Ghost story behind the famous “Flaming Tomb,” a haunted crypt that reguarly draws ghost hunters to New Orleans’ Metairie Cemetery. Written by Craig Dominey, told by Cathy Kaemmerlen.
It was another crowded Saturday night as Josie Arlington sat wearily on her plush couch, lit a cigarette, and silently observed the crowd gathered in her parlor. Standing around the lavishly decorated room were the most powerful men in New Orleans high society – politicians, judges, lawyers, doctors, even a police commander or two. And she knew the money would be flowing into her coffers once again.
Most club owners would be ecstatic at such a large crowd, but not Josie Arlington. She dragged on her cigarette and bitterly whispered to herself, “What hypocrites.”
For she also knew that not one of these gentlemen would dare acknowledge her presence outside the secretive walls of the club that bared her name: “The Arlington.” For Josie was the most infamous Madam in the most scandalous district in New Orleans: Storyville.
Josie always said that the life of a Madam chose her, she didn’t choose it. She was orphaned at age 4, and the only parents she knew were the nuns at St. Elizabeth’s Home who took her in. But their attempts to scare the fear of God in her over the years eventually drove her away – and straight onto the mean streets of New Orleans.
Now as crazy as New Orleans is these days, back in the nineteenth century it was downright lecherous. There were red light districts all over town, and while the trade was not officially accepted, it was certainly tolerated. Josie knew where the real money was to be made, and became a teenage prostitute under the control of an older lover.
Life as a prostitute destroyed many women in New Orleans, but not Josie Arlington. As the years went by, she gained quite a reputation as a tough, no-nonsense woman of the night. She even got into a legendary fistfight with a rival prostitute, biting off part of her lips and ears!
But Josie knew she couldn’t work as a prostitute forever, and to make a life for herself, she would have to take advantage of the very men who were taking advantage of her. She would have to become a Madam.
So Josie opened a bordello in one of the largest red light districts in New Orleans. The district was located along the Basin Street rail line, just a few blocks from the French Quarter. Despite her rowdy reputation, Josie wanted to clean up her image and open a refined establishment where true gentlemen could pay for the services of, as she put it, “amiable, foreign girls.”
While her brothel became quite successful, the city of New Orleans was about to make her richer that she could have imagined. For in 1897, the city leaders decided upon a bold experiment. Rather than fight vices like prostitution and gambling, they decided to control them by confining them to one supervised area – the exact district where Josie had set up shop.
The area was named Storyville, and it soon became an amusement park of sin. The densely packed neighborhood was filled with saloons and brothels. High class gentlemen and rogues alike staggered through the streets, fueled by exotic drugs and overpriced booze, listening to the sounds of piano jazz in-between trysts with the endless collection of prostitutes.
And of all the bordellos in Storyville, none was larger and more lavish than the Arlington. Beautiful women in exotic European lingerie waited in the grand parlor for the most powerful men in New Orleans to walk through the door.
But while Josie reveled in her upper class status within the walls of Storyville, she soon found out she had a much different reputation within New Orleans high society. When she left the streets of Storyville on any given day, her male customers would suddenly look away when she passed them in the street. Some would grab the hands of their confused wives and dart to the other side of the street to avoid her approach.
Even when she bought a mansion in one of New Orleans’ most affluent neighborhoods, she was still an outcast to the high society women of New Orleans. She could hear them whispering and giggling behind her back when she came home at night. “I wonder how many of these ladies know that their husbands visit me on weekends,” she thought to herself. But she kept silent, her bitterness festering inside her.
In later years, Josie fell into ill health, and the piles of money she made at the Arlington began to seem meaningless. She began to fixate on her approaching death, and knew it would provide her one more opportunity to get back at those who shunned her. So she shocked New Orleans one more time by purchasing a plot in Metairie Cemetery, the most expensive and fashionable graveyard in town.
Now the high society women were truly mortified! They couldn’t imagine a dirty, low-life prostitute being buried within the same cemetery as their loved ones! But there was nothing they could do.
Now, Metairie Cemetery was, and is to this day, one of the most impressive cemeteries you’re ever likely to see. It’s a bewildering maze of giant mausoleums and monuments, with some of the most powerful and well-known names in New Orleans history chiseled onto their stone facades. Josie knew she needed a special monument in such a place, and commissioned an architect to design her a tomb unlike any other.
The monument was made of red granite, topped with two flaming urns. A statue of a young woman bearing a wreath stood on the stairwell, touching the bronze door that led to Josie’s future resting place. The tomb cost Josie a fortune, but the aggravation it caused the high society ladies was well worth the price.
Josie eventually passed away at age 50. A few years later, Storyville itself was shut down by the U.S. Navy, which was concerned about the effect it was having on its young sailors stationed in New Orleans. The brothels and bars were leveled to build a housing project. There is no sign today that Storyville ever existed.
But some believe that Josie Arlington stuck around long after the death of Storyville for one last bid for attention.
In the years after Josie was buried, rumors began to spread about strange goings-on at her grave. Curiosity-seekers who visited the grave ran back to town claiming they saw the urns on top of the tomb burst into flames before their eyes! Others saw an eerie red glow coming from the tomb at night, as if the granite walls were burning like hot coals. Josie’s grave was soon nicknamed the “Flaming Tomb.”
Of course, the symbolism of a red light on Josie’s tomb was not lost on many folks. Another rumor spread that the statue of the young girl would bang on the door of Josie’s tomb, trying to get in. But Josie would never answer, since she had always claimed that no girl had ever lost her virginity at the Arlington.
But the reports didn’t stop there. Two gravediggers swore they saw the female statue walk away from her post and wander aimlessly amongst the graves before vanishing. Was she really the ghost of Josie, still unable to find a home within the high society world she craved?
As the stories spread, the cemetery became overrun with visitors wanting to see the strange events for themselves. The families of those buried in the surrounding graves were horrified at the thought of their loved ones being trampled upon. So the cemetery agreed to remove Josie’s remains and bury them in an unknown location. The “Flaming Tomb” was sold to another owner, strangely enough with the same initials: “J.A.”
But next time you travel to New Orleans, you can still find Josie’s old tomb deep in Metairie Cemetery. And even though Josie may not have found the acceptance she wanted in life, I imagine she’d be pleased to know that folks are still talking about her to this very day. And that her name, like Storyville itself, would pass into the history – and mythology – that is unmistakably New Orleans.
– THE END –
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