12 Secrets Revealed About History's Brutal Mistress, Madame LaLaurie
12 Secrets Revealed About History’s Brutal Mistress, Madame LaLaurie

12 Secrets Revealed About History’s Brutal Mistress, Madame LaLaurie

Natasha sheldon - February 18, 2018

12 Secrets Revealed About History’s Brutal Mistress, Madame LaLaurie
Madame LaLaurie drives ‘Leah” to her death. Google Images.

The Legend of ‘Leah’

One of the most famous stories of Madame LaLaurie’s cruelty is that of a young slave girl who she reportedly drove to her death. One of Harriet Martineau’s sources claims to have seen a whip-wielding Madame LaLaurie chasing a small girl up to the roof of the house. As her mistress closed in upon her, the terrified child threw herself down onto the courtyard below, where LaLaurie later ordered her burial. This incident resulted in city officials finally prosecuting LaLaurie. As a result, nine of her slaves were forcibly sold away from her. These slaves, the witness explained, were repurchased by a relative and eventually returned to LaLaurie.

This little girl was later identified by the name ‘Leah’ or “Lia.” She was reputedly Madame LaLauries’s maid and had enraged her mistress by accidentally snagging her hair while she was brushing it. However, Leah is not a name found in the records of LaLaurie’s slaves. Instead, her name, the particulars of her job and the source of LaLaurie’s rage come from the imaginative embellishments of Jeanne DeLavigne in her 1945 book Ghost Stories of Old New Orleans.

Likewise, there are no records of any prosecution or conviction for Cruelty of Madame LaLaurie in a New Orleans court. Also, the usually meticulous Boze makes no mention of the death of a child on the roof of the LaLaurie mansion to his employer, or any subsequent legal action. Nor do the post-fire newspaper reports, which were quick to pick up on tales of LaLaurie’s ‘indiscretions,’ mention the child’s death. So could it be the entire story of ‘Leah’ is a fiction?

While Madame LaLaurie did not own a slave called Leah, there are some children from her slave lists, not officially listed sold or dead, who seem to ‘disappear from the records.’ Anyone could be a contender for Leah. Also, even though there are no legal records of a successful prosecution that resulted in the confiscation of slaves, it appears that in 1828, Madame LaLaurie suddenly sold six of her slaves to a family friend, Louis Brugniere. Brugniere, in turn, sold four of the slaves: Celestine, Edouard, Juliette, and Ben onto another family friend, Andre Dussemir who in 1830 sold all four back to LaLaurie. Three of those slaves, Juliette, Edouard, and Celestine, are recorded as dying in LaLaurie’s possession sometime between 1831-1834.

Could these be the slaves she was ordered to sell? Or was LaLaurie trying to temporarily rid herself of incriminating evidence until the heat of an investigation was off? For there could be another reason why New Orleans’ court minutes contain no trace of charges for cruelty against Madame LaLaurie.

12 Secrets Revealed About History’s Brutal Mistress, Madame LaLaurie
John Grymes, the defense attorney, employed by Madame LaLaurie in 1829

Madame LaLaurie Used Her Position to Evade Justice

Madame LaLaurie’s family occupied the pinnacle of New Orleans’s society. Not only were her family amongst the founding Creole elite but also even after Louisiana passed into American hands, they retained a position of power in the state. Delphine LaLaurie’s cousin, Augustin de MacCarty was mayor of New Orleans between 1815 and 1820. Political office aside, the family’s wealth also ensured that they were safe from prosecution.

This situation is borne out by the case of one of Madame LaLaurie’s cousins, Madame Lanusse. Like her cousin after her, Madame Lanusse was called out for excessive cruelty to her slaves. Records claim she “whipped a Negress to death and treated another so cruelly that she died a short while after.” However the matter was hushed up because of the lady’s position in society- and the fact her husband was a notable New Orleans’s banker.

Delphine Lalaurie shared these same connections. She was also independently wealthy, thanks to inheritances from her parents, husbands and her sharp business acumen. This wealth put her in a position of significant influence and ensured that the authorities dropped charges before they came to court- and therefore never documented. When the authorities investigated her home in 1828, as reported by Boze, LaLaurie skillfully evaded prosecution with a mix of bribery and manipulation of the law. Legally, Delphine’s slaves could not testify against her, and any free witnesses were paid off. All Delphine had to do to avoid justice was, swear before a court that she had done nothing wrong.

The same happened in 1829 and 1832- the other occasions Boze mentions that LaLaurie was investigated and yet avoided justice. In 1829, this was again down to a lack of witnesses. A record of a fee of $300 paid to attorney John Gyrmes proves that the state moved against LaLaurie as Gyrmes was engaged to defend her against the state’s prosecution. $300 in today’s money is around $7600; a large sum that suggests that part of Gyrmes ‘defense’ was used to pay off witnesses. Interestingly, the only cruelty cases in the record brought to court were against the lower classes of New Orleans society. Money talked in New Orleans society- and could also ensure silence.

However, no amount of money could cover up the evidence of people’s own eyes.

12 Secrets Revealed About History’s Brutal Mistress, Madame LaLaurie
April 10, 1834: The Fire at 1140 Royal Street which exposed Madame LaLaurie. Google Images.

The Attic of 1140 Royal Street

On April 10, 1834, a fire broke out in the kitchen in the service quarters of 1140 Royal Street. The LaLaurie household became a flurry of activity as Madame, and Dr. LaLaurie began to move their possessions to safety. The spectacle attracted a crowd, some who jumped to the LaLaurie’s assistance. Others, however, were concerned about the household slaves. They immediately enlisted one of LaLaurie’s neighbors, and the new Judge of the New Orleans criminal court, Judge Jacques Canonge, to find out what was happening to the slaves.

Judge Canonge made a deposition to the Parish Court regarding his findings later that day. This account and the subsequent newspaper reports in the New Orleans’s Courier and Bee can be used to recreate what happened- and what the rescuers found within 1140 Royal Street on April 10. Judge Canonge asked Dr. LaLaurie who was helping the slaves. Lalaurie answered rudely: “there are those who would be better employed if they would attend to their own affairs instead of officiously intermeddling with the concerns of other people.” As the Dr. had no concern for his people, Canonge sent two men to search the slave quarters.

By this time, the smoke in the service block was thick, and the pair declared they could find no one. However, a Felix Lefebvre claimed there were people in the attic. So a rescue party led by Canonge broke down the door. There they initially found two women, one wearing “an iron collar, very large and heavy and chained with heavy irons by the feet [who] walked with the greatest difficulty. “Elsewhere, they came across an elderly lady, lying on a bed with “a deep wound on her head.”

In all, the rescuers discovered seven slaves: four women, two men and one of unspecified gender. “Their limbs apparently stretched and torn from one extremity to the other, “according to the Bee. All were “covered with scars and loaded with chains.” They had all been imprisoned for several months and were extremely malnourished. Stretchers bore the victims to the City Hall where they were laid out in public view.

Reporters from both The Courier and the Bee commented on their condition, which even “the most savage heart could not have witnessed the spectacle unmoved.” Apart from being starved, confined and scarred, many of the victims had untreated open, maggot-ridden wounds. One man, according to the Courier had a large hole in his head.

These facts were horrifying enough to provoke a mob to attack and destroy the LaLaurie mansion. However, over the years, the story collected more salacious details.

12 Secrets Revealed About History’s Brutal Mistress, Madame LaLaurie
Image of a rooftop ghost from the LaLaurie Mansion from Jeanne Delavigne’s “Ghost Stories of Old New Orleans. Google Images.

From History to Myth

The intense feeling acted out upon the LaLaurie Mansion was a testament to the shock and outrage of the general public at the treatment of the slaves. However, the facts alone did not serve that anger for long. Embellishments began to creep in from outside sources. One of the earliest was Harriett Martineau’s account. This version may well have included previously overlooked eyewitness accounts, but they were versions of events colored by two years worth of hindsight.

However, the horrors of 1104 Royal Street had begun to become embellished before Martineau’s visit. The elderly female slave who admitted to starting the fire suddenly assumed the role of the house cook- despite there being no mention of this in the initial accounts. This ‘cook’ was indeed starved and beaten- but instead of lying on a bed, the new stories told how she was found chained to her stove to prevent her escape. By the late nineteenth century, as the distance from the actual events grew, these minor embellishments continued in other books about LaLaurie- books that became the definitive histories of the events in the absence of access to the primary material.

Perhaps the most outrageous embellishments came from Jeanne Delavigne and her 1945 book Ghost Stories of Old New Orleans. For Delavigne, it was not enough to show the facts of the slave’s ordeal. Instead, she peppered her account with unsubstantiated imaginings. Delavigne depicted the whipped, chained, neglected slaves as “stark naked, chained to the wall, their eyes gouged out their fingernails pulled off by the roots; others had their joints skinned and festering, great holes in their buttocks where the flesh had been sliced away, their ears hanging by shreds, their lips sewn together…. intestines were pulled out and knotted around naked waists.”

As for the man with a hole in his skull, in Delavigne’s version, a “rough stick” had been inserted in the hole “to stir the brains.” Delavigne had taken the facts and exaggerated them grossly. It kept the story of Madame LaLaurie fresh in the mind of readers. However, it wasn’t the truth. The precedent set by Delavigne’s account ensured that by the twentieth century, New Orleans’s tour guides were selling their history-seeking customers a modern myth. Lurid tales of forced sex changes, human caterpillars and crabs littered their accounts. It was as if LaLaurie’s actual treatment of the slaves just wasn’t inhuman enough.

Madame LaLaurie’s already atrocious crimes needed to be embellished to keep her image as a monster alive. For once the initial shock of the discovery in the attic wore off, people must have reflected that her ill-treatment of her slaves was little different to other slave owners.

12 Secrets Revealed About History’s Brutal Mistress, Madame LaLaurie
Injuries from a whipping, 1863. The slave in question was left bedridden for two months and the overseer who punished him dismissed. Google Images.

Madame LaLaurie Was No Worse than Many Other Slave Owners

The law may have forbidden excessive punishment for slaves, but in reality, many slave owners displayed the same casual cruelty as Madame LaLaurie. Her cousin Madame Lanusse is just one example. Harsh punishment of slaves was routine-, especially on the plantations. Historian Daniel Rasmussen, author of American Uprising” believes owners meted out such penalties because they were terrified of further slave rebellions, such as the Haiti uprising of 1791, which liberated the colony- and the slaves.

“They would tie your hands to four stakes, then whip you with a cat-o’-nine-tails. And that would leave you bleeding and barely able to move,” explained Rasmussen‘. “They also had iron masks to put around your head so you couldn’t eat. And they had collars with spikes facing inwards so the slaves couldn’t sleep without getting spikes stuck in their necks. Those were common forms of punishment in Louisiana during this period. They believed that without the threat of tremendous violence, slaves wouldn’t stay slaves.”

Such cruelty undoubtedly played a role in causing these uprisings in the first place- notably the 1811 revolt that frightened so many in New Orleans. A French visitor to Louisiana between 1802-1806 remarked how plantation slaves were punished by being “stretched naked between stakes, face down” and whipped. Even pregnant women were not exempt from such ill-treatment. Fifty years later, life was no better for slaves. In 1863, Harper’s Weekly reported how the breastfeeding slave of a Mrs. Gillespie was whipped 100 times with a wet leather strap before her mistress attempted to seal her nipples with hot tongs- just so the woman would be more productive if she stopped feeding her baby.

Nor was this kind of cruelty limited to the countryside. The New Orleans’s landlady of architect Henry Latrobe whipped one of her slaves bloody just for not making a bed correctly. Fanny Smith, a brothel keeper in the city, tortured two of her slave boys with hot irons and mangled the back of one of her female slaves so severely she was rendered useless.

All of these outrages were equal to those of Madame LaLaurie. However, they attracted nowhere near as much outrage. Why? The answer lies in the visibility of the acts. They occurred remotely, on private plantations or in a lower class district of town- not in a grand house, along with one of the best streets in New Orleans. It was the indiscretion people could not forgive. People no doubt felt horror and pity when they saw the slaves. However, they had to paint Madame LaLaurie’s deeds as way beyond the pale for to do otherwise would be to force themselves to question the whole institution of slavery.

Some people believe that there is no need to justify LaLaurie’s actions by depicting her as a product of her times. Instead, they claim that she was set up.

12 Secrets Revealed About History’s Brutal Mistress, Madame LaLaurie
William Claiborne, the first American Governor of Louisiana.Google Images

Did Madame LaLaurie’s Accusers Have Ulterior Motives?

Many people, including Madame LaLaurie’s descendants, believe she has been unjustly accused. At the same time as Jeanne Delavigne was embellishing the LaLaurie legend with garlands of horror, people like Stanley Arthur, President of the Board of Curators at Louisiana State Museum were leaping to her defense. “I have always thought that Madame LaLaurie was the first victim of yellow journalism,” Stanley told the Times-Picayune in 1941. “There is nothing in the record to indicate that she was the type of a woman pictured by them. One must remember that there was much social jealousy in those days and that Madame Lalaurie occupied an enviable position socially.”

After France sold the state of Louisiana to America in 1805, tensions grew between the traditional Creole elite and the American newcomers. The Franco- Spanish Creoles immediately found themselves challenged for power by the English, Protestant Americans. The American Governor Claiborne privately confided to President Jefferson that the Creoles of New Orleans were: “illy fitted to be useful citizens of a republic.” Madame LaLaurie was a member of this Creole elite whose wealth and influence continued to linger. Stanley, along with other revisionists, suggests that as part of a campaign to discredit Creole’s in general, the American newspapers in New Orleans libeled Madame LaLaurie.

Stanley’s picture of a woman with a stainless reputation fails because of the evidence that Madame LaLaurie purchased her clean record. His suggestion that the American-run newspapers victimized her also falls apart because, according to Carole Morrow Long, the most damning reporting of the events of April 1834 came from the Creole-run newspapers, the Bee and the Courier, not the American press.

Some, unlike Stanley, recognize that there were murmurings against LaLaurie long before the fire. They pinpoint one individual, in particular, a Monsieur Barthelemy Montreuil as the source of these accusations. They claim Montreuil (who was involved in the rescue of the slaves from the fire at the house in Royal Street) had a grudge against Madame LaLaurie, who was a relative. LaLaurie was supposed to have cheated Montreuil out of his inheritance. There is, however, no evidence of this. Montreuil successfully inherited his family wealth. Madame LaLaurie cheated him out of nothing.

However, is it reasonable to assume that Madame LaLaurie acted alone? Most accounts at the time exonerated Dr. LaLaurie from any involvement. But is this true?

12 Secrets Revealed About History’s Brutal Mistress, Madame LaLaurie
Madame LaLaurie in the Attic. A scene from the Musee Conti Wax Museum, New Orleans. Google Images.

What was the role of Dr. LaLaurie?

As far as we can ascertain, there is nothing to suggest anyone suspected Madame LaLaurie of cruelty before her third marriage in 1828. The records of her slaves show that out of the 20 deaths in total, 12 died in the short period between 1831-33. Could this be a coincidence of some significance? Did her third husband play some role in the torture?

There are some particulars of Dr. LaLaurie’s medical practice that tally with aspects of the slave’s confinement. When he first arrived from France in 1825, LaLaurie advertised himself as “a French physician…acquainted with the means, lately discovered in France of destroying hunches.” These methods included stretching the patient out on a couch to straighten the spine. We know Madame LaLaurie’s daughter, Pauline had a spinal condition, and this could be how she first met her third husband. Is it possible that the slaves in the attic who had their limbs stretched and torn from one extremity to the other” were in fact subjects in experimental medical treatments?

As Morrow Long states, this is unlikely because of the general mistreatment of the slaves. It would not have been in the doctor’s interest to whip and starve his subjects and leave their wounds to fester. It is, therefore, more likely that the Dr knew of his wife’s mistreatment of the slaves- but was not directly involved. After all, if people outside had their suspicions about what was happening in the LaLaurie mansion, it is inconceivable that any of the mansion’s residents were oblivious to events.

Some reports suggest that Madame LaLaurie’s daughters attempted to help the slaves and their mother subsequently punished them. However, Dr. LaLaurie did nothing. This silent complicity explains his terse reply to concerned Judge Canonge to mind his own business. LaLaurie feared if rescuers discovered the tortured slaves, they would question his role – even if he were guilty of nothing more than silence. However, Madame LaLaurie could not have chained and abused so many slaves without some help. This help was most likely came from her coach driver, the sleek, well-fed slave that rumor suggested was Madame’s eyes and ears in the house and who even helped her escape New Orleans.

For Madame LaLaurie was never brought to justice. So what happened to her?

12 Secrets Revealed About History’s Brutal Mistress, Madame LaLaurie
Epitaph Plate found in a New Orlean’s cemetery used to suggest Madame LaLaurie died in Paris-but was buried in her hometown. Google Images.

The Fate of Madame LaLaurie

Accounts tell that as the mob assembled to attack her home and demand justice for the maimed slaves, Madame LaLaurie calmly drove away from Royal Street, as if for her habitual afternoon ride. However, she never returned to her home. Instead, she fled into legend. Accounts vary, but Madame LaLaurie supposedly continued to live in Louisiana under an assumed name, fled to New York, or lived in exile in France until she died, gouged to death during a wild boar hunt.

Documents, letters, and diary entries have allowed historians to piece together exactly what occurred after the flight from New Orleans. Initially, Delphine reunited with her husband, two unmarried daughters and a young son at the home of her niece. There, both LaLauries signed a power of attorney so that Delphine’s son in laws could handle their business affairs while they were in exile. Placide Forstall, the daughter of Borja, was Madame LaLaurie’s appointee while Auguste Delassus, the husband of Jeanne acted for Dr. LaLaurie.

In June 1834, the poet William Cullen Bryant was sailing to Le Havre, France on a ship from New York called Poland. He recalls encountering the LaLauries onboard and states that the other passengers recognized them too and shunned Madame as news of her activities had quickly spread north. Once in France, the LaLaurie’s sought refugee with Dr. LaLaurie’s family.

However, Madame LaLaurie found the experience a step down in life. Auguste and Jeanne Delassus visited their exiled relatives, causing Auguste to comment in a letter to his father how his “poor mother in law” was “confined…by that riff-raff LaLaurie family [to a house] without a bed to lie on.” The tension led to a final split between Dr and Madame LaLaurie, and Delphine and her children moved to Paris where they lived a comfortable life, well supplied with funds from Madame LaLaurie’s American assets.

The exact circumstances of Delphine LaLaurie’s death are not so easy to unravel. Letters from her son, Paulin, suggest she did wish to return home to New Orleans, but her children dissuaded her. Records show that she died in Paris on December 7, 1849, and was buried locally. However, it seems that her body was disinterred from her Paris grave on January 7, 1851, and, according to her descendants, reinterred in St Louis Cemetery No 1 that same year. So LaLaurie’s body at least returned to New Orleans. However, other evidence shows that she was alive and well in 1850, as there are documents which show she was challenging executors to her brother’s will in the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Either way, no one knows the exact location of her grave today. Nor do we know why a respectable socialite suddenly became an abuser of slaves. Or do we?

12 Secrets Revealed About History’s Brutal Mistress, Madame LaLaurie
Posthumous portrait of Madame LaLaurie. Google Images.

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:

ThoughtCo. Delphine LaLaurie: Biography and History of the LaLaurie Mansion

Carolyn Morrow Long: Madame Lalaurie: Mistress of the Haunted House.

Ghost City Tours. The Haunted LaLaurie Mansion

Nola. For Free People Of Color, A Precarious Niche In Society

Victoria Cosner Love and Lorelei Shannon: Mad Madame Lalaurie: New Orleans most Famous Murderess Revealed.

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.

New Orleans Bee, April 11, 1834. “Delphine LaLaurie and Her Haunted Mansion in New Orleans”. Legends of America.

Ranker.com. 19 facts about Madame Lalaurie, Socialite, Slave Torturer and Serial Killer.

George Washington Cable. Strange, True Stories of Louisiana

DeepSouthMag.com. The Real Madame LaLaurie and other Legends from American Horror Story Coven

Daily Beast.com. New Orleans Forgotten Slave Revolt by Dan Rasmussen

Atlas Obscura. Mad Madame LaLaurie, New Orleans Socialite Serial Killer.

64 Perishes. Mistress of the Haunted House

The Grunge. The Messed-Up Truth Of Socialite Serial Killer Delphine Lalaurie

Today I Found Out. The Twisted Tale Of Delphine Lalaurie And Her House Of Horrors

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