The Twisted Tale of Delphine LaLaurie and Her House of Horrors
Over 200 years ago, a torture chamber was discovered in the attic of a wealthy socialite. Through the years, the tale of her brutality has grown and shifted, and today, it is difficult to discern fact from fiction in the story of Delphine La Laurie and her house of horrors.
Born in 1775 to Barthelmy Louis Macarty and Marie Jeanne Lovable, the Macarty’s were prominent among New Orleans society, having emigrated to the Big Easy from Ireland in the 1730s.
The extent to which slavery impacted Delphine’s early life is difficult to tell. Some accounts say that her mother (and others her father) was murdered by a slave, while others hold that her uncle was killed by his slaves shortly before she was born. Still another version of the tale states that her family was affected by the slave revolt of 1811. In any event, none of these are confirmed by objective sources.
Although one authority says she was 14 when she first married, it is more likely she wed her first husband, Don Ramon de Lopez y Angullo, a Spanish officer of high rank, in 1800. Together they had one daughter before Don Ramon died, sometime around 1804.
Again there is disagreement (or perhaps bad math) over when she married her second husband, Jean Blanque, with one authority noting that she was 20, while others set the date at 1808. Regardless, Jean was a catch (banker, lawyer, merchant and legislator), and together they had four children before M. Blanque died in 1816.
In 1825, Louis LaLaurie moved to New Orleans from Paris, having studied medicine at the Sorbonne. Introducing himself to the community, he announced in the New Orleans Courier that: “A French Physician has just arrived in this city, who is acquainted with the means, lately discovered in France, of destroying hunches [humped backs].”
By this time Delphine was pretty wealthy, having inheritance from her parents as well as two dead husbands. Despite being significantly older than LaLaurie (she was about 50), the two struck up a relationship. At least one account states that he knocked her up, and that the two married 5 months after the child was born. (If you’re wondering how, given her age, this version holds that she was 38 at the time, 1826, but that math does not compute with her birth year).
Regardless, all sources agree Delphine and LaLaurie ultimately married, with Delphine bringing significantly more wealth to her third marriage. As such, she purchased the property where the torture occurred, 1140 Royal Street, and most accounts say she managed the construction of the three-story mansion on the premises.
In order to run the opulent home, and manage her busy social events, Delphine had a lot of slaves – by some accounts, between 1816 and 1834, at least 54.
Early Signs of Trouble
Stories differ about when New Orleans society became wise to Delphine’s cruelty. All versions agree that no hints of mistreatment arose prior to her marriage to LaLaurie.
Some state that by 1828 there were rumors of “barbarous treatment,” and that her slaves were only given the barest of necessities. In at least one version, at some point she was criminally charged, but acquitted, of cruelty to her slaves.
Most historians agree that sometime before the horrific day, Delphine, brandishing a whip, chased a slave girl off the roof of her mansion, with the child falling to her death. Some assert that after this incident, Delphine was shunned by New Orleans society, but documented accounts of this didn’t happen until her torture chamber was discovered.
Not perhaps completely evil, however, on two different occasions (1819 & 1832), Delphine is known to have emancipated two slaves.
Torture Chamber Revealed
On April 10, 1834, a fire broke out in the kitchen of the mansion. Some authorities hold that the cook was actually chained to the stove where the fire started, and a few say that the neighbors were aware of this. The cook later supposedly claimed she started the fire, intending to commit suicide rather than submit to Delphine’s punishments that took place in the attic, a place no slave up to this point returned from.
Regardless, seeing the fire, neighbors entered the mansion. Knowing that slaves were locked in the uppermost room, the neighbors implored the LaLaurie’s to let them remove them, but they were rebuffed with LaLaurie refusing to give them the key.
One of the neighbors, Judge Canonge, disregarded the LaLaurie’s and the group broke down the locked doors to the attic rooms, revealing the horror within. Emaciated slaves with obvious signs of beatings were covered with scars and chained up. At least seven of them were: “More or less horribly mutilated . . . suspended by the neck, with their limbs apparently stretched and torn from one extremity to the other.” The Judge also stated he saw a “negress … wearing an iron collar” and an “old negro woman who had received a very deep wound on her head… too weak to be able to walk.”
From here, it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction. In some accounts, some of the slaves wore spikes that prevented them from moving their heads. It was also reported the slaves had been flayed with a whip. In at least one account, the slaves were nude and some were held in cages while others were tethered to operating tables. Many had signs of having “undergone various elaborate forms of torture and mutilation.”
One authority relies on this last account to posit the possibility that the room was actually controlled by Dr. LaLaurie ,who was conducting experiments on the slaves in order to develop better medical procedures. Although this version is not well accepted, it is recorded that when the Judge questioned him about the condition of the slaves, Dr. LaLaurie replied: “Some people had better stay at home rather than come to others’ houses to dictate laws and meddle with other people’s business.”
Those slaves who had been tortured were put on display at a local jail, and the New Orleans Bee reported that within two days, 4,000 people went to witness the suffering for themselves. The condition of the slaves must have been as bad as advertised because a mob subsequently ransacked the Royal Street Mansion, driving out Dr. and Mme. LaLaurie. After they had fled, the Pittsfield Sun wrote a story noting that exhumations on the mansion’s grounds revealed many corpses, including that of child.
Little is known of the rest of her life, but Delphine is believed to have fled to Paris, where she lived the remainder of her days. Many accounts set the year of her death at 1842, but she may have lived as late as 1849.
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