Madame Lalaurie’s name lives in infamy in New Orleans’ history
by Carolyn Morrow Long
The imposing gray three-story edifice known as the “haunted house” looms fortress-like on the corner of Royal and Governor Nicholls streets in the French Quarter. Tour groups gather day and night outside the building. Participants listen raptly to spooky yarns of the infamous Madame Lalaurie who, in the early 1830s, starved and tortured her slaves and was hounded out of town by an angry mob when a fire revealed her misdeeds. Over time the story has been embellished with increasingly gruesome details, but archival research reveals that at least some of it is true.
The “mistress of the haunted house” was born Marie Delphine Macarty in Spanish-colonial Louisiana on March 19, 1787, daughter of the Chevalier Louis Barthélémy Macarty and his wife Marie Jeanne Lerable. She was raised on the family plantation in what is now the downriver Bywater neighborhood, surrounded by the wealthy and numerous Macarty clan and their even more numerous slaves.
At age 13, Delphine became involved in a scandalous affair with Ramon López y Ángulo, a 35-year-old widower recently arrived in New Orleans to assume the position of intendente, second in command to the Spanish governor. Within six months they were married. Colonial officials were required to obtain permission from the king in order to wed local women, but correspondence in the Spanish Archivo General de Indias reveals that López y Ángulo was too impatient to wait for the royal license. Citing reasons of “conscience and honor,” he persuaded the bishop of Louisiana to perform the ceremony in June of 1800. When news of the marriage reached King Carlos IV, López was relieved of his duties, ordered back to Spain, and assigned to a low-level position in a backwater town. From there he wrote a flood of impassioned letters to Spanish officials in which he blamed his humiliating situation on “powerful enemies”in Louisiana and Spain. Finally the king pardoned López and appointed him Spanish consul to New Orleans, which was by then under American administration. While proceeding to his new post, the vessel on which he and Delphine were traveling met with an accident off the coast of Cuba. A Spanish government despatch from Havana dated January 11, 1805, reported that López y Ángulo had died “as a result of the running aground of the ship.” The exact cause of his death was not explained. A few days later Delphine gave birth to their only child, Marie Delphine Francisca Borja López y Ángulo.
Delphine, now the widow López, returned to New Orleans with her daughter, called “Borquita,” the diminutive of Borja. In 1807 she married the Frenchman Jean Blanque, with whom she had four children: Pauline, Laure, Jeanne, and Paulin. Jean Blanque was a merchant, lawyer, banker, state legislator, political intriguer, and a major slave trader. He was also a close associate of the pirates Jean and Pierre Laffite. It was Blanque who, in 1814, delivered Jean Laffite’s famous letter to Governor Claiborne, in which Laffite offered his men to help defend New Orleans against the British in the War of 1812. Blanque died in 1815, leaving Delphine to settle his massive debts and raise five young children. A later inheritance from her father, plus her own shrewd business dealings, put Delphine back on a solid financial footing, and by the time she met Louis Lalaurie, she was a very wealthy lady indeed.
It is Dr. Louis Lalaurie, Delphine’s third husband, who is directly associated with the events surrounding the fire and the tortured slaves. In February 1825, Lalaurie, son of a respectable middle-class family in the French village of Villeneuve-sur-Lot, arrived in New Orleans from Bordeaux on the ship Fanny. Twenty-two years old and fresh out of medical school, he appears to have been a naive but ambitious youth who had come to seek his fortune in the New World.
Dr. Lalaurie placed an advertisement in the Louisiana Courier, announcing that he would specialize in “straightening crooked backs” and correcting other deformities. One version of the story says that he became acquainted with the wealthy Delphine Macarty Blanque because she had a “crippled” child whose condition he attempted to correct. One of Delphine’s daughters, probably Pauline, did in fact have a disability of some kind, and letters from Lalaurie’s family refer to his treatment of “Mademoiselle Blanque, the hunchbacked young lady.”
Between 1825 and 1827 Louis received numerous letters from his father, urging him to establish himself in the medical profession, marry a rich girl, and return to France. Papa Lalaurie made frequent references to “Madame Blanque,” meaning Delphine, but he apparently regarded her as a well-to-do and influential older woman who could help advance Louis’ career, not as a potential daughter-in-law.
Popular legend has characterized Louis Lalaurie as an “inconspicuous” and “colorless” nonentity, a “meek, mousy little man,” but Delphine evidently found him quite attractive. By late 1826 the relationship between Louis and Delphine had become intimate, and Delphine was pregnant. Their son Jean Louis Lalaurie was born on August 13, 1827. The St. Louis Cathedral marriage and baptismal records show that the couple did not marry until five months later, on January 12, 1828. In a contract enacted on the day of their wedding, Delphine specified that she would retain control over her personal property, real estate, and slaves, together worth $67,000. Lalaurie brought only $2,000 to the marriage, and even that was tied up in his late mother’s estate. We can only speculate about the relationship between this unlikely pair. Did Delphine, a 40-year-old grandmother who had been widowed for ten years, develop a passion for the young man? Or was it Lalaurie who pursued Delphine in response to his father’s injunction to marry a lady with money and social connections?
A Strained Marriage
Some very revealing observations about Delphine and her new husband are found in the Ste-Gême Family Papers at The Historic New Orleans Collection. Over a period of many years Jean Boze, the business manager of Henri de Ste-Gême’s Gentilly plantation, sent gossipy newsletters to his employer in France. Delphine and Louis had been married less than a year when Boze wrote that “Madame Blanque…has married a young French doctor. They do not have a happy household; they fight, they separate, and then return to each other, which would make one believe that someday they will abandon each other completely.”
During the first years of their marriage the Lalauries lived on Delphine’s riverfront plantation below the city, but Delphine had set her sights on a fine mansion under construction at the corner of Royal and Governor Nicholls, then called Hospital Street. In 1831 she bought two lots, on which stood the partially completed residence with an attached service wing containing the kitchen and slave quarters.
The move to their lavish new Royal Street home did not improve their contentious relationship. In 1832 Delphine petitioned the court for a separation, testifying that Lalaurie’s treatment had “rendered their living together unsupportable,” and that “in the presence of many witnesses he beat and wounded her in the most outrageous and cruel manner.” She asked the judge to “authorize her to live separately from her husband in the home she now occupies with her family.” Lalaurie stated before a notary that his medical practice required spending most of his time in Plaquemines Parish. It is difficult to imagine that he was pursuing a career in orthopedics in this remote outpost instead of establishing his medical practice in the city of New Orleans. Maybe he served as a general practitioner for the planters and their slaves. Had he also, perhaps, found a more agreeable female companion?
Along with the rumors of the Lalauries’ unhappy marriage, news of Delphine’s mistreatment of her slaves also began to circulate. In his 1828 letter to Henri de Ste-Gême, Boze mentioned that Madame Lalaurie’s abuses had come to light: “Finally justice descended on her home and, after being assured of the truth of the denunciations for barbarous treatment of her slaves contrary to the law, [the authorities] found them still all bloody.” In 1829, Boze wrote to his employer that Madame Lalaurie had been found not guilty by an indulgent jury. In 1832 he communicated to Ste-Gême that she had been indicted by the criminal court for abusing her slaves, but was able to clear herself by paying a sum of money.
The criminal court records for this time period have been lost, so there is no existing documentation of the 1828, 1829, or 1832 charges against Madame Lalaurie. One very important piece of evidence did, however, come to light. On June 22, 1829, John Randolph Grymes, one of the most famous attorneys of the day, signed a document stating that he had “Received of Madame Lalaurie three hundred dollars for my fee for defending the prosecution of the State against her in the Criminal Court.” This would almost certainly be the criminal case described by Jean Boze in his letter of July 20, 1829.
A Gruesome Discovery
The fire at the Lalaurie home broke out on the morning of April 10, 1834. Despite their legal separation, both husband and wife were at the Royal Street mansion on that particular day. Between April 10 and April 15, detailed accounts of the conflagration appeared in the Courier and the Bee, published in French and English and intended primarily for the Creole community. Both editors had been eyewitnesses to the events of that day and had seen the starved and mutilated slaves in person. The Louisiana Advertiser, an American publication, made only brief comments without adding much new information. The story was also picked up by out-of-state newspapers. According to these articles, the blaze had originated in the kitchen, and the entire service wing was “soon wrapped in flames.” A crowd gathered to assist in fighting the fire. The volunteers were especially concerned about the Lalauries’ bondspeople, since it was “known to the neighbors that the upper part of the building was used as a prison and that it was then tenanted by several unfortunate slaves.” Among those who responded to the fire was Judge Jacques François Canonge, who “in a polite manner” asked permission of the Lalauries to “have the slaves removed to a place of safety.” Louis Lalaurie, aware that discovery would be disastrous for him and his wife, rudely replied that “there are those who would be better employed if they would attend to their own affairs instead of officiously intermeddling with the concerns of other people.”
The flames were “gaining rapidly on the building,” and Judge Canonge gave orders to break down the doors. The men who entered the service wing were greeted by an “appalling sight,” as “several wretched negroes” emerged from the fire, “their bodies covered with scars and loaded with chains.” Altogether the rescuers discovered “seven slaves, more or less horribly mutilated…. [Some were] suspended by the neck with their limbs stretched and torn from one extremity to the other.” They found “an elderly negress,” quite feeble, with a “deep wound on her head.”A woman was chained in the kitchen. Another woman was wearing an iron collar and “chained with heavy irons by the feet.” A man had a “large hole in his head, his body [covered] from head to foot with scars and filled with worms.” A “mulatto boy” declared that he had “been chained for five months, being fed daily with only a handful of meal, and receiving every morning the most cruel treatment.” None of the victims were identified by name.
The rescued slaves were carried to the Mayor’s office at the Cabildo, where they were given medical treatment, food, and drink. A growing crowd around the Lalaurie mansion waited for the sheriff to come and arrest the guilty party. But all remained quiet within the house, and as the day passed and the officers of the law failed to appear, the people on the street grew increasingly angry. Suddenly Madame Lalaurie’s enslaved coachman, Bastien, arrived with her carriage, she stepped in, and they flew at a gallop along the Bayou Road to Lake Pontchartrain. The newspapers reported that her “successful escape from the hands of justice” so exasperated the populace that they attacked her empty house. The rioters smashed furniture, china, crystal, and works of art, wrecked the floors, stairs, and wainscoting, broke windows, dismantled the iron balconies, and continued their assault on the roof and walls until “nearly the whole of the edifice had been pulled down.”
The newspaper stories were corroborated by other eyewitnesses. On the day of the fire Judge Canonge made a deposition before Judge Gallien Préval of the Parish Court. His sworn statement was published in the Bee on April 12. The French consul, Armand Saillard, submitted an account to the French Minister of Foreign Affairs. Saillard told of his visit to the Cabildo to see the sufferers, and described their “dislocated heads, legs torn by the chains, and bodies streaked with blood from head to foot from whiplashes and sharp instruments.” The notary Amédée Ducatel related that he was one of the men who rushed into the burning building to liberate the victims. The jurist and historian Charles Gayarré said that he had seen the slaves “carried out on stretchers and laid under the arches of the portico of the Cabildo. They had changed from black to ashen gray, and were barely breathing.” Jean Boze, writing to Ste-Gême, again referred to the “cruel and barbarous character” of Madame Lalaurie. He recounted her escape from “the pursuit of justice and the rage of a people who gathered by the thousands,” and described how that evening he heard “the cries of riot and the fracas” that accompanied the destruction of the Lalaurie mansion.
After the frantic dash out the Bayou Road, Madame Lalaurie boarded a schooner and crossed the lake to the town of Mandeville. She and her husband remained there long enough to put their business affairs in order and assign power of attorney to her sons-in-law, Placide Forstall and Auguste DeLassus. Delphine made no arrangements for the emancipation of any of her slaves, not even Bastien, the coachman who had helped her escape. From Mandeville the Lalauries traveled to Mobile and thence to New York City, and on June 24, 1834, they set sail for the French port of Le Havre on the ship Poland. One of their fellow passengers was the American poet William Cullen Bryant, who noted in his journal that Madame Lalaurie of New Orleans was also on board. The lady, he wrote, was the one known to have “committed such horrible cruelties upon her slaves.” She “seemed much affected by the reserve with which the other travelers treated her and was frequently seen in tears.”
Exile in France
Three weeks later the Lalauries, with their young son Jean Louis, disembarked at Le Havre and made their way to Louis Lalaurie’s family home in Villeneuve-sur-Lot. After a short and uncomfortable stay in Villeneuve, they departed for Paris. They were joined there by Delphine’s unmarried adult children, Pauline, Laure, and Paulin Blanque. Within a few years Lalaurie left for Cuba, and was never reunited with his wife and son. He died in Havana in 1863.
Back in New Orleans, Placide Forstall, acting as agent for Madame Lalaurie, was disposing of the ruined house and the slaves. He sold the Royal Street mansion for $14,000, less than half the original purchase price of $33,750. Forstall also sold 11 of the 30 enslaved men and women owned by Delphine at the time of the fire, including Bastien. This leaves 19 people unaccounted for in the archival record. At a time when slaves were property and record-keeping was meticulous, this is unusual and has sinister implications. At least some of these missing individuals could be Madame Lalaurie’s victims, the ones believed to have perished from starvation and abuse and those saved from the fire but rendered unsalable by their debilitating injuries.
In Paris, Delphine and her children rented lodgings at several addresses in the fashionable neighborhood near the Church of la Madeleine and made frequent visits to health spas in the Pyrénées Mountains. After Placide Forstall delegated oversight of Delphine’s business to her other son-in-law, Auguste DeLassus, DeLassus appropriated Delphine’s money for his own purposes and neglected to send her monthly payments as promised. She was borrowing heavily at exorbitant interest rates to support her lavish lifestyle, and feared that her creditors would refuse to renew her promissory notes. In letter after letter, Delphine badgered DeLassus to send money and give an accounting of her financial affairs. Finally she determined to return to New Orleans to resolve the situation in person.
In 1842 Delphine’s son Paulin Blanque wrote to Auguste DeLassus that his mother was serious about traveling to New Orleans. “She has been thinking about this for a long time. We comfort ourselves with the hope that moments of bad humor alone could make her nourish such a thought.” Referring to “the sad memories of the catastrophe of 1834,” Paulin conveyed that he, who had “lived with her and studied her” for years had “seen that time hasn’t changed anything in that indomitable nature, and that by her character she is again preparing many sufferings for her children. I bemoan the fate that awaits us if ever again my mother sets foot in that place where her conduct elicited general disapproval. She has caused us to shed many tears, and where she goes we prepare ourselves for bad news owing to her presence.” Paulin had reached the conclusion that his mother “never had any idea concerning the cause of her departure from New Orleans.”
Perhaps because of declining health and her family’s objections, Madame Lalaurie never made the intended trip. One version of the Lalaurie legend says that in 1842 she was gored to death by a wild boar while on a hunting expedition near the resort village of Pau, and that her body was returned to New Orleans for burial in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. In reality, Delphine died after a long illness at her home in Paris, 8 Rue d’Isly, on December 7, 1849. Her funeral took place the next day at the nearby Church of St. Louis d’Antin. She was temporarily interred in the Cemetery of Montmartre, but caretaker’s records show that her remains were indeed exhumed in 1851 for transportation to New Orleans.
According to the ownership and interment registers for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, the tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 that is said to be Madame Lalaurie’s final resting place belonged to her son Paulin Blanque. Paulin may have purchased this tomb before having his mother’s body returned from Paris, and she is probably buried there. Owing to poor record keeping, however, neither Delphine nor any of her immediate family are included in the list of interments. The first recorded burial is that of her great-granddaughter, who died in 1884.
An Infamous Legacy
Until the day of the fire, Delphine Macarty Lalaurie had passed her entire life in a society in which most people of means owned slaves. Many New Orleans slaveowners treated their bondspeople with fairness and compassion, but the behavior of some masters towards their human property ranged from petty harassment to outright brutality. Although extreme cruelty to slaves was against the law, few owners were convicted of this crime. In such a society, Madame Lalaurie would have considered chastisement of her bondspeople to be normal and justified. She indeed “never had any idea concerning the cause of her departure from New Orleans.”
Eyewitness accounts portray Delphine as a woman who was subject to extreme mood swings, from a captivating amiability to violent fits of temper, and it is assumed by many that she was mentally ill. Reading between the lines of letters and archival documents, one intuits that Louis Lalaurie soon regretted having become involved with this rich but eccentric lady. Desperate to get away from her, he retreated to Plaquemines Parish. His neglect would have pushed the already-unstable Delphine over the edge. Her young husband had slipped beyond her control, but she still had dominion over her human property. One can imagine her — jealous, disconsolate, abandoned, feeling insecure because of her aging body — venting her frustration and rage on her slaves for some small act of insubordination or dereliction of their duties.
Madame Lalaurie’s status as a member of the slave-owning elite, her erratic, perhaps deranged, personality, and her unhappy relationship with her younger third husband led her to commit terrible deeds. Had she lived in another time and another place, her fury would have found some other outlet. Because she lived in early 19th-century New Orleans, she tortured the slaves over whom she had power, and until the day of the fire, she got away with it.
Carolyn Morrow Long is the author of Madame Lalaurie: Mistress of the Haunted House, a biography published by the University Press of Florida in 2012. The book was funded in part by a publications grant from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, which the author used to hire research assistants to trace Madame Lalaurie’s history in France. Long has also authored Spiritual Merchants: Religion, Magic and Commerce and A New Orleans Voudou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau, as well as encyclopedia entries on Laveau and Voudou . Long lives in Washington, D.C., and New Orleans.