The early years of the French colony, La Nouvelle Orleans, were tough, fraught with disease, and a particularly humid climate that few Frenchmen were accustomed to.
The men who lived in the colony made careers out of exploring, fur trapping, and trading, an industry that found booming success in the 18th century.
Among all this, something was missing. Something that the French crown found essential to the survival of its new and bustling colony.
Although there was no shortage of men, La Nouvelle Orleans desperately needed women whom the French crown found suitable for domesticity.
Nuns of the St. Ursula
Enter the Ursuline nuns in 1727. The sisters arrived in what one could assume was an ordinarily hot and muggy July in Louisiana.
Twelve of them stepped onto Port of Orleans and got to work caring for the colony’s sick and educating its residents.
Temporarily without a permanent home, the women lived in one of the city’s biggest houses and established a school and orphanage.
In 1734, the permanent home of the nuns—a three-story, exposed beam structure designed by Ignace Francois Broutin—reached completion.
However, we might be getting ahead of ourselves because, before the completion of the Ursuline Convent and just a year after the nun’s arrival, a group of different women docked at the port in La Nouvelle Orleans.
These women, deathly pale and emaciated, would become mythical in New Orleans history.
The Fille à la Cassette
The colony needed women, and according to Catholic priests, they needed virtuous women who would secure the future of Christian evangelism.
King Louis XIV of France agreed. Women from convents, orphanages, and schools volunteered. In 1704, the first group arrived in Mobile, Alabama. In 1719, a second group arrived in Biloxi, Mississippi.
The women that would live in La Nouvelle Orleans arrived in 1728.
These women carried wooden, rectangular trunks. Thus, the moniker “fille à la cassette” (women with suitcases).
In them? Well, that’s where historical truth and fiction become murky.
The Convent and the Girls
Have you ever seen the old Ursuline Convent in New Orleans’s French Quarter? It’s an L-shaped, white stucco building constructed in typical French neoclassical architecture.
The building is simple, with a perfectly trimmed garden lined by cobblestone pathways. It’s beautiful, but if legend rings true, the things locked within its walls in 1728 were decidedly less so.
There are two tales to explain these strange women, and in both, the women go on to live in the Ursuline Convent that exists today.
In the first tale, the women who sailed to become the mothers of the new world carried with them a secret—vampires hidden in their trunks.
In the other, the women were the vampires. They never aged. They slept in their trunks during the day and hunted by night.
Eventually, Pope Benedict XIV was called upon to bless the nails that would seal the vampires into the attic of the Ursuline Convent.
As the years passed, the nickname “fille à la cassette” became “fille à la casquette,” or women with caskets/casket girls.
Mythology and the History
So, who were the casket girls, really?
The original Ursuline Convent, built in 1935, lasted 12 years. Louisiana’s climate ate away at the building to such an extent that a Broutin drafted plans for a second convent.
The existing Ursuline Convent, in which legend states that the girls and their vampire brood found imprisonment, was not completed until 1751. That is, 23 years after the casket girls arrived.
Those “caskets” the women brought with them? They were too small to fit a body in. The trunks only contained the women’s personal effects—two petticoats, six headdresses, and underwear.
History agrees that the women were housed and educated in the 1934 Ursuline Convent, but they were all eventually married off to men in the colony.
Time has a way of shaping and mythologizing history. Regardless, it makes for a spooky tale to tell around Halloween.
Do you have any stories about the casket girls? Share them in the comments below!
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