sjhstrangetales

LA MAISON LALAURIE – THE HELL HOUSE OF NEW ORLEANS

Posted on: October 20, 2011

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In the spring of 2001 I was lucky enough to spend a week in New Orleans.  It was a fascinating experience.  Watching the tug-boats on the Mississippi, eating oysters and drinking Cajun cocktails in the French Quarter, watching the old men playing chess on Canal Street, and taking a trolley-car out to the Garden District to have a look at Anne Rice’s house.  Naturally, being the paranormal geek that I am, I also bought a book of local ghost stories.  Now New Orleans is well known for having its dark, gothic side.  It’s been home to the gothic authors Anne Rice and Poppy Z Brite, and Anne’s Vampire Lestat novels and the Mayfair Witches saga pay full homage to this fascinating place.

It has a plethora of ghostly legends, and probably the most famous is that of ‘La Maison LaLaurie’, a 19th century town-house in the French Quarter.  When I first read about this place in Victor C Klein’s book ‘New Orleans Ghosts’, I was struck by how much it reminded me of Richard Matheson’s famous horror story ‘Hell House’.  A place of hideous secrets, where the owners allegedly carried out macabre experiments on the unlucky inhabitents.

THE NIGHT OF THE FIRE

The house was owned by Delphine LaLaurie, (known to everyone locally as Madame), and her much younger physician husband, Leonard, who were prominent figures in New Orleans high society.  The dark mysteries of their domestic life came to light on the night of 10 April 1834, when a fire broke out in the kitchen.  The fire brigade were called, and eventually the blaze was extinguished.  To make sure the building was safe, the firemen went on a tour of inspection of the property.  Eventually they went up into the attic, where they were confronted by a heavily barred door.  They broke into the room, and were assailed by the stench of death.  The room housed seven slaves (slavery was still very much in place in the Louisiana of the 1830s), both male and female.  They were either chained to the walls, or to what appeared to be an operating-table.  Peppered around the room were dismembered body parts.   Severed heads were found in buckets, and the shelves held jars containing human organs.

The horrified firemen fled and called in the police, who came along accompanied by doctors and ambulances.  Some of the slaves were already dead however, and the others had been so brutally tortured and hacked about that death would have probably been  a welcome release.  Reading the details of what had happened to them tests even a reasonably strong stomach like mine.  One woman had had all her limbs amputated, and the flesh removed from her skull.  Another had been forced into a small cage, and all her bones broken.  A man had been castrated,  seemingly a victim of a barbaric early sex-change operation.  It was thought that these poor people had been kept in this horrific way for several months.

Judge Jean-Francois Canonge came to the house, and was rudely told by Leonard LaLarge that some people would benefit from staying at home and minding their own business.  With the true arrogance of the sadist he seemed to be oblivious at the time to the trouble he was in.

Meanwhile, the local neighbourhood was outraged that these atrocities had been going on right in their midst.  Overnight a lynch mob was set up, and a hangman’s noose prepared for the LaLaurie couple.  Only trouble was, the penny seemed to have dropped, and they had fled the scene.  There were wild rumours of a shuttered, black carriage seen fleeing through the gates of the property. I am baffled as to how they managed to slip away, considering that by this time the house was crawling with authorities, but they did.  And were never seen again.

‘MADAME’ – THE COUNTESS BATHORY OF NEW ORLEANS

So who was the monstrous Delphine LaLaurie?  Reading about her I was reminded of the Hungarian aristocrat, Countess Erzebet Bathory, alleged to have been the most prolific female serial-killer of all time.  The Countess was a sadist, who got her kicks from beating and torturing young women.  It would seem that Delphine was in the same mould.  She had been born around 1775, to a local prosperous Creole family of Irish descent.  When she was 25 she married Don Ramon de Lopez y Angullo, consul general for Spain in Louisiana.  Four years later she set out with him to visit his homeland.  It was to be an eventful trip.  Don Ramon died whilst they were stopping over in Havana, and Delphine went on to give birth to a daughter, whilst still en-voyage.  The daughter was given an exotic set of names, Marie Borgia Delphine, but was known as Borquita for short.  Delphine enjoyed herself in Spain, even being presented to the Spanish Queen, and was said to be much admired for her beauty.

Back in New Orleans once more, Delphine married Jean Blanque, a local banker and lawyer, in 1808.  She had 4 daughters by him, before Blanque died in 1816.  Delphine moved onto husband no.3, a doctor called Leonard Louis Nicholas LeLaurie.  They bought a property at 1140 Royal Street, and by 1832 had converted it into a lavish 3-storey mansion, with added slave quarters.

Tales of Delphine’s harsh treatment of her slaves had been fairly rife even before the fire.  The LaLaurie slaves were said to have a “haggard and wretched” look to them.  At one point a lawyer was even sent to warn her that she had a duty of care towards them, although during his (presumably brief) visit to the house it was said that he saw no evidence of wrongdoing.  The rumours didn’t stop though.  It was said that on one occasion Delphine, wielding her trademark whip, had chased a young black girl up to the roof of the house, from which the terrified girl had fallen to her death.  She was buried in the grounds.  Another tale was that she kept her cook literally chained to the kitchen stove.  It is thought the cook may have deliberately started the fire, to try and bring the secrets of the house to public attention.  This was certainly achieved.

AFTER THE FIRE

No one really knows what happened to Delphine and her husband after the fire.  Some said they were living in the forests round Lake Pontchatrain, others said they had never left New Orleans at all but were hiding out in a den of vice.  The most likely theory is that they fled to France, where Delphine was said to have eventually been killed in a boar-hunting accident, and was buried in a Parisian cemetary.

The remaining tragic slaves were taken to a local jail, where they were effectively put on public display, so that people could come and “marvel” at their terrible state!  (Don’t ever be fooled by tales of The Good Old Days).  A local newspaper, the ‘New Orleans Bee’ reckoned that in only a few days up to 4000 people had come to ogle these poor people.  It would be nice to think that in the present day, for all its faults, we have at least moved on from that one.

THE HOUSE SINCE THEN

No one wanted anything to do with the LaLaurie Mansion after its grim box of secrets had been opened.  The house fell into a derelict state, shunned by the neighbourhood.  Naturally the rumour mill went into hyper-imaginative overdrive.  It was said that it was haunted by the ghosts of mutilated black slaves, or that a white woman armed with a whip had been seen at one of the top floor windows, accompanied by a wild-eyed feral man.  Terrifying screams were heard at “the dark of the moon”, and any vagrants desperate enough to seek shelter there Were Never Seen Again.

It was some 40 years or so before the house was occupied again, and then – incredibly – it was turned into a girls’ school, followed by a music academy.  During those years there were no reports of any ghosts.  In the 1890s a large number of Italian immigrants settled in New Orleans, and the LaLaurie Mansion became a tenement block.  Quite why this should set off the haunting again, I don’t know, but it did.  And by all accounts it was pretty horrific.  The men, who laboured on the waterfront, would set off to work only to find their horses had been butchered.  Decapitated dogs and cats were found on the staircases.  My cynical side is tempted to wonder if this the work of some sadistic locals who took against the Italians coming in, and the dark history of the house was a convenient way to explain it.

But ghosts were seen as well.  The children claimed to be attacked by a phantom White Lady swinging  a bloodstained whip.  One evening one of the waterfront workers returned home late.  As he went up the stairs to his apartment, he was confronted by the apparition of a black man.  The phantom was naked and bound with chains.  The labourer reached out to touch the figure, and it vanished.  That was quite enough for the Italians.  By the following morning they had abandoned their grisly quarters.

The house was then taken over by a Mr F Greco, who turned into a bar, called (ta da!) the ‘Haunted Saloon’.  Mr Greco loved regailing his customers with tales of his ghostly residents (I’m sure he did).  It doesn’t seem to have done much for Mr Greco’s finances though, as the house soon became a furniture store.  The owner of this repeatedly found his stock vandalised, and doused in filth.  At first he was convinced vandals were at work, but after repeated occurrences, he shut up shop for good.

Eventually the house was turned into a block of luxury apartments, and in 2007 it was bought by the actor Nicholas Cage.  He didn’t have it for long though, and at the end of 2009 it was put up for public auction and sold for $3.45 million dollars.  There have been no significant tales of hauntings from this property for some time now, so I can only hope that the tormented ghosts of La Maison LaLaurie are finally at peace.

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