Mad Madame Lalaurie

The Victims of the Lalauries

“They had been confined by her for several months in the situation from which they had thus been rescued and had merely been kept in existence to prolong their sufferings and to make them taste all that the most refined cruelty could inflict.”
-- New Orleans Bee, April 11, 1834, Page 1

“I always want to give the victim a voice. “
-- Ann Rule

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     Three of the documented facts in the Lalaurie incident were that abused slaves were removed from the Lalaurie house, that those slaves were temporarily housed in the Cabildo, and that hundreds, possibly thousands of people went through the building to see the badly injured men and women. What happened to the victims of the Lalauries next is absolutely unknown.

    Despite all the immediate outrage over the discovery of the severely abused slaves, there is no documentation to suggest that any individual or charitable group stepped forward to help them. One would hope that they were given medical attention and nursed back to health, or to as much health as was possible considering the gravity of their injuries. But that is speculation on the part of the authors.

     Were they freed? Louisiana law at the time dictated that if a slaveholder died or abandoned his slaves, that the slaves would be held in a “slave jail” until the owner’s next-of-kin could be located. If a relative could be found, the slaves would be handed over to that person.

    There are no records stating that the Lalaurie slaves were passed to any relative of Delphine or Louis. Sometimes unclaimed slaves were stolen by unscrupulous slave dealers, but after being injured so badly, the Lalaurie slaves probably would not have much market value.

     It is the authors’ fervent hope that these poor souls were freed. The life of a free person of color was difficult in the 1830’s, but it would have been better than slavery. Particularly being enslaved to such cruel masters.

     One has to wonder what the mental condition of a person who had been so horribly abused might be. It’s very likely that these men and women would have suffered from some degree of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Today there are many organizations whose goal is to help victims of torture: Amnesty International, the Program for Torture Victims, the Center for Victims of Torture, and many more. A casual search of the internet will turn up at least 130 such organizations. But in the 1830’s, no such institutions existed. Particularly not for slaves, who were considered mere property.

     Torture, particularly prolonged torture, has some severe psychological effects. These include constant anxiety, nightmares that are difficult to distinguish from reality, memory disorders, sexual dysfunction, delusions and psychotic episodes, a negative body image (even to the point of the victim viewing his own body as a betrayer) and alienation from friends, family and self. Long-term dissociative disorders are associated with torture.

     Dr. Beatrice Patsalides eloquently describes the process of a torture victim’s alienation in her book Ethics of the Unspeakable: Torture Survivors in Psychoanalytic Treatment:

"As the gap between the 'I' and the 'me' deepens, dissociation and alienation increase. The subject that, under torture, was forced into the position of pure object has lost his or her sense of interiority, intimacy, and privacy. Time is experienced now, in the present only, and perspective – that which allows for a sense of relativity – is foreclosed. Thoughts and dreams attack the mind and invade the body as if the protective skin that normally contains our thoughts, gives us space to breathe in between the thought and the thing being thought about, and separates between inside and outside, past and present, me and you, was lost."

    The torture “survivor” is often a survivor in the physical sense only. Torture can utterly shatter the psyche of the victim.

    Considering the effects of torture on anyone is a horrifying prospect. Considering how torture might affect people who are enslaved, who have been allowed no sense of individuality, whose identity has been reduced to the equivalent of an object, is heartwrenching.

    For many, probably most slaves, slavery was a form of torture. Constant marginalization, mistreatment, and deprivation of basic human rights is deeply traumatic. Most of us cannot begin to imagine what American slaves went through. Toni Morrison’s brilliant novel about a traumatized former slave, Beloved, gives a nightmarish glimpse into that world. The book is difficult to read—the brutal depiction of what slaves suffered in everyday life is crushing. But Beloved is an important work. Anyone who wants to even begin to understand what slavery was like should add this book to his or her reading list.

    Interestingly, Beloved has a supernatural element; the ghost of a small child. It is in the ghost stories that Madame Lalaurie’s victims get any attention at all. Many of the manifestations reported to have been seen in the mansion are slaves. The little girl, Nina, men draped in chains, women sobbing in the attic. In this aspect of the legend, the victims are treated with respect. The slave ghosts are seldom reported as malevolent. They don’t attack anyone. Sometimes they appear plaintive, as if they want someone to acknowledge their plight. In at least one story that circulates the streets of New Orleans (as well as the internet), the ghost of a slave is heroic. Here it is, as told by Jeanne deLavigne:

“A colored servant, having been induced to sleep in a room above the old stable at the rear of the courtyard, awoke one night to find firm hands throttling him, and a woman’s voice babbling curses in French. For a moment he saw her face bending over him—a pale face with black eyes and a white forehead, the hair done in old-fashioned bands, and a snarl of mad rage on the twisted lips. Then black hands tore the white fingers away, forcing the assailant back and back. Then the two vanished through the wall, as though it had been smoke and not solid brick.”

    Whether or not you believe in ghosts, the repeated appearance of the ghost slaves in the legend is important. It is extremely disturbing to think that the fate of the tormented slaves is completely unknown. They don’t even have names in the rolls of history. They are thought of as victims first, slaves second, and people third.  Maybe their appearance as benevolent (or at least benign) spirits is a way for people to put a conclusion to the story, and human faces to the victims of the Lalauries’ cruelty.

    And why were they tortured? Why would anyone want to torture another human being? One of the stories surrounding the Lalaurie legend is that Madame was torturing slaves for information about the people who murdered her parents in the Haitian revolution. As you will see in the “Myths vs. Facts” chapter, the authors do not believe this is plausible.

    So if you remove the motivation of gathering information from torture, what’s left? Sadism. Torture as a means to fulfill a need in the torturer.

    Often times, this is a need for domination or power. A person who feels powerless in other aspects of life may torture to assert control over his—or her—own life. If the torturer can literally own another person, and do anything he wants to that person’s body, he must, in his own mind, be very powerful indeed.

    This explanation makes sense in the cases of both Madame and Louis Lalaurie.
Madame, despite her social standing, was a woman in a male-dominated society. Her power was limited to her own home, and to influencing the social lives of her children and friends. True power, such as that held by her first two husbands, was literally unattainable for a woman in that time and place.

    If Delphine Lalaurie had a deep hunger for power, plus an antisocial personality disorder of some kind, torture may have given her the sense of power she so badly craved. Even if she didn’t commit the abuse herself, it still would have given her the same heady feeling. In fact, ordering someone else to do it, whether it was Louis or Bastien, might have been more intoxicating than using the whip herself.
Louis could possibly have had the same motivation. If he felt overshadowed or emasculated by his dazzling, headstrong wife, he may have taken out his aggression and asserted his power over his slaves.

    Rage and repressed anger is another common motivation for torture. One might wonder what Madame had to be angry about, until you remember that she was abused by Louis Lalaurie. Her fury and humiliation at her treatment may have boiled over onto her helpless slaves.

    The anger motivation is an obvious one for Louis. A man who would take out his rage on his beautiful wife would not hesitate to unleash it on people he considered to be his property.

    Perhaps the most disturbing motivation for torture is sexual sadism. There have been many, many cases of people who derive sexual pleasure from harming or killing others. From Gilles de Rais, who tortured and murdered children in the 13th century, to modern sexual sadists like Dennis Rader, the BTK killer, it’s a sad, horrible phenomenon. And it isn’t just limited to men. Countess Elizabeth Bathory was said to have gone into a sexual frenzy while bathing in the blood of the hundreds of young virgins she killed in 14th century Hungary. Karla Faye Tucker admitted to having multiple orgasms while killing a man with a pickax in 1983.

    Then there is the phenomenon of sexually sadistic couples. Canadian Karla Homolka and her husband Paul Bernardo were convicted of the sexual torture and murder of two young women in the early 1990’s. At first the Homolka convinced the Canadian courts that she was forced into her actions by Bernardo, and she was given a lighter sentence than her husband. It was only after the trial that videotapes surfaced, showing her to be a willing, enthusiastic participant. Rosemary and Fred West tortured and killed at least ten women in England in the 1970’s. Rosemary seems to have started out a victim of her sadistic husband, but by the time of her arrest, she had become a full participant.

    The horrific violence committed by the sexually sadistic couple doesn’t just start up suddenly one day. With the exception of spree killers like Charlie Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate, the violence generally starts out slowly and builds as the couple loses their inhibitions. (Pearson, 1998) It’s pretty unlikely that the Lalauries woke up and decided to imprison and torture their slaves one morning. Such atrocities generally start out with “everyday” violence—slapping, punching, “disciplining” a little too hard. With each line crossed, the desire to do harm gets stronger and stronger as the pair encourages each other. In the worst of these relationships, the couple ends up doing things that neither of them would have dreamed of doing alone. As Robert D. Hare says in his book, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us:

“Occasionally…psychopaths become temporary partners in crime—a grim symbiosis with unfortunate consequences for other people. Generally, one member of the pair is a “talker” who gets his or her way through charm, deceit, and manipulation, whereas the other is a “doer” who prefers direct action—intimidation and force. As long as their interests are complementary, they make a formidable pair.”

    It isn’t hard to imagine Delphine as the “talker,” with her famous charm and beauty, and Louis, with is evidently violent temper, as the “doer.”

    Could have Delphine and Louis tortured the slaves together, as some kind of sexual game or recreational amusement? That is something we’ll never know. But history shows that sexually sadistic couples are, unfortunately, not particularly rare.

    If one is to take the allegations of medical experimentation by Dr. Louis Lalaurie seriously, this presents yet another motive—scientific curiosity.

     Obviously, most scientifically curious individuals do not torture and kill people in the name of research. But in a society or culture where a segment of the population is considered inferior, it is easy for a scientist to dehumanize his test subjects. If nobody else views them as valuable or even human, why should he? Jews in Nazi Germany were infamously used in brutal and horrifying medical experiments, because they were considered to be expendable and less than human. In New Orleans in the 1830’s, slavery was a long-standing institution of discrimination and dehumanization. It could be that Louis Lalaurie viewed his slaves as nothing more than raw material for experimentation.

    However, there is no documentation to back up the descriptions of medical atrocities reportedly found at the scene of the Lalaurie house fire.

    Whatever the reason or rationalization for the torture, and which member of the Lalaurie household committed it is not really relevant to the victims. For some warped reason or another, they had their lives and bodies shattered at the whim of another.

    It is a truly sorry indictment of American slaveholding culture that no one bothered to follow up with the story of the Lalaurie house survivors. All we can do is remember them, and hope that the years that remained to them after their horrible ordeal were peaceful.

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