Tuesday, February 28, 2012

MADAME DELPHINE LALAURIE

Delphine LaLaurie and her third husband, Leonard LaLaurie, took up residence in the house at 1140 Royal Street sometime in the 1830's. The pair immediately became the darlings of the gay New Orleans social scene that at the time was experiencing the birth of ragtime, the slave dances and rituals of Congo Square, the reign of the Mighty Marie Laveau, and the advent of the bittersweet Creole Balls. Madame LaLaurie hosted fantastic events in her beautiful home that were talked about months afterward. She was described as sweet and endearing in her ways, and her husband was nothing if not highly respected within the community.

At the same time, it is said, Madame’s friendship with infamous Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau, began to grow. Laveau lived not far from LaLaurie’s Royal Street home and the two women became acquainted when Laveau did Madame’s hair occasionally. It is said that under Laveau’s tutelage, Madame LaLaurie began to act upon her latent interest in the occult, learning the secrets of voodoo and witchcraft at the hands of a might mistress of the craft.

Like all well-established members of society, the LaLaurie's kept a brace of slaves to help run their Royal Street home. Early on, there was nothing unusual about Madame's relationship with her slaves, although they all seemed to hold her in nervous regard. But eventually, whispers began to spread through the lower Quarter of the Madame's double life and of her growing abuse of those indentured to working under her roof. The whispers grew louder and louder, among the Negroes and the Free People of Color and were passed ear to ear throughout the tight-knit domestic community of the Old Quarter. But New Orleans socialites turned a deaf ear to what they considered "nonsense" and “superstition”- until the day Madame LaLaurie was seen chasing a young slave girl through the house and to her ultimate death on the cobblestone courtyard, three stories below.

The death, deemed an accident, and Madame deemed perfectly within her right to exact discipline on her property, nonetheless set off a chain of events that would assure Madame LaLaurie an eternal place in infamy.

It is said that, angered at the needless and awful death of the young slave girl, one of the older kitchen women deliberately set fire to the house. The flames had nearly engulfed most of the lower stories of the house by the time the fire brigade arrived on the scene. The kitchen woman, it is said, ran out to the fire brigade and, hollering something about the "poor souls" in the attic, led those who followed to the top of the burning house.

There are actual accounts, with notarized signatures of at least three witnesses of high standing, of the gruesome and horrible sights found in the dark and smoky attic that day. Dead and half-dead slaves, men, women, and children, were found in various stages of torment and pain - chained to the walls by shackles on their hands and feet, some lying prone, others forced to stand in crudely constructed wooden stocks, they had been subjected to unimaginable acts of morbid atrocity. Eyes gouged out; tongues hacked off and in some instances crudely re-attached; mouths and eyes sewn shut altogether; noses and ears sheared off; bones broken and reset in horrible, twisted manners; genitals mutilated - these were just some of the horrible sights that met the eyes of the fire rescuers and witnessed by ordinary citizens. Most of the slaves thus confined were already dead from torment or smoke inhalation; the others would not last long beyond this day of liberation.

The City was in an uproar. There were cries of vengeance against the Bitch LaLaurie; they wanted her blood; they wanted her skin. And Madame knew it. So, with the mob forming hot upon her heels, she escaped Royal Street and the French Quarter in her carriage, the horses dragging it madly away toward the swamps and Bayous south and east of the Quarter itself.

It is said Madame LaLaurie stopped and took refuge at the Pilot House (still standing) located on the shores of Bayou St. John, and that later she boarded a merchant schooner and escaped under cover of darkness. Where is still a matter of some debate. 

Dwelling deep in the verdant darkness of the piney North shore woods, it is said Madame’s anger at those who had stripped her of her previous life festered and grew along with her interest in the dark arts learned at Marie Laveau’s hand. Soon tales began to spread through the rural community of the "witch woman", the "devil’s wife", living among them and whose strange rituals filled the dark woods with fire and smoke and otherworldly chanting. An atmosphere of dread pervaded the little community and there were whispered stories of animal sacrifices and torture, of curses falling upon land and livestock, of children falling sick and wasting away, and soon the name of Madame Delphine LaLaurie began to be uttered again with fear and loathing.

It is rumored that her dark legacy lives on to this day and there are still numerous reports of midnight ritual fires along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain or in the deep woods adjacent to the St. Tammany Trace. When the subject is raised of a satanic cult still thriving in the area, some modern day residents of the now burgeoning town of Lacombe will wag their heads in a resigned "yes" - though few will talk openly about it.

This is the legacy of Madame Delphine LaLaurie, who dabbled in great mysteries and got a taste for blood that was never sated, as long as she lived. Some say, in fact, that she has never died, having paid for eternal life with generations of blood sacrifices.

As for the home on Royal Street, it was restored and renovated many times over the intervening years, passing through the hands of many a land-loaded New Orleanian. But an odd footnote is that no one and nothing has ever thrived at that location for very long. Since being abandoned by the LaLaurie’s on that fateful day long ago, it has housed single families, schools, clothing shops, and even a government freedman’s bureau, but none stayed established there for very long. In the 20th century it was converted to a collection of studios and small apartments and as I write this, a new wave of interior renovations is underway. But the tales keep surfacing nonetheless.

There are reported incidents of people seeing, feeling and hearing the ghosts of tormented slaves in the LaLaurie home, and there are even reports of the Madame herself being seen there. The docile house servants who entreated the assistance of outsiders when the house was about to burn to the ground are said to often return to their task - running and slamming doors and shouts are heard repeatedly. Nor are the spirits of the restless dead quiet: the reports of moans and weeping outnumber all others, and there are several who have seen the ghostly faces of the dead peering from the upper windows and the chamber of horrors that became the crucible of their miserable lives.

New Orleans is one of the oldest and most multi-faceted cities in the United States, and there are other tales, similar to those of the LaLaurie home that, sadly, have made their way into history. But the gruesome horror of this particular event was so ghastly that it stains the city's memory to this very day.

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