Guides that lead ghost tours in New Orleans have a bounty of history and folklore to pull from when they escort tourists through the city telling tales of paranormal activity. One house that is a favorite on these macabre tours is the Gardette-LePrete Mansion, colorfully nicknamed the Sultan Massacre House, at 716 Dauphine Street in the French Quarter.
For decades, residents at this historic mansion have reported supernatural experiences like shadow figures and disembodied screams. People walking near the house have even claimed to hear sounds of party when the building was empty. According to the legends surrounding the Gardette-LePrete mansion, these supernatural experiences can be linked to a 19th century mass murder. But the problem is this gruesome crime never happened.
The version of this grisly tale that is recounted most often comes from a book by Helen Pitkin Schertz titled Legends of Louisiana (1922). Below is summary of “The Brother of the Sultan” by Schertz.
In 1792, a mysterious, rich man sailed into the New Orleans harbor and rented the Gardette-LePrete house, which was the most beautiful home in the city at the time. Since nobody knew the foreigner’s name or his background, the local gossips speculated amongst each other. It was whispered that the man was probably from somewhere in the Ottoman Empire, and was either himself a Turkish sultan or the brother to the sultan. So they started referring to the mansion as the Sultan’s palace.
The Sultan had a large entourage and seemed to have endless supply of money to support everyone. He moved his servants, harem, and eunuchs into the mansion. He decorated his surroundings with luxurious furniture and opulent rugs. Although this stranger was not exactly laying low, he seemed to be paranoid about some impending danger because he added bars to the windows and hired guards to regularly patrol the house.
The Sultan hosted extravagant parties at his house complete with loud music and strong incense. The morning after one of these parties, neighbors thought the house was eerily quiet. When the milk cart tried to make it’s daily delivery, no one answered.
Local authorities became concerned and decided to break in. When they smashed through the front door, people found the almost decapitated body of the Sultan on a couch and the corpses of five young women from his harem posed around him.
No one ever discovered who committed the crime. But locals suspected it was either pirates who robbed the richly furnished mansion and killed all the witnesses, or the sultan’s brother sent assassins to avenge some unknown transgression.
As fascinating as this story is, the details in it are not historically accurate and there are no written records to substantiate any of it.
The Gardette-LePrete house was named after the man who built the home, Joseph Coulon Gardette, and the man he sold it to, Jean Baptiste LePrete. Gardette purchased the land on which the house was built in 1836 then sold it to LePrete in 1839. That means the mansion was not standing in 1792, when the events in the above story were supposed to have taken place. Also, there are no records of a brutal murder, like the one described above, happening in New Orleans about this time.
The earliest version of this legend that I can find comes from a chapter in History of Louisiana by Charles Gayarré, published in 1866, about the origins of a date tree known as the “Tree of the Dead.” This date tree was on the corner of Dauphine and Orleans Streets, which is, coincidentally, where the Gardette-LePrete mansion is located. But this story never names the house or its owner. It simply refers to it as “a small but comfortable house with a pretty garden, then existing at the corner of Orleans and Dauphine streets.”
Below is the tale in its entirety:
“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 or 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. Its enormous trunk is nothing but an agglomeration of knots and bumps, which each passing year seems to have deposited there as a mark of age, and as a protection against the blows of time and of the world. Inquire for its origin, and every one will tell you that it has stood there from time immemorial. A sort of vague by impressive mystery is attached to it, and it is as superstitiously respected as one of the old oaks of Dodona. Bold would be the axe that should strike the first blow at that foreign patriarch; and if it were prostrated to the ground by a profane hand, what native of the city would not mourn over its fall, and brand the act as an unnatural and criminal deed? So, long live the date-tree of Orleans-street, that time-honored descendant of Asiatic ancestors!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 Périer severely rebuked the slightest inquiry, yet it seemed to be the settled conviction in Louisiana, that the mysterious stranger was a brother of the Sultan, or some great personage of the Ottoman empire, who had fled from the anger of the vice-regent of Mohammed, and who had taken refuge in France. The Sultan had peremptorily demanded the fugitive, and the French government, thinking it derogatory 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 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 this 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 incantations are made — go, and interrogate the tree of the dead.”
My guess is is that Schertz’s legend of “The Brother of the Sultan” is based on the story from Gayarré’s History of Louisiana. Schertz changed the dates and made the setting for her murder the Gardette-LePrete house.
Ownership of this French Quarter landmark changed a number of times. It was turned into residence hall for students and then into an apartment building.
Residents of Gardette-LePrete house have reported paranormal activity throughout the 20th century. Although inhabitants claim to have supernatural experiences, none can be attributed to the fictional massacre of the Sultan and members of his harem.