A Harem of Horror?: The "Sultan's Palace," New Orleans

[1] "House of the Turk." Francis Benjamin Johnston. 1937-38.
Library of Congress
A quick confession: I kind of have a thing for haunted houses. All of those cheesy television programs on ghost hunters, or the world's most haunted hotels-theaters-mansions? Love 'em.  And, now that the time is approaching for the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association, this year to be held in beautiful New Orleans, October 10-13, I am thinking to myself: what would a visit to New Orleans be without checking out some of the fun, kitschy sites that the city is famous for? That's when I learned about the "House of the Turk." While at MESA, you might also want to stop by what is touted as one of New Orleans' oldest haunted mansions with a dramatic--if somewhat implausible--story about a brother of the Ottoman sultan meeting his grisly death in the house's courtyard. 

The stately two-story building stands on the corner of Dauphine and Orleans streets (716 Dauphine), just two blocks away from the raucous Bourbon Street. The house, with the wrought-iron balcony supported by slender posts, seems like a typical home of the old French Quarter. It was built in 1836 by a dentist from Philadelphia named Gardette, and only three years later purchased by the wealthy plantation owner Jean Baptiste Le Prete who held the property until 1873. Naturally, the building is commonly referred to as the "Gardette-La Prete House," but over the years has earned more theatrical monikers such as the "Sultan's Palace" or the "House of the Turk."

These sensational names recall a moment in the 1860s or early 70s when this house supposedly became, as one enthusiastic website writes, a "harem of horror"! Here is my own rather tongue-in-cheek rendition of the story: 

[2] Modern View of the "House of the Turk,"
716 Dauphine St., New Orelans
La Prete, once a powerful business man but finding himself down on his luck after the Civil War, was approached one day by a mysterious man from Turkey who said he was looking to rent a house for his brother the sultan. Le Prete thought to himself, "Sure, why not? that sounds totally reasonable," and immediately leased his large mansion over to the Ottoman gentleman. But, even before the ink dried on the contract, the house began to fill up with a bevy of beautiful women and oh-so-many exotic textiles. A padlock appeared on the door, and, just for good measure, large-muscled men stood guard on the balconies, their scimitars glistening in the moonlight. Neighbors began to complain about the oppressive smell of incense wafting from the windows and the music of unusual instruments playing late into the night. Rumors immediately began to spread about the large parties--replete with unspeakable orgies and dancing on top of large piles of gold that this renegade Ottoman prince had stolen from the sultan. Unfortunately, the revelry eventually came to an end, when a passerby noticed that blood was oozing out from under the front door. "Well, you don't see that every day," he thought, and ran to go find a police officer. I guess the scimitar-wielding watchmen were on holiday, because the detectives quickly gained entrance to the house. What they found was a scene of abject horror: blood, arms, legs, blood, organs, and more blood (I am telling you, this place made all seven seasons of Dexter combined look like nothing.) The worst part was when they found the mysterious Turk himself in the courtyard, who had died trying to claw his way out from an earthen grave in which he had been buried alive. No one knows who committed this heinous crime...was it one of the jealous harem women, out for revenge? Or pirates, who had given passage to the Turk to New Orleans and were lusting after his treasure. Or maybe even the sultan himself, out to exterminate any potential rivals to the throne? (My vote, as always, is for the pirates.) Of course, later residents of the house have seen a fair young man wander the hallways at night in his silk caftan, only to disappear once spoken to...

[3] View of 716 Dauphine from Google Street View. 
It's a really fun story, but I remain very skeptical as to any part of its veracity, as the earliest reference in print I could find was only from the 1930s. I figured that a multiple-homicide of this magnitude, with the involvement of a "mysterious Turk" no less, would be the scandal of the decade for the fair people of 19th-century New Orleans. So I decided to actually give the story due diligence and try to see if I could find any mention of the incident by searching through contemporary newspapers from the 1860s-70s (using great resources like the Chronicling America project at the Library of Congress). Unsurprisingly, with access to over 20 daily periodicals from the period, I could not find one mention of the crime in question. Also, the sultan at the time of the event in question would have been Abdülaziz, and I cannot recall any stories about a brother absconding to the US with a harem and gold, but I would be happy to stand corrected. So, for now, I would say that this legend simply remains an example of the role New Orleans and Louisiana has played (and continues to play, see: True Blood) in the American imagination as a place of fantasy and exoticism. 

In the 20th century, the house at 716 Dauphine unfortunately became derelict, with a very brief stint as the school of fine arts for the WPA. In the 1960s, it was bought by realtors who divided the property into multiple private apartments, which is the state in which the house stands now. And, perhaps the best news is that the "House of the Turk" is for sale, available for a cool $2.65 million! Whether or not you have that kind of cash, I would say that it is still worth it to include the "Sultan's Palace" in your walking tour of old New Orleans.

**For an update following our visit to the site, see The House of the Turk: Part Deux

BEAR, Rob. "The Strange, Sordid Story of NOLA's Sultan Massacre House," Curbed (April 4, 2013). 
DUREAU, Lorena. "Life with an Exotic Ghost," The Times-Picayune (February 11, 1979)

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