Nov 21 2011

The Mystery of the LaLaurie Mansion

By: Emily Hingle

laularie 12-11Lisa M. Cates

The stately three-story home on 1140 Royal Street in the French Quarter has been a fixture since the mid 1800s. It currently sits empty and quiet with just a sign hanging outside and crumpled permit papers taped to the windows. The sign reads “The LaLaurie Mansion” in black, spooky type. Tour guides lead visitors to the corner of the building and recount the story of the mad Madame LaLaurie, the Creole socialite who afflicted unspeakable acts of torture on her slaves. That tale has stuck to the home throughout the decades, but some researchers don’t believe the hype created by the often dramatized accounts written in newspapers. Evidence suggests that the city vilified an innocent person.


The legend from articles in newspapers like The Bee goes that the LaLauries bought the home in 1831. They were prominent citizens; locally-born Madame Delphine LaLaurie and Monsieur LaLaurie, who was her third husband and a doctor from France, were the toast of Creole society. Madame LaLaurie was charming and beautiful, but rumors began circulating of mistreatment of their slaves. One account claimed that a young girl was being chased around the house by Madame LaLaurie and fell from the third story or roof, and her body was buried in the courtyard during the night. There was an investigation into the allegations, yet Madame LaLaurie had intrigued the detective, and he couldn’t believe that she could be that cruel. 


On April 10, 1834, a fire broke out in the home. When firefighters arrived, the Madame asked them to save the furnishings, saying, “…never mind about the slaves.” But hearing from neighbors that they were chained, the firefighters entered the third floor and were horrified upon seeing them. The slaves were mutilated and near death, some even the subjects of experiments like sex changes. The Courier Newspaper printed that the slaves were taken to the Cabildo with wounds filled with worms and holes drilled in their skulls. Thousands of citizens brought them nourishment while marveling at their conditions. Outraged by this torture, they formed a mob and attempted to capture Madame LaLaurie, but she escaped by carriage and boat to the Northshore, and eventually to France. According to a grave marker found in the mid-20th Century in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, she died at the age of 68 in 1842. 


Beginning soon after the incident, newspapers slaMadamed Madame LaLaurie; The Bee (l’Abeille) even called her “The Lady Nero.” The home was changed into a music conservatory, a school for black and white girls, apartments for Italian men, and even a bar called “Haunted Saloon,” but businesses never lasted long, some citing ghosts as the problem. One owner claimed his furniture kept getting ruined by vandals who would smear a black, foul liquid on the upholstery. He waited around one night to catch them, but no one came. When he saw the furniture again, it had the liquid on it. He promptly sold the home. The eccentric son of a French general Jules Edward Vignie squatted in the house for years and was found dead in 1892 on a tattered cot surrounded by art, precious objects and lots of hidden cash. 


After his demise, an article ran on March 13, 1892 in the Daily Picayune (eventually the Times Picayune). Marik Point writes in “The Haunted House” that he wants to dispel myths created by writer George Washington Cable, which Point believed were probably dramatized to the point of fiction for newspapers and books. Point writes, “How much of the story is true, and how much the creation of Mr. Cable’s fancy the old Creoles of New Orleans will tell you.” Throughout the article that includes hand-drawn pictures and long descriptions of the home, Point says that the injuries of the slaves Cable described were exaggerated, but goes into great detail of the mob going after LaLaurie’s carriage, then killing the horses after she escaped and destroying her home by ransacking then burning it.
The bad press kept coming through the decades; more publications asserted that Madame LaLaurie was a sadist. In a 1912 article in the Daily Picayune, Henriette Fuller van Pelt, a wealthy citizen recounting her life, stated, “Madame LaLaurie was a degenerate. I recognize that fact now. She was crazy.”


It wasn’t until 1934, 100 years after the incident, that someone researched beyond the typical stories. In an article titled “Was Madame LaLaurie the Victim of a Foul Plot?” printed in the Times Picayune on February 4, Meigs Frost asserts that Delphine LaLaurie was blameless. Frost uncovered a complex familial connection between her and her neighbor Monsieur Montreuil, who is described in the early newspaper accounts as telling firemen that the slaves were chained. Frost believes that Montreuil started rumors of slave torture, even requesting investigations because Madame was the business administrator of her brother’s (L.B. Macarty) estate, which Montreuil was a beneficiary of and had disputes with her over property. He cites numerous legal notices posted in newspapers during the 1840s and 50s from when she sued the executors who took commission from the estate at the Louisiana Supreme Court and won. I also found these notices in the newspaper databases at UNO’s Louisiana Collection, with her name displayed on every one. Moreover, this suggests that she never left the city, as Frost says, and moved to Treme. He also mentions that the home was never ransacked because the documents from that time were still there and intact, as well as the furnishings. 


Later accounts continued to believe there was torture, but softened the blows slightly. A 1970s article about George Cable recounts his book about Madame LaLaurie ,saying “…the beautiful but brutal Madame LaLaurie allegedly tortured her slaves.” Fred Darkis, Jr. writes in “Louisiana History” in 1982, “Nineteenth-century authors were not kind to Madame LaLaurie. Undoubtedly, they made mistakes. It must also be admitted that these writers were not in complete agreement with respect to details or bits of information.” He believed that the newspapers highly sensationalized the account, which led to a firm belief by most that she was a ruthless beast. In his 2010 book “Haunted New Orleans,” Troy Taylor describes, “Horrible Things happened in this house – horrible enough to earn the house a reputation that still lingers almost two centuries later.” He also describes her as “…cruel, cold-blooded and possibly insane…” 


A pair of writers recently released a fact-based book about the LaLauries, attempting to discredit the myth once and for all, beginning by exploring their early lives to reporting on their deaths. Victoria Love and Lorelei Shannon released “Mad Madame LaLaurie” in 2011. Foremost, they question why Louis LaLaurie, Delphine’s husband, was left out of all accusations and believes that he, in fact, committed the horrific acts; conducting medical experiments on the unwilling slaves to further his knowledge of medicine. They found that Delphine petitioned to free one slave on Oct. 26, 1832, and petitioned for separation from Louis on November 16, 1832, possibly because she did not like what he did to their slaves. Love and Shannon do believe that some indications of abuse were found, such as women with heavy iron collars on their necks, and they assert that the LaLauries fled the city. They uncovered a series of letters from Madame in France to her family in New Orleans and one from Louis in Cuba in 1842. The writers claimed that the grave plaque found in St. Louis Cemetery was a hoax meant to make New Orleanians believe she was dead when she arrived in New Orleans to live out her life, dying in the 1850s. Another grave in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, the same where Marie Laveau is buried, bears her name with the later date. 


It’s been rumored that a movie will be made about the event, or the home will be turned into a museum. Through all of its incarnations, it was owned in 2007 through 2009 by actor and part-time resident Nicholas Cage, who has been known for his many, sometimes strange, holdings here. It was sold for nearly three million dollars, but further information about the future of the home is unknown. The terrifying story, true or fiction, is forever burned into this city’s memory; a scene that has since been depicted in a gruesome diorama in the Musée Conti Wax Museum where Madame LaLaurie is overseeing her henchman whip one slave who is bound while others look on in horror in a dark attic. The truth will probably never be known, and so it remains the most haunted house in the city with a tortured past.


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