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.