he should sleep contentedly under the roots of the lime tree where he had been found.

Imagine, then, the shock and horror of the servants who had been charged with digging Ramon’s grave when, among the twisted roots and vines of the verdant tropical flora, they began to uncover the decomposing remains of human beings! Arms, legs, torsos, all came forth in tangled masses of moldering flesh and bones as the servants dug deeper; there seemed to be no spot in the garden where there was not the evidence and stench of decomposing bodies.

De Leonne was appalled and it was quickly obvious why Ramon had worked so diligently and so responsibly at his garden duties. Even more disturbing was the gruesome discovery by police and mortuary workers that each of the dead bodies had, apparently, been completely drained of blood before being buried amid the tropic flora and under the Cayo Dulzura lime tree. With his household in an uproar and his servants and slaves ready to riot in fear of what they were calling “the devil” and “the bloodsucker,” De Leonne ordered that Ramon be placed in the family burial plot in St. Louis No. 1, at least until the furor had died down and the proper authorities had made sense of the mess. One thing he did not need, after all, was yet another decomposing body in his beloved garden!

In the weeks following Ramon’s death, after the last of the mortuary wagons had hauled away the pitiful remnants of the dead from the once-pristine home, a semblance of peace came over the De Leonne house. Though Clothilde continued to grieve, the reality of her brother’s crimes, made somewhat easier to bear when his addiction was taken into account, grew less of a burden for the De Leonne family. For the servants, however, it was another story.

Amid furtive talk and whisperings, the servants and the slaves seemed uneasy and went about their chores with an abundance of caution and fear. Something had caused many of them to fall ill recently and two had passed away in a short time. This fear was perhaps most obvious in the servant whom De Leonne had charged with Ramon’s old duties in caring for the magnificent garden: he worked quickly, if at all, and only in the light of the sun. He and other servants would absolutely refuse to go into the garden at night, and slaves would have to be beat into going.

When at last this obstinacy became too much to bear, Alberto De Leonne decided it was time that he investigate just what was at the root of his servants’ fears. He took them each aside and inquired about the source of their fear and loathing: each of them told the same tale, that they feared Ramon was not really dead and that he had, in fact, returned to his old home to prey upon – and even kill – everyone who had survived him. To De Leonne this was, of course, impossible, the absurd ramblings of the foolish and uneducated. But he decided, after the manner of men of science of his time, to conduct an experiment and put the foolish theory to the test: he himself would spend the night, alone, in his garden, to see whether there was any truth to the silly tales.

So it was that the master of the house on Rue Bourbon set up a small encampment in the doorway of the conservatory with some items for his comfort, several books and a good lantern to last through the night hours. Neither Clothilde nor the entreaties of his eldest son and daughters could dissuade the man from his intended vigil and so he was left to it.

The Courtyard filled with the orchids and bromeliads, the date palms and thick aloe and, ultimately, into the impenetrable darkness under the spreading limbs of the prized Spanish lime tree.



The night was cool, one of those Indian Summer evenings so prevalent in New Orleans during the heady days of September and October, and De Leonne wrapped himself against the chill as the night hours passed. It was nearly midnight when, according to legend, De Leonne first became aware that he might no longer be alone. Peering out past the lamp’s feeble glow, he was certain that he could discern a shadow moving among the banana trees and the twining jasmine that choked the brick walls all around him. Soon, the sound of snuffling and scraping could be heard coming from the darkness of the conservatory behind him. Brazenly, he took the lantern and stepped into the humid darkness of the conservatory greenhouse, straining to see through the orchids and bromeliads, the date palms and thick aloe and, ultimately, into the impenetrable darkness under the spreading limbs of the prized Spanish lime tree.

There, it seemed, something was not right and as he approached, De Leonne became aware that the ground among the sinewy grey roots was not still. In fact, it was roiling, moving slowly in tiny heaps: something was crawling in the rich, dark soil!

Undeterred, De Leonne leaned even closer and held up the lantern for a better look. Immediately he recoiled in terror, realizing, too late, just what he was seeing. There, in the darkness, was none other than his late brother-in-law, Ramon, writhing like a red-eyed snake in the black, grainy soil amid the fallen leaves and shriveled fruit of the lime tree. But before he had the thought to run, Ramon was free of his loamy bed and was upon him, with claws slashing and gnashing teeth sinking deep into the terrified man’s throat. As his life’s blood drained from his body, De Leonne was able to pull from his vest a revolver that he had placed there as an amused afterthought. Now, it might save his very soul. He fired once and the sound startled the ghoul from him, but only momentarily. When it became clear that the gun posed no danger to him, the red-eyed fiend, swollen like a huge, brown bladder, fixed itself yet again to its prey. It was only at the sound of running feet and the approach of other members of the household that the awful creature relinquished his hold on poor De Leonne, retreating instead to the putrid darkness under the lime tree branches.

Ramon, writhing like a red-eyed snake in the black, grainy soil amid the fallen leaves and shriveled fruit of the lime tree.



It was De Leonne’s oldest son, Charles, who first came upon his father that night, finding his lifeless body near the conservatory door. As he gingerly entered the engulfing darkness of the greenhouse, followed closely by only the bravest of the male servants, Charles became aware that he was being watched: a pair of evil red eyes regarded him from the darkness of the lush tropical plants and the spreading limbs of the Spanish lime tree.

“There he is!” said Charles, and at that moment one brave black man, larger than the others, and known only by the name Sadugh, leapt forward and took hold of the writhing ghoul.

Sadugh held fast to the vampire Ramon as the others threw ropes and bound him fast. While they held him down, Sadugh went in search of a sharp object and came running back with a sharp piece of iron, more like a huge iron nail, that he had found in the farrier’s shop nearby. He spoke in a heavy African dialect while one of the other servants translated.

“He say turn him over!” came the order, but the vampire was fighting fiercely. The servants held on bravely, despite the oozing of the blood from the swollen thing, once a man, now in their grasp. Red eyes blazed and teeth clacked together in furtive attempts to catch a stray hand or arm. But Sadugh was too powerful. He stood over the beast Ramon and, using all his might, turned the horrid thing over, face down against the earth.

Again he said something indecipherable to the others. “He say, dig! Cover him up while he holds him!” And with that, they all began to dig feverishly with their hands, even the thin, patrician Charles fell to his knees and dug like a dog.

When the hole was deep enough around the writhing vampire, Sadugh took the iron nail and plunged it into the heart of the creature, pinning him to the ground. There came a terrible wailing and a horrible, uncanny “gobbling” sound as the vampire literally deflated in under the pressure of the stake. Soon, however, dead Ramon’s movements became less violent, and eventually there was no movement at all. While the servants worked to cover the horrible, bag-like being, Sadugh went in search of a maul with which to hammer the stake home. This accomplished, they gathered the body of Alberto De Leonne and took him into the house with all honor and respect to prepare for yet another funeral.

And thus the sad and miserable Ramon, who became a vampire when he fell under the Evil Eye of a black bokor vodusi, and who plagued his family first, like the vampires of old, at last came to rest under the spreading limbs of the tree with the fruit from the Island of Sweetness.

Or, is he at rest?

Many New Orleanians familiar with this tale will tell you in all earnestness that the vampire Ramon, the first known vampire in Old New Orleans, never really went to his repose, and that in the courtyard of the old house, now broken into anonymous apartments and businesses, there is yet a rusty old blacksmith’s stake in a remote and overgrown portion of an old garden. There are those who have stood close by when, on a dark night, or when the drums of new age Voodoo rituals waft over Bourbon Street, the furtive whisper of a voice can be heard, filtering up through the rich soil. “I am the Devil!” it says and entreats those nearby, “Let me out!” Visitors to the courtyard are warned against disturbing the old stake in any way.

There are those who insist that the spirit of the Vampire Ramon has never remained trapped with his body and that on some nights when the mist comes in heavy off the river, the vampire rises in a misty form and moves among the living in the Quarter: kept from their blood, he preys upon their life’s energy and the magnetic attraction of their very souls.

And a grey stump that once was a beautiful Spanish lime tree is all that remains of the garden once so prized by Alberto De Leonne. After the encounter with the vampire under it’s dark limbs, Charles De Leonne ordered it to be cut down and burned. But in remembrance of his father, he personally placed a sinewy, jade-leafed branch into Alberto’s coffin before it was closed for the last time and placed in a cool and moldy vault in the St. Louis No. 1. And there it, and what is left of the De Leonne legacy, remains.

There are those who insist that the spirit of the Vampire Ramon has never remained trapped with his body and that on some nights when the mist comes in heavy off the river, the vampire rises in a misty form and moves among the living in the Quarter: kept from their blood, he preys upon their life’s energy and the magnetic attraction of their very souls.

 

 

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