Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

The echo of evil

One of the more horrifying stories from my home state of Louisiana is the more-or-less true tale of Madame Delphine Macarty LaLaurie.

I qualify it with "more-or-less" because being gruesome, even by New Orleans gothic standards, it's certainly been embellished along the way.  Plus, as you'll see there's a supernatural twist to the whole thing, and -- at least in my not-always-so-humble opinion -- that makes it fictional by default.  But with that caveat in place, here's what we know.

Delphine was born on the 19th of March, 1787, in New Orleans, to Louis Barthélemy de Macarty (or McCarty or McCarthy or MacCarthy) and his wife, Marie-Jeanne L'Érable.  Louis's father was from Ireland, but the rest of the family was French -- as well as influential and rich.  Her uncle by marriage was the governor of the Spanish colony of Louisiana, and a cousin later became mayor of New Orleans.  Delphine married three times; first to a prominent officer in the Spanish military named Ramón de Lopez y Angulo, then to a wealthy banker named Jean Blanque, and last to a doctor, Léonard Louis Nicolas LaLaurie.

Delphine Macarty LaLaurie [Image is in the Public Domain]

Until 1834, Delphine and her husband(s) showed every sign of being completely normal upper-class citizens, participating in the high society of the New Orleans French Quarter.  A few hints had gotten out about the LaLauries, especially Delphine, alleging that she mistreated slaves, but in that day and age it had to be pretty extreme before anyone would do anything about that even if it were proven true.

Eventually, it was.  And the reality turned out to be so bad that even the privileged White people of the antebellum South were revolted.

In April of 1834, a fire broke out in the kitchen of the LaLaurie mansion.  Responding to calls for help, neighbors came in to extinguish the blaze -- and found the family cook chained to the stove by her ankle.  This spurred an investigation, and the police found the family slaves in deplorable shape, showing evidence of torture and deprivation.  At first Dr. LaLaurie responded to the inquiry with derision, saying, "some people had better stay at home rather than come to others' houses to dictate laws and meddle with other people's business," but when the condition of the slaves was made public, the outrage was so strong that a mob descended on the house.  The couple fled, eventually making their way to Paris, where they lived for the rest of their lives.  Dr. LaLaurie's death is unrecorded, but Delphine's shows up in the Paris Archives, saying she died on 7 December 1849 at the age of 62.  She never publicly acknowledged any guilt over how she and her husband had treated the slaves; in fact, a letter from Paulin Blanque, her son by her second marriage, states that his mother "never had any idea about the reason for her departure from the city."

So either Dr. LaLaurie was the real villain, here, or Delphine was amoral and an accomplished liar.

Perhaps both.

Certainly the legend, though, favors the latter.  The tale of a depraved and sadistic woman had a cachet that grabbed people's attention, and the story began to grow by accretion.  The 1946 book Ghost Stories of Old New Orleans, by Jeanne deLavigne, went into explicit detail about what Delphine supposedly did -- I'll spare you the details, not only because they are downright disgusting, but because the more grotesque of the claims are entirely unsubstantiated by the records.  Now, I'm not saying the LaLauries were innocent, mind you; at the best, they were cruel, heartless people whose escape to Paris is the very definition of "getting off lightly."  But any time there's a claim like this, people always want to add to it -- and they have, throwing in enough gory details to do a slasher movie proud.

The LaLaurie house was rebuilt -- there wasn't much left but the frame after the fire and the attack by the enraged mob -- and over the years has been a private residence (the most recent owner was none other than Nicolas Cage), a music conservatory, a high school, a residence for delinquents, a bar, and a furniture store.  It's widely considered to be haunted, and features prominently on New Orleans ghost walks; some call it "the most haunted building in Louisiana," where at night you can hear the moans of the poor tortured slaves and the evil, cold laugh of the wicked Delphine, as she walks the hallways and staircases looking for new victims.

LaLaurie Mansion, 1140 Royal Street [Image licensed under the Creative Commons APK, LaLaurie Mansion, CC BY-SA 4.0]

The reason the topic comes up is because the home just went up for sale again -- target price, a cool $10.25 million.  So if you have a good chunk of cash and want to live in one of the most notorious haunted houses in the Deep South, here's your chance.

Predictably, I don't put much stock in the paranormal side of this, but the author of the article about the sale makes a trenchant point; ghosts or no ghosts, isn't it pretty tasteless to be using the evil reputation of the site as a way of jacking up the price?  After all, no one doubts that real human beings were treated horribly here, many of them ultimately dying of their injuries.  There's not even the relief of a just ending to fall back on; the LaLauries pretty much got off scot-free.  The article's author suggests that maybe the thing to do is turn the place into a museum chronicling the plight of slaves in the South, who even after they were nominally freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War, still had to endure generations of prejudice, persecution, and injustice.  (And to our nation's enduring shame, in many places their descendants still do.)

It's a nice idea, but money will talk, as it always does.  Some rich person will buy the LaLaurie Mansion, and it'll still be featured on ghost tours, cashing in on a legacy of human suffering.  Whatever the horrible details of the story of Delphine and her husband, having a building standing in their name is still on some level celebrating them, leaving an echo of evil on the streets of the French Quarter.

I understand the argument about leaving up places with horrific historical associations as reminders, but this is a case where I think the most fitting thing is to raze the damn place and erase every last trace of Delphine LaLaurie.  She got off easy (extremely easy) in life -- perhaps eradicating her memory after death is a fitting end for someone who was judged as sadistic even by the cruel standards of her time and place.


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