originally published October 26, 2013

As we meander into that designated portion of our calendar during which the broadcast networks expect us to tune in to the same retread gore-fests and creep-flicks they run every year, allow me to suggest a somewhat richer experience. There have been numerous true horror stories that have played out through history, spilling real blood on the folios of our legacy and tinting our very humanity with a darker, more esoteric hue.

My daughter has informed me that the gruesome character of Delphine LaLaurie has been woven into the most recent season of American Horror Story. And while I have no doubt the masterful Kathy Bates will construct a character more blood-squooshingly terrible than the real deal, there’s something to be said for the monstrous events that actually happened.

Like, they actually happened. While the grotesque details of Madame LaLaurie’s tortuous exploits have been exaggerated and overestimated throughout the years, these are the facts as history has marked them. Grab hold of your stomach, cause it’s about to turn.

Behold the grainy face of a thousand soot-stained nightmares. Delphine LaLaurie was a socialite by day and a monster by night, at least to those in her employ. Well, ‘employ’ is a sketchy, if not completely inaccurate word here. This was the early 1800’s in the American South. One didn’t simply employ workers around one’s stately palace, not with all the available dark-skinned labor on the market.

Delphine was born into white Creole society, the folks who ran things in Louisiana in the early 1800’s. Her mother’s name was Marie Jeanne Lovable – a fact not pertinent to the story except for the modicum of irony it provides. First, she married Don Ramon de Lopez y Angullo, who was the consul general for Spain in Louisiana and an avid collector of last names. They had one child before Don Ramon passed away, a girl they named Marie Borgia Delphine Lopez y Angulla de la Candelaria, possibly because they didn’t want her to ever own anything monogrammed.

Delphine married again and spurted out four more daughters for Jean Blanque, who up and died eight years after they’d tied the knot. Now a widow twice over, Delphine hooked up with her third husband in 1825: Leonard Louis Nicolas LaLaurie, a physician. The family bought a mansion at 1140 Royal Street in New Orleans, and settled into society life.

The Royal Street mansion had quarters for a number of slaves – this was fairly common at the time. Sociologist Harriet Martineau remarked that Delphine’s slaves appeared somewhat ragged. In public Mme. LaLaurie was polite to the African-Americans she’d encounter, and she’d even emancipated two of her slaves over the years. But something wasn’t right. One of her neighbors witnessed LaLaurie chasing a 12-year-old slave girl onto the mansion roof with a whip, allegedly because the girl had hit a snag whilst brushing Mme. LaLaurie’s hair. Terrified of being punished, the girl fell off the roof and died on impact.

A subsequent investigation resulted in nine slaves being taken from the LaLaurie home. Using one of their relatives as a proxy, the LaLauries bought the slaves back. There was no escape.

I was mistaken – there was one escape. The LaLauries’ cook, a 70-year-old woman, had been shackled to the stove by her ankle. One day in 1834, she was terrified of some unspeakable punishment that involved being taken to the mansion’s uppermost room. A number of servants had been brought there, but none had returned. So in a desperate act of suicide, the cook lit a fire. Bystanders tried to force their way into the slave quarters to help out with the fire, but Madame LaLaurie wouldn’t allow it. Finally, they broke down the door.

No one was prepared for what they found in that room. The place was a grim exhibit, featuring a number of bodies, all beaten and mutilated. They hung from their necks with their limbs having been stretched out, and even torn from their sockets. One woman wore an iron collar around her neck, another suffered from a deep head wound. They claimed they’d been imprisoned for months. When Judge Jean-Francois Canonge, one of the first responders to the fire, asked Mr. LaLaurie about it, he was dismissed and told not to meddle in other people’s business.

The story quickly spread, and before long an angry mob showed up to trash the LaLaurie house. The rescued slaves were brought to the local jail for public viewing, because somehow that wasn’t a despicably cruel thing to do in 1834. This served to rile up the agitated crowd, but there was no vengeance to be had. The LaLauries had disappeared into the night.

A couple of the slaves died from their wounds, and over the next few days a handful of bodies were exhumed from the LaLaurie grounds, including that of another child. Rumor has it the fugitive couple caught a schooner to Mobile, Alabama, and eventually made their way to Paris. In the dust that settled over their property, the stories of what happened there were inflated and contorted into the most gruesome torture-porn story in New Orleans’ history.

The LaLaurie legend became perfect fodder for tellers of tall tales to stretch out their gruesome imaginations. Whether or not the grotesque details had been true, it no longer mattered; the LaLauries were long gone and would never be brought to justice. There were stories of slaves being found with their mouths sewn shut, their eyeballs gouged out and their fingernails having been hoisted from the root.

Wrists bound by intestines, ears hanging by shreds, holes in skulls through which sticks were poked to stir the frazzled, barely-living brains. Modern tales place the death toll in the LaLaurie mansion at close to one hundred, much exaggerated from the truth. But no matter – it’s a creepy story, and a great set-up for some classic New Orleans ghost lore. They love their haunted houses down in Cajun country.

Oh, and the tale gets weirder still. Now this guy enters the scene:

Yes, Nicolas Cage. After having been used as a high school, a furniture store, a bar, a music conservatory and an upscale apartment building, the LaLaurie mansion was picked up by actor Nic Cage in 2007 for $3.45 million. When he ran into some financial troubles a couple years later, it was auctioned off to a financial company.

As for Madame LaLaurie herself, no one is totally sure what happened to her. There’s a story that she may have perished in a boar-hunting accident in France. The only thread we have to pull is the late-1930’s discovery of what appears to be her grave in St. Louis Cemetery #1 in New Orleans, indicating that she died in 1842. The truth at the end of this madness will probably never be known.

Which is, in fact, the perfect way to finish off any gruesome tale of sadistic horror, isn’t it?

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