New Orleans is a town steeped in ghost stories, with centuries of slavery, prostitution, piracy and murder coloring the pasts of many of the city’s historic homes, bars and hotels. And when the owners of Sylvain—whose own 18th-century French Quarter building has its share of mysterious happenings—began to renovate the historic Cockerton House to open sister restaurant Cavan, strange things began happening immediately.
Isaiah Estell, Cavan’s bar director and sommelier, recalls the inexplicable events—and one particularly haunting evening in May not long after the restaurant’s opening. “Things started to happen pretty much as soon as we started working on the place,” Estell says. “Right away we hooked up motion sensors, and before we were even open we all kept getting calls at 3 a.m. almost every night about a motion detector going off—but not downstairs, only upstairs, which presents a logistical problem since you’d have to pass by the sensor downstairs to get upstairs.”
Estell says that most of the activity has happened in that part of the house—upstairs in the back, above what would have been the servants’ quarters and staircase. Cavan uses the space for restrooms, wine storage and a small pastry kitchen. The bathroom doors, which have slider locks, would become locked from the inside. And Estell and others would often smell a strong burning smell. “I would open the door to my little wine room and be hit in the face with such a powerful burning smell that you would think something was on fire,” he says. “I went over to the pastry kitchen assuming that’s where it was coming from, and the door slammed itself open and immediately the smell went away. That happened a couple of times.”
Then one evening Estell’s girlfriend came to the restaurant visibly upset and wanting to know why every time she called his phone a woman answered. “She said she called three or four times, and every time a woman picked up and said, ‘Isaiah can’t talk to you,’ and hung up,” he recounts. “And I said that no one had answered my phone; it had been in my pocket all night, and in fact the battery had been dead for a few hours.”
She waited at the restaurant until Estell and his head bartender, Sean Zapotosky, closed for the evening. The three went outside together, and while they stood in the parking lot, her phone began to ring. The caller ID showed that Estell was calling her, but he took his phone out of his pocket to confirm that it was still turned off, battery dead. “I answered the call, and it wasn’t on speaker but it was extremely loud, like a megaphone,” he says. “And we heard a voice that sounded like someone speaking backwards on a loop, like an incantation or something, and it was just booming out of the phone. We could only take it for a few seconds and we shut the phone off.”
Sufficiently spooked, they all left for the night. “When I got to work the next day, Sean pulled me aside and asked if we knew what the voice had been saying, and I said I honestly couldn’t tell. But Sean says he was pretty sure the voice was saying, ‘Don’t look at my face.’ ”
Details surrounding the history of the house are vague. Built in 1881 by Edward James Cockerton, it was later occupied by New Orleans police superintendent Frank Mooney and his family from 1911 to 1953. But any notions about tragic events that might have occurred remain speculation. However, on the same evening as the mysterious phone call, the monsignor of the local diocese, Father Nalty, had dined in the restaurant for the first time. “On his way out he turned around and said to the host, ‘When you need me to exorcise this building, just let me know.’ ”
Father Nalty did ultimately return to bless the building. And both Sylvain and Cavan have permanent shrines on the top shelf of the bar with candles, sage and a spirit offering. At Sylvain, they offer either rye whiskey or a Sazerac, and at Cavan they appease the ghosts with gin. “We keep those pretty fresh, just as an offering,” Estell says. “But the glasses go empty, so it does require refilling on a fairly regular basis.”