Saturday, August 27, 2011


NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana – Cities, like people, have memories. Happy memories are commemorated with pictures, statues, and awards, but there are also things that cities would like to put behind them. Remembering causes the pain to return like reopening an old wound. For New Orleans, the most painful memory came at the hands of Madame LaLaurie.
LaLaurie in the year 1906
New Orleans, LA

She was beautiful, and her husband, a doctor, was handsome and rich. They had purchased a Creole-style home in the French Quarter and furnished the mansion lavishly. Invitations to their parties became a social prize. Her looks were the fashion at the time: long dark hair, blue eyes, and always beautifully and meticulously dressed. Even if her blue eyes were a little cold and her husband seemed to have a nervous nature, few mentioned having any qualms when being entertained by them. Who would want to risk an argument with a so popular a couple?

Only one woman at first dared to resist the social superiority of Delphine LaLaurie. One day, as one of their neighbors was climbing the steps up to her roof, she heard a scream. Across the street at the LaLaurie mansion, a tiny figure was quickly running up to the roof; the woman realized it was a slave, a young girl who was Delphine's personal servant. The terrified child was running in terror from an outraged Delphine, who was brandishing a whip. The neighbor watched in horror as the little girl gave a last ghastly scream and fell from the steps to her death on the stone pathway below.
In anger, not only did the woman speak out against her influential neighbors—she reported them. At that time in New Orleans, there were laws against cruelty to slaves. Delphine LaLaurie and her husband were fined, and their slaves—over one hundred men, women, and children—were sold away from them at auction.

However, Delphine would not be denied. She had her family and friends turn the auction into a farce by buying back the slaves and returning them to the LaLauries. There was little justice for the slaves; they had no voice, no rights, and they were sold back to a house that held no mercy and a woman who had no humanity.

Delphine's undoing would come from one of these individuals who could no longer stand the horror of living under the LaLauries’ roof. The cook, who was chained inside the kitchen, set a fire in a desperate attempt to end her nightmare.

The LaLauries’ only interest was in preserving the lush interior of their home, but neighbors and fire volunteers entered the mansion to try to save those trapped inside. In a locked attic room, they found victims who were long past rescue: not victims of the fire, but slaves who had been brutalized by Madame Delphine and the Doctor. Inside that room, they found servants who had been beaten, abused, and grotesquely experimented on by the couple. Everywhere the volunteers looked, they found men or women chained to walls or tied to tables, dead, unconscious, or crying out in pain for someone to end their torment. There were severed limbs on the floor and jars containing things the witnesses didn't want to identify. The attic room was a torture chamber.

The couple's social status meant nothing after that, nor did it matter any longer who they had victimized. The news of the horrors the LaLauries had committed swept through New Orleans, and a lynch mob was quickly formed. But there would be no justice; the Doctor and his wife escaped, probably with the help of relatives.

The LaLaurie mansion stood vacant for many years. Few people wanted to remember that such cruelty had occurred within their own community, aided and abetted by the laws and standards they still lived by. The house was believed to be haunted; lights were seen moving past the windows at night, screams and moans were heard coming from inside its walls, and eventually passersby would cross the street to avoid walking in front of the LaLaurie house.

The mansion has passed into different hands since then; it has been a boarding school, a saloon, and an apartment building. During one of its renovations, another secret from those times was unearthed. Under the floorboards, makeshift graves were found holding dozens of bodies that were believed to date back to the time of the LaLauries. We will never know for sure how many people were tortured and killed by the couple.

No one can say whether the restless souls of those who never found justice still linger inside the mansion, but New Orleans will always be haunted by what happened there.


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