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The Creepy History and Haunting of America’s First Pharmacy

There are many haunted places in the world, from houses, to abandoned buildings, castles, to even roads and pretty much every structure you can imagine. Such places have accrued all manner of lore around them, defying our efforts to understand them and sitting firmly in the world of the paranormal. On occasion we get stories and lore surrounding some pretty interesting places, and one of these is a haunting and dark history swirling about a pharmacy, indeed America’s first pharmacy. Here we have strange history, dark happenings, and an eerie, sinister haunting surrounding an important historical place.

In the early 1800s, the pharmacies we take for granted today were a much different place than what we know. Before actual licensing was required to run a pharmacy in 1804, there were no agreed upon standardized treatments, no real oversight, and these were basically apothecaries filled with all manner of strange and questionable pills, ointments, salves, tonics, and countless ingredients ranging from minerals and herbs and powders to animal or insect parts, all touted as cure-alls for every ailment you could imagine. To walk into a pharmacy at the time would have been not much different than what one might imagine entering a Voodoo shop might be like today, and the treatments doled out were by today’s standards quite primitive and eyebrow raising. If you had syphilis you might be given arsenic or mercury. Does your baby have an ache or pain? Try alcohol or cocaine. Going to a pharmacy in that day and age you might be prescribed leeches, opium, laudanum, heroin, or any number of other questionable things that could be bought over the counter and make everything even worse, but this was the days before modern medicine, and medical knowledge of the human body and things like viruses and germs were in their infancy.

It was not until 1804 that the first attempts were tentatively made to try to  standardize the way pharmacies were run and medical treatments, with the then booming, rapidly growing city of New Orleans, Louisiana, being the first to pass laws to this effect. A system was put into place that required these establishments to have mandatory licenses and adhere to more modern treatments keeping in line with developing science, and the first person to ever receive one of these licenses in America was a French immigrant by the name of Louis Dufilho Jr. in 1816, after which he would open his own pharmacy in the French Quarter in 1823. This was in the midst of a scourge of deadly yellow fever at the time, which was ravaging the city at a rapid and unstoppable pace, and after the disease killed his own brother, Dufilho developed the pioneering treatment of quinine. His humble operation would eventually move to a spacious townhouse on Chartres Street, and he offered not only medicines, but also had a fully functioning soda fountain, a general store, and even a post office. His outfit the talk of the town, he was very successful, and paved the way to many groundbreaking medical treatments, but in 1855 he retired from the business and returned to France, selling his establishment to a physician and pharmacist by the name of Dr. Joseph Dupas, and this is where the story of America’s first pharmacy takes a sinister turn.

Louis Dufilho Jr.

Dupas would prove to not be nearly as popular or charismatic as Dufilho had been, and there was also the fact that strange rumors began to swirl almost as soon as he moved in. The first thing people were talking about was that the medicines on offer were different. Rather than the cutting edge treatments Duhilho had been dispensing, it seemed as though the pharmacy had devolved back into strange concoctions and even cocaine and heroin, with many of Dupa’s treatments being ineffectual at best and making people very sick at worst. Before long there were rumors that Dupas was using Voodoo recipes and even performing black magic rituals in his home, and then there was the talk of secret experiments going on behind closed doors. It was said that Dupas was carrying out cruel medical experiments on the unsuspecting, subjecting them to new, medieval style devices, electric shocks, and surgeries, and these people were also supposedly used as guinea pigs for new medicines.

One of the more sinister tales that made the rounds at the time was that Dupa was kidnapping pregnant slave girls and subjecting them to treatments to see what would happen to their babies, many of which allegedly died or were born with horrific birth defects. Dupas was said to then dispose of the bodies of these babies, the mothers, or both, and there were those who swore they had seen him going about moving mysterious sacks or caskets in the dark hours of night. He was also rumored to use a sophisticated chute and trap door system to move the bodies to a waiting carriage, which would then speed the corpses off to be dumped in the nearby swamps. There were also numerous tales of customers entering the pharmacy to never be seen again, and while this was all long in the realms of rumors and near urban legend, when Dupas died of syphilis in 1867 there were found many human corpses buried on the property. To this day, it is unknown just how many people died at the hands of Dr. Dupa, or just how many of the rumors were true. You might be wondering right about now if the place is haunted, and yes it is, very much so.

The Pharmacy Museum today

The building, which would go on to be bought by the city of New Orleans and turned into the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, has been said to be haunted for years. One of the most commonly reported apparitions is that of none other than Dr. Dupas himself, said to wander about on the second floor wearing a lab coat or brown suit, and he is said to poke, push, or nudge staff and visitors. Another ghost roaming the building is a young unidentified woman who lurks by the fountain at the back of the courtyard, and there are also ghostly children seen running about, as well as the eerie disembodied crying of babies. Other paranormal activity reported from here are display cases or cabinets that open by themselves, display items that rearrange themselves even as they are locked away, and also a burglar alarm that frequently goes off when no one is there and for no discernible reason, despite being examined and checked to find it is in perfect working order. A bit more unsettling are reports from pregnant women visiting the premises, who often complain of sudden abdominal pains or cramps when passing through the area where Dupas was said to perform his morbid experiments and which today rather fittingly displays old timey vintage obstetrical instruments and gynecology tools.

The museum is open to visitors to this day, and whether it is really haunted or not it certainly seems to be a creepy place to walk through. Here visitors are treated to the sight of rows and rows of antique medical equipment, as well as various vintage pharmacy tools, hypodermic needles, bloodletting tools, devices with purposes that are often hard to guess at, countless glass bottles, vials, and beakers filled with old fashioned medicines, jars with pickled leeches or other less identifiable things, and much more. If it isn’t haunted, it certainly feels like it should be, and considering the rather grim past of this place it is not too hard to imagine that it is. Has something managed to infuse itself into this place or is this all just spooky stories? The only way to find out might just be to take a visit yourself. Send me a postcard.