Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Delphine LaLaurie, Reputed Serial Killer of Slaves – Louisiana, 1834

It is difficult to decide whether the label “serial killer” is appropriate for the case of the sadistic slave-owner, Delphine LaLaurie.


“The legends have grown about this house and its namesake, twisting the real events into something almost unrecognizable. The phony body count attributed to Delphine seems to increase with each passing year. But the truth shows us that ‘Mad’ Madame LaLaurie was definitely not a saint, even if she wasn’t a murderer (and it is unclear if she was). She was an accomplice and almost certainly a participant in the slow, systematic torture of other human beings, and demonstrated zero remorse for her misdeeds.”

[James Caskey, “The Haunted LaLaurie House in New Orleans,” James Caskey, Savannah Author, 13 Oct, 2014]


Wikipedia (abridged): Marie Delphine Macarty or MacCarthy (March 19, 1787 – December 7, 1849), more commonly known as Madame Blanque or, after her third marriage, as Madame LaLaurie, was a New Orleans Creole socialite and serial killer who tortured and murdered slaves in her household.

Born during the Spanish colonial period, LaLaurie married three times in Louisiana and was twice widowed. She maintained her position in New Orleans society until April 10, 1834, when rescuers responded to a fire at her Royal Street mansion. They discovered bound slaves in her attic who showed evidence of cruel, violent abuse over a long period. LaLaurie's house was subsequently sacked by an outraged mob of New Orleans citizens. She escaped to France with her family.

The mansion traditionally held to be LaLaurie's is a landmark in the French Quarter, in part because of its history and for its architectural significance. However, her house was burned by the mob, and the "LaLaurie Mansion" at 1140 Royal Street was in fact rebuilt after her departure from New Orleans.

~ Early life and family history ~

Marie Delphine Macarty was born in New Orleans, Spanish Louisiana on March 19, 1787, as one of five children. Her father was Louis Barthelemy de McCarty (originally Chevalier de MacCarthy), whose father Barthelemy (de) MacCarthy brought the family to New Orleans from Ireland around 1730, during the French colonial period. (The Irish surname MacCarthy was shortened to Macarty or de Macarty.) Her mother was Marie-Jeanne L'Érable, also known as "the widow Le Comte", as her marriage to Louis B. Macarty was her second.

Both of Delphine's parents were prominent in the town's European Creole community. Her uncle by marriage, Esteban Rodríguez Miró, was governor of the Spanish American provinces of Louisiana and Florida during 1785–1791, and her cousin, Augustin de Macarty, was mayor of New Orleans from 1815 to 1820.

Delphine was only four years of age when the Haitian Revolution erupted in 1791, something that made slaveholders in the Southern United States and the Caribbean very afraid of resistance and rebellion among slaves; Delphine's uncle had been murdered in 1771 by his own slaves and the revolution had inspired the local Mina Conspiracy in 1791, the Pointe Coupée Conspiracy in 1794, and the German Coast Uprising in 1811, all of which caused many slaveholders to discipline slaves even more harshly out of fear of insurrection.

~ First marriage ~

On June 11, 1800, Delphine married Don Ramón de Lopez y Angulo, a Caballero de la Royal de Carlos, a high-ranking Spanish royal officer, at the Saint Louis Cathedral in New Orleans. Luisiana, as it was spelled in Spanish, had become a Spanish colony in the 1760s after France was defeated in the Seven Years' War.

In 1804, after the American acquisition of what was then again a French territory, Don Ramón had been appointed to the position of consul general for Spain in the Territory of Orleans, and was called to appear at the court of Spain. While en route to Madrid with Delphine, who was then pregnant, Don Ramón suddenly died in Havana. A few days after his death, Delphine gave birth to his daughter Marie-Borja/Borgia Delphine Lopez y Angulo de la Candelaria, nicknamed "Borquita". The widowed Delphine and her child returned to New Orleans.

~ Second marriage and death of husband ~

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 children by Blanque, named Marie Louise Pauline, Louise Marie Laure, Marie Louise Jeanne, and Jean Pierre Paulin Blanque. Blanque died in 1816.

~ Third marriage ~

On June 25, 1825, Delphine married her third husband, physician Leonard Louis Nicolas LaLaurie, who was much younger than her. In 1831, she bought property at 1140 Royal Street, which she managed in her own name with little involvement of her husband. In 1832, she had a 2-story mansion built there, complete with attached slave quarters. She lived there with her third husband and two of her daughters, and maintained a central position in New Orleans society.

The marriage soon showed signs of strain, however; on November 16, 1832, Delphine petitioned the First Judicial District Court for a separation from bed and board of her husband, in which Delphine claimed that LaLaurie had "treated her in such a manner as to render their living together unsupportable", claims which her son and two of her daughters by Jean Blanque confirmed. The separation does not seem to have been permanent, as Dr. LaLaurie was present at the Royal Street house April 10, 1834, the day of the fire.

~ Torture and murder of enslaved people and 1834 LaLaurie mansion fire ~

Accounts of Delphine LaLaurie's treatment of the enslaved people that she kept 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 enslaved people kept by LaLaurie 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 the health of the enslaved people that she kept.

Funeral registers between 1830 and 1834 document the deaths of twelve enslaved people at the Royal Street mansion, although the causes of death are not mentioned. These twelve deaths include Bonne, a cook and laundress, and her four children, Juliette (c. 1820–February 21, 1833), Florence (c. 1821–February 16, 1831), Jules (c. 1827–May 29, 1833), and Leontine (c. 1829–August 26, 1831). Bonne (c. 1803–February 7, 1833) had previously belonged to a refugee from Saint Domingue and was described in her sale as "a chronic runaway"; with an influx of white and free colored Saint Dominguen refugees and enslaved people that they kept, the fear of enslaved people from Saint Domingue still lingered in Louisiana.

Court records of the time showed that LaLaurie freed two of the enslaved people that she kept (Jean Louis in 1819 and Devince in 1832). Martineau wrote that public rumors about LaLaurie's mistreatment of enslaved people that she kept were sufficiently widespread that a local lawyer was dispatched to Royal Street to remind LaLaurie of the laws for the upkeep of enslaved people that she kept. During this visit, the lawyer found no evidence of wrongdoing or mistreatment of enslaved people kept by LaLaurie.

Martineau also recounted other tales of LaLaurie's horrifying abuses of the enslaved people that she kept that were current among New Orleans residents in about 1836. She said that, subsequent to the visit of the lawyer, one of LaLaurie's neighbors saw one of the enslaved people that she kept, a girl of about eight years, fall to her death from the roof of the Royal Street mansion while trying to avoid punishment from a whip-wielding LaLaurie. The body was subsequently buried on the mansion grounds. Jeanne DeLavigne, in her 1945 account, gave the child's age as twelve years and gave her a name, Lia (or Leah). Later writers elaborated on the case, saying that Lia had been brushing Delphine's hair when she hit a snag, causing LaLaurie to grab a whip and chase her.

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 of the enslaved people that they kept. These nine enslaved people were bought back by the LaLauries through an intermediary relative, and returned to the Royal Street residence. Similarly, Martineau recounted stories that LaLaurie kept her cook chained to the kitchen stove, and beat her daughters when they attempted to feed the enslaved people that she kept.

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 the cook, a seventy-year-old woman, chained to the stove by her ankle. She later said that she had set the fire as a suicide attempt because they all wanted to die because she could not live in those conditions any more. She said that the enslaved people taken to the uppermost room never came back.

As reported in the New Orleans Bee of April 11, 1834, bystanders responding to the fire attempted to enter the quarters of the enslaved people to ensure that everyone had been evacuated. Upon being refused the keys by the LaLauries, the bystanders broke down the doors to the quarters of the enslaved people 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 said that when he questioned LaLaurie's husband about the enslaved people, 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 people's business." A version of this story circulating in 1836, recounted by Martineau, added that the enslaved people 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 violently mutilated and horrifically tortured enslaved people 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 called upon to disperse the crowd, but by the time the mob left, the property had sustained major damage, with "scarcely any thing [remaining] but the walls." The enslaved people were taken to a local jail, where they were available for public viewing. The Bee reported that by April 12 up to 4,000 people had attended to view the enslaved people "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 enslaved people found in the mansion had died since their rescue. It 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 child Lia.

~ Escape from justice and self-imposed exile in France ~

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 traveling, by schooner, to Mobile, Alabama and then to Paris. 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".

~ Later life and death ~

Living with his mother and two sisters, Pauline and Laure, in exile in Paris, Delphine's son Paulin Blanque wrote in August 15, 1842, to his brother-in-law, Auguste DeLassus, stating that Delphine was serious about returning to New Orleans and had thought about doing so for a long time. Blanque wrote in the same letter that he believed that his mother never had any idea about the reason for her departure from New Orleans. Despite Delphine's "bad mood" and her determination to return to New Orleans, the disapproval of her children and other relatives had apparently been enough for her to cancel her plan.

The circumstances of LaLaurie's death are also unclear. In 1888, George Washington Cable recounted a popular but unsubstantiated story that LaLaurie had died in France in a boar-hunting accident. 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 Maccarthy, décédée à Paris, le 7 Décembre, 1842, à l'âge de 6--." The English translation of the inscription reads: "Madame Lalaurie, born Marie Delphine Mccarthy, died in Paris, December 7, 1842, at the age of 6-- " According to the French archives of Paris, however, LaLaurie died on December 7, 1849, at the age of 62.

~ LaLaurie mansion ~

The original New Orleans mansion occupied by LaLaurie did not survive. The impressive mansion at 1140 Royal Street, on the corner of Governor Nicholls Street (formerly known as Hospital Street), commonly referred to as the LaLaurie or Haunted House, is not the same building inhabited by LaLaurie. When she acquired the property in 1831 from Edmond Soniat Dufossat, a house was already under construction and finished for LaLaurie.

This house was burned by the mob in 1834 and remained in a ruined state for at least another four years. It was then rebuilt by Pierre Trastour after 1838 and assumed the appearance that it has today.

~ LaLaurie in folklore ~

Folk histories of LaLaurie's abuse and murder of her slaves circulated in Louisiana during the 19th 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 reports in newspapers such as the New Orleans Bee and the Advertiser, and upon Martineau's 1838 account, Retrospect of Western Travel. He added some of his own synthesis, dialogue, and speculation.

After 1945, accounts of the LaLaurie slaves became 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 cite any sources for these claims, and they were not supported by the primary sources.

The story was further 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 re-tellings of the LaLaurie legend often use DeLavigne and Smith's versions of the tale as the basis for claims of explicit tortures, and number the slaves who died under LaLaurie's care at as many as one hundred.

~ LaLaurie in fiction and popular culture ~

LaLaurie was portrayed by Kathy Bates in American Horror Story: Coven.

Madame LaLaurie was briefly mentioned in the fictional supernatural TV series The Originals (Season 4, Episode 6) in a list of violent clusters occurring in the city of New Orleans. Vincent Griffith believed that her violent acts were part of a cluster of such acts influenced by the malevolent spirit known as the Hollow.

LaLaurie's story served as inspiration for the Briarwoods in the first campaign of Critical Role.


Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel – In Two Volumes, 1838: London: Saunders & Otley. 1838: Charles Lohman, New York. Delphine LaLaurie case in Vol. II, pp. 136-143.

pp. 136-142 – It was along this road that Madame Lalaurie escaped from the hands of her exasperated countrymen, about five years ago. The remembrance or tradition of that day will always be fresh in New Orleans. In England the story is little if at all known. I was requested on the spot not to publish it as exhibiting a fair specimen of slave-holding in New Orleans: and no one could suppose it to be so; but it is a revelation of what may happen in a slave-holding country, and can happen nowhere else. Even on the mildest supposition that the case admits of. that Madame Lalaurie was insane, there remains the fact that the insanity could have taken such a direction, and perpetrated such deeds nowhere but in a slave country.

There is, as every one knows, a mutual jealousy between the French and American creoles* in Louisiana. Till lately the French creoles have carried every thing their own way, from their superior numbers. I believe that even yet no American expects to get a verdict, on any evidence, from a jury of French creoles. Madame Lalaurie enjoyed a long impunity, from this circumstance. She was a French creole, and her third husband, M. Lalaurie, was, I believe, a Frenchman. He was many years younger than his lady, and had nothing to do with the management of her property; so that he has been in no degree mixed up with her affairs and disgraces. It had been long observed that Madame Lalaurie's slaves looked singularly haggard and wretched, except the coachman, whose appearance was sleek and comfortable enough. Two daughters by a former marriage, who lived with her, were also thought to be spiritless and unhappy-looking. But the lady was so graceful and accomplished, so charming in her manners, and so hospitable, that no one ventured openly to question her perfect goodness. If a murmur of doubt began among the Americans, the French resented it. If the French had occasional suspicions, they concealed them for the credit of their faction. “She was very pleasant to whites,” I was told; and sometimes to blacks; but so broadly so as to excite suspicions of hypocrisy. When she had a dinner party at home, she would hand the remains of her glass of wine to the emaciated negro behind her chair, with a smooth audible whisper, “Here, my friend, take this: it will do you good.” At length, rumours spread which induced a friend of mine, an eminent lawyer, to send her a hint about the law which ordains that slaves who can be proved to have been cruelly treated shall be taken from the owner, and sold in the market for the benefit of the State. My friend, being of the American party, did not appear in the matter himself, but sent a young French creole, who was studying law with him. The young man returned full of indignation against all who could suspect this amiable woman of doing anything wrong. He was confident that she could not harm a fly, or give pain to any human being.

Soon after this, a lady living in a house which joined the premises of Madame Lalaurie, was going up stairs, when she heard a piercing shriek from the next court-yard. She looked out, and saw a little negro girl, apparently about eight years old, flying across the yard towards the house, and Madame Lalaurie pursuing her, cowhide in hand. The lady saw the poor child run from story to story, her mistress following, till both came out upon the top of the house. Seeing the child about to spring over, the witness put her hands before her eyes; but she heard the fall, and saw the child taken up, her body bending, and limbs hanging, as if every bone was broken. The lady watched for many hours; and at night she saw the body brought out, a shallow hole dug by torch-light in the corner of the yard, and the corpse covered over. No secret was made of what had been seen. Inquiry was instituted, and illegal cruelty proved in the case of nine slaves, who were forfeited according to law. It afterwards came out that this woman induced. some family connexions of her own to purchase these slaves, and sell them again to her, conveying. them back to her premises in the night. She must have desired to have them for purposes of torture; for she could not let them be seen in a neighbourhood where they were known.

During all this time, she does not appear to have lost caste, though it appears that she beat her daughters as often as they attempted in her absence to convey food to her miserable victims. She always knew of such attempts by means of the sleek coachman, who was her spy. It was necessary to have a spy, to preserve her life from the vengeance of her household: so she pampered this obsequious negro, and at length owed her escape to him.

She kept her cook chained within eight yards of the fireplace, where sumptuous dinners were cooked in the most sultry season. It is a pity that some of the admiring guests whom she assembled round her hospitable table could not see through the floor, and be made aware at what a cost they were entertained. One morning, the cook declared that they had better all be burned together than lead such a life; and she set the house on fire. The alarm spread over the city: the gallant French creoles all ran to the aid of their accomplished friend, and the fire was presently extinguished. Many, whose curiosity had been roused about the domestic proceedings of the lady, seized the opportunity of entering those parts of the premises from which the whole world had been hitherto carefully excluded. They perceived that as often as they approached a particular outhouse, the lady became excessively uneasy lest some property in an opposite direction should be burned. When the fire was extinguished, they made bold to break open this outhouse. A horrible sight met their eyes. 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. Every morning, it was her first employment after breakfast to lock herself in with her captives, and flog them till her strength failed.

Amidst shouts and groans, the sufferers were brought out into the air and light. Food was given them,--with too much haste; for two of them died in the course of the day. The rest, maimed and helpless, are pensioners of the city.

The rage of the crowd, especially of the French creoles, was excessive. The lady shut herself up in the house, with her trembling daughters, while the street was filled, from end to end, with a yelling crowd of gentlemen. She consulted her coachman as to what she had best do. He advised that she should have her coach to the door after dinner, and appear to go forth for her afternoon drive, as usual; escaping or returning, according to the aspect of affairs. It is not told whether she ate her dinner that day, or prevailed on her remaining slaves to wait upon her. The carriage appeared at the door; she was ready, and stepped into it. Her assurance seems to have paralyzed the crowd. The moment the door was shut, they appeared to repent having allowed her to enter, and they tried to upset the carriage, to hold the horses, to make a snatch at the lady. But the coachman laid about him with his whip, made the horses plunge, and drove off. He took the road to the lake, where he could not be intercepted, as it winds through the swamp. He outstripped the crowd, galloped to the lake, bribed the master of a schooner which was lying there to put off instantly with the lady to Mobile. She escaped to France, and took up her abode in Paris under a feigned name; but not for long. Late one evening, a party of gentlemen called on her, and told her she was Madame Lalaurie, and that she had better be off. She fled that night, and is supposed to be now skulking about in some French province, under a false name.

The New Orleans mob met the carriage returning from the lake. What became of the coachman I do not know. The carriage was broken to pieces, and thrown into the swamp, and the horses stabbed, and left dead upon the road. The house was gutted, — the two poor girls having just time to escape from a window. They are now living, in great poverty, in one of the faubourgs. The piano, tables, and chairs were burned before the house. The feather-beds were ripped up, and the feathers emptied into the street, where they afforded a delicate footing for some days. The house stands, and is meant to stand, in its ruined state. It was the strange sight of its gaping windows and empty walls, in the midst of a busy street, which excited my wonder, and was the cause of my being told the story, the first time. I gathered other particulars afterwards from eye-witnesses.

The crowd at first intended to proceed to the examination of other premises, whose proprietors were under suspicion of cruelty to their slaves; but the shouts of triumph which went up from the whole negro population of the city showed that this would not be safe. Fearing a general rising, the gentlemen organized themselves into a patrol, to watch the city, might and day, till the commotion should have subsided. They sent circulars to all proprietors suspected of cruelty, warning them that the eyes of the city were upon them. This is the only benefit the negroes have derived from the exposure. In reply to inquiries, I was told that it was very possible that cruelties like those of Madame Lalaurie might be incessantly in course of perpetration. It may be doubted whether any more such people exist: but if they do, there is nothing to prevent their following her example with impunity, as long as they can manage to preserve that secrecy which was put an end to by accident in her case.



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