- Education and Science»
- History & Archaeology»
- History of the Modern Era
Mad Madame LaLaurie
This one is not for the easily disturbed, the faint of heart, or anyone who happens to be surfing the web while home alone in the wee hours of the morning. The legends surrounding Madame LaLaurie, though steeped in history, are a little bit terrifying and a whole lot morbid. Unlike many of the other subjects that typically catch my attention, the tales of Madame LaLaurie are not rare knowledge. In fact, most people who have ever set foot in New Orleans have at the very least heard her name. However, most of these stories do not take into account the actual history of her life, which I will try to include her. I find her tale fascinating and I hope that you will as well. Now that you have been warned about its nature, I will jump right into the tale.
The Beginnings of the Legend
Madame LaLaurie was born Delphine McCarty around 1775. Although recordkeeping during this time was very poor and many of the records that were kept have been washed away in hurricanes and other natural disasters throughout the years, most of the available sources do corroborate this date. Delphine's family were wealthy Creoles (her father's family had emigrated from Ireland in past years) who quickly worked their way into the highest social circles of New Orleans. As she grew into adulthood, Delphine is said to have been admired for her beauty and grace. She married the first of her three husbands in June of 1800. According to the legends, Madame LaLaurie's first husband died suddenly and without cause. Her second husband is said to have simply disappeared; although some accounts also say that he too died suddenly.
The legend of Madame LaLaurie really begins with her marriage to her third husband, a young doctor named Leonard Louis Nicolas LaLaurie. After the marriage, the couple built their mansion at 1140 Royal Street in New Orleans and began to throw opulent parties, entertaining the local celebrities multiple times per week. These parties were exclusive and invitations were coveted. The LaLaurie duo seemed to be unstoppable social forces. However, soon after the marriage and the construction of the LaLaurie Mansion, people began to have some concerns about the health and well being of the LaLaurie's slaves. Accounts say that the slaves seemed to be very thin and constantly in a state of extreme fear, especially when they were near the LaLaurie couple.
Although some people reported seeing the LaLauries speaking harshly to their slaves. One neighbor even reported that the LaLauries were keeping slaves chained up in their attic. However, this was not overly alarming at the time and concerns for the LaLaurie slaves were quickly swept away by accounts from regular party attendants who claimed that Madame LaLaurie was actually very indulgent. Some people recalled that when there was a small amount of wine left over in a glass or some leftover food from the many banquets and dinner parties, Delphine would offer it to a nearby slave and generally offered many kind words to them as they partook in these offerings. Others pointed out that the LaLaurie coachman, a black male slave of the LaLaurie family, was a huge behemoth of a man who was always well dressed. Other people wrote off the reports of cruelty as lies told by the Americans that were meant to discredit the Creoles and paint them as barbarians.
As rumors of extreme cruelty spread, a wealthy white lawyer who lived near the LaLaurie Mansion sent his Creole servant to check on the state of affairs in the LaLaurie household. The servant had specific instructions to remind Madame LaLaurie of the local laws regarding the fair treatment of slaves and report any apparent breach of the law to his master. However, when the servant returned from his expedition, he was so enamored with Delphine that he told his boss she was in no way capable of any kind of cruelty. For a time, all suspicion ended.
The First Inklings of Violence
In 1833, the first true evidence of Delphine's brutality was witnessed. According to the legend, Delphine was seen chasing a very young slave girl named Leah or Lia around her mansion brandishing a bullwhip and screaming obscenities at her. The outburst was reportedly due to the fact that the young slave girl had caught a tangle in the comb while brushing through Delphine's hair. Delphine supposedly went wild at this moment. Trying to escape the whip, the slave girl somehow ended up on the roof and was last seen falling into the courtyard with a resounding thud. Some versions of this legend say that Delphine shoved the young girl purposely while others say that she simply fell. In both of these versions, Delphine did not react. She was said to have looked down upon her body coldly before turning and gliding back into the house. Minutes later, a group of servants was seen coming out and quietly collecting the body and burying it in the night.
Neighbors had also seen this transpire and Delphine was punished. She was fined $300 and her slaves were removed from her care. However, the slaves were not long removed from her home before Delphine convinced her family to buy the slaves back and return them to her household. This was not a secret, as many neighbors and members of New Orleans high society were constantly attending parties in the LaLaurie home, but nobody moved to enforce the removal of the slaves again.
LaLaurie Mansion Fire
On April 10, 1834, a fire broke out in the LaLaurie mansion's kitchen. As friends and neighbors gathered to help, Leonard and Delphine seemed singularly focused on saving their valuables. When people began to inquire about the other household slaves, the LaLauries reportedly began to get frustrated, saying things like "Nevermind them, save the valuables!" The fireman did arrive and were able to contain the blaze, which had been started by an old slave woman who was chained to the stove. In some versions of this tale, the old woman was the young slave girl's grandmother who set the fire to avenge her death. Other versions claim that the old woman started the fire in an attempt at suicide, as she feared the punishment that she would receive for her failing health. When pressed further, the old woman told the fireman that there was a room upstairs where slaves were taken to die.
The firemen ascended the stairs to the attic, finding a sealed door with heavy locks. Delphine and Leonard refused to surrender the keys, citing that it was none of the firemen's business what happened in their home. Consequently, the firemen grew suspicious and broke down the door. What they found on the other side was extremely gruesome. If you are the easily upset type: please stop reading here.
Horrors in the Attic
The odor of the room was said to be so foul that the firemen began to gag and retch immediately. What they saw was even worse. Shackled to the walls, the floors, and the ceilings, slaves in every state of death and agony were inside. Some had been starved until they were nothing but skin and bones, barely breathing. Some slaves were reportedly covered in honey with ants and bugs crawling all over them. A woman was said to have been shackled in a standing position with her skin carved in a spiral all the way around her body, making her look almost like a caterpillar. A man and a woman had clearly been the subject of a crude sex change operation. A man had a hole drilled through his head and another woman had been deformed, with each of her limbs broken or dislocated and allowed to set at odd angles, making her look more like a crab than a human. Littered among all of these atrocities, there were said to be dozens of bones from previously tortured slaves. These slaves were removed from the home and taken to the hospital. Sadly, many of them died of their injuries.
As the crowd gathered outside of the LaLaurie residence to help fight the fire, news spread of the state of the slaves in the attic. Around 6 in the evening, Madame LaLaurie called for her coach and waved at the outraged crowd as she stepped into it with a smile on her face. The people of New Orleans chased her to Bayou Saint John where she caught a boat. Rumor has it that she was never seen again.
After leaving New Orleans, Delphine caught a boat to France and lived there, escaping the punishment for her crimes. It was rumored that she was killed by a boar while hunting.
History Behind the Legend
Many aspects of the LaLaurie legend do not necessarily line up with the facts. Although there were slaves kept in the attic of the mansion, there has been no true evidence that the slaves had been severely tortured or killed in the brutal fashion described in the legend. Newspapers from the days following the event make no reference to severely disfigured slaves or dismembered bodies. The absence of these details makes most who study the event believe that these atrocities did not truly exist, as the sensational media of the day would not have hesitated to publish every gory detail or even try to illustrate the atrocities committed.
Another major discrepancy is associated with the death of the young slave girl, Leah. Although neighbors claimed to have seen the event, no body was discovered on the grounds when the police came to investigate, nor was there any sign of blood in the courtyard, as would be expected if a young girl had indeed fallen to her death.
One more major point that casts some doubt on the reliability of this legend is the fact that Madame LaLaurie actually petitioned for some of her slaves to be freed multiple times throughout her third marriage. In fact, the slave in question was successfully freed in 1833, just months before the couple was run out of town. Madame LaLaurie also loaned money to a free woman of color named Sara Lee in 1833, although she did later sue this woman for repayment.
The supposed horrors in the attic of the LaLaurie mansion are often attributed to Leonard's position as a doctor. As a mediocre medical student who eventually graduated from dental school and a failing practitioner in New Orleans, it is often assumed that Leonard himself used the slaves as test subjects for surgical and cosmetic procedures. Again, there is no evidence of any truth behind this claim.
The Death of Delphine LaLaurie
The circumstances surrounding the death of Madame LaLaurie are also somewhat of a mystery. Stories of Delphine being attacked by a boar and killed while hunting in France are most likely not true. In fact, most historical reports claim that LaLaurie returned to New Orleans in the years following her expulsion to live with her family. In the mid 1990s, a plaque was discovered in a cemetery bearing the name Delphine LaLaurie with a birth date of 1775 and a death date of 1842. There was no body available for exhumation, so this report was never corroborated by concrete evidence.
LaLaurie in Modern Times
In modern times, the story of Madame LaLaurie is a widely known ghost story. The home of Madame LaLaurie is reportedly one of the most haunted in the country and attracts hundreds of tourists each year. In addition to being a story that accompanies tours of haunted New Orleans, Madame LaLaurie is often used as a vignette in the story of Marie Laveau.
Marie and Delphine both lived in New Orleans during the same time period and are often said to have been well acquainted. According the rumors, Marie often used her voodoo magic to aid Madame LaLaurie in her social and romantic exploits. It is also said that Marie was one of the few New Orleans citizens that knew the extent of Delphine's cruelty. As with most other aspects of the LaLaurie legend, there is little solid evidence of any such relationship.
Although the LaLaurie story began almost 200 years ago, there is an ever present fascination with her gruesome tale. The morbid details of this legend have appeared on television dozens of times. Over the years, countless paranormal investigators have locked themselves into the LaLaurie mansion in hopes of encountering some restless spirit; many of these are said to have succeeded on their quest. In addition to appearing as the subject of many popular paranormal investigations, LaLaurie has also been depicted in television series' such as and American Horror Stories: Coven and in the popular video game Deadtime Stories.
American Horror Story: Coven