Why you should care
Delphine LaLaurie has gone down in history as an exceptionally cruel mistress … and possibly a murderer.
For a fire to break out at a 19th century New Orleans townhouse was not especially unusual. But for no slaves to emerge from the blaze that engulfed the home of Madame Delphine LaLaurie, one of the city’s wealthiest women, was downright unheard of. Bystanders urged the LaLauries (Delphine’s husband, Louis, happened to be around that day) to have their slaves “removed to a place of safety,” reported the Louisiana Courier of April 10, 1834, but they were “rudely” told to mind their own business.
After breaking down the doors and forcing their way in, the rescuers found “seven slaves more or less horribly mutilated … suspended by the neck with their limbs stretched and torn from one extremity to the other,” according to the New Orleans Bee published April 11. The slaves “had merely been kept in existence to prolong their sufferings and to make them taste all that the most refined cruelty could inflict.”
Gruesome though the initial newspaper reports may be, the story soon developed a life of its own…
Delphine fled the house on the day of the fire and emigrated to France, where she died in 1849.
Her “successful escape from Justice so exasperated the populace,” wrote the Courier, that at 8 p.m. on the day of the fire, citizens launched “a regular and fatal attack” on her dwelling, “cut[ting] and smash[ing]” it till “a complete wreck.”
Madame LaLaurie has gone down in history as the epitome of antebellum Louisiana cruelty, her savage nature immortalized in ever-more-lurid books, articles and film interpretations (Kathy Bates had a go at playing Delphine on American Horror Story) and her supposedly haunted house a highlight of all New Orleans ghost tours. But was she really more evil than other slaveowners? Or was she simply unlucky enough to be caught?
Carolyn Morrow Long, author of the painstakingly researched Madame LaLaurie, Mistress of the Haunted House, says that although there’s evidence some others (including Delphine’s own cousin) were guilty of the same crimes, “Delphine’s transgressions were so extreme that, even in a slave-owning society, she had crossed a line that could not be tolerated.”
Delphine was born in 1787, a member of the “large, wealthy and socially powerful Macarty clan,” says Long. She’d already been widowed twice when she fell pregnant by Louis LaLaurie — a much poorer French doctor 15 years her junior. Their son, Jean Louis, was born in December 1827 and his parents married the following month. The marriage was tumultuous almost from the onset, featuring frequent fights and separations. Soon, Louis moved out of town to get away from his wife.
Louisiana’s thriving economy — not to mention the Macartys’ enormous wealth — was built almost entirely on slavery, and the institutionalized cruelty that went with it. The Haitian Revolution (where, between 1791 and 1804, self-liberated slaves successfully ended French colonial rule) scared slaveowners throughout the region, many of whom worried that Haitian slaves had risen up after being treated too kindly by their masters. The arrival in New Orleans in 1809–10 of 10,000 Haitian refugees ramped the fear factor up a few notches and an actual revolt in 1811 (quashed in two days, with the killing of 95 slaves) sealed the deal. Long likens the attitude of slaveowners to present-day Americans who “call the police on Black people who are just going about their business.” Then and now, she sees it as having “more to do with fear than actual dislike of Blacks.”
In 1834, when the fire took place, Louisiana law stipulated that “the slave is entirely subject to the will of his master, who may correct and chastise him, though not with unusual rigor, nor so as to maim or mutilate him … or to cause his death.” Another law denied slaves the right to testify in their own defense and enabled slaveowners to absolve themselves of any cruelty by simply denying the act under oath. LaLaurie used this get-out-of-jail card twice — in 1828 and 1829 — to brush off suits brought against her.
It is probably no coincidence that most of Delphine’s worst transgressions are said to have taken place after her marriage to Louis, argues Long, who suspects that their relationship might have been the “culminating factor” that transformed Delphine into an exceptionally cruel slaveowner. Louis’ neglect and frequent absences could have “pushed an already-unstable woman over the edge,” says Long. She had lost control of her young husband, “but she still had dominion over her human property” — which she used to devastating effect.
Most primary sources agree that seven slaves were carried out of the LaLaurie home in the aftermath of the fire and taken to the cabildo, the seat of the state’s supreme court. There, they attracted thousands of rubberneckers, including Armand Saillard, the French Consul to New Orleans. “I never saw a more horrible spectacle!” he wrote. “The dislocated heads, the legs torn by chains,” the bodies streaked with blood “from whiplashes and sharp instruments” and wounds “devoured by maggots.”
Gruesome though the initial newspaper reports may be, the story soon developed a life of its own — the number of victims growing and the nature of the crimes exaggerated to ever-more Dante-esque proportions. George Washington Cable’s 1889 book The Haunted House on Royal Street was the most widely read, but the prize for most gruesome goes to Jeanne deLavigne’s 1944 Ghost Stories of Old New Orleans: “Intestines were pulled out and knotted around naked waists,” wrote deLavigne. “There were holes in skulls where a rough stick had been inserted to stir the brains.” Despite all the bad press, Delphine also had her apologists — all slaveowners with points to prove.
While there is no concrete evidence that Delphine ever killed anyone — excavations at the Royal Street mansion turned up blank — Long’s examination of notarial records does paint a damning picture. She has worked out that Delphine owned at least 54 men, women and children in her lifetime and held an inventory of 30 slaves at the time of the fire. In total, Long found funeral records for 20 of Delphine’s slaves but an additional 19 were unaccounted for after the fire. “At a time when slaves were property and record-keeping was meticulous, this is unusual and has sinister implications,” says Long.
While you’d be well-advised not to believe everything your New Orleans tour guide says, the true story of Madame LaLaurie is more than ghastly enough. Personally, says Long, “I think anybody who did these things to other human beings was mentally deranged.”