Post by aprillynn93 on Nov 22, 2013 20:01:07 GMT -5
Seven 'Ghost Hunters' in Custody for LeBeau Plantation Fire
Brett Duke, The Times-Picayune on November 22, 2013
The seven men in custody for the suspected arson of LeBleau Plantation allegedly were looking for ghosts, according to St. Bernard Parish heriff Jimmy Pohlmann. The sheriff said the men had been smoking marijuana and drinking in the vacant house in Old Arabi. One of the men was from Arabi, one from Gretna, and the others were from Texas, the sheriff said. The men, between the ages of 17 and 31, arrived at the home late Thursday night, likely entering through a gap on the fence around the
property that had been cut out by other curious trespassers over the years, according to Col. John Doran, who oversees all criminal enforcement. “They had been looking for ghosts, trying to summon spirits, beating on the floors,” Doran said.
“We all heard the ghost stories while growing up,” Pohlmann added. “In combination with smoking dope in there, it appears it was intriguing to them.”
Doran said the men appear to have become frustrated when no ghosts materialized. In a haze of alcohol and marijuana, one of them allegedly decided to burn the place to the ground. Doran said the seeming ringleader, Dusten Davenport, 31, of Fort Worth, Texas, allegedly had the idea to start the fire and began stacking pieces of wood.
The LeBeau Plantation house ignited about 2 a.m. Friday morning, according to Fire Chief Thomas Stone. The landmark, at Bienvenue and Lebeau Streets, was built in the 1850s and was one of the largest plantations south of New Orleans.
Davenport, along with Joshua Allen, 21, Joshua Briscoe, 20, Jerry Hamblen, 17, and Joseph Landin, 20, all of Grand Prairie, Texas, each were arrested on Friday for arson, simple burglary and criminal damage over $50,000, according to the Sheriff’s office. Kevin Barbe, 20, of Arabi, was arrested for accessory to arson and criminal trespassing. And Bryon Meek, 29, of Gretna, simply was arrested for accessory
A storied, ghostly history. The fire likely ends the LeBeau Plantation’s storied, at times ghostly, history. In the past 60 years since its last inhabitants, the house had gone through many decades of decay, including another suspicious fire that engulfed its roof and attic in 1986. At that time, it was a commonplace for homeless people to sleep, and for teenagers to congregate, in the evenings, many of them hoping to see the ghosts of the supposedly haunted mansion, according to Michelle Mahl Buuck, who wrote the book The Historic LeBeau Mansion: A Forgotten Monument. “There were lots of kids who would just go, perhaps because of the stories of it being haunted, they would take many nighttime excursions, going there just hoping to see a ghost,” Buuck said. The most common ghost story is of people throughout history having seen a woman in a white dress walking on the home’s upstairs porch. People would report seeing her through a window, shining in a mysterious light, even after the electricity was long gone, Buuck recounted. Another story was that whenever a guest would enter the home, the clock in the main hall would stop, only to start again after that guest had left. “The thought was the visit was so enjoyable that time would literally stop,” Buuck explained.
Many blogs also discuss its history as a plantation, the alleged cruel mistreatment of slaves – with slaves being ordered to bury fellow slaves beaten to death in the fields beside the home. Some people in turn have claimed over the years that the spirits of those dead slaves began to haunt the house, one by one driving its inhabitants insane and suicidal.
By 2003, the house, then near collapse, had been stabilized, structurally repaired, and readied for an extensive renovation. But then Katrina hit, Buuck explained, and since then, its windows had been boarded up as its owners discussed the structure’s potential future. “They would take many nighttime excursions, going there just hoping to see a ghost,” Buuck continued. Now all that remains of the house is four chimneys, a small portion of the interior brick wall and its unique brick foundation.
St. Bernard Parish Historian Bill Hyland traced the property back to Francois Gauthreaux, who had received the property as a land grant from the Company of the Indies in 1721. Gauthreaux later sold it to Pierre Rigaud de Vaudreuil, the last governor general of New France, who cultivated the property as an indigo plantation and also harvested cypress and hardwood that he shipped to colonies in the Caribbean, according to Hyland. Antoine Bienvenu purchased the property in 1749, Hyland added. It then changed hands a few times in the early 1800s. In 1815, it was within earshot of the Battle of New Orleans. Benoit Treme, the son of Claude Treme, who founded Faubourg Treme, purchased the property in the 1820s and operated a brickyard there until Franciose Barthelemy LeBeau bought it in 1850. Between 1854 and 1857, LeBeau completed his 16-room home on the property, but he died in 1957 before ever living there, according to Hyland. His family lived in and maintained the home until 1905, when they sold it to the Friscoville Realty Company, which turned it into the Friscoville Hotel.
Later, the Greek-revival, neoclassical building was purchased by the Jai-Alai Realty Company, which turned it into a casino complete with gun turrets built into the closets during Prohibition – and as the “Cardone Hotel,” a boarding house for casino dealers, Buuck said. The casino was owned by the famous gambler Joe Brown.
At that time, gambling was legal in St. Bernard, but not in New Orleans, making it an obviously lucrative proposition. The state eventually stopped gambling in Arabi and the house went through various successions and sales until Joseph Meraux purchased it in 1967.
The last time anyone had lived in the home was in the early 1950s, other than, perhaps, an occasional caretaker that Meraux later hired to look after the place. “But you could look beyond the weathering and all that and see how beautiful it once was and there is just not a lot of places like that left, especially in St. Bernard,” Buuck declared. “Since Katrina, St. Bernard has really got to hold on to what it has, because so much already has been lost.”
The burned-down home “is another part of our historic identity that is gone,” Hyland concluded.
Assessing the damage. Stone, the fire chief, was also struck by the building’s loss. “Every chief’s worst nightmare is to have a historical structure destroyed in their community, and that is what happened here,” he said as he surveyed the wreckage Friday morning. Stone was awaiting the arrival of the state fire marshal’s arson investigator and an arson dog. By the time the first units arrived, the house was engulfed in fire.
In terms of assessing the financial cost of the damage, Stone simply said the plantation “was priceless.” The house and land currently are owned by the Arlene and Joseph Meraux Charitable Foundation. Rita Gue, president of the foundation, said on Friday morning that her family “is so saddened by this fire and we are anxious to see the investigation go forward and see what it is all about.” While she said she and her family had been in talks with two or three different people about possible future uses for site, nothing specific had yet been decided. “But we had beautiful visions and dreams and plans,” she added. “It is just a real unfortunate sad day for all of us.”
If anyone has any tips about the potential arson, Stone asked that they call the parish Fire Department’s fire prevention bureau at 504-278-4477.