The New Orleans aristocrat, Madame LaLaurie, possessed a cruel darkness.
Delphine LaLaurie, also known as Madame LaLaurie, was a wealthy and powerful slave owner during the early 1800s at her New Orleans Royal Street mansion. She was born in New Orleans circa 1780 to an Irish gentleman and a French lady of upper society. The distinguished French Creole aristocrat was taught well the ways of charm and grace, and she was notably beautiful. However, beneath her external beauty lay an unparalleled darkness, for at her stately mansion she tormented, tortured, and murdered several of her slaves. Delphine left behind a legacy of cruelty so shocking that her story has been recounted thousands of times ever since her last fateful day in New Orleans in 1834.
Who Was Madame LaLaurie?
Delphine LaLaurie was the daughter of an Irish immigrant father who settled in New Orleans during the French colonial period. Her parents were important members of the local community, and Delphine’s cousin was the mayor of the city from 1815-1820.
An attractive young woman, Delphine married well. Three times. Her husbands included a Spanish royal officer, an important local banker, and the physician, Louis LaLaurie. The good doctor brought a new title to the socialite. She became the mistress of a house full of slaves. Even though the marriage was a good scenario for many women at the time, the lovely aristocrat was unusually independent. In fact, she had her own businesses and wealth, and she insisted on managing her own affairs.
No one knew that those affairs included torturing and murdering the slaves of her household. Though most official reports claim that she was directly responsible for the tortuous deaths of four slaves, many people believe it may have been more than that. Her macabre actions make her one of the most notorious female serial killers in American History.
The Royal Street Mansion
On the outside, 1140 Royal Street was a benign and glorious example of wealth and social standing. It was pure New Orleans elegance and class. Madame LaLaurie purchased the prime piece of French Quarter real estate for $33,000 in 1831. Most people presumed that she used money the two-time widow inherited from her previous husbands. The following year she built the large two-story mansion and attached the slave quarters. It stood like a sentinel above the Vieux Carre. At the time, Delphine’s mansion was one of the tallest structures in the French Quarter.
Inside, things weren’t so idyllic. Whispers circulated throughout the Quarter about Madame LaLaurie’s sadistic side and her fondness for abusing the slaves. By 1833 it was becoming harder for her to evade the attention of local authorities.
The Hair Incident
The story goes that the mistress became upset when one of her slaves, a 12-year-old girl named Lia, caught a tangle while brushing her owner’s hair. The cruel woman seized a whip and Lia ran. Lia’s little legs carried her to the second floor, up through the attic, and to the roof of the mansion. As a neighbor looked on, Delphine LaLaurie emerged and closed in on the young girl. What happened next is a matter of speculation that is still discussed in New Orleans. Some say Lia lost her footing. Others say the woman pushed her. A few say that she jumped on purpose. All that is known for certain is that Lia tumbled from the roof of the mansion to the street below where her life blood flowed out like the dark waters of the nearby Mississippi River.
Delphine’s neighbor had witnessed this event, though, and that changed things. After the incident, the neighbor reported that Delphine buried the young girl in the corner of her property at night. Word spread quickly. An investigation ensued, and the court found the slave owner guilty of illegal cruelty against nine slaves. As a result, she paid a fine and forfeited the slaves.
What happened next is evidence of how cunning this wicked slave owner could be. Or perhaps she sought vengeance. She convinced relatives to buy back the slaves and sell them back to her. The slaves had to quietly return to the mansion at night. While no one believes that the morale at the mansion improved, the beatings certainly continued. Many people speculate that the sadistic woman brought them back for the purpose of teaching them a lesson in the form of torture.
A Victim’s Desperate Gamble
On the morning of April 10, 1884, one of Delphine’s slaves decided she could no longer endure the terrors at 1140 Royal Street. Delphine had chained her to a stove in the kitchen where she labored over luxurious meals for the mistress and her family. From there, the 70-year-old woman decided to take her own way out. She started a fire. Her hope was that the flames would consume both herself and the house of horrors.
The fire spread quickly, but not fast enough. Local police and fire brigades responded. While Madame LaLaurie struggled to save her furniture, authorities tended to the old woman chained at her ankle to the stove. When the fire was more or less under control, the slave confessed her arson and her choice of death over going to the uppermost area of the mansion. She told her rescuers that those taken there never returned.
Bystanders involved in bringing the fire under control sought to assist authorities with an evacuation of the mansion. When they found the door to the slave quarters locked, Delphine and her husband refused to hand over the key. A few of the local citizens took it upon themselves to break down the door. What awaited them on the other side was a scene so gruesome that it has left a lasting imprint on the collective psyche of America, subconsciously drawing us all to the horror of Madame LaLaurie’s persona.
Terror in the Slave Quarters
On April 11, 1834, the New Orleans Bee stated, “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. In her thesis paper for Lousiana State University, Katy Frances Marlas stated:
The New Orleans Advertiser described finding one of the male slaves with ‘a large hole in his head; his body from head to foot was covered with scars and filled with worms…those who have seen the others represent them to be in a similar condition.
Harriet Martineau’s Account
In 1936, just two years after the fire, Harriet Martineau, an English writer and the first female sociologist, utilized her extensive contacts in New Orleans to thoroughly investigate the Madame LaLaurie story. In fact, it was the sight of the Royal Street mansion ruins that incited her curiosity. She subsequently published her book Retrospect of Western Travel, in 1938, and here is what she said about the grim discovery at 1140 Royal Street:
“A horrible sight met their eyes. Of the nine slaves, the skeletons of two were afterwards found poked into the ground; the other seven could scarcely be recognised as human. Their faces had the wildness of famine, and their bones were coming through the skin. They were chained and tied in constrained postures; some on their knees, some with their hands above their heads. They had iron collars with spikes which kept their heads in one position. The cowhide, stiff with blood, hung against the wall; and there was a step-ladder on which this fiend stood while flogging her victims, in order to lay on the lashes with more effect.”
The Tale Gets Taller
Time, of course, works its own brand of nefarious embellishments on a story such as this. Unverified accounts assert that one slave’s intestines had been released from his stomach and looped around his waist like a belt. Supposedly, Delphine LaLaurie broke the bones of a female slave and reset them to make her resemble a crab. Some even claim that there were more than 100 victims in the attic, most of which were still alive.
Only those who beheld the terror in the slave quarters of the grisly mansion know the truth, but those of us who live here tend to believe things were even worse than reported. More than one Louisiana resident will tell you that they have walked by 1140 Royal Street on a starless night when the Moon girds herself behind the ominous storm clouds that so often roll in off the Gulf of Mexico. They will tell you that when the raucous noise of nearby Bourbon Street has retreated to a dull hum in the wee hours of the morning and the wind is just right, the screams of the slave victims issue a plea for sweet release from eternal torture.
Angry Neighbors Destroy the Mansion
Perhaps one can find some small comfort knowing that the citizens “of all classes and colors” in New Orleans, especially the French Creoles, were outraged in the wake of the awful discovery at 1140 Royal Street. A mob descended upon the house immediately following the fire and in the following days literally destroyed it. They tore up the fine furniture that was a source of pride to the mistress. They broke the dishes and pieces of art in the home, and they disemboweled her precious featherbeds. Nothing escaped their rage. When they had finished, little remained but the walls.
Even though Louisiana played its dark role in slavery and the ill-treatment of African-Americans, these individuals were able to recognize the atrocity of what had happened in the Royal Street mansion and tried to rectify it. One can only imagine what would have happened if they had been able to put their hands on the evil human being that a newspaper called a “demon in the form of a woman.”
A Narrow Escape
Sensing the trouble that was to come, the evil woman sought to escape. According to Martineau, later that afternoon Delphine’s coachman quickly shuffled her into the carriage. He drove her to the river where she took a schooner to Mobile, Alabama, before leaving for Paris. She took an assumed name in Paris, but someone identified her and told her that she needed to leave. Martineau reported in her 1938 book that “She fled that night, and is supposed to be now skulking about in some French province, under a false name.” Delphine died there on December 7, 1849. Subsequently, her remains were quietly returned to New Orleans and placed in the Saint Louis Cemetery.
Delphine LaLaurie in Pop Culture
Pop culture has developed a fascination with the story of Madame LaLaurie that will not go away. Most recently, the popular repertory television program American Horror Story included Delphine’s character in a season titled Coven. Additionally, poems, books, and even video games have featured the famous criminal. It is curious why such a terrible figure has captured the imagination of the American public, but perhaps it is because her story is so nightmarish that it bears the hallmark of fiction.
Today, the Mardi Gras City is a culture of masks. At Mardi Gras time, the tourists who visit this enchanting and mystical place love to wear masks, but Madame LaLaurie was a woman who wore hers year round. By day, she courted the city’s elite, but when night fell, leaving only the gas lamps to light the city, Delphine’s mask came off. What she hid beneath it was a terrifying monster capable of unthinkable cruelty.
Martineau, Harriet. Retrospect of Western Travel. Vol. 1. London: Saunder and Otley, 1838. Accessed February 23, 2017.
Morlas, Katy Frances. “Creole Women of Louisiana.” 117-120. Accessed February 23, 2017.
A Torture Chamber is Uncovered by Arson.” History. Accessed February 23, 2017.
Langenhennig, Susan. “French Quarter’s Lalaurie house gets elegant makeover that plays to its haunted past.” The Times Picayune, October 23, 2013. Accessed February 23, 2017.