On April 10, 1834, firefighters smashed through a padlocked attic door in the burning Royal Street mansion of Creole society couple Delphine and Louis Lalaurie. In the billowing smoke and flames they made an appalling discovery: the remains of Madame Lalaurie’s chained, starved, and mutilated slaves. This house of horrors in the French Quarter spawned a legend that has endured for more than one-hundred-and-fifty years.
But what actually happened in the Lalaurie home? Rumors about her atrocities spread as fast as the fire. But verifiable facts were scarce. Lalaurie wouldn’t answer questions. She disappeared, leaving behind one of the French Quarter’s ghastliest crime scenes, and what is considered to be one of America’s most haunted houses.
In Mad Madame Lalaurie, Victoria Cosner Love and Lorelei Shannon “shed light on what is fact and what is purely fiction in a tale that’s still told nightly on the streets of New Orleans” (Deep South Magazine).
About the Author
Lorelei Shannon has spent the better part of thirty years following Victoria Cosner Love around graveyards for her own inscrutable purposes. Lorelei and Victoria met at the tender age of fourteen. From the very start they shared a love of history―particularly the obscure and unusual variety. While Victoria went on to become a respected historian, Lorelei became a novelist. She never lost her love of history, and she frequently incorporates historical elements in her southern gothic fiction. This is her first book-length work of nonfiction and her first collaboration with Victoria.
Read an Excerpt
Believe it or leave it, there are ghosts in the French Quarter's famous haunted house at 1140 Royal St.
–States Item, March 7, 1966
In the Rue Royale stands this quaint, old-fashioned house about which so much has been written, and around which cluster so many wild and weird stories, that even in its philosophic day, few in the old faubourg care to pass the place after nightfall, or, doing so, shudder and hurry on with bated breath, as though midnight ghouls and ghosts hovered near, ready to exercise a mystic spell over all who dare invade its uncanny precincts.
–Marie Puents, Daily Picayune, March 13, 1892
No visit to New Orleans is complete without a ghost tour. There are literally dozens available, in any theme you can imagine: pirates, vampires, hauntings, paranormal activity and more. New Orleans has it all. Perhaps the most famous destination for tours of the macabre is the Lalaurie Mansion.
On the corner of Royal and Governor Nicholls Streets stands what some people say is the most haunted house in America. Imagine you are standing in the twilight of a warm summer day, looking at the house, which casts a long, ominous shadow down the street. This neoclassical, three-story mansion — complete with the traditional enclosed New Orleans–style courtyard — is said to be the site of a truly horrific case of torture, medical atrocities and abuse. It has witnessed more than 175 years of hauntings, terror, blood-crazed mobs and sorrow. Its austere exterior hides the elegant oasis within. If not quite beautiful, the house is dignified. It harkens back to the days when Creole Louisiana was king and the refinement of the lady of the house was paramount to a family's social success.
Imagine you are looking at the mansion, but you are not alone. A tour guide stands next to you. The two of you stare at the house in silence for a moment. When the tour guide begins to speak, she tells you a story:
In 1832, Madame Lalaurie, daughter of a prominent Creole family, and her nondescript husband, Dr. Louis Lalaurie, bought this elegant mansion and held the seasons' most exquisite parties. Madame Lalaurie was the crème of Creole society, renowned for her beauty and grace. Born Marie Delphine Macarty, Madame Lalaurie was married twice to prominent men who mysteriously died, leaving Madame a very wealthy widow. Then Marie Delphine met the good doctor, who had recently completed medical school in Toulouse and immigrated to New Orleans.
In the spring of 1832, a cloud covered the Lalaurie Mansion. Whispers of slave abuse buzzed through the city. Louisiana didn't work on the Puritan/British code of ethics for slaves, which allowed an owner free rein to punish or even kill her slaves. The Code Noir, a decree that defined the conditions of slavery in the French colonial empire, was still enforced in Louisiana at that time, and it offered some meager protection to those enslaved. The code specifically forbade torture, mutilation and sexual abuse. It allowed for "ordinary" punishments, like confinement, chaining and whipping.
Your tour guide gives you a dark look. "Those rumors must have been bad," she says.
A young American lawyer who was boarding in the neighborhood heard these rumors. He went to the Lalaurie home to point out the section of the Code Noir that prohibited severe abuse. He left dazzled by Madame Lalaurie, by her charm and beauty, denying that anyone so lovely could ever be cruel.
The whispers died down. Madame continued to entertain lavishly, with her two quiet, reserved daughters by her side. She was known to give the last of her wine to the servant behind her, whispering, "Take this; it will do you good." There was even a court record from the 1820s that showed she had freed one of her slaves after the death of her second husband. It didn't seem possible that such a woman was abusing her household staff. Some people said the ugly stories were started by nouveaux- arrivés Americans, jealous of the Creole elite — just a nasty attempt to spoil their social standing and bring the proud Creoles down a notch.
But in 1833, an unfortunate incident occurred. While combing Madame Lalaurie's hair, a young slave girl named Nina hit a tangle and sent Madame into a rage. Madame chased the girl through the house with a bullwhip, shrieking like a madwoman. Nina fled up the stairs to the top of the house, with a raging Madame close behind.
Your tour guide points to the third floor. In the gloom, the house seems to be leaning toward you. After a moment, your guide continues:
High on the roof, the girl lost her footing and fell to the courtyard below. Her body hit with a dull thud. Blood spread in a dark halo around the child's head. Eyewitnesses said that Madame just stared at the dead child for a moment and then turned and went back inside.
Minutes later, silent shapes emerged from the house and dragged the broken body away. Later that night, the sound of a shovel could be heard in the courtyard, digging a shallow grave near the well. Quiet sobs filled the night. Nina was a beloved daughter and grandchild.
The city wasn't blind. The witnesses summoned the police, and Madame was taken before a court of law. The judge was a relative, but New Orleans was watching. He couldn't let Madame off without some form of punishment. He fined her $300 and had her ten remaining slaves taken away from her. You would think that would be the end of that.
Your tour guide sadly shakes her head and continues:
It was only the beginning. Madame Lalaurie convinced another relative to secretly buy the slaves back for her.
There was no stopping the rumors after that horrible chain of events. It was said that Madame forced her gaunt and starved- looking slaves to serve her with their shirts off, men and women alike. Only her coach driver was reputed to "glow with health." He had to appear in public with Madame, after all. It wouldn't do for any aspect of her outward appearance to be less than perfect.
On April 10, 1834, an elderly female slave who was chained to the lit oven accidentally — or maybe deliberately — set the Lalaurie Mansion on fire. Flames consumed the kitchen and spread quickly to the main house, devouring antiques and art. A crowd gathered as friends and neighbors came to help.
Screaming was heard from the kitchen, and a face appeared in the window, an old slave shrieking for help — or maybe vengeance. "That woman is Nina's grandmother," someone whispered. "Somebody save her." It was too late — the woman was fully engulfed in flames.
"Where are the rest of the slaves?" one Good Samaritan asked Madame. "Never mind the slaves; save the valuables!" Madame responded coolly.
"Where are the slaves?" Judge Canongo, who lived nearby, asked Dr. Lalaurie. The doctor snapped, "Mind your own business and get to the task at hand."
Someone in the crowd yelled that the slaves were in the attic. Firemen went rushing up the stairs, where they encountered huge iron padlocks on the doors and smoke that choked their every breath.
"Where is the key?" demanded one of the would-be rescuers from above.
"Never mind that; take this painting out," was Madame Lalaurie's answer.
The firemen broke down the doors and found a scene more hellish than the inferno on the lower floors. These strong men, used to gore and carnage, backed out of the room shaking and retching. Some could not stop themselves from vomiting.
At last the firemen calmed themselves. Along with some of the Lalauries' neighbors, they went into the attic to save the poor wretched creatures they had discovered.
Everywhere the firemen looked, they saw chained slaves. Some were naked and some nearly dead. The stench of fear, sweat and human waste was stomach-turning, but what the firemen saw was infinitely worse.
Your guide lowers her voice, as if what she is about to say should never be repeated:
All of the slaves had been outrageously mutilated, abused or starved. One woman had her skin peeled in a spiral around and around her body, so she resembled a macabre caterpillar. One man and one woman appeared to have had a crude sex change operation performed on them. Her breasts were sloppily sewn onto his chest and his penis sewn to her crotch. Another man chained to the wall had a hole drilled into his head. Maggots crawled in and out of the open wound. A woman had all of her bones broken and reset at different angles, so that she resembled a nightmarish crab. When the doors burst open, she scuttled to a corner to hide, shrieking out a hideous, high-pitched barking sound. Buckets of body parts littered the room.
The tour guide pauses. Involuntarily, you shudder. After a moment, she continues.
Several of the slaves perished when rescuers tried to move them. Others fainted from the shock. One woman, blind with terror, jumped to her death from the window.
The slaves were taken to the Cabildo, the massive building that served as the seat of colonial government in Spanish New Orleans and as the prison and slaveholding area for the American government. But they were not prisoners. They were taken to protect them from the howling, unpredictable mob. The stunned victims were placed in the slaveholding cells on the first level of the building. Local papers reported that more than four thousand people went to the Cabildo to see the "poor wretches" for themselves and to witness the cruelty the Lalauries had unleashed.
Meanwhile, Madame Lalaurie had retired to a portion of the house that was no longer in danger from the fire. Shortly after 6:00 p.m., her carriage arrived at the side door, as it did every evening. Her "sleek" driver, Bastien, opened the carriage door for her. Madame alighted for her evening ride, as she did every evening. The crowd could not believe their eyes. Madame Lalaurie waved to the mob as the carriage pulled away.
The rig rolled down Canal Street, toward the Bayou St. Jean, which emptied into Lake Pontchartrain, where the elite Creole often "took their air" in the evenings. Bayou St. Jean was also the location of the boat launch across Lake Pontchartrain.
"She's getting away, she's getting away!" roared the crowd. The mob pursued the carriage down Canal Street, but the horses were too fast. At the water's edge, Madame Lalaurie slipped from the carriage, her driver exchanged money with a pontoon captain and she boarded the boat.
The mob attacked and killed her horses and chopped her carriage into splinters. The fate of Bastien, the "sleek" driver, is unknown. One can only assume it was very unpleasant.
The tour guide leaves you to ponder this for a moment. You find you would rather not. The guide continues:
The details of Madame's escape are not known for certain, but on April 21, 1834, the Lalauries were in Mandeville, safely across Lake Pontchartrain, at the home of Louis Coquillon. Rumor had it that from Mandeville the Lalauries made their way to Mobile, where a ship took them to France.
The frustrated mob returned to the Lalaurie house and looted it, destroying anything that had not burned. The police struggled to keep the mob from setting the place ablaze again.
Policemen and firemen stayed on the scene for three weeks to keep vandals from razing the house to the ground. Policemen claimed to hear low moans and scratching sounds from the devastated building. They scoured the house, checking behind walls, but no additional victims could be found. The firefighters could find no more hidden rooms and no more experiments, but the noises continued. Police on the scene claimed that there were ghosts. The stories of hauntings had begun. There was no stopping the spread of the ghostly tales after that.
Looking up at the hulking mansion, you can easily imagine ghosts gliding through its halls. Your guide continues her story:
In the 1970s, renovations were started to divide the house into luxury apartments. Workmen pulled up the floors and discovered the bones of a dozen people who had been buried alive. This explained the cries and scratches the police had heard over 140 years before. The rescuers were so close, but they never knew that more victims lay right beneath their feet.
"And what happened to the Lalauries?" you ask, hoping for some kind of justice for these poor, murdered souls.
The Lalauries and their daughters disappeared. Most people think they fled to Paris. Some believe they never left Louisiana, while others have suggested that they went to Mobile. Wherever they ended up, neither Delphine Lalaurie nor her husband ever returned to New Orleans — not alive, anyway.
You briefly wonder what your guide meant by that, but she is speaking again.
There are two different stories of Madame's death. One is that she died amongst friends and family in 1842 in Paris. According to the other, more dramatic tale, Madame Lalaurie was recognized at a party in Paris, so she fled to Pau, France. There she was gored by a boar during a hunt. A fitting end for such a monster, if the story is true.
You find yourself nodding in agreement.
Following her death, Madame's body was secretly returned to New Orleans and buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. One of the curates found a cemetery plaque with her name and death date in the cemetery's Alley No. 1. It's said that her descendants secretly visit her tomb.
You blink. You had visited the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 earlier in the day. You saw voodoo queen Marie Laveau's tomb, but you had no idea that you were passing so close to the final resting place of a mass murderer as well.
The tour guide resumes her story:
Despite the damage inflicted by the mob, the Lalaurie house has had many uses since its most notorious owners fled. It was a school for black and white girls during the Reconstruction era. This high-minded venture ended badly, with a mob coming in and physically removing the black girls from the school. For a while, the house was a music academy, but it was closed due to a public scandal. It was a furniture store, a bar called the Haunted Saloon, housing for Italian immigrants and a men's home called Warrington House.
Most of the owners reported paranormal incidents and a variety of specters. One man claimed to have seen a black man holding his head in his hands. Scrabbling, like the sound of a crab, has been heard in the attic over and over again.
Throughout the years, neighbors have reported the mansion's windows opening and closing by themselves and the front door opening with no human assistance. Moans, screams, a woman standing over sleeping occupants with a whip and a child tugging on sleeves have all been reported. Madame's fury at the slave child and the child's gory death are said to play out in their entirety for horrified spectators. The furniture store had to close because the furniture was repeatedly ripped during the night and found coated with some sort of unidentified goo in the morning. The owner waited up one night, thinking that vandals were responsible for the damage. He saw nothing and no one, but the next morning the furniture was ruined again. He closed the store that day for the last time.
The guide turns toward you. You can see the glitter of her dark eyes in the fading light. She continues:
Jeff Dwyer, author of The Ghost Hunter's Guide to New Orleans, says that ghost hunters have the best chance to glimpse paranormal activity by observing the mansion from the far side of Governor Nicholls Street, where we are standing now.
You and the guide stare at the house for a long moment. You start when she begins to speak again:
The house was restored and divided into luxury apartments — that's when the bodies beneath the floors were discovered. Most recently it was bought by actor Nicolas Cage, who at one time owned at least three haunted houses in the New Orleans area, including Anne Rice's former residence in the Garden District. The Lalaurie house is currently on the market, for a sale price of $3.9 million. Care to buy it?
The tour guide grins at you. You let out a nervous laugh. It is nearly dark outside. Windows inside the mansion are illuminated with a dull yellow light. You stare at the house and wonder. Is it haunted? An entire city seems to think so, and no house deserves to be haunted more than the Lalaurie Mansion.
What you've just heard is the stuff of New Orleans legend. But how much of the legend is grounded in fact, and how much is the result of sensational journalism, nearly two centuries of gossip and the embellishments of the tourism industry?
If you want to know the real story of Madame Lalaurie, turn the page. Her story is deep and complex, and shocking new twists have been unearthed. Discover the truth for yourself, if you dare.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Mad Madame Lalaurie"
Copyright © 2011 Victoria Cosner Love and Lorelei Shannon.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: The Legend,
Chapter 2: Delphine's Early Life and First Marriage,
Chapter 3: Delphine's Second Marriage,
Chapter 4: Louis Lalaurie and the "Catastrophe of 1834",
Chapter 5: Exiled in Paris,
Chapter 6: Delphine Lalaurie's Last Years,
Chapter 7: Madame Lalaurie in Popular History and Culture,
Chapter 8: What If It's All True?,
Chapter 9: Our Conclusions,
Chapter 10: Myths v. Facts,
Chapter 11: And What About the Haunted House?,
Appendix: Delphine's Thoroughly Impressive Legacy and Family Connections,
About the Authors,