Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Weekly Dose of Weird: Lalaurie Mansion

This week’s dose of weird takes us to the humid streets of New Orleans in the nineteenth century.  Picture the mix of English, French, and Creole spoken in the streets, people of all races and in between bustling off to some pressing duty or another, women in long wide skirts, men in buttoned shirts and suspenders.  Some of these people would be free, some of them would be enslaved, one day up on the selling block.  If they were lucky, they would be able to buy their freedom.  If they were unlucky, terribly unlucky, they would be bought by Delphine LaLaurie.  

In the late eighteenth century Marie Delphine Macarty was born in New Orleans.  As a young woman she married a Spanish officer and traveled with him to Spain.  At some point during this trip, her husband died.  She remarried, then her second husband died.  Delphine married a third time, to a man much younger than she, but with enough money to buy a large property.  

(Delphine LaLaurie)

By her first husband she had one daughter, by her second four daughters, and by her third apparently none.  Delphine and her third husband, the physician Leonard LaLaurie, purchased a large piece of property and had a large mansion built, complete with attached slave quarters.  Leonard LaLaurie had little involvement with this property, almost everything about it was handled by his wife.  The family was well-connected within New Orleans society due both to money and to Delphine’s family connections: her cousin Augustin Macarty served as mayor of New Orleans from 1815-1820.  

Parties at the LaLaurie home were frequent and lavish, the delight of the New Orleans social calendar.  All those that were fortunate enough to attend loved the parties, and apparently Delphine LaLaurie.  Accounts of her paint her as a kind, polite, compassionate woman.  The house itself was impressive, three stories tall and filled with carved mahogany.  The hostess was the perfect image of New Orleans society, at least as long as guests were present.

Delphine LaLaurie’s treatment of her slaves before 1834 is somewhat unclear.  In public she was observed to be polite to other enslaved people, and she freed two of her slaves, apparently without coercion or purchase of freedom.  Visitors often commented that Delphine would comfort any slave who feared punishment.  Yet, rumors swirled that something more sinister was going on in the LaLaurie house.  

Neighbors whispered about how quickly slaves were replaced in the big house on Royal Street.  Maids would show up and never be seen again after only a week with the family.  One night a neighbor heard a shattering scream.  A young girl was running through the house, trying to escape Delphine, who was chasing her wielding a whip.  The neighbor watched as the young girl, followed by Delphine, fled from one window to the next, eventually reaching the roof.  From there she jumped.  Her small body hit the ground three stories below and she did not survive.  According to the neighbor Delphine LaLaurie had the young girl buried in a shallow grave in the courtyard.  After this, LaLaurie was reported for cruelty, and an investigation found her guilty.  The law at the time in Louisiana forbade unnecessary cruelty by owners against enslaved people.  The family's slaves were confiscated, but somehow by 1834 Delphine LaLaurie once again owned dozens of people.  

In April 1834 a fire broke out in the LaLaurie house, started by an elderly slave who could no longer endure the indignities inflicted by Delphine LaLaurie.  Neighbors and fire crews came to help put out the flames and retrieve the family’s valuables.  Soon though neighbors began to wonder where the family’s slaves were since they were not helping with the efforts.  When asked for the keys to the attached slave quarters, Delphine refused to hand them over.  A dozen men broke down the doors and rushed inside.  They had expected to find scared people trying to hide from the flames, instead they found a museum of horrors.  

The New Orleans Bee newspaper reported that at least seven enslaved people had been found in iron shackles, hung by their necks, limbs wrenched from their sockets.  One of the men who entered the slave quarters, a judge, later reported that he had seen a woman wearing an iron collar, and another with head injuries who was entirely unable to walk.  Another account published two years later stated that some of those found within wore spiked collars, had been bound in unnatural positions, and had evidence of being flayed.  The mob of citizens outside, upon hearing of this, tore the slave quarters apart in outrage.  Within two days thousands of people had come to see the house and to learn about all of the tortures wrought on those enslaved by Delphine LaLaurie.  Her husband’s involvement is unclear, though he did tell the judge that had entered the slave quarters to stay out of their family’s business.  The New Orleans Bee also described Delphine LaLaurie as a “demon in the shape of a woman.”

Seven slaves were rescued from Delphine LaLaurie’s torture chamber, most of them crippled for life from the positions in which they were chained, one of them with a hole in his head, covered in scars, and full of worms.  

Later reports from the early twentieth century include far worse tortures, including one man whose head been drilled into, a stick inserted, and used to “stir his brains” and several people whose lips had been sewn shut.  These later reports are not clear about where their details come from, though one website claims the New Orleans Bee as a source without citing a specific article or date.  

Delphine LaLaurie and her family disappeared soon after the discovery of Delphine’s torture chamber.  Some believe that she and her family fled to France, others that they lived like animals in nearby woods.  Still others believe that the LaLaurie family simply moved into another nearby town, and that Delphine’s reign of torture may have continued well beyond the destruction of her torture chamber on Royal Street.  

Stay Tuned.


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