Monday, July 25, 2011

The Ghosts of La Maison LaLaurie

In the French Quarter in New Orleans on the corner of Royal Street and Governor Nicholls Street, stands a mansion that for 150 years has been considered the most haunted location in The Quarter. 

This area, like most of the French Quarter, survived Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

This story is about the infamous original owner of the mansion. Delphine Macarty was born in 1775, to parents who were prominent members of New Orleans’ white Creole community. 

Delphine’s cousin was the mayor of the city from 1815 till 1820. Delphine’s first husband was a Spanish officer. 

When he died, Delphine married a prominent banker, merchant, lawyer, and legislator. When he died, she remarried for the third time. She had five children from her first two marriages.

Lenard LaLaurie, her third husband, was a physician who was much younger than she. 

In 1872, Delphine built a three-story mansion on Royal Street. Like most people in their social class, the Lalaurie’s owned slaves. 

When the mansion was built, slave quarters were attached to the main house. Delphine, her husband, and two of her daughters moved in.

In public, Delphine appeared to be polite to black people, and she expressed concern for the health and welfare of her slaves. 

But her slaves’ “singularly haggard and wretched appearance belied this fact.” Rumors that she mistreated her slaves became widespread. 

A local lawyer was sent to her home to warn her that there were laws relevant to the upkeep of slaves.

A neighbor witnessed a young black slave girl fall to her death from the roof of the mansion while attempting to escape Delphine’s whip-wielding punishment. 

This incident led to an investigation of the LaLauries, in which they were found guilty of illegal cruelty and forced to forfeit nine of their slaves. But these nine slaves were repurchased by a relative of the LaLauries and returned to Royal Street.

The abuse continued. She kept her cook chained to the stove, and her daughters were beaten when they attempted to sneak food to the slaves. On April 10, 1834, a fire broke out in the mansion. 

As reported by the New Orleans Bee, a local newspaper, bystanders responding to the fire attempted to enter the slave quarters to make sure everyone was evacuated. 

The LaLaurie’s refused to hand over the keys, so the rescuers broke down the door. 

The Bee reported what they found, “seven slaves, more or less horribly mutilated…suspended by the neck. Their limbs apparently stretched and torn from one extremity to the other." They had apparently been imprisoned there for several months to prolong their suffering.

Judge Jean-Francois Canonge, a witness, recounted what he saw, “a nigress…wearing an iron collar,” and “an old negro woman who had received a deep wound on her head,” when found, "she was too weak to walk." 

Canonge tried to talk to Dr. LaLaurie about the slaves' condition. But LaLaurie insolently replied, “that some people had better stay home rather than come to other’s houses to dictate laws and meddle with other people’s business.”

It was claimed the cook set the fire deliberately to draw attention to the plight of the slaves. 

Once the story of the tortured slaves became widely known, a mob descended upon the LaLaurie mansion. 

By the time a sheriff and his officers were able to disperse the crowd, the Royal Street property had sustained significant damage, “with scarcely anything left remaining, but the walls.” 

To add insult to injury, the tortured slaves were taken to a local jail, where they were made available for public viewing. The Bee reported by April 12th up to 4000 people had seen the tortured slaves, “to convince themselves of their suffering.”

Two other local papers reported that two of the slaves died. It was also disclosed that the mansions yard was dug up, and two bodies were found, one being the body of a young child. 

The LaLauries fled fearing for their lives. It is believed they sailed for Paris. The circumstances of how Delphine LaLaurie died are unknown. 

Years later, in New Orleans, in St. Louis Cemetery #1, an old cracked copper plate was discovered in ally #4. The inscription on the plate reads, “Madame LaLaurie, née Marie Delphine Macarty, décédée à Paris, le 7 Décembre, 1842, à l'âge de 67” translated this means—Madame LaLaurie, born Marie Delphine Marcarty, died in Paris, December 7, 1842, at the age of 67.

Since the mid-1940s, many exaggerated myths have been told and written about Delphine’s treatment of her slaves. These attempts at embellishment are grotesque, considering that the truth, alone, is unconscionable. 

After the LaLaurie’s left New Orleans, the mansion at Royal Street stood empty for over forty years. 

Around 1888 it was restored, over the following decades it was used as a public high school, a music conservatory, a tenement, a refuge for young delinquents, a bar, a furniture store, and today it is luxury apartments. 

At one point, actor Nicholas Cage owned the mansion. His wife and children refused to sleep under its roof.

Since the late 1880s, there have been numerous reports that the mansion is haunted. 

The activity became so pronounced when it was an Italian tenement house, that all the residents moved out. The furniture company was driven out as well. In recent years, footsteps and disembodied voices have been heard.

One witness whose friends lived in the mansion had two compelling experiences while at Royal Street. 

The first happened as she stood on an interior balcony overlooking the courtyard. This courtyard was where the bodies were found. She was confused when she heard children laughing and running across the brick path below because she saw no one.

Her second encounter happened when she was helping her friends move out. 

She was packing books in a part of the house that was rarely used. She felt the room grow cold, a light turned on in an adjourning room, and a vaporous male figure appeared at the door. 

His head, shoulders, and waist were solid, but he had no visible legs. His white shirt had a ruffle at the neck; he had long slicked hair with a trim beard. He looked at her with a questioning glance, tilted his head, and vanished. Horrified, she ran from the room. 

Her friends told her that they had also seen a male figure in this area of the mansion. A smell of pipe or cigar smoke always lingered after he disappeared. The owners believed he was Dr. Leonard LaLaurie, Delphine’s husband.

During a restoration of a downstairs fireplace, a rolled-up charcoal portrait of Delphine was found. After this discovery, strange activity began to occur in the room. 

Tools and paintbrushes disappeared, and a drop cloth was found bundled up in the fireplace grate, by the morning work crew. 

One worker saw a misty “grey lady” standing at the foot of his ladder. After feeling a tug on his trouser leg, the man looked down into a set of creepy, glaring eyes. 

As he watched, the grey mist disappeared. The man left the house quickly. Some say this was Delphine showing her disapproval of the renovation.

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