Mme. Delphine LaLaurie was one of the grandest and most opulent of the opulent Grand Dames of ante bellum New Orleans high society. In a housefire in her mansion in 1834, it was discovered that Mme. LaLaurie and her husband, physician Leonard Louis Nicolas LaLaurie, were maintaining a dungeon of torture filled with mutilated slaves. Some of these were the result of extreme punishment, and some were the results of Dr. LaLaurie’s barbarous medical experiments.
In 1831, Mme. LaLaurie had a three stories high mansion built at 1140 Royal Street, in New Orleans. From the cupola on the roof, it was the highest point for many blocks, with a view over the entire French Quarter and the Mississippi River. Slave quarters were attached.
Soon there were rumors that the LaLaurie’s were abusing their slaves. New Orleans, with a large and influential free black population, was very progressive for that era. There were laws governing treatment of slaves, including anti-cruelty laws. However, enforcement was spotty at best. Finally, there were so many charges of cruelty and neglect against the LaLauries that a city attorney was sent to investigate. Even in progressive New Orleans with its anti-cruelty laws, a lot of violence, including severe floggings, was tolerated and the lawyer found no evidence of mistreatment that time.
The LaLaurie’s were reported again in 1833. Witnesses reported watching a slave girl fall from the roof of the house and die, and stated they saw the LaLauries burying the body. It was later revealed that Mme. LaLaurie flew into a rage because Lia, the 12-year-old girl, had painfully tugged at a snag while brushing Mme. LaLaurie’s hair. She chased the child through the house with a whip, all the way to the roof where the girl jumped to her death.
Police found the buried slave girl on the mansion grounds, and the other slaves were emaciated and showed signs of excessive violence and torture even beyond the accepted limits of brutality. The LaLauries were found guilty of illegal cruelty, fined $300 and forced to forfeit nine slaves, to be sold at auction. No one seemed to notice when Mme. LaLaurie’s family members bought the slaves and immediately transfered ownership of the slaves back to her.
On April 10, 1834, in an episode very well documented in the newspapers of the day, a fire broke out in the LaLaurie mansion. Many spectators gathered, and moans and screams were heard coming from the attic. At the crowd’s insistence, police and firemen responding to the blaze attempted to enter the house, but were refused entrance by the LaLauries. The angry throng smashed through the doors a found the hysterical cook, a seventy-year-old slave woman. She had chained herself to the heavy cast iron kitchen stove and started the fire, preferring a flaming suicide to another day as a LaLaurie slave. In the attic, the crowd discovered bound slaves who showed flayed festering wounds and evidence of cruel, violent abuse over a long period.
When they reached the slave quarters, which Dr. LaLaurie’s also used as a laboratory, they stopped dead in their tracks in horror. Reportedly, slaves were found, chained and starving. Some were pinned to tables or cramped in small cages. Legend has it that Dr. LaLaurie had committed horrible experiments on them, blinding them, removing limbs or organs, eyes and tongues.
The enraged mob looted and pillaged the LaLaurie’s mansion as it burned. However, in all the commotion, the LaLauries drove off in a carriage driven by their loyal slave Bastien. He took them to the waterfront, where they caught a ship and escaped to France.
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