A New Orleans socialite, a married woman for the third time, a mother of five children, and one of the most evil women to have lived.
Marie Delphine LaLaurie was born in 1797 in New Orleans, during the Spanish colonial period, where Spain gained ownership of Louisiana from France, previously called La Lousiane after King Louis XIV. Her father, Louis Barthelemy McCarthy, had emigrated from Ireland, a land bloodied with war and strife, to the USA in the early 1730s, with a wife who produced seven daughters and four sons, who amassed huge portions of land and slaves, making them aristocracy in Orleans. He married Marie Jeanne Lerable, a widow with considerable wealth who owned an indigo plantation on the Mississippi River. With his new wife they created a son, Louis Barthélémy, and a daughter, Marie Delphine.
There isn’t much information on Marie’s earlier life but she was known as a kind socialite and let two slaves go free in her early life. She was widowed by two husbands, and by the time she married her third man, a young doctor named Louis LaLaurie, she had five children. He was a dashing man from Paris who had “lately discovered in France, of destroying hunches [humped backs].” They purchased 1140 Royal Street and built a mansion there, the mansion that later would be the site of unbelievable cruelty and hauntings. The house of horrors. To run this home she had around 54 slaves working for her.
It is thought that the gentle socialite was influenced by her husband, a doctor interested in discovering the human body and its mysteries, neglecting whether his subjects were alive, in pain or dying. Strange stories surround the doctor’s private life: that he was curious about Haitian voodoo potions and mutilated his slaves in half-experiments.
The first mark of cruelty led to the couple being taken to court. A 12-year-old slave named Lia had been combing Marie’s hair when she hit a snag, and the woman grabbed a whip. The girl fled from the woman, climbing onto the roof of the mansion to escape punishment. She slipped and fell from the roof to her death below, and was buried on the grounds. A witness reported this and the couple were fined and ordered to release nine of their slaves. Sadly, they were able to buy back these slaves later through family members, so the slaves returned.
It could be that, as a wealthy couple who owned slaves, their power created monsters and the cruelty they inflicted was due to their status and lifestyle. An event that happened in 1811 may have been another factor to their actions. In a small cabin upriver in New Orleans, three slaves gathered and planned a revolution. Enough with the punishments, the forced work. Enough with white owners who dictated and controlled their entire life. With eight other slave leaders, they launched the largest slave revolt in history, and formed an army of 500 slaves to fight back against the white owners. They dressed in military uniform, chanted ‘On to New Orleans’ and planned to wipe out the city’s white residents, ultimately forming a black republic. In the cane fields, they stood their ground as the American military and a planter militia stood before them. They didn’t cower nor flinch when ordered to stand down, and formed themselves in a line. In unison, the black army shot from their rifles at the men who had treated them like cattle.
They had limited ammunition and, as the last rounds were picked off, the planter militia pushed forward onto the slave line. They killed more than 100 slaves, beheading them and slotting them onto poles which they displayed around the city to remind who was in charge. Charles Deslondes, a planter and son of a slave mother, was captured. They chopped off his hands, broke his thighs and roasted him to death on a pile of straw. This great act of bravery from a huge group of mistreated people was put aside as a trivial bit of mischief, but it may have deepened an existing distaste for negros and slaves. To stop this kind of uprising happening again, extreme punishment may have been seen as a necessity by the LaLauries.
In 1834 a fire broke out at the mansion. Starting in the kitchen, the fire swept through and firefighters arrived to extinguish the flames. Neighbours stood around the building, and Madame LaLaurie tried to save her furniture as the firefighters were releasing a slave in the kitchen. The 70-year-old woman was chained to the stove, telling the men that she had caused the fire in a suicide attempt, to avoid being taken up to the attic for punishment as “Anyone who had been taken there, never came back”. The neighbours pleaded with Louis LaLaurie for the key to the attic, knowing their slaves were up there and in danger of dying. The man refused to hand over the key, saying plainly: “some people had better stay at home rather than come to others’ houses to dictate laws and meddle with other people’s business”.
The neighbours, led by Judge Jean-Francois Canonge, broke into the smoking building and kicked down the door leading to the attic. Horrified by what they were seeing, some gagging at the stench and sights, they stood in shock. Newspapers would later record what they discovered up there. The New Orleans Bee printed: “Seven slaves more or less horribly mutilated were seen suspended by the neck, with their limbs apparently stretched and torn from one extremity to the other”, and the New Orleans Advertiser: “one of the male slaves [found] with ‘a large hole in his head; his body from head to foot was covered with scars and filled with worms…those who have seen the others represent them to be in a similar condition”. The writer Harriet Martineau later investigated the case and witnesses at the time told her what had been seen: “Of the nine slaves, the skeletons of two were afterwards found poked into the ground; the other seven could scarcely be recognised as human. Their faces had the wildness of famine, and their bones were coming through the skin. They were chained and tied in constrained postures; some on their knees, some with their hands above their heads. They had iron collars with spikes which kept their heads in one position. The cowhide, stiff with blood, hung against the wall; and there was a step-ladder on which this fiend stood while flogging her victims, in order to lay on the lashes with more effect”.
The neighbours were horrified and enraged at the torture the couple had inflicted on their slaves. In the days that followed the fire, they ripped up the furniture and destroyed the house, as the LaLaurie’s escaped to France, never receiving punishment for their crimes.
The sad ending to this true tale is that, while Madame LaLaurie basked in the sunshine of beautiful France, the surviving slaves were taken to a local jail where they were lined up like freaks at a circus. Four thousand people visited them to ‘convince themselves of their sufferings’.
Madame LaLaurie has been recorded as one the most prolific serial killers in history, torturing her slaves in the most barbaric ways and then fleeing the country to escape punishment. Her husband is missing from records, seeming that he may have escaped to France as well and lived the rest of his life in peace, perhaps still practicing as a physician. What they did was monstrous, but as her children expressed in letters after her escape, she didn’t understand why a mob had turned on her or what she had done so wrong. She wasn’t the only one who had treated her slaves so horrendously and it is a story in history that we should never forget.
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