Tuesday, October 30, 2007

New Orleans' Own Devil Woman

If you ever take a Ghost Tour of New Orleans' French Quarter, you are bound to stop at 1140 Royal Street. This house's notorious past is intertwined with the story of a woman named Madame Delphine Lalaurie (c1775 - c1842).

Born Marie Delphine de Macarty, she was the daughter of Louis Barthelemy, Chevalier de Macarty and Marie-Jeanne L'érable (the widow of Charles Lecomte). The Macartys were a distinguished New Orleans Creole family of French and Irish ancestry. Delphine's cousin, Augustin de Macarty (1774-1844) , served as Mayor of New Orleans from 1815 to 1820, and his term of office coincided with an outbreak of Yellow Fever which peaked in 1817.

In 1800, Delphine married a high-ranking Spanish official named Don Ramón López y Ángullo (Louisiana was under Spanish control from 1763 to 1801). The two had a beautiful daughter named Marie Francoise Borja (called "Borquita") who would go on to marry another distinguished Creole New Orleanian named Placide Forstall. Don Ramón was called back to the Spanish court in 1804, but he died en route in Havana. Four years later (1808), Delphine was remarried to a man named Jean Blanque. She bore him four children before he too predeceased her in 1816.
The twice-widowed Delphine took her third husband in 1823 -- the French-born Dr. Leonard Louis Nicolas Lalaurie, who became one of New Orleans' top dentists. The Lalauries bought the house at 1140 Royal Street around 1831. There the couple became known for their lavish parties, and their salon put them among the most influential figures in the city.

Yet there was another side to Mme. Lalaurie: she developed a reputation among her neighbors for viciously punishing the household slaves. For what it's worth, when I took a ghost tour of the French Quarter, our guide characterized these contrasting reputations as part of the enmity between the Creole New Orleanians and the Anglo American newcomers: to wit, among the Creoles the Lalauries were considered charming and cultured people and thus they dismissed the allegations of cruelty advanced by the Americans.

Then a troubling incident occurred in 1833. As the story goes, a young slave girl was brushing Mme. Lalaurie's hair when the brush got caught in a knot, causing Madame to cry out in pain. Fearing her mistress' wrath, the girl ran from the room, and Mme. Lalaurie gave chase with a whip in hand. Eventually, when the girl found herself cornered on the terrace, she jumped to her death rather than face punishment. Neighbors later reported that they saw the girl buried in the courtyard under cover of night.

As a result of this episode, a formal complaint was brought against the Lalauries charging them with excessive cruelty towards their slaves. Yet one of their high-placed friends, Judge Jean Francois Canonge, fixed it so the couple got off relatively lightly: they were fined $300 and their slaves were confiscated and sold at auction. Not only that, but the Lalauries' friends and family joined together, bought back most (if not all) of the slaves, and gifted them back to the Lalauries. Thus the poor slaves were again at the mercy of Delphine and her husband.

The extent of the Lalauries' crimes would only come to light in April 1834 when the house caught fire. The blaze might have been deliberately set by a cook who was kept shackled up in the kitchen and who could no longer endure the Lalauries' cruel treatment. Several neighbors volunteered to help fight the fire and rescue the families' valuables from the flames; they were surprised, however, that they did not see any of the Lalauries' slaves pitching in. As time passed, suspicion grew among the spectators that there might still be people trapped inside the burning house. Thus someone demanded the keys to the attic. Mme. Lalaurie basically told them to eff off, so they were forced to break the door down. As the New Orleans Bee (a newspaper printed in French and English) described it "upon entering one of the apartments, the most appalling spectacle met their eyes -- Several slaves more or less horribly mutilated, were seen suspended by the neck, with their limbs apparently stretched and torn from one extremity to another."

No doubt the story has been greatly embellished over time, but present day accounts of the Lalaurie legend give further details to this house of horrors. They say that the Lalauries performed gruesome "experiments": that one man had been subjected to a crude "sex change," that a woman had had her mouth sewn shut, that one victim was found lying with her internal organs exposed, and another had his limbs broken and reset at odd angles so as to transform him into a sort of human crab.

When word of these vile deeds spread, a mob gathered calling for Mme. Lalauries' blood. Yet, before justice could be done, Delphine managed to escape, plowing her carriage through the angry crowd. As the story goes, she rode to Bayou Saint John and from their hired a ferry across Lake Pontchartrain to Mandeville. After that she disappeared. Many people claim that she sailed to France: some say she spent the rest of her days in Paris, and some sources say she was killed hunting wild boar in the French countryside (like you do). Rumors also persisted that she remained on the Northshore, living in seclusion.

As for the Lalaurie house... it was rebuilt after the fire. Over the years it served many functions including as a school for girls and as tenement housing. Sometimes it stood vacant. I guess people saw some ghosts. Once it housed a music conservatory, but this quickly shut down after a nasty rumor spread about the proprietor right before a big recital. And guess who owns this house at the corner of Royal and Governor Nichols now? That's right! It's Nicolas Cage, who bought it for 3.45 million in April 2007. I snapped the above photograph myself on my trip to New Orleans last weekend. Happy Halloween, everybody!

Image of Delphine Lalaurie found on wikipedia.com which states it is in the public domain.


nola32 said...

killed hunting wild boar in the french countryside (like you do)

Josie said...

i remember this account when i took a ghost tour with the Australians. And of COURSE the evil that is Nick Cage bought it. Makes perfect sense to me.

Meeg said...

I still remember when he was the grand marshall of Bacchus. He was striking Jesus poses while throwing at coins as if he was thinking "I am the King of Kings!" I bet he was super fucked up.

Shauneh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shauneh said...

Excellent info - thanks. We were on a French Quarter Ghost tour on Halloween and guess who was on his balcony ? Yep, Nicolas Cage himself - he wished our party a happy Halloween. Sadly we didn't have our camera with us (typical).

Meeg said...

That's awesome! Sounds like he's a nice guy, I could see that.