The legend of Madame Delphine Lalaurie, a wealthy society matron, has haunted the city of New Orleans for nearly two hundred years. When fire destroyed part of her home in 1834, the public was outraged to learn that behind closed doors Lalaurie routinely bound, starved, and tortured her slaves.
Marie Delphine LaLaurie, more commonly known as Madame LaLaurie, was a Louisiana-born socialite and serial killer known for her involvement in the torture and murder of slaves. Born in New Orleans, LaLaurie married three times over the course of her life. She maintained a prominent position in the social circles of New Orleans until April 10, 1834, when rescuers responding to a fire at her Royal Street mansion discovered bound slaves within the house who showed evidence of torture over a long period. LaLaurie's house was subsequently sacked by an outraged mob of New Orleans citizens, and it is thought that she fled to Paris, where she is believed to have died.
The circumstances of the deaths of her first two husbands are unknown and the whereabouts of Dr. Lalaurie at the time of the fire and subsequent to his wife's flight from town remains a mystery. Mme. Lalaurie was well-known for her spectacular parties and galas which she gave frequently at her home. She was one of the most well-known women in New Orleans society of the time. Renowned Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau lived in New Orleans at the same time, just a few blocks from the Lalaurie House. Although the nature of their relationship is unknown, undoubtedly these two women met and knew each other.
Driven by her insecurities and catalyzed by her husband's indiscretions with young women, Delphine creates a nightmarish beauty balm derived from fresh human pancreases she takes from her slaves. New Orleans Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau takes her vengeance on Madame Delphine for the torture inflicted on her beau, one of Delphine's slave victims, the Minotaur. She presents Madame Delphine with a false love potion, whose actual effects are much more sinister. LaLaurie's fate is revealed as one worse than death. And one that has not yet ended.
Delphine wakes up from the effects of the 'love potion' to find her husband and daughters hanging from the balcony of her home. Marie Laveau has Delphine buried alive in an unmarked grave in the front yard, but not before revealing that the 'love potion' has actually granted Delphine the curse of immortality. Years later Delphine is found and dug up by Fiona Goode, who wants to discover the secret of eternal life. Fiona mocks her, though the two women seem to bond at times. She wants to use Delphine as leverage against Marie Laveau, first keeping Delphine hidden away and tied up in her room, and later turning her into "the new maid" of the school.
Due to Delphine making too much noise, Nan angrily rushes up the stairs and discovers Delphine in Fiona's room. She unties her, but is caught by Queenie. Delphine smashes Queenie's head with a candlestick holder and runs off. Later on however Delphine and Queenie begin to form a small bond as Fiona forces her to become Queenie's personal maid as she 'hates racists'. Queenie sacrifices herself when the Minotaur comes after Delphine, luring it out to give Delphine time to hide. Delphine is appreciative of this and thanks Queenie, who still shows a disliking to Delphine because of her racist behavior.
Queenie manages to reattach Delphine's severed head and hand, and carries her to Nan's funeral with a leash and collar around her neck. At the academy, she sees an African-American gardener who cut his hand and is reminded of the joys she felt from torturing her slaves in the 1800s. She holds him captive in Spalding's old room, using a pruning shear to cut off the gardener's toes and also disembowels him. Spalding appears before her, saying that he knows of a potion that will remove Marie's immortality and will allow Delphine to murder her, but he will only give it to her if she brings back an ancient doll baby that he desires. Spalding hands over the potion (which turns out to be nothing but Benadryl). Delphine drugs Marie's drink and when she falls asleep on the bed, Delphine stabs her in the chest. Marie is unaffected and gives chase after Delphine, but she is knocked out by Spalding. Spalding says that he only wanted Marie out of his hair and suggests that Delphine should bury her. Instead, she tortures Marie and heacks her to pieces.
After this, Delphine gets a job as the tour guide of her old house to try and revinvent her image and is later confronted by Queenie who tries to get her to see sense and repent for her sins. Her attempt ultimately fails which results in her stabbing Delphine. She is later seen in her very torture chamber, being locked away with her daughters. Papa Legba arrives and reveals that she and Marie Laveau are in hell, where they are to spend eternity. Delphine watches in horror as Marie is forced to burn Borquita.
It was said that Mme. Lalaurie's manners were sweet, gracious and captivating. She was born in the society's upper circles. She was accustomed to and acculturated to the good life. Yet there were persistent rumors that she treated her servants with disdain and in a cruel, abusive manner. And still, those who visited her said that she was kind to her servants. If one of them tremble in her presence or startled at the sound of her voice, she would soothe and endeavor to reassure her. Nevertheless, the stories of barbarity increased. The smothered indignation on Royal Street grew.
One day the street was filled with the wild rumor that Mme. Lalaurie was seen by the neighbors cowhiding a little girl in the courtyard. The terrified young thing fled across the yard, into the house and up the winding stairway from gallery to gallery followed by her infuriated mistress. She rushed out onto the belvedere and darted up to roof, with Mme Lalaurie hot on her heels.
Delphine Macarty was born around 1775, one of five children. Her father was Barthelmy Louis Macarty, whose father Barthelmy Macarty brought the family to New Orleans from Ireland around 1730. Her mother was Marie Jeanne Lovable, also known as "the widow Lecomte", whose marriage to Barthelmy Louis Macarty was her second. Both were prominent members of the New Orleans white Créole community. Delphine's cousin, Augustin de Macarty, was mayor of New Orleans from 1815 to 1820.
On June 11, 1800, Delphine Macarty married Don Ramon de Lopez y Angullo, a Caballero de la Royal de Carlos (a high ranking Spanish officer), at the Saint Louis Cathedral in New Orleans. By 1804, Don Ramon had risen to the position of consul general for Spain in Louisiana. Also in 1804, Delphine and Don Ramon traveled to Spain. Accounts of the trip differ. Grace King wrote in 1921 that the trip was Don Ramon's "military punishment", and that Delphine met the Queen, who was impressed by Delphine's beauty. Stanley Arthur's 1936 report differed; he stated that on March 26, 1804, Don Ramon was recalled to the court of Spain "to take his place at court as befitting his new position", but that Ramon never arrived in Spain because he died in Havana en route to Madrid.
During the voyage, Delphine gave birth to a daughter, named Marie Borgia Delphine Lopez y Angulla de la Candelaria, nicknamed "Borquita". Delphine and her daughter returned to New Orleans afterwards.
In June 1808, Delphine married Jean Blanque, a prominent banker, merchant, lawyer, and legislator. At the time of the marriage, Blanque purchased a house at 409 Royal Street in New Orleans for the family, which became known later as the Villa Blanque. Delphine had four more children by Blanque, named Marie Louise Pauline, Louise Marie Laure, Marie Louise Jeanne, and Jeanne Pierre Paulin Blanque.
Blanque died in 1816. Delphine married her third husband, physician Leonard Louis Nicolas LaLaurie, who was much younger than she, on June 25, 1825. In 1831, she bought property at 1140 Royal Street, which she managed in her own name with little involvement of her husband, and by 1832 had built a three-story mansion there, complete with attached slave quarters. She lived there with her husband and two of her daughters, and maintained a central position in the social circles of New Orleans.
The LaLauries maintained several black slaves in slave quarters attached to the Royal Street mansion. Accounts of Delphine LaLaurie's treatments of her slaves between 1831 and 1834 are mixed. Harriet Martineau, writing in 1838 and recounting tales told to her by New Orleans residents during her 1836 visit, claimed LaLaurie's slaves were observed to be "singularly haggard and wretched"; however, in public appearances LaLaurie was seen to be generally polite to black people and solicitous of her slaves' health, and court records of the time showed that LaLaurie emancipated two of her own slaves (Jean Louis in 1819 and Devince in 1832). Nevertheless, Martineau reported that public rumors about LaLaurie's mistreatment of her slaves were sufficiently widespread that a local lawyer was dispatched to Royal Street to remind LaLaurie of the laws relevant to the upkeep of slaves. During this visit the lawyer found no evidence of wrongdoing or mistreatment of slaves by LaLaurie.
Martineau also recounted other tales of LaLaurie's cruelty that were current among New Orleans residents in about 1836. She claimed that, subsequent to the visit of the local lawyer, one of LaLaurie's neighbors saw one of the LaLaurie's slaves, a twelve-year-old girl named Lia (or Leah), fall to her death from the roof of the Royal Street mansion while trying to avoid punishment from a whip-wielding Delphine LaLaurie. Lia had been brushing Delphine's hair when she hit a snag, causing Delphine to grab a whip and chase her. The body was subsequently buried on the mansion grounds. According to Martineau, this incident led to an investigation of the LaLauries, in which they were found guilty of illegal cruelty and forced to forfeit nine slaves. These nine slaves were then bought back by the LaLauries through the intermediary of one of their relatives, and returned to the Royal Street residences. Similarly, Martineau reported stories that LaLaurie kept her cook chained to the kitchen stove, and beat her daughters when they attempted to feed the slaves.
On April 10, 1834, a fire broke out in the LaLaurie residence on Royal Street, starting in the kitchen. When the police and fire marshals got there, they found a seventy-year-old woman, the cook, chained to the stove by her ankle. She later confessed to them that she had set the fire as a suicide attempt for fear of her punishment, being taken to the uppermost room, because she said that anyone who had been taken there never came back. As reported in the New Orleans Bee of April 11, 1834, bystanders responding to the fire attempted to enter the slave quarters to ensure that everyone had been evacuated. Upon being refused the keys by the LaLauries, the bystanders broke down the doors to the slave quarters and found "seven slaves, more or less horribly mutilated ... suspended by the neck, with their limbs apparently stretched and torn from one extremity to the other", who claimed to have been imprisoned there for some months.
One of those who entered the premises was Judge Jean-Francois Canonge, who subsequently deposed to having found in the LaLaurie mansion, among others, a "negress ... wearing an iron collar" and "an old negro woman who had received a very deep wound on her head [who was] too weak to be able to walk." Canonge claimed that when he questioned Madame LaLaurie's husband about the slaves, he was told in an insolent manner that "some people had better stay at home rather than come to others' houses to dictate laws and meddle with other people's business."
A version of this story circulating in 1836, recounted by Martineau, added that the slaves were emaciated, showed signs of being flayed with a whip, were bound in restrictive postures, and wore spiked iron collars which kept their heads in static positions.
When the discovery of the tortured slaves became widely known, a mob of local citizens attacked the LaLaurie residence and "demolished and destroyed everything upon which they could lay their hands". A sheriff and his officers were called upon to disperse the crowd, but by the time the mob left, the Royal Street property had sustained major damage, with "scarcely any thing [remaining] but the walls." The tortured slaves were taken to a local jail, where they were available for public viewing. The New Orleans Bee reported that by April 12 up to 4,000 people had attended to view the tortured slaves "to convince themselves of their sufferings."
The Pittsfield Sun, citing the New Orleans Advertiser and writing several weeks after the evacuation of LaLaurie's slave quarters, claimed that two of the slaves found in the LaLaurie mansion had died since their rescue, and added: "We understand ... that in digging the yard, bodies have been disinterred, and the condemned well [in the grounds of the mansion] having been uncovered, others, particularly that of a child, were found." These claims were repeated by Martineau in her 1838 book Retrospect of Western Travel, where she placed the number of unearthed bodies at two, including the child.
Later life and death
LaLaurie's life after the 1834 fire is not well documented. Martineau wrote in 1838 that LaLaurie fled New Orleans during the mob violence that followed the fire, taking a coach to the waterfront and travelling by schooner from there to Mobile, Alabama and then on to Paris. Certainly by the time Martineau personally visited the Royal Street mansion in 1836 it was still unoccupied and badly damaged, with "gaping windows and empty walls".
The circumstances of Delphine LaLaurie's death are also unclear. George Washington Cable recounted in 1888 a then-popular but unsubstantiated story that LaLaurie had died in France in a boar-hunting accident. Whatever the truth, in the late 1930s, Eugene Backes, who served as sexton to St. Louis Cemetery #1 until 1924, discovered an old cracked, copper plate in Alley 4 of the cemetery.
LaLaurie in folklore
Folk histories of LaLaurie's poor treatment of her slaves circulated in Louisiana during the nineteenth century, and were reprinted in collections of stories by Henry Castellanos and George Washington Cable. Cable's account (not to be confused with his unrelated 1881 novel Madame Delphine) was based on contemporary stories in newspapers such as the New Orleans Bee and the Advertiser, and upon Martineau's 1838 account, Retrospect of Western Travel, but mixed in some synthesis, dialogue and supposition entirely of his own creation.
After 1945, stories of the LaLaurie slaves became considerably more explicit. Jeanne deLavigne, writing in Ghost Stories of Old New Orleans (1946), alleged that LaLaurie had a "sadistic appetite seemed never appeased until she had inflicted on one or more of her black servitors some hideous form of torture" and claimed that those who responded to the 1834 fire had found "male slaves, stark naked, chained to the wall, their eyes gouged out, their fingernails pulled off by the roots; others had their joints skinned and festering, great holes in their buttocks where the flesh had been sliced away, their ears hanging by shreds, their lips sewn together ... Intestines were pulled out and knotted around naked waists. There were holes in skulls, where a rough stick had been inserted to stir the brains." DeLavigne did not directly cite any sources for these claims, and they were not supported by the primary sources.
The story was further popularised and embellished in Journey Into Darkness: Ghosts and Vampires of New Orleans (1998) by Kalila Katherina Smith, the operator of a New Orleans ghost tour business. Smith's book added several more explicit details to the discoveries allegedly made by rescuers during the 1834 fire, including a "victim [who] obviously had her arms amputated and her skin peeled off in a circular pattern, making her look like a human caterpillar," and another who had had her limbs broken and reset "at odd angles so she resembled a human crab". Many of the new details in Smith's book were unsourced, while others were not supported by the sources given.
Today, modern retellings of the LaLaurie legend often use deLavigne and Smith's versions of the tale to found claims of explicit tortures, and to place the number of slaves who died under LaLaurie's care at as many as one hundred.
The New Orleans house occupied by Delphine LaLaurie at the time of the 1834 fires stands today at 1140 Royal Street, on the corner of Royal Street and Governor Nicholls Street (formerly known as Hospital Street). At three stories high, it was described in 1928 as "the highest building for squares around", with the result that "from the cupola on the roof one may look out over the Vieux Carré and see the Mississippi in its crescent before Jackson Square". The entrance to the building bears iron grillwork, and the door is carved with an image of "Phoebus in his chariot, and with wreaths of flowers and depending garlands in bas-relief". Inside, the vestibule is floored in black and white marble, and a curved mahogany-railed staircase runs the full three stories of the building. The second floor holds three large drawing-rooms connected by ornamented sliding doors, whose walls are decorated with plaster rosettes, carved woodwork, black marble mantlepieces and fluted pilasters.
Subsequent to LaLaurie's departure from America, the house remained ruined at least until 1836, but at some point prior to 1888 it was "unrecognisably restored", and over the following decades was used as a public high school, a conservatory of music, a tenement, a refuge for young delinquents, a bar, a furniture store, and a luxury apartment building. In April 2007, Nicolas Cage bought the LaLaurie House through Hancock Park Real Estate Company LLC for a sum of $3.45 million. The mortgage documents were arranged in such a way that Cage's name did not appear on them. On November 13, 2009 the property, then valued at $3.5 million, was listed for auction as a result of bank foreclosure and purchased by Regions Financial Corporation for $2.3 million.