An excerpt from the book, Spirits of the Bayou: Sanctuaries, Cemeteries and Hauntings
Often times it is the small towns that harbor the deepest histories, and so it is in the case of Madisonville, Louisiana. Stories from long ago still abound, curated by generations of locals who refuse to let them die. Some are national heroes, while others are everyday people struggling to raise a family. There is no better place to start following the town’s decades of celebrations and tragedies than the Madisonville #1 Cemetery.
The town of Madisonville rests on the historic Tchefuncte River, just two miles from its junction with Lake Pontchartrain. It was once an industrious location between New Orleans and the vast wilderness of piney woods and cypress forests. In the late eighteenth century, the Pontchartrain Basin became a mecca for trading and a popular resort area. Ports, shipyards, brick kilns and lumberyards filled the shores, offering a well-traveled water network.
Madisonville owns a treasure trove of history and artifacts, including sunken boats and ships laying inside a watery grave on the bottom of the river. At the turn of the river resides the cemetery, home to several unmarked graves, lost souls with stories waiting to be told.
On the sharp curve of Main Street, the cemetery is tucked away next to what locals call the haunted oak tree. Its oldest burial on record is 1819, and the combined efforts of the cemetery group have garnered the attention of historians. In March 2015, the Daughters of the American Colonist placed a plaque near the entrance proclaiming the Madisonville Cemetery as historic.
And then there are the folk heroes, like the Rousseau family, their story repeated by multiple generations. Those familiar with the Rousseau family tragedy still mourn the passing of Leona Rousseau and her family as if it happened yesterday. It was March 19, 1933 and Oleus Rousseau, his wife and three children, accompanied Stella Rousseau Koepp, Oleus’ sister, to visit family in Madisonville and lay flowers on Ms. Koepp’s late husband’s grave. The Rousseau family lived in New Orleans, and the children and family were very excited about making the trip.
A newspaper article quoted Mrs. Fanny Goldman, manager of the New Orleans rooming house where the family was living. “They seemed so happy,” she said. “The children especially. They had been looking forward to the trip for days.”
Leona Rousseau, age 29 years old, was at the wheel. Inside the car was her husband, sister-in-law and her three children; Agnes June, age 10; Muriel, age 8; and Rodney, 4 months old.
In 1933 there was no bridge across Tchefuncte River, only a pull ferry that carried cars. The car proceeded down the incline to the river’s edge to board the ferry. It was moving at a rapid speed and some surmise that Mrs. Rousseau hit the accelerator rather than the brake. The car crashed through the barrier, and according to the paper, teetered on the edge momentarily before plunging into twenty feet of water.
Mr. Rousseau and Mrs. Koepp jumped from the automobile into the water during that brief suspension at the edge of the ferry, and Mr. and Mrs. Marshall Badeaux rescued the two from the water. Ten minutes later witnesses began pulling out the five bodies trapped in the sedan, and although a doctor and several volunteers applied artificial respiration for more than an hour, there was no response, and the victims died.
The grave sits in the corner of the cemetery, near the bend of the road and a large weeping oak. Tales of hauntings near the cemetery include a woman walking along the gravel road, dripping wet, and wandering inside the shadows of the night. Many believe it is the ghost of Leona Rousseau looking for her children.
Family relatives who reported shortly after the tragedy that Oleus Rousseau, husband and father, was so stricken with grief, he disappeared and they never heard from him again nor found his whereabouts.
St. Tammany Parish Tourist & Convention Commission, 800-634-9443, www.louisiananorthshore.com
Town of Madisonville, 985-845-7311, www.townofmadisonville.org