The French Quarter of New Orleans has long been steeped in tales of ghosts and the occult. But sometimes the living citizens are more terrifying than the dead.
Born to an influential white Creole family, Delphine Macarty was raised with the finer things life had to offer. The young socialite–who even the Queen of Spain found beautiful–blended with the upper class as seamlessly as she wove herself through three marriages: first to a Spanish diplomat, then a prominent banker, and finally to the city’s only dentist, Dr. Leonard Louis Nicolas Lalaurie.
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In 1831, although uncommon at the time, Madame Lalaurie purchased property in her own name at 1140 Rue Royale. She proceeded to build the mansion of her dreams, and her husband and daughters moved in soon after it was finished.
While modest from the outside, the three-story building was lavishly decorated inside with carved mahogany wood, massive chandeliers, fabrics imported from Asia. The mansion housed separate slaves quarters on the top floor.
Naturally, Madame Lalaurie’s home became the focal point of New Orleans high society. She threw parties and balls where guests–like her cousin, the mayor–dined on fancy European china and admired the famous artwork on her walls. An invitation to a Lalaurie gala became the most coveted item in town.
Yet, beneath the grandiose surface existed an evil mind that would expose itself in due time.
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Rumors began to spread of Madame Lalaurie’s short temper and mistreatment of her slaves. Often referred to as the Savage Mistress, Madame Lalaurie gained a bad reputation for her severe and callous treatment of her slaves. Madame Lalaurie’s slaves were often noticed as appearing haggard but in public, she was polite to black people and was attentive toward her slaves’ well-being. However, local authorities were sent to check on her household and make sure she was following laws.
They couldn’t find anything amiss, but neighbors continued to suspect that something sinister happening on the top floor; Madame Lalaurie’s slaves would come and go far too quickly.
One day, neighbors heard a commotion in the Lalaurie backyard. Madame Lalaurie’s 12-year-old slave Leah had hit a snag while combing her mistress’s hair, and Madame Lalaurie was not happy about it. The older woman chased the girl down to the courtyard, then the girl turned and ran back up to the top floor. Leah backed herself up against the balcony railing in an attempt to avoid punishment, but she ended up falling–although some say she threw herself–to the pavement below and died.
The Lalauries hurried to collect the girl’s body and bury her on their property, but the damage to their reputation was done. After word spread of incident with Leah, an investigation was conducted on the Lalauries where they were found guilty of illegal cruelty. Madame Lalaurie was arrested and was forced to let go of nine slaves; they were put up for auction. Being the powerful woman she was, Madame Lalaurie was able to get off with just a fine. As for her slaves, she asked relatives buy them and return them to her, a request which they happily obliged.
Despite regaining her status as slave mistress, Lalaurie's stature in upper Creole society began to spiral downward; her neighbors had already lost respect for her and started to decline party invitations.
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On April 10, 1834, the community’s worst fears were realized when a fire broke out in the Lalaurie kitchen. Fire marshals rushed to stop the blaze and found an elderly woman chained to the room’s fireplace. They immediately cut her free and hurried her to safety, only to hear her confess that she started the fire as a suicide attempt. She said Madame Lalaurie had threatened to take her up to the top floor. According to the elderly cook, any slave who was taken upstairs never returned.
Neighbors, who had come over to help put out the fire, started wondering why Madame Lalaurie’s servants weren’t assisting the fire marshals. When Madame Lalaurie heard this, she famously replied, “Never mind the servants, save my valuables. This way gentlemen, this way.”
But after hearing the old cook’s story, the authorities knew they had to keep searching the house. They went to the top floor, broke down the doors, and came face-to-face with a grisly site: over a dozen slaves, some chained to the wall, others in cages. Many were suspended by their necks and badly mutilated with various scars. Some had bloody welts, living in gruel, and wearing iron collars with inward facing spikes. According to newspaper stories, body parts were scattered across the floor, organs and heads piled in buckets. Still more were stretched by their limbs, hanging on for dear life.
The once-helpful group of neighbors morphed into a ferocious mob, appalled at the atrocities committed on their own street. A mob of about 4,000 people ransacked the house, looting and pillaging as they went. Everyone was enraged and disgusted by Madame Lalaurie’s extreme form of punishment. They ransacked the mansion and nearly demolished it.
Madame Lalaurie’s husband Louis–who had ignored his wife’s wickedness–hadn’t been home when the fire started. He must have heard about the rioting though because he left the area and was never heard from again.
The criminal herself fled immediately to the port, jumping on a ship and leaving behind the glamour and prestige she had taken a life to build. Little is known of her after that. Rumors circulated that she went to Europe and came back to New Orleans later in life. Records show she died in Paris in 1849, although her body was later exhumed and moved back to her hometown.
We might never know what actually happened to Madame Lalaurie in the end. It is quite a mystery. Nonetheless, she became a legend of gore and horror for tour operators within the past century. She moved to Paris to live a quiet, harmless life, no longer with rage. So what had come to her all those years before? Was it a mental illness? A demon? Was she a monster of some sort? Guess we will never know for sure.
Today, ghost stories are still told about the people who died in the Lalaurie mansion, and the now-private home is a stop on numerous haunted tours of the city. Madame Lalaurie has inspired many twisted stories–most famously Kathy Bates’s character on American Horror Story: Coven.
The only evidence that her body still exists is a simple plaque in the deeply haunted New Orleans Cemetery #1. It reads: “Madame Lalaurie, née Marie Delphine Macarty, décédée à Paris, le 7 Décembre, 1842, à l’âge de 6—.”