Sunday, November 3, 2013

The House of the Turk, Part Deux

[1] Elevation of the Le Pretre Mansion at 716 Dauphine, New Orleans. Historic American Building Survey, 1940.
The Historic New Orleans Collection
A quick update on the "House of the Turk" in New Orleans. As planned, during the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association, some friends and I headed into the French Quarter to pay a visit to 716 Dauphine, the historic Gardette-Le Pretre House. The mansion is also known as the "House of the Turk" because of its connection to a sensational story about a mysterious relative of the sultan and his alleged murder in the 1860s-70s. 

[2] Visiting the "House of the Turk," New Orleans.
October 2013. Photo by Ashley Dimming. 
Although the house is now privately owned, by chance during our visit we met someone who knew a great deal about the history of the house and was willing to give us a glimpse of the courtyard, where the Turkish gentleman supposedly met his end--the legend being that he was buried alive under a date tree in the side courtyard of the building. [2] Well, there was no date tree, and the house is currently undergoing renovation, but the most interesting piece of information that we learned on our trip was that the ghost story connected to this house predates the construction of the current building (1836) by almost a century. In his book History of Louisiana (first published in French, 1846-47), Charles Gayarre shares a legend of "traditionary lore" that had been related to him thirty years before by an 80-year-old man, who had in turn received the story from his father. The tale reads thus:

In a lot situated at the corner of Orleans and Dauphine streets, in the city of New Orleans, there is a tree which nobody looks at without curiosity and without wondering how it came there. For a long time, it was the only one of its kind known in the state, and from its isolated position, it has always been cursed with sterility. It reminds one of the warm climes of Africa and Asia, and wears the aspect of a stranger of distinction driven from his native country. Indeed, with its sharp and thin foliage, sighing mournfully under the blast of one of our November northern winds, it looks as sorrowful as an exile...A sort of vague but impressive mystery is attached to it, and it is as superstitiously respected as one of the old oaks of Dodona...
[3] 716 Dauphine at night. Photo by Ashley Dimming.
In the beginning of 1727, a French vessel of war landed at New Orleans a man of haughty mien, who wore the Turkish dress and whose whole attendance was a single servant. He was received by the governor with the highest distinction, and was conducted by him to a small but comfortable house with a pretty garden, then existing at the corner of Orleans and Dauphine streets, and which, from the circumstance of its being so distant from other dwellings, might have been called a rural retreat, although situated in the limits of the city. There, the stranger, who was understood to be a prisoner of state, lived in the greatest seclusion; and although neither he nor his attendant could be guilty of indiscretion, because none understood their language, and although Governor Perier severely rebuked the slightest inquiry, yet it seemed to be the settled conviction in Louisiana, that the mysterious stranger was the brother of the Sultan, or some great personage of the Ottoman empire, who had fled from the anger of the vicegerent of Mohammed, and who had taken refuge in France. The Sultan had peremptorily demanded the fugitive, and the French government, thinking it deregatory to its dignity to comply with that request, but at the same time not wishing to expose its friendly relations with the Moslem monarch, and perhaps desiring, for political purposes, to keep in hostage the important guest it had in its hands, had recourse to the expedient of answering, that he had fled to Louisiana, which was so distant a country that it might be looked upon as the grave, where, as it was suggested, the fugitive might be suffered to wait in peace for actual death, without danger or offense to the Sultan. Whether this story be true or not is now a matter of so little consequence, that it would not repay the trouble of a strict historical investigation.  
The year of 1727 was drawing to its close, when on a dark, stormy night, the howling and barking of the numerous dogs in the streets of New Orleans were observed to be fiercer than usual, and some of that class of individuals who pretend to know every thing, declared that, by the vivid flashes of the lightning, they had seen, swiftly and stealthily gliding toward the residence of the unknown, a body of men who wore the scowling appearance of malefactors and ministers of blood. There afterward came also a report, that a piratical-looking Turkish vessel had been hovering a few days previous in the bay of Barataria. Be it as it may, on the next morning the house of the stranger was deserted. There were no traces of mortal struggle to be seen; but in the garden, the earth had been dug, and there was the unmistakable indication of a recent grave. Soon, however, all doubts were removed by the finding of an inscription in Arabic characters, engraved on a marble tablet, which was subsequently sent to France. It ran thus, "The Justice of heaven is satisfied, and the date-tree shall grow on the traitor's tomb. The sublime Emperor of the faithful, the supporter of the faith, the omnipotent master and Sultan of the world, has redeemed his vow. God is great, and Mohammed is his prophet. Allah!" Some time after this event, a foreign-looking tree was seen to peep out of the spot where a corpse must have been deposited in that stormy night, when the rage of the elements yielded to the pitiless fury of man, and it thus explained in some degree this part of the inscription, "the date-tree shall grow on the traitor's grave." 
Who was he, or what had he done, who had provoked such relentless and far-seeking revenge? Ask Nemesis, or--at that hour when evil spirits are allowed to roam over the earth, and magical invocations are made--go, and interrogate the tree of the dead. [p. 386-389]

Almost like an ancient Greek myth, this elaborate story of a secret assassination seems to have been created by the locals of New Orleans to explain a natural phenomenon: the unusual presence of a date tree (obviously not native to Louisiana) in the heart of the old city. Gayarre goes so far as to collapse the story of the exiled Ottoman with the tree itself, emphasizing that the plant was the only one of its kind in the region, and describing the tree as "foreign-looking" and appearing as "sorrowful as an exile." As the date-tree was said to have sprouted directly from the grave of the slain Turk, the author suggests that the exiled foreigner has become incarnate in the leaves and knots of the plant itself. 

[4] The house currently located at 716 Dauphine
labeled as "The House of Tragic Mystery."
 Legends of Louisiana (1922), p. 58. 
Although Gayarre's story is certainly dramatic and rife with all of the trappings of Orientalism--characterized by the conflated tropes of a vengeful Ottoman Sultan, the climes of Africa and Asia, and the trees of the ancient Greek Dodona--this legend could be considered rather conservative when compared to later versions of the story, which we laid out in our previous post. By the time Helen P. Schertz writes the short story "The Brother of the Sultan" in her book Legends of Lousiana (1922), it is clear that through the second half of the 19th and into the 20th century, the tale had been further embellished with all kinds of sordid details--the Turk was now accompanied by a bevy of women, elaborate parties, etc.--and the chronology had been amended to accommodate the construction of the Le Pretre House. While Gayarre's story is said to have taken place in 1727, in a house with a large garden that had formerly sat at the corner of Dauphine and Orleans streets, Schertz sets her story several decades later, in 1792. Confusingly, Schertz identifies the house where the sultan's brother takes up residence as the home of Jean Baptiste Le Pretre, the author seemingly unaware that the house now standing at 716 Dauphine was only built in 1836 for Joseph Gardette, then sold to Le Pretre in 1839. [4] Thus, it is clear that over time, the various details of the ghost story have been evolving and adapting to the layered history of the physical site itself, with the changes keeping the legend  relevant to its contemporary urban context. 

Our thanks to the kind people of New Orleans who were great hosts and willing to share their knowledge about one of their city's oldest legends. 

GAYARRE, Charles. History of Louisiana. 2nd edition. New York: J.W. Widdleton, 1866-67.
SCHERTZ, Helen Pitkin. Legends of Louisiana: The Romance of the Royal Oak and The Brother of the Sultan. New Orleans: The New Orleans Journal, 1922. 

2 comments :

  1. Thank you for these articles. Excellent work.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Brilliant. Love this story. Thanks for taking the time to do some serious research.

    ReplyDelete