By Walton Golightly
Marie Delphine Macarthy was born in New Orleans on March 19, 1787. Her parents were important members of the local community, her cousin the mayor of the city from 1815 to 1820. An attractive young woman, Delphine married well. Three times. Thanks to her last husband, physician Louis LaLaurie, she became known as Madame LaLaurie. She also found herself the mistress of a house full of slaves – at 1140 Royal Street in the French Quarter.
It was 1831 and the large two-storey mansion was much-admired, but inside things were getting ugly. Soon rumour had Madame LaLaurie abusing her slaves. And maybe her two daughters, who one contemporary described as “spiritless and unhappy looking”, but Madame was “so graceful and accomplished, so charming in her manners and so hospitable, that no one ventured openly to question her perfect goodness.”
Then, one day, Delphine became upset when one of her slaves, a 12-year-old girl named Lia, caught a tangle while brushing Madame’s hair. She grabbed a whip and Lia fled – to the roof of the mansion. What happened next was long a source of speculation. Did LaLaurie throw Lia off the roof – or did the little girl fall in an attempt to get away? The neighbour who witnessed the attempt shut her eyes at the crucial moment.
Lia died. An investigation ensued, and the court found LaLaurie guilty of ‘illegal cruelty’ against nine slaves. She had to pay a fine and forfeited the slaves. But she wasn’t done yet. She convinced relatives to buy back the slaves and sell them to her. The slaves quietly returned to the mansion and the socialite set about punishing them.
Finally, on the morning of April 10, 1834, one of Delphine’s slaves decided she could no longer endure the terrors at 1140 Royal Street. Delphine had chained her to a stove in the kitchen. In her misery and fear, the 70-year-old woman decided to take her own life, and started a fire.
The fire spread quickly, but not fast enough. Fire brigades responded. While Madame LaLaurie struggled to save her furniture, authorities tended to the old woman. Later, she confessed to arson and choosing death over life with Delphine. She also told her rescuers that when the Madame took slaves to the upper areas of the mansion, they never returned.
Bystanders involved in bringing the fire under control sought to assist authorities with an evacuation of the mansion. When they found the door to the slave quarters locked, Delphine and her husband refused to hand over the key. A few of the local citizens took it upon themselves to break down the door. What awaited them on the other side was a gruesome scene.
“Seven slaves more or less horribly mutilated were seen suspended by the neck, with their limbs apparently stretched and torn from one extremity to the other,” reported the New Orleans Bee the following day. The New Orleans Advertiser said one of the male slaves was found ‘a large hole in his head’, adding ‘his body from head to foot was covered with scars and filled with worms’.
Citizens ‘of all classes and colours’ were outraged by the awful discovery at 1140 Royal Street. A mob descended upon the house and tore it apart. Delphine fled, leaving her daughters behind. She eventually ended up in Paris, where she died on December 7, 1849, at the age of 62.
By Walton Golightly