The Real-Life ‘American Horror Story:’ The Life and Afterlife of a Socialite Serial Killer

Delphine LaLaurie was renowned as a beautiful socialite in her heyday, but today many might picture her looking something like Kathy Bates, who portrayed her in the popular television show American Horror Story‘s third season, subtitled Coven. Bates has something of a history playing violent female characters. In Misery, she played fangirl turned ruthless captor Annie Wilkes, a monster of a woman that could strike fear in the heart of the world’s most virile men.

The fictional Annie Wilkes, however, doesn’t hold a candle to the real life horror that is Delphine LaLaurie.

Madame LaLaurie was born in 1775 in New Orleans as Delphine Macarty to a prominent aristocratic family. Renowned for her beauty, she became a two-time widow after her first two husbands died under uncertain circumstances. LaLaurie’s third marriage, to young physician Leonard Louis Nicolas LaLaurie, would be a lasting one.

In 1831, she bought a property at 1140 Royal Street in the New Orleans French Quarter, and managed the building of a three-story mansion, complete with adjoining slave quarters.

1140_Royal_Street

The LaLauries held many dinner parties in the mansion, aided by their collection of slaves. Guests noted the unusually high number of slaves the couple kept for a non-plantation property, as well as their “singularly haggard and wretched appearance.” Delphine became known for her sadistic treatment of slaves, in one case chasing a young girl around the house with a whip. The chase ended when the girl chose a fall from the third story rather than a lashing.

Madame LaLaurie was fined $300 for the girl’s death and forced to sell her slaves, but she easily went around the law when she had family members buy the slaves so she could smuggle them back into her home. Nothing else was done about her mistreatment of slaves until the fire of 1834.

The fire began in the slave quarters during one of the family’s signature dinner parties. When police and fire marshalls arrived, they discovered a seventy-year-old slave, the cook, chained to the kitchen stove. She later confessed to starting the fire in an attempt to commit suicide so she might escape the LaLauries.

She led authorities to the torture chamber on the mansion’s third floor, so they could see firsthand the sadistic experiments Madame LaLaurie and her husband had been systematically conducting on slaves. Leonard LaLaurie, it seems, was conducting gruesome medical experiments on slaves at the sadistic command of his wife.

There are several horrific accounts of what was found in that fated torture chamber on the third floor. According to the New Orleans Bee, the room held “seven slaves, more or less horribly mutilated … suspended by the neck, with their limbs apparently stretched and torn from one extremity to the other,” who had evidently been imprisoned there for some months.”

Those slaves were placed in a local jailhouse and put on public display, where thousands of visitors flocked to witness their sad state, “to convince themselves of their sufferings.” Two of them died shortly after their rescue. These slaves were only Delphine’s most recent victims, as more bodies, including that of a child, were discovered buried in the mansion’s grounds.

Once stories of such mistreatment spread, a mob of locals swarmed the LaLaurie residence and laid waste to the place, destroying anything they could get their hands on. The crowd never managed to cause any damage to the LaLauries themselves, as Delphine and her husband allegedly fled the mob violence by stagecoach, catching a boat that took the couple to Paris.

It seems then that the LaLauries escaped their comeuppance. Delphine supposedly died in Paris in 1849. Her body, however, was brought back to New Orleans in secret  for burial at the city’s St. Louis Cemetery #1.

The LaLaurie house was restored from disrepair and remains a commercial property, and for a time was even owned by Nicolas Cage, who once explained he bought the house because he likes “a bit of mystery.” It’s frequently featured on lists of the most haunted homes in America, and a favorite stop for local ghost tours that will tell visitors of the myriad stories of haunted goings-on in the house.

There are tons of unconfirmed ghost stories surrounding the property, mostly limited to the torture chamber where residents have claimed to smell rotting flesh, and the second-story balcony where passersby are said to witness a ghostly apparition pacing back and forth — supposedly Madame LaLaurie herself.

Whether or not these legends are true matters little to us. Ghosts or no ghosts, the story of Madame LaLaurie is creepy enough on its own.