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Michael Norman's Blog

La Maison Est Hantee

If you are a fan of Kathy Bates in American Horror Story: Coven, then you probably know her character is based on a real person, Madame Delphine Macarty Lalaurie, one of the most evil and prolific murderesses in all of American history. The horrors she inflicted on her helpless victims gave rise to many ghost stories connected to her home on Royal Street in New Orleans, which still stands.

The full, true story of Madame Lalaurie, La Maison Est Hantee, is in Norman and Scott's HAUNTED AMERICA.

Here is the story, excerpted from the book. WARNING: Descriptions of Madame Lalaurie's behavior are explicit and may not be suitable for some readers.

La Maison Est Hantée
By Michael Norman and Beth Scott

The French and Spanish in the old Quarter knew the place all right.

La maison est hantée, they whispered. The house is haunted. And not just any house.

This address, 1140 Royal Street, is the most notorious haunted house in all of New Orleans, and perhaps in all of Louisiana as well.

On Royal Street was the 1830s home of Madame Delphine Macarty Lalaurie, a monstrous purveyor of torture and death wrapped in the guise of a beautiful, sophisticated society belle known throughout the city for her lavish entertainments and grand balls.

The most famous names in early New Orleans frequented Madame Lalaurie's salon.
New Orleans raconteur and author Lyle Saxon said that as late as the 1920s Madame's old mansion was "the largest and finest in the neighborhood, rich and beautiful in detail."

But her public demeanor was a hideous charade. Lurking behind the charming smile and crinoline skirts was the soul of a sadist, a woman who reveled in unspeakable cruelties and slow, agonizing death; the exact number of helpless slaves ripped and sliced apart on her instruments of torture will never be known.

Madame Lalaurie may have been the most prolific murderess in early American history.

Those unlucky enough to have heard or seen the ghosts of her victims claim they are far removed from anything else the supernatural world might inflict upon the living. The twisted, translucent forms are missing limbs, or a length of intestine might dangle from a gaping stomach wound, maybe an eye or a pair of lips might be sewn shut with heavy black thread. Blood spews from the severed buttocks of one particularly hideous specter.

For a few unfortunate pedestrians, a casual stroll past 1140 Royal Street has included witnessing the suicide of a young African-American girl as she plummets from the mansion's roof, her dying screams lingering in the still, humid night air. Knowing it is all a ghostly reenactment of an actual suicide does not lessen the terrible suddenness of the event. Some say it was murder.

The house of Madame Lalaurie is old enough to harbor many ghosts. One tradition is that Jean and Henri de Remairie built it on land they received through a royal grant from the French Crown built it in 1773. The forty-room mansion passed through various hands until Delphine de Macarty inherited it. She was married three times, the last to Dr. Leonard Louis Nicolas Lalaurie in 1825.

Other historians, however, point to conflicting legal records. A court record seems to show that Madame Lalaurie bought the site in 1831 and had the house built and ready for occupancy in 1832. Old City Hall records declare that Louis and Delphine (Macarty) Lalaurie bought the house from Edmond Soniat du Fossat on August 13, 1831.

Believe what you will of the mansion's origin, Doctor and Madame Lalaurie's magnificent house was all that early New Orleans society could have wanted in a center for lively galas.

The exterior of the three-story mansion, though almost plain to the point of severity, is graced by delicate lace ironwork around the second-floor balcony and by street-level arched windows.

If the outside was undistinguished, the interior was lavish even by the excessive standards of the antebellum South. The house was made for grand parties. Mahogany doors with hand-carved panels of flowers and cherubic human faces opened to parlors and dining rooms lighted by crystal chandeliers aglow with hundreds of candles. Fireplaces taller than a man warmed almost every room, while the finest products of eastern and European furniture makers rimmed the walls. Fabrics of satin and velvet were draped in dazzling array from the walls, j Guests dined on delicate European china.

The charming and beautiful Madame Lalaurie knew how to impress New Orleans society, and they, in return, made her mansion on Royal Street rever- berate with hundreds of voices laughing in earthly delight. Night after night the pampered rich in their slippered feet strode through the front portico and across the marble floor of the entrance hallway and preened before the great, gilded mirrors. Their attentive hostess bustled about the rooms seeing to their comforts!

But beneath the veneer of sophistication was the cursed institution of slavery practiced with special gusto by Delphine Lalaurie.

Attending to the house and its luxurious furnishings were dozens of slaves. A small girl helped dress Madame; another dusted the downstairs rooms and served the petits fours. A man whose name may have been Carlos fetched Madame's foodstuffs. Another slave was the wine steward and still others washed Madame's clothes, or swept the courtyard. One had the exclusive task of bathing Madame's favorite poodle!
Ironically, it was Madame Lalaurie's personal maid whose suicide gave the public its first inkling of her mistress's secret life.

Her name was Lia. She leaped from the mansion's roof one afternoon. Her body smashed into a long banquette on the sidewalk outside the house, missing by only inches a startled passerby who alerted authorities.

Before Lia's suicide, there had been some quiet conversations about how Madame's servants seemed never to stay long in her employ. A new young girl would replace the parlor maid with no explanation as to her whereabouts, or the slave who groomed Doctor and Madame's horses suddenly disappeared from the stable—never to be seen again.

Understandably, Madame Lalaurie had a very difficult time explaining away Lia's death. Suspicions were raised, but after all, Madame insisted, the girl was nothing more than a piece of property to be used or gotten rid of. And yet… the first whisperings of unease from Madame's old friends were being heard. A few party invitations declined, a dinner abruptly canceled, a night at the theater called off.

On April 10, 1834, however, all doubts about Madame Lalaurie were expunged. The full story of Madame Lalaurie's cruelties was revealed in particulars so disgusting that people from the shores of Lake Ponchartrain to the Old Spanish Trail talked about it for decades.

On that otherwise pleasant spring day, a small fire brought the city's fire brigade to the mansion. An elderly black woman, who herself may have started the fire in a desperate attempt to attract attention, begged the firemen to unlock the door leading to a garret apartment. Human beings were captives up there, she cried.

At the top of the uppermost flight of stairs they found the room—Madame Lalaurie's chamber of horror. Even the most hardened of the firemen cried out in anguish at the depravity of anyone who could have created such an abomination.

The April 11,1834, edition of the New Orleans Bee reported the event in the typically verbose style of nineteenth-century journalism:

"The flames having spread with alarming rapidity, and the horrible suspicion being entertained among the spectators that some of the inmates [sic] of the premises where it originated were incarcerated therein, the doors were forced open for the purpose of liberating them... Upon entering one of the apartments, the most appalling spectacle met their eyes— 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. Language is powerless and inadequate to give a proper conception of the horror that a scene like this must have inspired. We shall not attempt it, but leave it rather to the reader's imagination to picture what it was....

"They had been confined by her [Madame Lalaurie] for several months in the situation from which they had thus providentially been rescued, and had been merely kept in existence to prolong their suffering and to make them taste all that the most refined cruelty could inflict...."

It was left to witnesses other than the Bee's anonymous reporter to catalogue the tortures found in Madame Lalaurie's secret chamber.

All of the victims were naked and chained to the walls. Some of the women had their stomachs sliced open and their intestines wrapped around their waists. Other females were covered with black ants, supping on gobs of honey spread over their bodies.

One had had her mouth stuffed with animal excrement and then sewn shut.

The men were in even more hideous condition. Fingernails had been ripped off, eyes poked out, or buttocks and ears sliced away. One poor soul hung lifeless from his shackles, a stick protruding from a gaping hole that had been drilled into the top of his skull. It had evidently been used to "stir" his brains.

Several had their mouths pinned shut.

One man had his severed hand stitched to his stomach.

All of the prisoners wore heavy iron collars about their necks and their feet were in shackles, according to one newspaper account.

The torture had been carefully administered so as not to bring quick death. Nevertheless, some of the slaves had apparently been dead for some time. Others were unconscious. One or two were crying in incomprehensible pain, begging to be killed and thus relieved of their agony. At least two of those rescued died of their injuries later in the day.

Just how many slaves were found in Madame's torture chambers during and after the fire is not certain. Some of the servants who had "vanished," or supposedly been sold to other owners, actually never made it out of the house.

While Madame Lalaurie's grisly hideaways were being searched, and the small fire doused, she apparently stayed in the mansion. But even in the slave holding South of the 1830s, her barbarism was too much for the city.

The New Orleans Daily Picayune detailed what happened next in an 1892 history of the events:

"A silence fell upon the faubourg, but it was the ominous silence that precedes the outburst of the smouldering wrath of an outraged public. During the morning, an idle crowd hung about the Lalaurie mansion, the numbers increased towards midday and by evening the throng was so dense that standing room was almost impossible upon the pavement. They hissed and hooted and some cried out for satisfaction. Madame Lalaurie did not mistake the meaning and conceived and executed a bold plan for flight.

"Promptly at the hour at which she was accustomed to take her usual drive her carriage drove up before the door and madame, dressed in her usual elegant style, stepped out upon the sidewalk and entered the vehicle. In a second more the horses were going at full speed over the clean, smooth shells of Bayou Road. Madame was taking her last drive in the fashionable quarter, and it was a drive for life itself. It took but an instant for the crowd to recover from her masterful stroke of audacity, and in another moment they were at her back, yelling and hooting and screaming: 'Stop that carriage!' 'She is running away!' 'Drag her out!' 'Shoot her!' 'Shoot the horses!' but in vain; the coachman drove furiously on; the horses went at a break-neck speed; they had borne their mistress before and would not fail her now, and fashionable New Orleans stopped its carriages and watched in black amazement. .. .

"Mrs. Lalaurie, it is said, took refuge for ten days near the spot where the Claiborne cottage stands in Covington, whence she made her way to Mobile and thence to Paris."

Madame Delphine Lalaurie's eventual fate is in dispute. The Daily Picayune's history of the Lalaurie mansion states that she lived all her final years in Paris, in a handsome mansion that, like its New Orleans predecessor, grew to become a favorite of the cultured and elite of the city. She died, the newspaper said, "in her own home, surrounded by her family."

Another account, however, published in the 1940s, alleges that Madame Lalaurie secretly returned to New Orleans some years later and settled in a home "on the Bayou Road." She called herself "the Widow Blanque." A record may actually exist showing a "Mrs. N. L. Lalaurie" freed a slave in 1849 in that same district.

Whenever the fiend of Royal Street finally came to rest, there is no record of any legal proceedings being taken against her for the crimes she so wantonly committed. And nothing shows that she ever again saw her New Orleans mansion.

The same cannot be said of those she butchered.

The ghosts swirling about 1140 Royal Street have been the stuff of legend virtually from the day Madame Lalaurie's carriage pulled away from her front door for the last time.

A local agent, apparently on the instructions of Madame herself, placed the mansion on the market. Records indicate that it was sold in 1837 to a man who kept it only three months. He was plagued with strange noises—cries and groans and rattling chains—so that he was unable to spend a single peaceful night there. The nameless gentleman also tried to rent out several of the two-score rooms, but tenants only stayed a few days. Neighbors reported seeing the front door swing open on its own and windows rise up and down without assistance.

A furniture store and barber shop may have also occupied the premises, but again for just a very short time.

One particularly unnerving episode took place above the old stables some years after Madame Lalaurie fled for her life. A black servant was spending the night there when someone choking him suddenly awakened him. Bending over him in the dim light was a pale woman with black hair, a terrible look of anger on her face. She had his throat firmly in her grasp. As he was nearing unconsciousness, another pair of hands, black hands, appeared and pried the woman's fingers from his throat. Both the assailant and the servant's savior faded away in the murky darkness.

Following the Civil War, Reconstruction found the Lalaurie Mansion turned into an integrated high school "for the girls of the lower district."

In 1874, the notorious White League succeeded in forcing the black children to leave the school. Later, a segregationist Democratic school board made the school for black children only, but that lasted only a year.

After a period of vacancy, the Lalaurie mansion again found itself the center of society when an English dance teacher opened a "conservatory of music and fashionable dancing school" in 1882.

However, the resident ghosts seemed to have had other ideas.

All went well for several weeks. The teacher was very popular, drawing the best young ladies and gentlemen of New Orleans society. A newspaper wrote of that wistful time:

"Music and light and laughter filled the great apartments, and it was pretty of a spring evening ... to watch the girls in their light and graceful costumes flitting about the great rooms and over the broad balcony to the measured strains of music, while the voices of a tenor or contralto trilled through the apartments and floated out upon the dreamy street."

The dream ended abruptly.

A local newspaper apparently printed an accusation against the teacher, perhaps alleging improprieties with one of his young charges, just before a grand soiree was to take place at the mansion. Students and guests stayed away and the school closed the next day. The spirits hanging about the old mansion undoubtedly danced well into the night at such wonderful news.

Not everyone was driven out of the haunted mansion. Rumors of lost treasure at 1140 Royal Street surfaced in 1892 after the death of Jules Vignie, the eccentric offspring of a prominent French family.

Vignie lived in the Lalaurie house virtually unnoticed in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Indeed, those who had known Vignie after the Civil War were surprised at the news; they had assumed him dead long before. He was a studious collector of antique furniture, fine paintings, and bric-a-brac of all sorts, and had worked for a prominent New Orleans auctioneer for years.

Vignie's body was found on a tattered cot in the attic by neighbors curious at recent signs of activity in the house. They were amazed at the beautiful furnishings Vignie had managed to acquire. A bag containing several hundred dollars was found near his body. Quick searches revealed another two thousand dollars secreted in his mattress.

Vignie's possessions were sold off and the house stayed vacant until immigrant Italian families sought housing in the Old Quarter. The Lalaurie Mansion became an apartment complex for several dozen families. For many of them, their lives in the

Lalaurie mansion were anything but peaceful. The ghosts would not be stilled:

A towering black man wrapped in chains confronted a fruit peddler on the staircase and then vanished on the bottom step.

Strange figures wrapped in shrouds flailed away with riding crops.

A young mother screamed when she confronted a white woman in elegant clothes bending over her sleeping infant.

Stabled mules died mysteriously after being visited by a white-robed woman, dogs and cats were found strangled and torn in two. And always, always the groans and screams from the attic rooms.

It was never easy to keep tenants in the old house, and that was made even more difficult after one owner decided to perform some remodeling. Workmen discovered several skeletons under the old cypress floors. The remains were found not in orderly graves, but as if they had been dumped unceremoniously into the ground. Well, the owner tried to reason, the house had been built on old Spanish and Indian burial grounds. True enough, but his response was dismissed when authorities said the bones were of relatively recent origin, certainly buried after the house was built.

What was found, officials concluded, was nothing less than Madame Lalaurie's own private graveyard. She had removed sections of the house's floor, dug shallow graves and thrown the bodies of her tortured slaves in them so as to avoid having to answer for their deaths. The mystery of the sudden disappearance of Madame's slaves was finally solved.

The twentieth century has seen the mansion on Royal Street renovated and become, for now, a favorite sight on tours of the Old French Quarter.

Excerpt by permission of the author from Haunted America, A Tor Book, published by Tom Doherty Associates, Copyright © 1994 by Michael Norman and the Estate of Elizabeth Scott. All rights reserved.

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