So much in American Horror Story depends on the suspension of disbelief that it seems like lunacy to investigate the “true stories” on which it’s based. As in the more familiar forms of folklore, the story itself is less the point than the manner of the telling. This came perilously home to me as I looked into the past of Delphine LaLaurie, the character Kathy Bates is playing on AHS‘s current iteration, Coven. You may not have thought she was a real person, but that throwaway historical tour of the LaLaurie home in the pilot was, in fact, the clue that she did once exist. But as with all folk tales there’s more in the matter than what a tour guide can be expected to reasonably convey.
On the show, the LaLaurie story is pretty simple: She was white; it was 1834; it was Louisiana; her family owned slaves. And Delphine, out of an excess of sadism, kept a torture chamber in her attic. The chamber was discovered when a fire burned in the LaLaurie home. And then, you know, a band of righteous voodoo marauders came along, cursed her with eternal life, and buried her in a coffin in the backyard. The rest of the world presumed she’d disappeared.
In real life, as you might imagine, any involvement by a rampaging horde of voodoo folk has been lost in the annals. But the rest is more or less correct, or as “correct” as any history can be which relies on press reports long past, and has been told and retold ever since as in a giant game of Telephone. The newspapers report that the fire broke out in the kitchen of the home, in its service wing, and the slave quarters located were reported to be the torture chamber, so not quite an attic. They also report that Louis Lalaurie (as the the family’s name appears in historical accounts), Delphine’s husband, refused people’s entreaties that someone be sent to help the slaves. Led by a judge, a few citizens broke down the doors, and per the next day’s newspaper, found
… seven slaves, more or less horribly mutilated… suspended by the neck with their limbs stretched and torn from one extremity to the other… they had been confined… for several months in the situation from which they had thus been providentially rescued, and had merely been kept in existence to prolong their sufferings and to make them taste all that the most refined cruelty could inflict.
The slaves said they’d had only some porridge to eat, and had been wearing iron collars with sharpened points. The Lalauries fled during the confusion that accompanied the slaves’ rescue. The next day, according to the papers, a frustrated — and presumably white — mob descended on the house and destroyed it, including the costly furniture inside. And Delphine Lalaurie fled to Europe.
So it happened, yes. And it was national news when it did — papers in Washington, Baltimore, and New York picked up the story. It’s just that arrangements were far messier than the unsubtle read of Ryan Murphy — not to mention popular histories — can tolerate.
Delphine Lalaurie was born Delphine Macarty in 1787. In spite of that English-sounding last name, she came from a long line of French military men who had already set down deep roots in New Orleans. From the beginning, the attitudes and practices of the family were deeply entrenched with racism and slavery. Her family, as Carolyn Long Morrow recounts in her archival monograph, lived in a perpetual state of terror about the slave revolt to the south in Saint Domingue, the revolt which led ultimately to the creation of the Republic of Haiti.
Yet they also, as Louisiana men, were part of a long tradition of keeping free women of color — usually light-skinned ones — as placées, or concubines. They did not marry these women, but had children and often cohabited with them. Delphine’s uncle, for example, spent 54 years with a free woman of color and had seven children with her, living openly with her in Saint-Bernard Parish. More importantly, perhaps, in considering what kind of woman Delphine turned out to be, is that her father also had a “free quadroon” mistress named Sophie Mousante. And Delphine was named godmother of the child those two had together, who just to keep things complicated was also named Delphine.
To a modern mind this might cast a Freudian light on Delphine’s later infamy. Was she torturing her slaves later, you might ask, out of anger against her father for his taking up with Sophie Mousante? To think so would be a reductive reading of the racial politics of Louisiana under Spanish rule, where in fact free people of color had a status roughly equivalent, though not entirely equal, to that of whites. At least in the standard historical accounts, it was only when the United States took over the government of Louisiana that they began to enforce racial apartheid as we understand it from accounts of slavery in other states. So it’s not at all clear that Delphine would have classified these relatives of hers as deserving of the contempt she’d usually reserve for slaves. Creoles had lesser status than whites, but they were not generally called “blacks,” either.
Another interesting data point: like most slaveholders, the Macartys periodically granted emancipation to older slaves. On occasion, Delphine herself had arranged for the freedom of her slaves. Her second husband (Louis Lalaurie would be her third), for example, left instructions that at his death an elderly servant named Jean-Louis was to be set free, and she did let him go. But from the time she married Lalaurie, her third husband, in early 1828, rumors began to circulate that the family treated its slaves badly. There are reports, in contemporary letters, that the local authorities intervened, visiting the Lalaurie home. Not believing Delphine’s protests that the slaves were fine, the letter writers report, they explored the house and found the slaves bloody and “incarcerated.” And these reports come from 1828, 1829, and 1832, all years before the fateful fire.
That the abuse was well known in New Orleans this early raises a number of questions about Delphine’s story, as it is typically told. Could the crowds really have been that shocked by what they found years later, as these letters report? Harriet Martineau, an English writer who was a sort of amateur sociologist, visited New Orleans in 1836 to get the real story. The explanation she received for the cover-up was that “the lady was so graceful and accomplished, so charming in her manners and so hospitable, that no one ventured openly to question her perfect goodness.” And yet Martineau also records the local folk as having noticed that, “Madame Lalaurie’s slaves looked singularly haggard and wretched.”
One problem — one anachronism, I should say — here is that in fact, in the context of slavery, torture of slaves was common. Virtually every slave narrative out there contains some account of atrocity. Olaudah Equiano recorded a slave being “half hanged, and then burnt, for attempting to poison a cruel overseer.” Harriet Jacobs recorded a slave tortured by the slow drip of melting pork fat from a fire kindled above him. Morrow Long went through the court records in the parish to see how many people were convicted of ill-treating slaves in the years the Lalauries lived in the Royal Street mansion, and she found only evidence that eventually the courts would back off from enforcing laws designed to prevent the mistreatment of slaves. Slaves were ill-treated, because they were slaves, and because the white people who owned them thought it was their right. And nobody questioned it, not really, not enough. It really is quite that simple.
In fact, the longer you spend thinking about the realities of the slave era, the less you begin to believe in the self-righteousness of the later accounts. As far as we know, Delphine Lalaurie was never prosecuted for what New Orleanians discovered in her home after the fire in 1834. Long Morrow and others suggest that the reason the incident caused such a hullabaloo in the New Orleans papers is because they exposed the cruelty of the slaves’ treatment to sunlight. But like most atrocities, it was there for the seeing all along. One of the stories Harriet Martineau uncovered, after all, was of a little girl who neighbors saw running through the Lalaurie yard, chased by a whip-bearing Delphine. The child tried to escape to the roof, but fell and died. And that story, as it happened, played out in broad daylight.