NEW ORLEANS, LA — Ghosts, voodoo, and the occult are as steeped in the history and character of New Orleans as are jazz, gumbo, and Mardi Gras.
Still, for however freakily perceptible NOLA’s wicked and/or otherworldly vibes may strike those who visit, all such supernatural spookery remains rooted in legends and folk tales.
Alas, the inhuman crimes and unimaginable cruelty committed by slave-owning French Quarter socialite Madame Delphine LaLaurie surpass even the most horribly elaborate scary stories. For this, she became forever after known among the locals as “the Savage Mistress.”
On April 10, 1834, a fire in the massive LaLaurie Mansion brought to light just how darkly savage the Mistress had been, as it exposed an attic torture chamber in which seven slaves were bound up and clad in spiked iron collars while the building blazed. It was hell on earth up there.
City authorities had been eyeing LaLaurie for a while. Her slaves were said to appear particularly unhealthy and often sported untreated wounds. The charges against LaLaurie turned serious in 1833, after a 12-year-old slave girl fell to her death from the roof while running from the Madame’s whip. Witnesses reported the incident, but LaLaurie attempted to cover it up by dumping the child’s body in a well.After searchers found the girl’s remains, officials fined LaLaurie and forced her to forfeit her nine remaining slaves. The Madame schemed to have friends and family members purchase the slaves, however, and, one by one, the horrifically victimized individuals were returned to the LaLaurie Mansion.
Upon the occasion of the fire, firefighters discovered the house cook chained by the ankle in the kitchen, panicking while LaLaurie rushed around trying to save furniture. Later, the cook stated that she started the fire as a suicide attempt over fears that she’d be condemned to the ghastly abominations of the attic.
As the flames rose, other citizens rushed to help evacuate anyone else who may have been trapped. After LaLaurie refused to give them keys to the attic, the Samaritans broke down the door and discovered, as reported by the New Orleans Bee:
“Seven slaves [were] more or less horribly mutilated … suspended by the neck with their limbs stretched and torn from one extremity to the other … they had been confined … for several months in the situation from which they had thus been providentially rescued, and had merely been kept in existence to prolong their sufferings and to make them taste all that the most refined cruelty could inflict.”
Following the fire, police took the nine surviving slaves to a local jail so the public could view them. Onlookers were properly appalled and bayed for justice.
Other stories arose of what else was found in the mansion’s attic. Reports came of heads, organs, and limbs strewn about; men who had been twisted and maimed to be stuffed into tiny cages; and slaves whose mouths were filled with animal feces and sewn shut. One woman was said to have had her skin peeled off in such a way that she looked like a caterpillar, while another had her bones broken and reset so that she resembled a crab. Eventually, talk grew to claims of 100 victims on the property.
This mixture of what was indisputably grotesque fact and what was most likely gruesome fantasy eventually inflamed a mob to rise up and storm the LaLaurie Mansion. The rampagers ransacked the huge French Quarter domicile and left it in tatters.
Madame LaLaurie, however, never faced any kind of justice. Neither the law nor the mob ever caught her. The Savage Mistress escaped to Paris where little is known of her life after the uprising, except that she died there in 1849. Someone then transferred her remains back to New Orleans for burial.
The LaLaurie Mansion stood in ruins until being refurbished in 1888. Since then, it has loomed large as the dark heart of New Orleans’ occult culture, and it’s typically described as “the most haunted house” in a city packed with such dwellings.
In death, Madame Delphine LaLaurie caught on fast as a demonic figure to spice up horror tales, and she continues to rule as a diabolical presence in popular culture. Numerous best-selling collections of NOLA-based ghost stories and scare films feature the Savage Mistress.
Most notably, actress Kathy Bates brought LaLaurie to vividly evil life on the TV series American Horror Story: Coven. In discussing the character with Rolling Stone, Bates observed not just how the show made use of the real-life nightmare, but perhaps also why folklore so often crops up around such atrocities on the order of Madame LaLaurie. She said:
“In the midst of all of this kind of ghoulish entertainment that’s on one level, on another level [we’re] unearthing the horrors of our own history.”
The truth is too often more frightening than fiction.
Main image: Madame Delphine LaLaurie [WikiMedia Commons]