The legend of Madame Delphine
Lalaurie, a wealthy society matron, has haunted the city of New
Orleans for nearly two hundred years. When fire destroyed part of her
home in 1834, the public was outraged to learn that behind closed
doors Lalaurie routinely bound, starved, and tortured her slaves.
Forced to flee the city, her guilt
was unquestioned, and tales of her actions have become increasingly
fanciful and grotesque over the decades. Even today, the Laulaurie
house is described as the city's "most haunted" during ghost tours.
Marie Delphine LaLaurie (née Macarty or Maccarthy,
c. 1775 – c. 1842), more commonly known as Madame LaLaurie, was
a Louisiana-born socialite, and serial killer known for her
involvement in the torture and murder of black slaves.
Born in New
Orleans, LaLaurie married three times over the course of her life. She
maintained a prominent position in the social circles of New Orleans
until April 10, 1834, when rescuers responding to a fire at her Royal
Street mansion discovered bound slaves within the house who showed
evidence of torture over a long period. LaLaurie's house was
subsequently sacked by an outraged mob of New Orleans citizens, and it
is thought that she fled to Paris, where she died due to a boar attack
during a hunting accident.
As of 2012, the Royal Street mansion where LaLaurie lived is still
standing and is a prominent New Orleans landmark.
Delphine Macarty was born around 1775, one of five children. Her
father was Barthelmy Louis Macarty, whose father Barthelmy Macarty
brought the family to New Orleans from Ireland around 1730. Her mother
was Marie Jeanne Lovable, also known as "the widow Lecomte," whose
marriage to Barthelmy Louis Macarty was her second. Both were
prominent members of the New Orleans white Créole community.
Delphine's cousin, Augustin de Macarty, was mayor of New Orleans from
1815 to 1820.
On June 11, 1800, Delphine Macarty married Don Ramon de Lopez y
Angullo, a Caballero de la Royal de Carlos (a high ranking
Spanish officer), at the Saint Louis Cathedral in New Orleans. By
1804, Don Ramon had risen to the position of consul general for Spain
in Louisiana. Also in 1804, Delphine and Don Ramon traveled to Spain.
Accounts of the trip differ. Grace King wrote in 1921 that the trip
was Don Ramon's "military punishment", and that Delphine met the
Queen, who was impressed by Delphine's beauty.
Stanley Arthur's 1936 report differed; he stated that on March 26,
1804, Don Ramon was recalled to the court of Spain "to take his place
at court as befitting his new position", but that Ramon never arrived
in Spain because he died in Havana en route to Madrid.
During the voyage, Delphine gave birth to a daughter, named Marie
Borgia Delphine Lopez y Angulla de la Candelaria, nicknamed
"Borquita". Delphine and her daughter returned to New Orleans
In June 1808, Delphine married Jean Blanque, a prominent banker,
merchant, lawyer and legislator. At the time of the marriage, Blanque
purchased a house at 409 Royal Street in New Orleans for the family,
which became known later as the Villa Blanque. Delphine had four more
children by Blanque, named Marie Louise Pauline, Louise Marie Laure,
Marie Louise Jeanne, and Jeanne Pierre Paulin Blanque.
Blanque died in 1816. Delphine married her third husband, physician
Leonard Louis Nicolas LaLaurie, who was much younger than she, on June
25, 1825. In 1831, she bought property at 1140 Royal Street, which she
managed in her own name with little involvement of her husband, and by
1832 had built a three-story mansion there, complete with attached
slave quarters. She lived there with her husband and two of her
daughters, and maintained a central position in the social circles of
The LaLauries, in the style of their social class at the time,
maintained several black slaves in slave quarters attached to the
Royal Street mansion. Accounts of Delphine LaLaurie's treatments of
her slaves between 1831 and 1834 are mixed. Harriet Martineau, writing
in 1838 and recounting tales told to her by New Orleans residents
during her 1836 visit, claimed LaLaurie's slaves were observed to be
"singularly haggard and wretched"; however, in public appearances
LaLaurie was seen to be generally polite to black people and
solicitous of her slaves' health, and court records of the time showed
that LaLaurie emancipated two of her own slaves (Jean Louis in 1819
and Devince in 1832). Nevertheless, Martineau reported that public
rumors about LaLaurie's mistreatment of her slaves were sufficiently
widespread that a local lawyer was dispatched to Royal Street to
remind LaLaurie of the laws relevant to the upkeep of slaves. During
this visit the lawyer found no evidence of wrongdoing or mistreatment
of slaves by LaLaurie.
Martineau also recounted other tales of LaLaurie's cruelty that
were current among New Orleans residents in about 1836. She claimed
that, subsequent to the visit of the local lawyer, one of LaLaurie's
neighbors saw one of the LaLaurie's slaves, a twelve-year-old girl
named Lia (or Leah), fall to her death from the roof of the Royal
Street mansion while trying to avoid punishment from a whip-wielding
Delphine LaLaurie. Lia had been brushing Delphine's hair when she hit
a snag, causing Delphine to grab a whip and chase her. The body was
subsequently buried on the mansion grounds. According to Martineau,
this incident led to an investigation of the LaLauries, in which they
were found guilty of illegal cruelty and forced to forfeit nine
slaves. These nine slaves were then bought back by the LaLauries
through the intermediary of one of their relatives, and returned to
the Royal Street residences. Similarly, Martineau reported stories
that LaLaurie kept her cook chained to the kitchen stove, and beat her
daughters when they attempted to feed the slaves.
On April 10, 1834, a fire broke out in the LaLaurie residence on
Royal Street, starting in the kitchen. When the police and fire
marshals got there, they found a seventy-year-old woman, the cook,
chained to the stove by her ankle. She later confessed to them that
she had set the fire as a suicide attempt for fear of her punishment,
being taken to the uppermost room, because she said "Anyone who had
been taken there, never came back." As reported in the New Orleans
Bee of April 11, 1834, bystanders responding to the fire attempted
to enter the slave quarters to ensure that everyone had been
evacuated. Upon being refused the keys by the LaLauries, the
bystanders broke down the doors to the slave quarters and found "seven
slaves, more or less horribly mutilated ... suspended by the neck,
with their limbs apparently stretched and torn from one extremity to
the other", who claimed to have been imprisoned there for some months.
One of those who entered the premises was Judge Jean-Francois
Canonge, who subsequently deposed to having found in the LaLaurie
mansion, among others, a "negress ... wearing an iron collar" and "an
old negro woman who had received a very deep wound on her head [who
was] too weak to be able to walk". Canonge claimed that when he
questioned Madame LaLaurie's husband about the slaves, he was told in
an insolent manner that "some people had better stay at home rather
than come to others' houses to dictate laws and meddle with other
A version of this story circulating in 1836, recounted by
Martineau, added that the slaves were emaciated, showed signs of being
flayed with a whip, were bound in restrictive postures, and wore
spiked iron collars which kept their heads in static positions.
When the discovery of the tortured slaves became widely known, a
mob of local citizens attacked the LaLaurie residence and "demolished
and destroyed everything upon which they could lay their hands". A
sheriff and his officers were required to disperse the crowd and, by
the time the mob left, the Royal Street property had sustained major
damage, with "scarcely any thing [remaining] but the walls".
The tortured slaves were taken to a local jail, where they were
available for public viewing. The New Orleans Bee reported that
by April 12 up to 4,000 people had attended to view the tortured
slaves "to convince themselves of their sufferings".
The Pittsfield Sun, citing the New Orleans Advertiser
and writing several weeks after the evacuation of Lalaurie's slave
quarters, claimed that two of the slaves found in the LaLaurie mansion
had died since their rescue, and added: "We understand ... that in
digging the yard, bodies have been disinterred, and the condemned well
[in the grounds of the mansion] having been uncovered, others,
particularly that of a child, were found." These claims were repeated
by Martineau in her 1838 book Retrospect of Western Travel,
where she placed the number of unearthed bodies at two, including the
Late life and death
LaLaurie's life after the 1834 fire is not well documented.
Martineau wrote in 1838 that LaLaurie fled New Orleans during the mob
violence that followed the fire, taking a coach to the waterfront and
travelling by schooner from there to Mobile, Alabama and then on to
Paris. Certainly by the time Martineau personally visited the Royal
Street mansion in 1836 it was still unoccupied and badly damaged, with
"gaping windows and empty walls".
The circumstances of Delphine LaLaurie's death are also unclear.
George Washington Cable recounted in 1888 a then-popular but
unsubstantiated story that LaLaurie had died in France in a
boar-hunting accident. Whatever the truth, in the late 1930s, Eugene
Backes, who served as sexton to St. Louis Cemetery #1 until 1924,
discovered an old cracked, copper plate in Alley 4 of the cemetery.
The inscription on the plate read: "Madame LaLaurie, née Marie
Delphine Macarty, décédée à Paris, le 7 Décembre, 1842, à l'âge de
LaLaurie in folklore
Folk histories of LaLaurie's poor treatment of her slaves
circulated in Louisiana during the nineteenth century, and were
reprinted in collections of stories by Henry Castellanos and George
Washington Cable. Cable's account (not to be confused with his
unrelated 1881 novel Madame Delphine) was based on contemporary
stories in newspapers such as the New Orleans Bee and the
Advertiser, and upon Martineau's 1838 account, Retrospect of
Western Travel, but mixed in some synthesis, dialogue and
supposition entirely of his own creation.
After 1945, stories of the LaLaurie slaves became considerably more
explicit. Jeanne deLavigne, writing in Ghost Stories of Old New
Orleans (1946), alleged that LaLaurie had a "sadistic appetite
[that] seemed never appeased until she had inflicted on one or more of
her black servitors some hideous form of torture" and claimed that
those who responded to the 1834 fire had found "male slaves, 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. There were holes in skulls, where a rough stick had been
inserted to stir the brains." DeLavigne did not directly cite any
sources for these claims, and they were not supported by the primary
The story was further popularised and embellished in Journey
Into Darkness: Ghosts and Vampires of New Orleans (1998) by Kalila
Katherina Smith, the operator of a New Orleans ghost tour business.
Smith's book added several more explicit details to the discoveries
allegedly made by rescuers during the 1834 fire, including a "victim
[who] obviously had her arms amputated and her skin peeled off in a
circular pattern, making her look like a human caterpillar," and
another who had had her limbs broken and reset "at odd angles so she
resembled a human crab". Many of the new details in Smith's book were
unsourced, while others were not supported by the sources given.
Today, modern retellings of the LaLaurie myth often use deLavigne
and Smith's versions of the tale to found claims of explicit tortures,
and to place the number of slaves who died under LaLaurie's care at as
many as one hundred.
The New Orleans house occupied by Delphine LaLaurie at the time of
the 1834 fires stands today at 1140 Royal Street, on the corner of
Royal Street and Governor Nicholls Street (formerly known as Hospital
Street). At three stories high, it was described in 1928 as "the
highest building for squares around", with the result that "from the
cupola on the roof one may look out over the Vieux Carré and see the
Mississippi in its crescent before Jackson Square".
The entrance to the building bears iron grillwork, and the door is
carved with an image of "Phoebus in his chariot, and with wreaths of
flowers and depending garlands in bas-relief". Inside, the vestibule
is floored in black and white marble, and a curved mahogany-railed
staircase runs the full three storeys of the building. The second
floor holds three large drawing-rooms connected by ornamented sliding
doors, whose walls are decorated with plaster rosettes, carved
woodwork, black marble mantlepieces and fluted pilasters.
Subsequent to LaLaurie's departure from America, the house remained
ruined at least until 1836, but at some point prior to 1888 it was
"unrecognisably restored", and over the following decades was used as
a public high school, a conservatory of music, a tenement, a refuge
for young delinquents, a bar, a furniture store, and a luxury
In April 2007, actor Nicolas Cage bought the LaLaurie House through
Hancock Park Real Estate Company LLC for a sum of $3.45 million. The
mortgage documents were arranged in such a way that Cage's name did
not appear on them. On November 13, 2009 the property, then valued at
$3.5 million, was listed for auction as a result of bank foreclosure
and purchased by Regions Financial Corporation for $2.3 million.
History of Delphine LaLaurie
Mme. Marie Delphine Lalaurie and her
third husband, a doctor, Leonard Louis Lalaurie, purchased the grand
home at 1140 Royal Street in the early 1830s. Upon moving in, she
began to outfit the home with the finest of appointments -- costly
furniture, silver and gold plates and paintings by noted artists. She
would entertain and dispense hospitality from the downstairs drawing
She was born Marie Delphine, daughter of Louis
Barthelemy Chevalier de Maccarthy. She was first married on June 11,
1800 to Don Ramon de Lopez y Angulo. When he died on March 26, 1804 in
Havana, Cuba, she married Jean Blanque in 1808, who died in 1816. From
there she married Dr. Lalaurie on June 12, 1825.
The circumstances of the deaths of her first two
husbands are unknown and the whereabouts of Dr. Lalaurie at the time
of the fire and subsequent to his wife's flight from town remains a
Mme. Lalaurie was well-known for her spectacular
parties and galas which she gave frequently at her home. She was one
of the most well-known women in New Orleans society of the time.
Renowned Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau lived in New Orleans at the same
time, just a few blocks from the Lalaurie House. Although the nature
of their relationship is unknown, undoubtedly these two women met and
knew each other.
It was said that Mme. Lalaurie's manners were
sweet, gracious and captivating. She was born in the society's upper
circles. She was accustomed to and acculturated to the good life. Yet
there were persistent rumors that she treated her servants with
disdain and in a cruel, abusive manner.
And still, those who visited her said that she was
kind to her servants. If one of them tremble in her presence or
startled at the sound of her voice, she would soothe and endeavor to
reassure her. Nevertheless, the stories of barbarity increased. The
smothered indignation on Royal Street grew.
One day the street was filled with the wild rumor
that Mme. Lalaurie was seen by the neighbors cowhiding a little girl
in the courtyard. The terrified young thing fled across the yard, into
the house and up the winding stairway from gallery to gallery followed
by her infuriated mistress. She rushed out onto the belvedere and
darted up to roof, with Mme Lalaurie hot on her heels.
In another instant the child reached the edge of
the roof -- falling with a dull thud to the courtyard below. She was
lifted up and borne into the house a silent, crushed, lifeless mass of
humanity. In the old yard there was a shallow well that is now a mere
pit and neighbors assert that the night the young girl fell to her
death, she was buried by torchlight in the well.
The legend goes that on April 11, 1834, a slave
goaded by the cruelties heaped upon her, set fire to Mme. Lalaurie's
kitchen. Some say the old woman had a dream the night before that she
was fleeing the house in flames.
As the flames grew larger and hotter, word of the
fire spread through the streets and soon the house was thronged with
people over to assist Mme. Lalaurie in saving her valuables. There
were among the crowd citizens of high standing, many of whom bore
eyewitness to the scenes that followed. The fire was gaining rapidly,
the kitchen was in flames and the upper stories were filled with
smoke. Mme. Lalaurie seemed only interested in retrieving her plates,
jewels and robes before they were burnt to a crisp.
The questions about the whereabouts of the servants
began to filter through the crowd of assistants. "Where are all Mme.
Lalaurie's servants that they do not help in the efforts to save?"
Mme. Lalaurie met the questions with evasive answers. "Nevermind the
servants, save my valuables. This way gentlemen, this way."
Someone began whispering that the servants were
chained and locked up behind barred doors in the slave quarter and
were sure to perish in the flames. The whisper became a loud voice --
vengeful and threatening. "The servants! The servants?" rose from a
hundred different voices. "There are human beings locked in those
rooms who will be roasted alive in the flames."
"The keys! The keys!" said a Creole gentleman; two
or three men rushed forward clamoring for the keys, but they could not
be found. "Who will follow me through the smoke and flames?" cried a
brave Creole. A dozen or more men volunteered. The iron bars between
the wing and attic were broken away, the doors were burst open and two
old women with heavy iron collars upon their necks and irons upon
their feet were brought out. By this time the fire was subdued.
The crowd continued to search the house. The garret
was explored and more victims were brought out - gaunt and wild-eyed,
loaded down with chains and crippled from the attitudes in which they
had been chained to the floor.
The local press of the time said the story was like
"covering one of those atrocities the details of which seem to be too
incredible for human belief." They hesitated to report the atrocities
at the house because of their graphic nature, but found it necessary
to hold Mme. Lalaurie accountable and up for public ridicule, calling
her a wretch.
A silence fell upon the neighborhood -- an ominous
silence that proceeds the outburst of the smoldering wrath of an
outraged public. In the morning an idle crowd began to form in front
of the Lalaurie mansion. The numbers increased towards midday and by
evening the throng was so dense that standing room was almost
impossible upon the pavement of the street in front.
They hissed and hooted and some cried out for the
owner's scalp. Mme. Lalaurie did not mistake the meaning and conceived
and executed a plan to flee for her life. At the time of her daily
ride in her carriage it drove up before the door and Mme. Lalaurie,
dressed in her usual elegant style, stepped out on the sidewalk and
entered the vehicle.
In a split-second the horses took off at full speed
away from her house -- the last time she would be there. Mme. Lalaurie
was taking her last drive in the fashionable quarter and it was a
drive for her very life. It took but an instant for the crowd to
recover from her quick thinking and in another moment they were at her
back, yelling, hooting and screaming: "Stop that carriage!" "She is
running away!" "Drag her out." "Shoot her." "Shoot the horses!"
But the mob's efforts were in vain. The coachman
drove furiously at break neck speed. The horses had borne their
mistress before and would not fail her now. Fashionable New Orleans
stopped its carriages and watched in blank amazement the flying
vehicle and the uproarious, uncontrollable mob. No human speed could
keep up with those horses; the crowd breathless and panting, was left
in the distance.
The carriage reached Bayou St. John and a schooner
that was moored near the bank. She paid the captain a handful of gold
and the vessel set sail for Mandeville. Mme. Lalaurie, it is said,
took refuge for 10 days near the Claiborne Cottages in Covington. Some
say she then made her way to Mobile or New York and then to Paris.
However, there have been persistent stories that she never left the
Northshore. Alas, what really happened remains a mystery as here, the
trail goes cold...