Was Madame LaLaurie Mad?
Given the apparently sudden nature of Madame LaLaurie’s reckless cruelty, is it possible she suffered some mental illness that caused her to act out violently on her vulnerable slaves? Carolyn Morrow Long has speculated that the trigger for this ‘breakdown’ was the failure of her unequal marriage to Dr. LaLaurie. Dr. LaLaurie was in his late twenties at the time of the wedding- much younger than his forty-one-year-old wife. He also brought only 2000 dollars to the marriage. Did his wife begin to doubt his reasons for marrying her, as soon as the honeymoon was over?
Rejection would have been a new experience for Delphine. Beautiful and feted by society, she seems to have had satisfying enough marriages with her previous husbands. However, here she was, on the cusp of middle age, her new husband was spending longer and longer away from the marital home on the pretext of business. In November 1832, Delphine applied for a legal separation from LaLaurie, claiming he had “beat and wound her in a most outrageous and cruel manner” in front of witnesses.” To be ill-treated and disregarded may have been an experience she was ill-equipped to deal with.
However, was it one that caused her to mentally snap so that she took her rage out on the slaves? Perhaps- especially if she suspected one of them had replaced her in her husband’s affections. This discovery could explain the high numbers of young women who ‘disappear’ from Madame Lalaurie’s slave lists during her final marriage.
Certainly, Delphine LaLaurie had a Jekyll and Hyde character, and no one felt this more than her children whose letters indicate that they both loved and feared their mother. While one daughter, Jeanne wrote of the “tenderness” with which she loved her mother, another daughter, Pauline wrote that she would “avoid anything that might excite mama’s bad mood.” Son Paulin also complained of his “mother’s fits of bad humor.” Madame Lalaurie seems to be a woman who was perfectly amiable when she had her way- but vicious when thwarted.
Certainly, LaLaurie never understood what she had done that was so very wrong. This could be down to a sociopathic lack of conscience- or a simple belief that she had acted like anyone else of her class and upbringing would. Perhaps it is safest to see Madame LaLaurie as a product of her times- albeit one who stepped over a line. That line, however, was not subjecting her slaves to excessive cruelty. Rather it was the mistake of getting caught.
Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:
“Epitaph-Plate of ‘Haunted’ House Owner Found Here: Marble Cutter’s Discovery Starts New Talk of Madame Lalaurie”. The Times-Picayune on Jan. 28, 1941.