Read an Excerpt
From the opening of Mad Madame Lalaurie: New Orleans' Most Famous Murderess Uncovered.
On the corner of Royal and Governor Nicholls Street stands what some people say is the most haunted house in America. Imagine you are standing in the twilight of a warm summer day, looking at the house, which casts a long, ominous shadow down the street. This neo-classical, three story mansion, complete with the traditional enclosed New Orleans-style courtyard, is said to be the site of a truly horrific case of torture, medical atrocities and abuse. It has witnessed over 175 years of hauntings, terror, blood-crazed mobs, and sorrow. Its austere exterior hides the elegant oasis within. If not quite beautiful, the house is dignified. It harkens back to the days when Creole Louisiana was king, and the refinement of the lady of the house was paramount to a family’s social success.
Imagine you are looking at this mansion, but you are not alone. A tour guide stands next to you. The two of you stare at the house in silence for a moment. When the tour guide begins to speak, she tells you a story:
“In 1832, Madame Lalaurie, daughter of a prominent Creole family, and her nondescript husband, Dr. Louis Lalaurie, bought this elegant mansion and held the seasons’ most exquisite parties. Madame Lalaurie was the crème of Creole society, renowned for her beauty and grace. Born Marie Delphine Macarty, Madame Lalaurie was married twice to prominent men who mysteriously died, leaving Madame a very wealthy widow. Then Marie Delphine met the good doctor, who had recently completed medical school in Toulouse and immigrated to New Orleans.
“In the spring of 1832, a cloud covered the Lalaurie mansion. Whispers of slave abuse buzzed through the city. Louisiana didn’t work on the Puritan/British code of ethics for slaves, which allowed an owner free rein to punish or even kill her slaves. The Code Noir, a decree that defined the conditions of slavery in the French Colonial Empire, was still enforced in Louisiana at that time, and it offered some meager protection to those enslaved. The Code specifically forbade torture, mutilation, and sexual abuse. It allowed for ‘ordinary’ punishments, like confinement, chaining, and whipping.”
Your tour guide gives you a dark look. “Those rumors must have been bad.”
“A young American lawyer who was boarding in the neighborhood heard these rumors. He went to the Lalaurie home to point out the section of the Code Noir that prohibited severe abuse. He left dazzled by Madame Lalaurie, by her charm and beauty, denying that anyone so lovely could ever be cruel.
“The whispers died down. Madame continued to entertain lavishly with her two quiet, reserved daughters by her side. She was known to give the last of her wine to the servant behind her, whispering ‘Take this, it will do you good.’ There was even a court record from the 1820’s that showed she had freed one of her slaves after the death of her second husband. It didn’t seem possible that such a woman was abusing her household staff. Some people said the ugly stories were started by nouveaux-arrivés Americans, jealous of the Creole elite—just a nasty attempt to spoil their social standing and bring the proud Creoles down a notch.
“But in 1833, an unfortunate incident occurred. While combing Madame Lalaurie’s hair, a young slave girl named Nina hit a tangle and set Madame into a rage. Madame chased the girl through the house with a bullwhip, shrieking like a madwoman. Nina fled up the stairs to the top of the house with a raging Madame close behind.”
Your tour guide points to the third floor. In the gloom, the house seems to be leaning toward you. After a moment, your guide continues.
“High on the roof, the girl lost her footing and fell to the courtyard below. Her body hit with a dull thud. Blood spread in a dark halo around the child’s head. Eyewitnesses said that Madame just stared at the dead child for a moment, then turned and went back inside.
“Minutes later, silent shapes emerged from the house and dragged the broken body away. Later that night the sound of a shovel could be heard in the courtyard, digging a shallow grave near the well. Quiet sobs filled the night. Nina was a beloved daughter and grandchild.
“The city wasn’t blind. The witnesses summoned the police, and Madame was taken before a court of law. The judge was a relative, but New Orleans was watching. He couldn’t let Madame off without some form of punishment. He fined her $300, and had her ten remaining slaves taken away from her. You would think that would be the end of that.” Your tour guide sadly shakes her head. “It was only the beginning. Madame Lalaurie convinced another relative to secretly buy the slaves back for her.
“There was no stopping the rumors after that horrible chain of events. It was said that Madame forced her gaunt and starved-looking slaves to serve her with their shirts off, men and women alike. Only her coach driver was reputed to ‘glow with health.’ He had to appear in public with Madame, after all. It wouldn’t do for any aspect of her outward appearance to be less than perfect.
“On April 10, 1834, an elderly female slave who was chained to the lit oven accidentally--or maybe deliberately--set the Lalaurie Mansion on fire. Flames consumed the kitchen and spread quickly to the main house, devouring antiques and art. A crowd gathered as friends and neighbors came to help.
“Screaming was heard from the kitchen and a face appeared in the window, an old slave shrieking for help, or maybe vengeance. ‘That woman is Nina’s grandmother,’ someone whispered. ‘Somebody save her.’ It was too late--the woman was fully engulfed in flames.
“’Where are the rest of the slaves?’ one Good Samaritan asked Madame. ‘Never mind the slaves, save the valuables!’ Madame responded, with calm repose.
“’Where are the slaves?’ Judge Canongo, who lived nearby, asked Dr. Lalaurie. The doctor snapped ‘Mind your own business and get to the task at hand.’
“Someone in the crowd yelled that the slaves were in the attic. Firemen went rushing up the stairs, where they encountered huge iron padlocks on the doors and smoke that choked their every breath.
“’Where is the key?’ demanded one of the would-be rescuers from above.
“’Never mind that, take this painting out,’ was Madame Lalaurie’s answer.
“The firemen broke down the doors and found a scene more hellish than the inferno on the lower floors. These strong men, used to gore and carnage, backed out of the room shaking and retching. Some could not stop themselves from vomiting...
What did the bold firemen discover in the attic? Read the book to find out.