On 10 April 1834 a fire broke out at a large mansion in Royal Street, New Orleans. It was the home of a local well known socialite called Marie Delphine LaLaurie – but what was found upon entering the house was far more shocking than the fire itself.
According to bystanders who forced their way into the burning slave quarters to rescue those trapped inside, they found bound slaves who showed evidence of severe long-term torture.
There were black women who were severely mutilated, with torn limbs, scars and deep wounds. Some were reportedly too weak to walk – and it is said that LaLaurie had even made the slaves wear spiked iron collars that prevented their heads from moving.
The early life of Delphine LaLaurie
Born around the year 1775 in Lousiana, Marie Delphine LaLaurie was part of an upper class Creole family and preferred to be called Delphine as she felt that this was more in keeping with her upper class status.
One of five children, she was the daughter of Barthelmy Macarty and Marie Jeanne Lovable. Notably, her cousin, Augustin de Macarty, was mayor of New Orleans between 1815 and 1820.
Delphine LaLaurie married her first husband, Don Ramon de Lopez y Angullo, in 1800. They had a child, Marie Borgia Delphine Lopez y Angulla de la Candelaria, before she remarried in June 1808 to her second husband, Jean Blanque, who was a wealthy and well-known banker and lawyer.
The marriage led to four more children, before Blanque died in 1816. During the marriage, they also purchased a house at 409 Royal Street.
Following Blanque’s death, LaLaurie married her third husband, Leonard Louis Nicolas LaLaurie, before moving to 1140 Royal Street, the scene of the later fire. They developed the house and built slave quarters, whilst Delphine maintained her position as a prominent New Orleans Socialite.
Indeed Marie Delphine LaLaurie was a respected member of the upper class community. It was very common in those days for people of this status to keep slaves – and so on the surface, all appeared well.
Question marks over cruelty
But question marks over the conditions the LaLaurie’s were keeping their slaves in started to appear in the New Orleans community and became widespread. Harriet Martineau, for instance, revealed that residents had told of how LaLaurie’s slaves were “singularly haggard and wretched” – and there was later an investigation carried out by a local lawyer.
Although the visit found no wrongdoing, the speculation about the treatment of slaves continued and was only heightened when there were later reports that a slave girl had been killed at the mansion after jumping from the roof in an attempt to escape punishment by LaLaurie.
At the time of the fire, it is reported that Marie Delphine LaLaurie hampered the attempts of bystanders to rescue the trapped slaves by refusing to hand them the keys to access the wing.
Forced to break down the doors in order to get in, it was only then that they found the awful state of the imprisoned slaves. Over a dozen disfigured and maimed slaves were manacled to the walls or floors. Several had been the subjects of gruesome medical experiments.
One man appeared to be part of some bizarre sex change, a woman was trapped in a small cage with her limbs broken and reset to look like a crab, and another woman with arms and legs removed, and patches of her flesh sliced off in a circular motion to resemble a caterpillar.
Some had had their mouths sewn shut, and had subsequently starved to death, whilst others had their hands sewn to different parts of their bodies. Most were found dead, but some were alive and begging to be killed, to release them from the pain.
The haunted house
Following the fire, an angry mob attacked the mansion and caused considerable damage. Delphine LaLaurie reportedly fled to Paris, where she later died in 1842 – although little is actually known about her life after leaving New Orleans.
The building still stands to this day on Royal Street – and in 2007 it attracted celebrity interest when the actor Nicholas Cage purchased the property for a reported $3.45 million. Over the years it has been put to various uses, including use as a tenement, a refuge, a bar and a retail store.
Today, the story still generates considerable interest and speculation, and there are several legends and theories surrounding it.
One legend, which attempts to explain the actions of LaLaurie, claims that when Delphine LaLaurie was a child she witnessed her parents being murdered by their slaves during a revolt, and that this made her have a deep hatred for them.
Another story claims that the fire was started deliberately by the resident cook in an attempt to draw further attention to the torture the slaves were suffering.
A more recent story goes that whilst the property was undergoing a renovation, 75 bodies dating back to the time that the LaLaurie’s lived there were found underneath a floor in the building. This however is almost certainly legend, although it is largely what started the rumour that the house is haunted.
But whatever did or didn’t happen – there’s no doubting that some wicked crimes were conducted underneath those four walls – and the interest surrounding what was found on that day in 1834 very much lives on.