The Grisly Tale of the Sultan's Brother

The National Herald Archive

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Survey photo by Richard Koch)

I grew up in the northernmost neighborhood of Chicago. Not a place one would suspect of hearing about Koutsovlachs, Slavs, long-barreled Albanian rifles carefully wrapped in kid-skins so its metal-work would not be reflected in the sun, Turkish women in veils, and pitched mountaintop battles against Ottoman forces. So, while among my extended family and their close circle of friends such tales were commonly told (or sung) I never heard of any such individuals or peoples among the Americans I walked among every day.

It never occurred to me, until quite recently, that Americans might have their own tales and legends of these very same peoples who once hailed from those same mountain peaks. And just as now, I am not so very certain that every tale I was ever told is based on real events. While I believe that many of these American tales are based on fact and even the reports of eye-witnesses, some might well be exaggerated fancies simply told to frighten children.

One such American-tale has seen publication many, many times. So, well-known is this horrific account that not only is its published in newspapers and at irregular intervals in books but is a tale told by many a tourist-guide as they visit the actual scene of this alleged monstrous catastrophe. In its present published form this tale appears in Legends of Louisiana: The Romance of the Royal Oak: The brother of the Sultan, by Helen Pitkin Schertz (1877-ca 1971) (New Orleans: New Orleans Journal, 1922). I will let future researchers determine the truth or fancy on which this account of the Sultan's Palace is now rendered.

The core of Schertz's account is as follows: “In 1792, a mysterious, rich man sailed into the New Orleans harbor and rented the Gardette-LePrete house, which was the most beautiful home in the city at the time. Since nobody knew the foreigner’s name or his background, the local gossips speculated amongst each other. It was whispered that the man was probably from somewhere in the Ottoman Empire, and was either himself a Turkish sultan or the brother to the sultan. So they started referring to the mansion as the Sultan’s palace.

“The Sultan had a large entourage and seemed to have endless supply of money to support everyone. He moved his servants, harem, and eunuchs into the mansion. He decorated his surroundings with luxurious furniture and opulent rugs. Although this stranger was not exactly laying low, he seemed to be paranoid about some impending danger because he added bars to the windows and hired guards to regularly patrol the house.

“The Sultan hosted extravagant parties at his house complete with loud music and strong incense. The morning after one of these parties, neighbors thought the house was eerily quiet. When the milk cart tried to make its daily delivery, no one answered.

Local authorities became concerned and decided to break in. When they smashed through the front door, people found the almost decapitated body of the Sultan on a couch and the corpses of five young women from his harem posed around him.

No one ever discovered who committed the crime. But locals suspected it was either pirates who robbed the richly furnished mansion and killed all the witnesses, or the sultan’s brother sent assassins to avenge some unknown transgression.”

As stunning as this story of 37 mutilated men, women, eunuchs and boys may be there is no evidence of any type that substantiates any part of it. This has never stopped this tale from being retold over the generations. True, some aspects of the tale are different from one account to another. One striking motif that is continually changed from one account to another is the manner in which the 'Sultan's brother' is ultimately found. The most gruesome twist I have yet read is that the Sultan's brother was found buried alive. With only his frozen grasping hand marking his impromptu grave in the mansions courtyard.

It must be always be remembered that the house in which the activities of the Sultan's brother took place actually exists. The Gardette-LePrete building stands squarely in the French Quarter and is even listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. “The Gardette-LePrete house was named after the man who built the home, Joseph Coulon Gardette, and the man he sold it to, Jean Baptiste LePrete. Gardette purchased the land on which the house was built in 1836 then sold it to LePrete in 1839. That means the mansion was not standing in 1792, when the events in the above story were supposed to have taken place. Also, there are no records of a brutal murder, like the one described above, happening in New Orleans about this time (”

Aside from published accounts and endless local retellings of this story among New Orleans residents, television programs have appeared over the years repeating (in various versions) this tale of the 'Sultan's Massacre House.' In keeping with the advancements in technology various videos on Youtube also report upon this legend. Now while the house at 716 Dauphine Street in the French Quarter still exists this tale is utterly dismissed by historians and many well-informed locals. The origins of this tale have even been charted: 'Schertz’s legend of 'The Brother of the Sultan' is based on the story from Gayarre’s, History of Louisiana. Schertz changed the dates and made the setting for her murder the Gardette-LePrete house.

The earliest version of this legend that I can find comes from a chapter in History of Louisiana by Charles Gayarre, published in 1866, about the origins of a date tree known as the “Tree of the Dead.” This date tree was on the corner of Dauphine and Orleans Streets, which is, coincidentally, where the Gardette-LePrete mansion is located. But this story never names the house or its owner. It simply refers to it as “a small but comfortable house with a pretty garden, then existing at the corner of Orleans and Dauphine streets (”

Known today as the Le Prete Mansion this tall structure on the corner of Dauphine and Orleans Streets is among the most photographed structures in the French Quarter. The century-old building with its high basement and exquisite cast-iron balconies is now of the most admired houses in the old section. Jean Baptiste Le Prete's family occupied the house almost half a century before it was taken over by the Citizen's Bank. Ownership of this French Quarter landmark changed a number of times. At one point it was turned into residence hall for students and then into an apartment building.

But there is one last twist to this tale. Residents of Gardette-LePrete house have reported paranormal activity throughout the 20th century. “There are several events that still occur in the sultan's brother's 'palace,' all of them directly related to the brutal massacre. Often, tenants hear the faint sound of music from the Orient in the air, even when there’s no one to play it. There have also been numerous reports of phantom footsteps and the sounds of parties, as well as sightings of many of the Sultan’s entourage moving from room to room. All that would be enough, but there are two other things that still happen that earn the old building the dubious distinction of being one of the more frightening places in the world.

The first is the apparition of the Sultan himself, the fair-haired Turk who has been known to zip in and out of lodger’s rooms unannounced. He disappears just as quickly, and have given many the impression that he’s watching them, possibly to add to his harem. The other phenomenon is also the most terrifying. The sounds of screams have pierced the night and darkness, as if the slaughter were still happening (”

No origin point exists for this tale. Yet here we find what must be one of the very first ghost stories involving a Turk in North America. How many other such legends exist for peoples hailing from the Balkans and the Eastern Levant?