The Tree of the Dead
The actual story BY CHARLES GAYARRE From History of Louisiana (1866)
In a lot situated at the corner of Orleans and Dauphine Streets, in the city of New Orleans, there is a tree which nobody looks at without curiosity and without wondering how it came there. For a long time it was the only one of its kind known in the state, and from its isolated position it has always been cursed with sterility. It reminds one of the warm climes of Africa or Asia, and wears the aspect of a stranger of distinction driven from his native country. Indeed, with its sharp and thin foliage, sighing mournfully under the blast of one of our November northern winds, it looks as sorrowful as an exile. Its enormous trunk is nothing but an agglomeration of knots and bumps, which each passing year seems to have deposited there as a mark of age, and as a protection against the blows of time and of the world. Inquire for its origin, and every one will tell you that it has stood there from time immemorial. A sort of vague but impressive mystery is attached to it, and it is as superstitiously respected as one of the old oaks of Dodona. Bold would be the axe that should strike the first blow at that foreign patriarch ; and if it were prostrated to the ground by a profane hand, what native of the city would not mourn over its fall, and brand the act as an unnatural and criminal deed? So, long live the date-tree of Orleans Street — that time-honored descendant of Asiatic ancestors !
In the beginning of 1727, a French vessel of war landed at New Orleans a man of haughty mien, who wore the Turkish dress, and whose whole attendance was a single servant. He was received by the governor with the highest distinction, and was conducted by him to a small but comfortable house with a pretty garden, then existing at the corner of Orleans and Dauphine Streets, and which, from the circumstance of its being so distant from other dwellings, might have been called a rural retreat, although situated in the limits of the city. There the stranger, who was understood to be a prisoner of state, lived in the greatest seclusion ; and although neither he nor his attendant could be guilty of indiscretion, because none understood their language, and although Governor Perier severely rebuked the slightest inquiry, yet it seemed to be the settled conviction in Louisiana, that the mysterious stranger was a brother of the Sultan, or some great personage of the Ottoman Empire, who had fled from the anger of the vice- regent of Mohammed, and who had taken refuge in France. The Sultan had peremptorily demanded the fugitive, and the French government thinking it derogatory to its dignity to comply with that request, but at the same time not wishing to expose its friendly relations with the Moslem monarch, and perhaps desiring, for political purposes, to keep in hostage the important guest it had in its hands, had recourse to the expedient of answering that he had fled to Louisiana, which was so distant a country that it might be looked upon as the grave, where, as it was suggested, the fugitive might be suffered to wait in peace for actual death, without danger or offence to the Sultan. Whether this story be true or not is now a matter of so little consequence that it would not repay the trouble of a strict historical investigation.
The year 1727 was drawing to its close, when on a dark, stormy night the howling and barking of the numerous dogs in the streets of New Orleans were observed to be fiercer than usual, and some of that class of individuals who pretend to know everything, declared that, by the vivid flashes of the lightning, they had seen, swiftly and stealthily gliding toward the residence of the unknown, a body of men who wore the scowling appearance of malefactors and ministers of blood. There afterward came also a report that a piratical-looking Turkish vessel had been hovering a few days previous in the bay of Barataria. Be it as it may, on the next morning the house of the stranger was deserted. There were no traces of mortal struggle to be seen ; but in the garden the earth had been dug, and there was the unmistakable indication of a recent grave. Soon, however, all doubts were removed by the finding of an inscription in Arabic characters, engraved on a marble tablet, which was subsequently sent to France. It ran thus: “The justice of Heaven is satisfied, and the date-tree shall grow on the traitor’s tomb. The sublime Emperor of the faithful, the supporter of the faith, the omnipotent master and Sultan of the world, has redeemed his vow. God is great, and Mohammed is his prophet. Allah!” Some time after this event, a foreign-looking tree was seen to peep out of the spot where a corpse must have been deposited in that stormy night, when the rage of the elements yielded to the pitiless fury of man, and it thus explained in some degree this part of the inscription, “the date- tree shall grow on the traitor’s grave.”
Who was he, or what had he done, who had provoked such relent less and far-seeking revenge? Ask Nemesis, or — at that hour when evil spirits are allowed to roam over the earth, and magical invocations are made — go and interrogate the tree of the dead.