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The Legend of 'The Fatal Sisters'

An abandoned plantation in Opelousas

In the days before the Civil War, the De Coucy family name known all throughout Louisiana. It was a name synonymous with wealth and influence, and it was a De Coucy who owned the famous Magnolia Plantation (not to be confused with the plantation in Natchitoches Parish of the same name) along with two other sugar plantations of considerable size not far from the city of Opelousas. 

According to Louisiana legend, De Coucy was young, wealthy and full of lust when he decided to take for a mistress the favorite grandchild of Marie Lavon, the infamous Voodoo priestess who died in 1880. She became enraged when she learned that her black granddaughter had entered into a salacious relationship with a wealthy white man like De Coucy, and-- as Voodoo priestesses are wont to do-- she placed a curse on the plantation owner.

The voodoo queen's curse was of the standard variety; he would have no male heirs and the family name would end with his children. De Coucy laughed when he learned about the curse. He was married and had three daughters, who have come to be known in Louisiana legend as "The Fatal Sisters".

The last of the sisters died in San Francisco in early 1882, garnering a brief note in the February 16 edition of the New Orleans Picayune:

Died, in San Francisco, February 3, Madame Joan Maria Bienvenu, the last of the fatal sisters.

The simple newspaper announcement led to a renewed interest in the De Coucy legend; and as the story became known from coast to coast various embellishments and exaggerations have been added, so it's difficult to pinpoint exactly which parts of the story are fact and which are fiction.

Thre are many details most Louisianans agree upon, however. De Coucy had three daughters, Louise, Celeste and Joan, who were the belles of St. Landry Parish and who attracted male suitors from as far away as New Orleans and Mobile.

Upon the death of Mr. De Coucy, who willed to his daughters the entirety of his wealth, the young women became fixtures of Southern high society. Yet they were every bit as reckless as they were rich and beautiful, buying every luxury that the finest stores and boutiques had to offer.

Madame Lavon's curse was nearly forgotten by the time the oldest daughter, Louise, married a doctor from Mobile by the name of Hunt. Shortly after their honeymoon, the couple attended a ball in Mobile where Louise ran into one of her former suitors. Dr. Hunt, inflamed with jealousy, challenged the young man to a duel. Dr. Hunt was killed.

The following year, Celeste De Coucy married Col. John Forsythe, Jr., who was the son of the famous journalist and editor of the Mobile Register. Like Dr. Hunt, Forsythe proved to be a jealous husband, and he was said to have been quite stern with Celeste, who was perhaps the most carefree of De Coucy's children. Celeste was a natural born flirt and a free spirit, and her name was frequently brought up in local gossip, much to Col. Forsythe's anguish. When it became evident that many of the illicit rumors surrounding Celeste's infidelity turned out to be true, Forsythe committed suicide.

John Forsythe, Sr. was so bitter over his son's premature demise that he personally wrote a story for the Mobile Register about the event, under the headline: Killed by His Wife.

In his scathing article, Forsythe denounced the De Coucy sisters, and predicted that a similar tragic fate awaited the third and youngest sister, Joan Marie, who was said to be the most vain, spoiled and beautiful of them all.

Joan Marie married Edouard Bienvenu, a wealthy and handsome young Creole from New Orleans. After a few short months of marriage she grew bored, and entertained herself by continuing her flirtations with her former flames. In February of 1874, during the Mardi Gras festival, Joan Marie was in the conservatory of the ballroom of the Mystic Krewe society flirting up a storm with a lawyer named Phillips when Bienvenu entered the room and caught the pair in a lover's embrace.

As Bienvenu stormed over to his wife and her lover his eyes flashed with rage. Joan Marie began to stand up, but the Creole ordered her to keep her seat. He said, with a grim smile, that she should carry on, for he had only come into the conservatory to smoke a cigarette. He offered one to Phillips, and as he lit the lawyer's cigarette he said, "By the way, Phillips, I am going on a little excursion tomorrow to Bay St. Louis."

This caught the lawyer's attention, as Bay St. Louis was famed as a dueling ground where rivals settled their differences.

"I shall take a friend with me and I shall be happy to have your company on the trip. Bring a friend with you," added Bienvenu, offering perhaps the most polite challenge of a duel in American history.

"I take pleasure in joining your party," Phillips replied bravely. "What train do you intend to go on?" Bienvenu replied that he would be taking the noon train to Bay St. Louis.

"I will meet you on the train then," said the lawyer with a nervous smile.

The two rivals finished their cigarettes and returned to the ball, but one of the witnesses-- who happened to be a reporter for the New Orleans Picayune-- overheard the seemingly casual conversation understood that the men had agreed to a fight to the death. Word of the planned duel spread and Phillips and Bienvenu were arrested the following day. The duel would have to wait.

The men had to wait until April 3, 1874 to settle the score. On that day a large crowd had assembled at the dueling grounds in order to witness the event. Both participants fired off clean shots, but only one of the lead balls had found its mark. Edouard Bienvenu fell, dying before his body hit the ground, unable to gasp a dying last word. The victor tossed his smoking pistol to the ground and walked away, and was never seen again in Louisiana. According to rumor, he had fled to San Francisco.

In the summer of 1874 Joan Marie arrived in San Francisco, where she lived out the remainder of her life under an assumed name. Whether or not she ever reunited with Phillips remains a mystery, though many believe that she and Phillips eventually married.

Whether Marie Lavon's curse was real or not, all three husbands of "The Fatal Sisters" had died violent deaths shortly after exchanging marriage vows, leaving behind no children to carry on the De Coucy bloodline.

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