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The French Opera House itself was the most fashionable establishment in New Orleans in the years between the Civil War and World War I. Simply to attend the opera there was a social event of importance, replete with ritual and tradition.
[Robert Tallant. Romantic New Orleanians. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1950, p. 119]


The ghost of a New Orleans notorious witch still walks the Haunted Cities Streets. Some people claimed they encounter this female ghosts apparition on St. Ann Street near Bourbon each night. No it's not the Ghost of Witch Queen Onieda Toups, infamous Marie Laveau or the most evil "Wicked Witch of the South", Delphine Lalaurie. But that of a long dead witch locals call Margurite. You may hear of the Witch of the French Opera who lived in a house at Bourbon and Toulouse where the opera house once stood. Spurned by her young lover, the old Madam committed suicide, threatening in a final note: "I will Come back from the dead I will return, And kill those that have hurt me!" An many say return she did, to kill the man and his new love and to haunt tourists and locals for many decades to come.

The Inn on Bourbon, on the corner of Toulouse and Bourbon Streets, rests on the site of the Old French Opera House, for 60 years, the cultural center of New Orleans Creole society, and the first opera house in the United States.

The opera house was one of the most famous masterpieces designed by noted architect James Gallier, architect of Gallier Hall and many other classic 18th Century buildings. The great elliptical auditorium was beautifully arranged with a color scheme of red and white, and seated 1,800 persons in four tiers of seats. It was Greek Revival in design, and its colonnaded front measured 166 feet on bourbon Street and 187 feet on Toulouse Street. Its 80 foot high loft towered above all of the buildings of the French Quarter. In the loges of the opera house, there were screened boxes for pregnant ladies, ladies in mourning, and "ladies-of-the-evening" (elegantly dressed madams from nearby Storyville).

From 1859 until it burned in 1919, the French Opera House was not only the scene of hundreds of operas, but was the hub of the dwindling Creole society, the last refuge of the "creme-de-la-creme."

The New Orleans Old French Opera House

On Dec. 4 1919 the French Opera House, which a month before had opened its first session since the end of World War I, was razed by a fire of undetermined origin. Designed by architect James Gallier, the Greek Revival-style structure on the corner of Toulouse and Bourbon streets opened in 1850 in a city that had been one of the earliest homes of grand opera in North America. After the fire, opera in the city was largely relegated to performances by touring companies until the founding of the New Orleans Opera House Association in 1943.

[WPA Photograph Collection]


One reminder of its presence remains - an indention on Bourbon Street leading to the entrance of the hotel. It was here that the fancy carriages of the Creole aristocrats parked to discharge the elegantly dressed passengers.

Margurite the witch ghost first paraded through various parts of the Quarter going down Toulouse St. and the Rue Royale. To many she was known as the "Witch of the French Opera House Ghost" for it was from the opera building she first emerged from and took her first walk, over 100 years ago.

Shocking now as then is her wretched appearance. She has ghostly white hair which trails and drags behind her in the streets. A horrid face paler then death itself. Her eyes are blood red and as huge as saucers. With tears streaming from them. Her shroud is nothing but a white bed sheet draped around her.

Reportedly she was the ghost of an aging Storyville Madam. A woman whose younger lover had taken a mistress. The aging Madame distraught over her lover's betrayal, killed herself. But she later returned as a ghost and murdered her cheating lover and the mistress in their Bourbon Street Mansion.

The ghost has been said to have walked the same streets for many years from the French Opera House to a building on Dumaine and Royal not far from the famous Lalaurie haunted house. This was a boarding house where she had allegedly committed the murders. Not only killing her lover his Mistress but the entire occupants of the house and the servants.

The French Opera House stood at the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse Streets from 1859 until it was destroyed by fire in 1919. Designed by James Gallier, Jr., the hall was commissioned by Charles Boudousquie, then the director of the opera company, which h ad previously made its home in the Orleans Theater. After a dispute with new owners of the Orleans, Boudousquie determined to build a grand new house for French opera. The building went up in less than a year at a cost of $118,500 and for the next sixty years, it was the center of social activity in New Orleans. Not only opera was held there, but also Carnival balls, debuts, benefits, receptions, and concerts. By 1913, however, the house had fallen on hard times and was forced into receivership. An a nonymous donor (actually William Ratcliffe Irby) purchased the building and donated it to Tulane University, along with the wherewithal to operate it. The building reopened, and the future looked bright--until the building went up in flames on the night of December 4, 1919.

The first night of the opera season is the opening of the social season in New Orleans, and the opera itself is the most important feature of New Orleans social life. For nearly a century it has held the undisputed first place in the hearts of the people of the delightful old French-American city, and it grows each year in popularity and in pride of place. It must be understood, however, that New Orleans loves her French opera not because of the social side of the operatic season, but because she has be en taught for generations to love it for the music and for art's sake. . . . The music and musicians are the first consideration in this splendid old house; consequently New Orleans knows her great composers, her Mozart, Meyerbeer, Rossini, Verdi, in grea t detail, and knowing them so is able to listen and enjoy the understandingly. Another thing which adds to New Orleans's enjoyment of French opera, and has doubtless had much to do with the great popularity of the institution, is the fact that one-fourth of the population of the city speaks French in ordinary daily intercourse, while another two-fourths is able to understand the language perfectly.

[Leslie's Weekly. December 11, 1902]


Historical Milestones of Opera in New Orleans
by: Jack Belsom

The date of the very first staging of opera in the Crescent City cannot now be established and seems forever lost to music historians. But it can safely be stated that since 1796, in the final decade of the Spanish colonial era, New Orleans has had operatic performances on almost a yearly basis. What is also significant is that, with few exceptions, throughout the nineteenth century the city yearly boasted a resident company that was engaged for its principal theatre and which could be depended upon for performances throughout an established operatic season.

The first staging that can be documented was that of André Ernest Grétry's Sylvain which was sung here on May 22, 1796. During the first third of the nineteenth century there was slow yearly growth as various theatres opened (and in some cases closed) and the repertoire was expanded to include, besides the popular light scores of Grétry, Etienne Mehul, Nicolo Isouard, Nicholas Dalayrac, and François Boieldieu, works by various Italian composers such as Giovanni Paisiello's Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Luigi Cherubini's Les deux journées.

The first Théâtre d'Orléans, which had opened in 1815, soon fell victim to fire. It was rebuilt and opened in 1819 under the management of impresario John Davis who for many years was to be a leading figure in the French theatre in New Orleans. Within a few years the stage was set for an ongoing theatrical rivalry when, in 1824, James Caldwell inaugurated his Camp Street theatre which catered more to the tastes of the growing American population.

At the end of the 1826/1827 season, rather than disbanding until the following autumn, Davis's troupe instead embarked on a tour of several northeastern cities, playing Frenchdrama and opera already in the repertoire in New Orleans, but not yet staged in Philadelphia and New York. To this day, ironically, these performances, given while on tour by the ensemble from the Théâtre d'Orléans, are credited as American "premieres", while their earlier performances here during the regular seasons are unknown. Boieldieu's La dame blanche and Gasparo Spontini's La Vestale are but two examples from a sizeable list.

he rise and fall of French Opera in New Orleans frames the Nineteenth Century, from the first recorded performance of opera in the city in 1796 to the tragic burning of the French Opera House in 1919. In the early part of the century the New Orleans opera houses imported talented European musicians and singers and presented some of the finest opera in the United States. In 1796 Grétry’s “Silvain” was performed at the St. Peter Street Theater, the first recorded performance of opera in New Orleans. During the 1805-06 season the St. Peter Street Theater presented twenty-three performances of at least sixteen different operas to a city with a population of only twelve thousand people. Soon other companies were brought to the city and a rivalry developed between John Davis, a French-born refugee from St. Domingue who operated the Orleans Theater, and James Caldwell, an American who oversaw the Camp Street Theater. Competition between these theaters mirrored the tensions that existed between the Anglophone and Francophone sections of the city. Each group prided itself on the accomplishments of its opera troupe and boasted of the superiority of their artists. Giacomo Meyerbeer’s “Robert le Diable,” a perineal favorite, first premiered in New Orleans in 1835 at Caldwell’s Camp Street Theater, then opened six weeks later at Davis’s Orleans Street Theater. Critics from the French and English language press each claimed that their company’s performance of “Robert Le Diable” was far superior to the other’s. From 1827 to 1833 Davis traveled with a troupe of fifty performers to cities on the East Coast of the United States during the summer off-season in New Orleans. “Le Pré Aux Clercs” by Ferdinand Hérold was performed in New York by this “Compagnie Française de la Nouvelle Orleans.” Thus Creole New Orleans was, in this respect, an exporter of French culture to the rest of the United States.

See: Henry A. Kmen. Music in New Orleans: The Formative Years, 1791-1841. (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1966).

From Boubron Street to Paradise - The French Opera House and its Singers,

VAI AUDIO, 1 CD: cat# 1153, $16.99

Rarest of recordings by Henri Albers, Georges Regis, Leon Escalais, Adelina Patti, Florencio Constantino, Lillian Nordica, Jean Vallier, Albert Huberty, and others. Arias and ensembles from L'Africane, Guillaume Tell, La Juive, Mignon, Rigoletto, Lucrezia Borgia,


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