The Legend (and Truth) of the Voodoo Priestess Who Haunts a Louisiana Swamp

Bess Lovejoy
Bess Lovejoy

The Manchac wetlands, about a half hour northwest of New Orleans, are thick with swamp ooze. In the summer the water is pea-green, covered in tiny leaves and crawling with insects that hide in the shadows of the ancient, ghost-gray cypress trees. The boaters who enter the swamps face two main threats, aside from sunstroke and dehydration: the alligators, who mostly lurk just out of view, and the broken logs that float through the muck, remnants of the days when the swamp was home to the now-abandoned logging town of Ruddock.

But some say that anyone entering the swamp should beware a more supernatural threat—the curse of local voodoo queen Julia Brown. Brown, sometimes also called Julie White or Julia Black, is described in local legend as a voodoo priestess who lived at the edge of the swamp and worked with residents of the town of Frenier. She was known for her charms and her curses, as well as for singing eerie songs with her guitar on her porch. One of the most memorable (and disturbing) went: "One day I’m going to die and take the whole town with me."

Back when Brown was alive at the turn of the 20th century, the towns of Ruddock, Frenier, and Napton were prosperous settlements clustered on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain, sustained by logging the centuries-old cypress trees and farming cabbages in the thick black soil. The railroad was the towns' lifeline, bringing groceries from New Orleans and hauling away the logs and cabbages as far as Chicago. They had no roads, no doctors, and no electricity, but had managed to carve out cohesive and self-reliant communities.

That all changed on September 29, 1915, when a massive hurricane swept in from the Caribbean. In Frenier, where Julia lived, the storm surge rose 13 feet, and the winds howled at 125 miles an hour. Many of the townsfolk sought refuge in the railroad depot, which collapsed and killed 25 people. Altogether, close to 300 people in Louisiana died, with almost 60 in Frenier and Ruddock alone. When the storm cleared on October 1, Frenier, Ruddock, and Napton had been entirely destroyed—homes flattened, buildings demolished, and miles of railway tracks washed away. One of the few survivors later described how he’d clung to an upturned cypress tree and shut his ears against the screams of those drowning in the swamp.

The hurricane seemed to come out of nowhere. But if you listen to the guides who take tourists into the Manchac swamp, the storm was the result of the wrath of Julia Brown. Brown, they say, laid a curse on the town because she felt taken for granted—a curse that came true when the storm swept through on the day of her funeral and killed everyone around. On certain tours, the guides take people past a run-down swamp graveyard marked "1915"—it’s a prop, but a good place to tell people that Brown’s ghost still haunts the swamp, as do the souls of those who perished in the hurricane. The legend of Julia Brown has become the area's most popular ghost story, spreading to paranormal shows and even Reddit, where some claim to have seen Brown cackling at the edge of the water.

After I visited the swamp earlier this year and heard Julia Brown's story, I got curious about separating fact from fiction. It turns out Julia Brown was a real person: Census records suggest she was born Julia Bernard in Louisiana around 1845, then married a laborer named Celestin Brown in 1880. About 20 years later, the federal government gave her husband a 40-acre homestead plot to farm, property that likely passed on to Julia after her husband’s death around 1914.

Official census and property records don’t make any mention of Brown’s voodoo work, but that's not especially surprising. A modern New Orleans voodoo priestess, Bloody Mary, told Mental Floss she has found references to a voodoo priestess or queen by the name of Brown who worked in New Orleans around the 1860s before moving out to Frenier. Mary notes that because the towns had no doctors, Brown likely served as the local healer (or traiteur, a folk healer in Louisiana tradition) and midwife, using whatever knowledge and materials she could find to care for local residents.

Brown’s song is documented, too. An oral history account from long-time area resident Helen Schlosser Burg records that "Aunt Julia Brown … always sat on her front porch and played her guitar and sang songs that she would make up. The words to one of the songs she sang said that one day, she would die and everything would die with her."

There’s even one newspaper account from 1915 that describes Brown's funeral on the day of the storm. In the words of the New Orleans Times-Picayune from October 2, 1915 (warning: offensive language ahead):

Many pranks were played by wind and tide. Negroes had gathered for miles around to attend the funeral of ‘Aunt’ Julia Brown, an old negress who was well known in that section, and was a big property owner. The funeral was scheduled … and ‘Aunt’ Julia had been placed in her casket and the casket in turn had been placed in the customary wooden box and sealed. At 4 o’clock, however, the storm had become so violent that the negroes left the house in a stampede, abandoning the corpse. The corpse was found Thursday and so was the wooden box, but the casket never has been found.

Bloody Mary, however, doesn’t think Brown laid any kind of curse on the town. "Voodoo isn’t as much about curses as it is about healing," she says. The locals she has spoken to remember Julia as a beloved local healer, not a revengeful type. In fact, Mary suggests that Julia’s song may have been more warning to the townsfolk than a curse against them. Perhaps Brown even tried to perform an anti-storm ritual and was unable to stop the hurricane before it was too late. Whatever she did, Mary says, it wasn’t out of malevolence. And if she’s still in the swamp, you have less to fear from her than from the alligators.

This story originally ran in 2016.

Jazz Icon Charles Mingus Wrote a Manual for Toilet Training Your Cat

iStock
iStock

Imagine it's the 1950s and you're in a basement jazz club in New York City. A haze of smoke lingers in a dusky room, glasses clink as waiters drop off martinis and Manhattans, and people bop their heads to the sounds of Charles Mingus, the hottest jazz bassist around. After the performance, Mingus pulls up to the bar and cradles a stiff drink. You approach him, but before you can say anything, the musician turns to you and asks an important question: Hey, man. Where does your cat poop?

This isn't as far-fetched as it sounds. Besides being one of the most revolutionary jazz artists of his day, Mingus was also a passionate advocate for teaching people how to toilet train their cats. So passionate, in fact, that he wrote instructions for a cat toilet training program (he called it the "CAT-alog"), which he routinely tried to sell at his gigs. He even placed print ads so that interested clients could buy his pamphlets via mail order.

The CAT-alog is a reflection of the man as a musician: blunt, concise, and demanding in its details. (You can read the instructions in their entirety here.) He swore by the program's effectiveness, claiming it took three or four weeks for his cat, Nightlife, to transition from the litter box to the porcelain throne.

Here's a breakdown of Mingus's process:

First, teach your cat to use a homemade cardboard litter box. ("Be sure to use torn up newspaper, not kitty litter. Stop using kitty litter. [When the time comes you cannot put sand in a toilet.]") Gradually, begin inching the box toward the bathroom. ("He has to learn how to follow it.") Once you've reached the bathroom, place the box on the toilet. ("Don't bug the cat now, don't rush him, because you might throw him off.") Then cut a small hole in the bottom of the cardboard ("Less than an apple—about the size of a plum."), and gradually cut down the sides of the box until it becomes a flat sheet. ("Put the flat cardboard, which is left, under the lid of the toilet seat, and pray.") Then, one day, remove the cardboard entirely.

Mingus insisted that, with patience, his methods would work. In fact, he advised: "Don't be surprised if you hear the toilet flush in the middle of the night. A cat can learn how to do it, spurred on by his instinct to cover up." In 2014, however, Studio 360 at WNYC put Mingus's instructions to the test … and failed.

Some cats, Mingus admits, just aren't "as smart as Nightlife was." But he'd likely agree that cats, like jazz musicians, really aren't the types to be bossed around.

For more, please listen to actor Reg E. Cathey read a silky smooth excerpt of Mingus's CAT-alog here. Trust us: You'll be glad you did.

Want to Live in Antarctica? Better Schedule an Appendectomy

While taking up residence in most towns is as easy as finding a place to stay, the requirements to live in Villa Las Estrellas—a Chilean town and research station in Antarctica—are a little bit stricter. In fact, you have to have surgery. Every person who stays in the town long-term has to have their appendix removed, according to the BBC.

Villa Las Estrellas is one of just two civilian settlements in Antarctica, located on King George Island. Most of the residents are scientists or members of the Chilean military, but some families do live there year-round. Located at the Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva military base, the town is equipped with a school, a library, a post office, a radio station, a bank, a supermarket, and a few homes.

Many people only stay in Villa Las Estrellas during the summer, but for those few dozen people who live at the base all year, appendix removal is one of the terms of residence, even for children. That's because the nearest hospital is more than 600 miles away. While there is basic medical care on the island, any serious treatment requires making the long journey to the Chilean mainland.

A ruptured appendix is a life-threatening situation, and requires immediate surgery. That's hard to get when you're 625 miles away from the hospital. So as a precaution, Villa Las Estrellas residents get preemptive appendectomies.

Surgery is just one of many discomforts that must be endured as a resident of Antarctica. It's a place where the mean annual temperature is 27.8°F, and residents sometimes can't leave the house for weeks. During the winter, there are entire days when the sun is only up for a scant few hours, while in the summer it's barely ever dark. Fresh vegetables are a rarity. Oh, and dogs are banned. But at least there are a lot of penguins.

[h/t BBC]

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