By J. L. Starkey
“Find the place inside where there’s joy, and the joy will burn out the pain.”– Joseph Campbell
“…and you see that other one over there? That’s an older lesion. This looks to be a….relapsing remitting form of this disease.” The doctor paused and looked at me.
I turned to my husband, and we just…looked at each other. Well, we knew it before the doctor said it, right? It was a fact now.
There are certain things that put life into perspective very quickly, and hearing “you have multiple sclerosis” just a few months after you’ve turned thirty? Well, that is one of those “certain” things.
The words swirled around us: “…effective treatments…” “…do you have needle phobia?” “…let’s see how you walk…” “…might need to get yourself a cane, honey…”
Instructions, questions, and plans blended together as my mind wandered. Sure, I would start treatment immediately. But inside, my little voice was asking, “What if you can’t walk in a year from now?”
No, that wasn’t going to happen. The odds – and modern medicine – were on my side. Still, there were things we wanted to do right away, much to my doctor’s dismay. In the midst of so much uncertainty, we wanted to celebrate life.
In times of pain and sadness, there is no better place to find your joy again than New Orleans, and our spur-of-the-moment 2002 trip was a great example of that fact. We danced in the street as a performer sang “The Tracks of My Tears” (per my request – he didn’t even want a tip!), we ate too much, we drank too much, and above all, we celebrated life. About the only thing we didn’t do was visit a cemetery, because that would have been depressing, right?
Oh, younger me…how little you knew.
In 2005, just 25 days before Hurricane Katrina would devastate the city, I would learn a thing or two about the magic of New Orleans cemeteries.
Exploring The City of the Dead
Our 2005 trip to New Orleans was different than the one in 2002. No longer uncertain about our future, we knew that life was good. Maybe that was why we decided to visit a cemetery this time. Life was short, and it was time to find out what all the fuss was about!
Built in 1833 as the city’s first planned cemetery (and still in use today), Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 is said “to exude the strongest sense of subtropical gothic” of all New Orleans cemeteries . If you feel a sense of déjà vu when you enter its wrought iron gates, you’re not alone. The cemetery was used to film scenes in Interview with the Vampire, The Originals, and Double Jeopardy. It was even a filming location for the video “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” by NKOTB (don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone if you watch the video right now!). This hallowed ground is said to be the most filmed cemetery in New Orleans. Beautiful, peaceful, and just a bit eerie…Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 has it all.
A depressing place? Not even close.
There are approximately 1,100 family tombs and more than 7,000 people buried in Lafayette No. 1 . Tourists visit the grave of Judge Ferguson (of the landmark Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court Case), or pay their respects to the Ferguson family, who lost three children in just two days during the 1878 Yellow Fever epidemic . Sure, I wanted to see those well-known graves, but the genealogist in me decided to make an appearance when we visited the cemetery.
In 2005, I had not yet discovered the story of my great-great-grandfather Henry Hansen’s disappearance, and I certainly wasn’t looking for family connections in Lafayette Cemetery. But it was New Orleans, after all. A bit of magic is to be expected.
I would later learn that of the almost 10,000 names listed in cemetery records, there were only two spelled “Hansen,” and those two were on the same marker . What were the odds that I would find that marker? Apparently, they were pretty good, because as I explored, I suddenly stopped and stared in amazement at the final resting place of Ivar and Rebecca Hansen.
Family connection, or New Orleans magic?
Ivar Oskar Hansen was born in Norway in 1891 and immigrated to the United States around 1911 . He did not have deep roots in New Orleans; in fact, he didn’t have roots there at all. He originally settled in Milwaukee and raised a family there with his wife, Anna . In May 1951 Anna passed away , and in December of that same year Ivan married New Orleans native Rebecca Minor Columb .
I didn’t know any of those details in 2005, of course. I only knew that it was a neat little coincidence to find a Hansen in this fascinating place. On 6 August 2005, I had prints made of the Hansen grave marker photos, and put the photos aside in a stack of vacation items. I would later learn that the photos were printed exactly 24 years to the day after Ivar’s funeral .
A bit more of that New Orleans magic? I think so.
Curiosity got the best of me earlier this year, and I decided to research this potential Hansen connection. As I learned about Ivar, I wondered how he felt when he married Rebecca. Did he worry that the family would see him as an interloper? He had grown up in Norway, and surely had very little in common with a family that had lived in the deep south for centuries.
Ivar’s bride, Rebecca Minor Colomb, was the daughter of James and Rebekah Gustine (Minor) Colomb . Her family had deep roots in Louisiana and Mississippi. Rebecca was the great-great-granddaughter of Major Henry Chotard, who served as an aide to General Andrew Jackson during the Battle of New Orleans . She was also the great-great-granddaughter of Stephen “Don Estevan” Minor, the first president of the Bank of Mississippi, and she was the great-granddaughter of William Minor, plantation owner and – wait a minute – Union sympathizer ?
It was true. Ivar had married into a family that was just a few generations removed from southern royalty, and filled with stories of rebellion and risk. A Google search of the “Minor” surname will lead to a wealth of documents housed at places such as Louisiana State University and the Library of Congress.
In society terms, Ivar “married up” when he married Rebecca.
I wondered if Ivar knew any of these details. Much has been written about the Minors in recent years, but did Rebecca ever tell her husband about her family history?
Two names on a headstone in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 led me down an ancestral rabbit hole, despite the fact that I had no connection to those names. I am holding out hope, however, since both surnames (and a few common locations) can be found in my family tree. It would be amazing to find a connection to the family that I discovered on that August day, 25 days before the hurricane.
Yes, there is magic in New Orleans. There is a reason that one can find joy there, even during times of pain. For just a few hours, as we explored the city of the dead that day in August 2005, we remembered the past, and we marveled at the magic all around us.
- “Lafayette Cemetery No 1,” Lonely Planet website, retrieved from https://www.lonelyplanet.com/usa/new-orleans/attractions/lafayette-cemetery-no-1/a/poi-sig/381595/362207.
- “Lafayette Cemetery No. 1,” Cemeteries of New Orleans, www.saveourcemeteries.org. Retrieved from https://www.saveourcemeteries.org/cemeteries/cemeteries/lafayette-cemetery-no-1.html.
- “The Lafayette Cemetery #1 in New Orleans,” retrieved from https://freetoursbyfoot.com/lafayette-cemetery-1-new-orleans/.
- “Ferguson,” Times-Picayune, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1 Sep 1878, p. 6, col. 3. Retrieved from genealogybank.com.
- Lafayette Cemetery # 1, Interment.net Cemetery Records Online, http://www.interment.net/data/us/la/orleans/lafayette/lafayette.htm.
- National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; Roll #: 2108; Volume #: Roll 2108 – Certificates: 221850-222225, 28 Sep 1922-30 Sep 1922. Retrieved from ancestry.com.
- 1940 United States Federal Census, Milwaukee, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Roll: m-t0627-04565; Page: 12A; Enumeration District: 72-570. Retrieved from ancestry.com.
- Ancestry.com. U.S., Find A Grave Index, 1600s-Current [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012. (See also: “Hansen,” Milwaukee Journal, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 29 May 1951, p. 17, col. 2. Retrieved from genealogybank.com.)
- Hansen, Ivar, Marriage Records Index, State of Louisiana, Secretary of State, Division of Archives, Records Management and History. Vital Records Indices. Baton Rouge, LA, USA. Retrieved from ancestry.com.
- “Hansen,” Times-Picayune, New Orleans, Louisiana, 5 Aug 1981, p. 21, col. 4. Retrieved from genealogybank.com.
- 1920 United States Federal Census, New Orleans Ward 14, Orleans, Louisiana; Roll: T625_624; Page: 3A; Enumeration District: 244. Retrieved from ancestry.com. (See also: Times-Picayune, New Orleans, Louisiana, 3 Jan 1952, p. 31, col. 1. Retrieved from genealogybank.com.)
- Chotard, Henry. Henry Chotard. 1814. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/maj004097/>. (See also: Henry Chotard Collection, Louisiana State Historical Center.)
- William J. Minor and Family Papers, Mss. 519, 594, Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, LA. (See also: Sitterson, J. Carlyle. “The Transition from Slave to Free Economy on the William J. Minor Plantations.” Agricultural History, vol. 17, no. 4, 1943, pp. 216–224. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3739528.)