The St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is among New Orleans’ most popular tourist haunts and, before it was shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic, would draw guided tours full of onlookers wanting to see the tombs of Voodoo queen Marie Laveau, civil rights activist Homer Plessy, and world chess champion Paul Morphy.
But as the cemetery’s owner, the Archdiocese of New Orleans, readies a reopening of the renowned final resting place, a move to restrict who can guide tours amid the tombs is pitting the church and its allegedly preferred tour company against a competitor in a federal lawsuit.
Witches Brew Tours, a tour company owned by Thomas Cook, filed suit in federal district court Friday, alleging that restricting public access to the cemetery and limiting tours of the burial ground to one outfit is illegal.
The archdiocese-run New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries in 2015 stopped allowing most people from freely accessing arguably its most famous burial ground: St. Louis No.1 on Basin Street, within walking distance of the French Quarter. Those who were not immediate family members of people buried there were required to pay an entry fee and purchase a tour from any of the city’s licensed operators, setting visitors back roughly $20.
Catholic Cemeteries then completely closed both St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and, just a couple of blocks away, St. Louis Cemetery No. 2, in the spring of 2020 when the coronavirus began spreading, with the exception of immediate family of those buried there.
It is unclear when either might reopen. But when they do, there will be a significant change, according to the lawsuit from Cook: A company named Cemetery Tours NOLA, owned by French Quarter hotelier Michael Valentino, will be the only operator allowed to offer tours of St. Louis No. 1, at prices higher than $20, following an agreement between Valentino and the archdiocese.
The suit, prepared by attorney David Nance, also expresses concern that the archdiocese plans to keep St. Louis No. 2 closed as a way to funnel as many tourists as possible to St. Louis No. 1.
“(The) scheme will unfairly and unreasonably monopolize trade by excluding all industry participants, other than (the) defendants,” the suit asserted. “Collusive agreements are usually reached in secret, with only the participants having knowledge of the scheme.
“Defendants do not appear to have colluded; their intentions have been relatively open to the industry. It seems likely that defendants have stumbled onto their illegal path. Nevertheless, their scheme is contrary to state law.”
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 was founded in 1789 as “the new city cemetery” when a since-relocated burial ground on St. Peter Street ran out of plots in the wake of a massive fire that destroyed most of New Orleans, a significant flood and a yellow fever epidemic.
With its thousands of above-ground, elaborate mausoleums, vaults and tombs making it the oldest of New Orleans’ surviving “cities of the dead,” St. Louis Cemetery No.1 draws hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. Its proximity to the French Quarter — positioned closer to the city’s historic heart than St. Louis Cemetery No. 2 — means it attracts the vast majority of cemetery tour business in the city.
Witches Brew Tours, which was founded in 2012, didn’t seek any damages. But there still could be millions of dollars in business at stake.
Tourism virtually stopped during the pandemic, but tour guides — who largely ply their trade in the French Quarter and focus on everything from supposedly haunted locales to spots associated with pirates to historic homes — are slowly but steadily returning to commerce.
Witches Brew Tours contends that the church’s decision to close the cemeteries violates a state law that says all “relatives and friends” of people buried at cemeteries have the right to access the burial grounds and maintain their graves.
The company maintains that “friend” is a loose term that should apply to anyone who feels an attachment to someone buried in a cemetery, including historically significant figures such as Laveau.
Witches Brew Tours also contends that St. Louis No. 1 fits the definition of a public cemetery, saying private cemeteries are generally restricted to grounds where only members of the same family are buried.
Additionally, Witches Brew Tours asserts that allowing only one company to give tours at St. Louis No. 1 would amount to price-fixing, which is illegal. The plaintiff seeks an order to restore the public’s access to St. Louis No. 1 as well as to stop the exclusion of any licensed tour guide from going through there.
An archdiocesan spokesperson issued a statement Friday saying, “We are aware of the lawsuit filed in federal court regarding tour operations in St. Louis Cemetery No 1. It is our intent to review the lawsuit and to respond to it through the court.”
Valentino — whose holdings also include the Hop-On Hop-off bus tours — couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Friday on the lawsuit.
The suit was initially allotted to U.S. District Judge Wendy Vitter, though she recused herself. Vitter was the archdiocese’s general counsel from 2012 to 2019, before President Donald Trump appointed her to the bench.
U.S. District Judge Barry Ashe was then assigned to preside over the case.
“Darkness exists because light gives it permission to exist,” photographer Robert S. Brantley said. “Shadows make everything cohesive in my ph…
Although 28 people managed to cram into a Mini Cooper a few years ago to set a new Guinness World Record, I bet even Guinness would be astonis…
This Saturday is the last chance to wander the historic St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 unaccompanied. Beginning March 1, the Archdiocese of New Orle…