Saturday, October 15, 2011

Samedi: Ghostly Tales

The house at 1140 Rue Royal is known to New Orleanais as “The Haunted House”.  The tales told about the house and its original owners, those true and those not so much, are shocking in the extreme.  Like mushrooms, these stories have grown and spread over the course of nigh-on to 200 years and they don’t seem to be stopping any time soon.

The house, built in the Spanish colonial style, is said to have stood in the same spot since 1780 when it was allegedly built by les frères Remarie, Henri and Jean.  According Stanley Clisby Arthur, that story is hogwash.  In his 1936 book Walking Tours of Old New Orleans, Arthur tells us that the house was built in 1831 specifically for Dr. Leonard Louis Nicolas Lalaurie and his bride of six years, Marie Delphine. 

Madame Lalaurie, who is now quite infamous, was the delicate and accomplished daughter of French-Irish landowner Louis Barthelemy McCarty and his first wife Marie Jeanne Lovable.  By the time she married the doctor, Delphine had buried two husbands, the first a Spanish Don and the second noted merchant and Laffite associate Jean Blanque.  While Delphine was, to all outward appearances, the very picture of Creole respectability and gentility, she seems to have held a very dark secret in her otherwise healthy psychology.

It is a notorious truth that women slave owners tend to be more cruel to their chattel then like-minded men, and Madame Lalaurie seems to bare this out.  Though Arthur claims that all the gossip against her was and is false, others like Lyle Saxon beg to differ.  Saxon notes that charges for cruelty toward her slaves were brought against Madame after she and her husband moved into the house on Royal and that she was fined for same.  The fine was nominal but the documentation still exists.  The true extent of Madame’s sadism came to light in 1834.

In the spring of that year 1140 Rue Royal suffered a fire, which broke out in the kitchen near the carriage house.  At the time, New Orleans had only a volunteer fire department and before they arrived, neighbors hurried in to help the Lalauries move people and valuables out of the house.  One neighbor, whom Saxon names in Fabulous New Orleans as M. Montreuil, questioned the doctor as to the whereabouts of his slaves.  Neither Madame nor Dr. Lalaurie would give their neighbor a straight answer, nor would they allow anyone on the fourth floor of the mansion.

The volunteer firefighters put the fire in the kitchen out quickly but were horrified to find an elderly slave woman chained near the stove with heavy manacles at ankles and neck.  She told them that she set the kitchen ablaze, preferring to end her life in flames rather than continue to suffer Madame’s torture.  They unchained her and took her out of the kitchen; then they entered the house proper.

Thick, black smoke still drifted up the main stairwell and screams were heard in the fourth floor garret.  Despite the Lalauries, the firefighters hurried up to the top of the house and found a locked door, bolted on the outside, behind which the screams could be heard.  They broke the door down and found more chained slaves in such horrible condition that one of the young firefighters actually vomited.  Some had broken, unset limbs, others horrible oozing sores from repeated lashings and still others deep and bloody head wounds.

The slaves were taken from the house and the story appeared in the paper L’Abeille the next day, stirring up public opinion against the Lalauries.  Meanwhile, the doctor and Madame left New Orleans and, again according to Saxon, set sail for Mandeville.  Other historians claim that Madame lived the rest of her days in Paris.

Over the years, more and more horrific atrocities including crude sex-change operations and flaying alive have been tacked on to Madame Lalaurie’s already heinous doings.  One story in particular, that of a 12 year old slave girl jumping to her death in the courtyard while Delphine chased after her with a bullwhip, continues to this day.  It is said that the girl is buried in the courtyard well and that her specter is still seen running up the multiple flights of stairs in the house, attempting to escape the merciless Madame Lalaurie.

Other ghosts include a heavily chained and headless African, who carries his head as he rattles back and forth in the courtyard, a disembodied and skeletal hand at the front door latch, a bloody phantom that wanders the third floor balcony and screams in the dark of the night.  Whether or not any of this is true is open to debate, but if ever there were a house that should be haunted, it is 1140 Rue Royal.

An entirely fictional account of what became of the spirits of Madame Lalaurie’s slaves is told in the movie The St. Francisville Experiment which imagines the Lalauries settling in St. Francisville north of New Orleans, acquiring more slaves and continuing their unspeakable tortures.  Ghostly terror ensues when a group of modern ghost hunters spend a night at the Lalaurie plantation.

Header: 1950s postcard showing 1140 Rue Royal


Timmy! said...

With so many haunted places in NOLA you really have to be pretty much over the top to be known as “The Haunted House”. Madame Lalaurie sounds like she was a pretty horrible person, Pauline.

Pauline said...

Exactly! And if all that they say is true - or even half of it - she surely was.