The Savage Mistress
One of the cruelest and most sadistic women in American history has to be Madame Marie Delphine MacCarthy Blanque LaLaurie (played deliciously by Kathy Bates in American Horror Story Season 3). The real Madame LaLaurie was born in 1787 into the New Orleans wealthy elite. Like many manipulative sociopaths, she was known to be kind and courteous — at least to her social equals. “The lady was so graceful and accomplished, so charming in her manners and so hospitable, that no one ventured openly to question her perfect goodness,” according to British writer Harriet Martineau.
Yet it was her nouveau-aristocratic ancestry that may shed some light on her later crimes.
It was soon after her third marriage to the less wealthy Dr. Louis LaLaurie that she had built (in her own name) an opulent, two-story mansion on Royal Street in New Orleans. The home quickly became known as the grandest in the French Quarter. In contrast, the people she enslaved “looked singularly haggard and wretched,” as Martineau noted.
Rumours about her cruelty to her slaves began to emerge, and multiple complaints were filed against her for it over the years. In one instance, in an eerie reflection of Elizabeth Bathory — to whom she has been repeatedly compared — she flew into a rage when a 12-year-old servant girl named Leah (or Lia) pulled a tangle while brushing her hair. Fleeing from the furious, whip-wielding mistress, Leah jumped from the roof to her death. Witnesses later saw LaLaurie burying the girl’s mangled corpse, so she was fined $300 and forced to sell her nine slaves. Bear in mind, this is the South during slavery times — prosecutions of owners who mistreated their slaves was extremely rare.
But like rich people everywhere, she was able to buy her way out of punishment. Her family members simply purchased the slaves and sold them back to LaLaurie.
Fire illuminates the depths of her sadism
On April 10, 1834, a fire broke out in the LaLaurie mansion. When firefighters arrived, they discovered that it had been set by a slave who had been chained to the stove and left to starve. The enslaved woman later confessed that she had set the fire as a suicide attempt to avoid being taken to the attic, because no one who was taken there ever came back.
As LaLaurie scrambled to save her valuables, townsfolk rushed in to help her. However, she refused to surrender the keys to the slaves’ quarters, so the townsfolk had to break the doors down to rescue those who were locked inside. The terrified slaves implored the townsfolk to go up to the attic, to rescue those inside.
Once inside the attic, they found a scene from a nightmare: “seven slaves, more or less horribly mutilated … suspended by the neck, with their limbs apparently stretched and torn from one extremity to the other.” Those who could speak said they been imprisoned there for months. Details of the abuse have grown more fantastic over the years, including tales of victims’ limbs being broken and reset an odd angles, disembowelment, and creative flaying. But contemporary newspaper accounts paint a gruesome enough picture, without embellishment. The rescued slaves were actually put on display, so the townsfolk could see the evidence of LaLaurie’s cruelty for themselves: deep wounds and scars from repeated floggings, their skeletal appearance from starvation, and a hole in one man’s head wriggling with maggots.
Slavery was already a brutal, dehumanizing practice — iron masks, collars with inward facing spikes, and beatings were common punishments used on slaves at the time — but even in the slave-holding South, this was more than they would tolerate. When word got out, a mob of locals “of all classes and colors” descended on the LaLaurie mansion and “demolished and destroyed everything upon which they could lay their hands.”
After the destruction of the mansion, a local newspaper reported that there had been two more bodies found buried on the property, including that of a child.
LaLaurie escaped with her enslaved driver, Bastien, to Paris, where she lived out the rest of her days in comfort and freedom. After her death on December 7, 1849, she was first buried at Montmartre. It is thought her body was later exhumed and returned to New Orleans, though it can’t be definitively proven.
Sometime around 1888, the mansion was restored. Over the years, it was used as a public high school, a music conservatory, an apartment building (twice), a refuge for young delinquents, a bar, a furniture store, and, briefly, was owned by Nicholas Cage. Unsurprisingly, it is rumored to be haunted — in fact, it is called the most haunted house in New Orleans, an impressive title in a town fairly overrun with ghosts. Today the LaLaurie Mansion is a private residence, owned by an energy trader from Texas. Though it is closed to the public, it is still a popular stop for sight-seers and tours featuring the dark side of New Orleans.
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