Casket Girls

Faculty-Student Mentorship Program Sponsored by the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Utah State University

A legend exists in New Orleans that the top floor of the famous Ursuline convent housed female vampires in the eighteenth century who would roam the streets at night, seducing young men, and exsanguinating them.  Most Big Easy ghost tours stop at the Ursuline convent to point out that the storm shutters on the top floor are bolted shut on the outside with thick, silver (likely iron) nails – a measure done to keep the female vampires inside and under the close supervision of the church.  This story excites visitors to the city.  But, what truth does this vampiress lore hold? Who were these women that were housed int he Ursuline convent and why did people assume they were vampires?

Known as filles de cassette (casket girls), the Ursuline convent provided temporary housing for French women in the first quarter of the eighteenth century who were sent to the city in order to marry French bachelors.  In 1720, the Louisiana colony faced a large barrier to population growth: the lack of marriage-age, eligible women.  To rectify this, the French state sent young women to the Louisiana colony where they were expected to marry French men and birth the next generation of colonial subjects. Initially, the French crown solicited volunteers to this project, promising girls who moved to Louisiana a new wardrobe, a dowry, and a husband.  But, with few volunteers, unemployed women were forcibly migrated to the Louisiana colony.  These young women became known as casket girls for the wardrobe trunks they carried. As census records indicate, the women sent to New Orleans were housed in the Ursuline convent.  Having survived several months at sea, often with little to eat, the women were noticeably pale, gaunt, and usually suffering from scurvy or tuberculosis.  Perhaps their ailments and ghastly appearance helped create the myth of vampires living in the convent.

Casket girls are interesting not only for the vampire legend, but also because of the supposed demographic impact they had on Louisiana’s population.  According to overall census record numbers, with the introduction of casket girls to the Louisiana colony, the population increased ten-fold in ten years.  But other than the bulk numbers, we know remarkably little about how exactly casket girls effected the population of Louisiana.  How many children did they have? How many times did they marry? Where did they move? What ere their survival and mortality rates?  Using census records, marriage records, birth records, tax rolls, and other parish documents, I will chart the growth of French Louisiana’s casket girls and their families from 1720 to 1745.

In order to do this, I need to create several databases and GIS visualizations.  Over the summer, my undergraduate assistant Arie French will work with me to input and analyze data from these sources – such as name, age, occupation, marital status, children, and address – for each casket girl. Using Filemaker Pro and Microsoft Excel, in the first week of July Arie and I will build a database.  I anticipate that database construction will account for about 50 hours of work. By mid-July, we can analyze the data together (60-75 hours).  Using a GIS platform, we will map the diaspora of these women and their families across the Louisiana colony. The remaining 25-40 hours will be spent writing a short analytical report. This data and report will help us construct an article about the success or failure of the relatively unknown French crown’s casket girl pronatalist policy.  This article provides information about casket girls, but also showcases new uses of digital methodologies to demographic and social history.

This program helps me bridge the gap between teaching and research, bringing both into contact with one another.  Generous funding from CHaSS has given me the usefulness of a summer research assistant and Arie the opportunity to conduct research.  Additionally, Arie will see a project through from the idea’s inception, to research, analysis, writing, presentation, and publication as a result.  Since Arie wants to pursue a career in academia, this will serve him well in the future.