Madame LaLaurie and Her Dark Secret - Owlcation - Education
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Madame LaLaurie and Her Dark Secret

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Marie Delphine Macarty (LaLaurie) was the child of an upper-class French mother and an Irish gentleman. She was born in New Orleans in about 1787 and grew up to be charming, beautiful, and monstrously cruel towards slaves in her service.

Delphine LaLaurie.

Delphine LaLaurie.

The Toast of New Orleans

Delphine Macarty’s family was in the top tier of society in colonial New Orleans. Delphine’s uncle Esteban Rodríguez Miró had been the Governor of Florida and Louisiana during the Spanish colonial period. Later, a cousin became Mayor of New Orleans.

Delphine had a glittering future among the city’s wealthy aristocratic Creoles (In this sense, Creoles were the children of white colonists rather than people of mixed race). At the age of 14, she married a high-ranking Spanish nobleman, but the union was short lived. By the time she was 17, Delphine was the mother of a daughter and a widow.

Jean-Paul Blanque, a banker, politician, lawyer and very well-to-do leader of New Orleans society was husband number two. He was also connected to some very shady people in the slave trade. With Blanque, Delphine had four children before becoming a widow again in 1816.

Husband number three arrived in 1825. Physician Leonard LaLaurie was much younger than Delphine, reversing the age disparity of her first marriage.

Slave Revolt

In 1811, slaves in Louisiana rose up against their masters in a bid for freedom. Under the leadership of Charles Deslondes and armed with axes, knives, pikes, shovels, and a few guns, the slaves marched on New Orleans. As they passed plantations, the army was joined by others until the mob numbered between 200 and 500.

The revolt was quickly put down by the militia but the uprising spooked the slave owners of New Orleans and elsewhere; they became fearful of the people they held in bondage. But, this apprehension does not seem to have affected Delphine. In 1816, as stipulated in Jean-Paul Blanque’s will, she freed a slave. In subsequent years, she emancipated other slaves as a reward for their faithful service.

She had mixed-race relatives in her wider family and acted towards them with generosity to the point of becoming a godparent.

Madame LaLaurie’s Dark Side Emerged

Not long after her marriage to Dr. LaLaurie, the couple moved into a mansion that had been built on Royal Street. And soon, rumours began to spread that the popular society hostess was mistreating her slaves in the new home.

An English journalist, Harriet Martineau talked to New Orleans residents who told her that Madame LaLaurie’s slaves appeared “singularly haggard and wretched.” The city sent a young lawyer to visit Delphine and to remind her of her legal obligation not to abuse slaves.

But, the woman was so gracious and hospitable that the lawyer found it impossible to believe anything was amiss in the LaLaurie household.

Madame LaLaurie.

Madame LaLaurie.

The Death of Leah

Harriet Martineau recounted the story of a 12-year-old slave called Leah (or Lia). The girl seems to have displeased her mistress. Madame LaLaurie chased Leah with a whip through the mansion on Royal Street and up the stairs to the roof.

Martineau’s witness told how Leah slipped, jumped, or was pushed from the roof as she tried to escape the whip-wielding Madame LaLaurie. The child crashed to a courtyard below and died.

That was enough for the authorities. The LaLauries were prosecuted, found guilty of cruelty, fined, and were forced to give up nine slaves. But still, the extent of Madame LaLaurie’s cruelty was not revealed. Undaunted, she contrived to get intermediaries to buy back the slaves who were then returned to her.

This story is challenged by some historians as either embellished or even completely untrue because of a lack of documentation. On the other hand, Madame LaLaurie had many friends in high places who could make official records vanish.

A depiction of Madame LaLaurie's torture chamber in the Musée Conti, New Orleans.

A depiction of Madame LaLaurie's torture chamber in the Musée Conti, New Orleans.

A Fire on Royal Street

By April 10, 1834, the 70-year-old slave cook had had enough. Chained to her stove by her ankle, she decided to start a fire. She later told investigators that she wanted to kill herself rather than live a moment longer in the house of horrors on Royal Street.

The fire was extinguished and that’s when investigators uncovered what had been going on behind the genteel façade of 1140 Royal Street.

On April 11, The New Orleans Bee reported that when fire fighters and citizens got into the house to search for survivors it was like “discovering one of those atrocities the details of which seem to be too incredible for human belief … Seven slaves more or less horribly mutilated were seen suspended by the neck, with their limbs apparently stretched and torn from one extremity to the other.”

These malnourished people had been held in this condition, they said, for several months. Later, a couple of bodies were exhumed at the back of the property. Further investigations found a “high number” of slaves disappearing from Madame LaLaurie’s ownership lists without explanation.

The citizens of New Orleans, angered by what had been discovered, burst into the LaLaurie mansion and thoroughly trashed the place. As the crowd was venting its rage, Delphine LaLaurie quietly went off on her usual afternoon carriage ride. Only this time she didn’t come back.

She turned up in Paris and lived quite comfortably off her American assets. She is thought to have died there in 1849 at the age of 62. One story has her being gored to death by a wild boar, but this may be a wishful account by someone who wanted her to have a grisly demise as some sort of retribution for her evil nature.

The LaLaurie House in 2015.

The LaLaurie House in 2015.

Bonus Factoids

  • Many people claim the LaLaurie mansion is haunted with spectral figures appearing and blood-curdling screams emanating from the building.
  • In 2007, the actor Nicholas Cage bought the LaLaurie mansion for $3.45, but lost it two years later in a foreclosure auction.
  • Stories of Madame LaLaurie’s atrocities grew more and more lurid with each retelling. It is as though her heinous actions were not bad enough already that she had to be made an even more monstrous figure. In 1949, Jeanne deLavigne published Ghost Stories of Old New Orleans that went over the top in its descriptions of hideous torture inflicted on Delphine’s slaves. However, deLavigne did not trouble herself overmuch in searching for documentary evidence for her sensational narrative. Writer Kalila Katherina Smith published Journey into Darkness: Ghosts and Vampires of New Orleans in 1998 that added further unsourced tales of LaLaurie’s barbarity. Both these books are often used as sources in the retelling of Delphine LaLaurie’s infamous deeds. In 2014, Kathy Bates starred in a grossly inaccurate version of the tale in an episode of American Horror Story: Coven.

Sources

  • “The Enslaved Peoples’ Uprising of 1811.”Neworleanshistorical.org, undated.
  • “Madame LaLaurie: Sadistic Slave Owner of the French Quarter.” Scotty Rushing, Historic Mysteries, February 28, 2017.
  • “The Fire on Royal Street.” The New Orleans Bee, April 11, 1834.
  • “Did Racial Hatred Motivate Delphine LaLaurie?” HistoryCollection, undated.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor