Part-time and freelance writer who has encountered the paranormal.
For generations, the LaLaurie Mansion of New Orleans has been considered the most haunted house in the French Quarter. The stage was set for the ghostly tales that surround the mansion, when Dr. Louis LaLaurie and his wife, Delphine, highly respected and renowned for their elegant soirées, moved into their newly built home. Madame LaLaurie was the most influential Creole woman in the city, and she pampered her guests with the best of everything. Friends would note her extraordinary kindness, but there was a dark side to this woman—a side that some merely suspected but others knew as fact.
Maintenance at the ornate LaLaurie residence was the job of dozens of slaves. Many guests remembered Delphine’s sleek mulatto butler: a handsome man who wore expensive livery and never ventured far from her side. In stark contrast, the other slaves were thin and hollow-chested and moved about the house like shadows, never raising their eyes.
Stories began to circulate about Madame LaLaurie’s cruel treatment of her staff. It was said that she kept her cook chained to the kitchen fireplace, and that many of the slaves fared much worse. Also, many of these poor unfortunates seemed to leave, never to be seen again.
One woman in the neighborhood witnessed the death of a young slave girl who jumped from the mansion’s roof to escape Delphine’s whip. The woman also claimed that she later saw the girl being buried in a shallow grave beneath the cypress trees in the garden. The authorities who investigated were appalled by the condition of the slaves, who were then impounded and sold at auction. To their misfortune, the slaves were sold to relatives of Madame LaLaurie, who in turn secretly bought them back. She explained to her friends that the death of the girl had been a horrible accident, but so many people remained skeptical that the LaLauries’ social standing went into decline.
House of Horrors
It was a terrible fire in April 1834 that exposed the LaLauries for who they truly were. In the chaos, Delphine’s only concern was for her valuables. When asked about her slaves, she snapped that her neighbors needn’t interfere with family business. When neighbors and firefighters disregarded her and began to search for the slaves, they discovered a locked iron-hinged door leading to the attic. After Dr. LaLaurie refused to open it, they broke down the door.
What greeted them was almost beyond human imagination. More than a dozen slaves, both male and female and all naked, were chained to the wall of the confined chamber. Others were strapped to makeshift operating tables or locked in dog cages. Human body parts were scattered about the room, and bloody organs were placed haphazardly in buckets. Bones and human teeth were stacked on shelves and next to a collection of whips and paddles.
According to newspaper and eyewitness accounts, the slaves had been tortured. Worse, torture had been administered in such a way as to make death occur slowly. Fleeing the scene in horror and disgust, the rescuers summoned doctors, who rushed to the slaves’ aid.
News of the atrocities soon spread throughout New Orleans, and angry crowds gathered in front of the mansion. It was believed that Delphine alone was responsible for the horrors, with her husband turning a blind, if knowing, eye.
Those who had first broken into the attic made formal statements to the authorities about their discovery in the attic chamber. And a female slave testified that Madame LaLaurie would sometimes inflict torture on the captives while the couples’ guests dined and danced below. But before any arrests could be made, Madame LaLaurie and her family escaped, never to be officially seen in New Orleans again. Nor was she ever tried for her crimes.
Her flight so enraged the crowd that they took out their anger on the house Madame LaLaurie had left behind. By the time authorities arrived to restore order, the contents were almost completely destroyed. The mansion was closed and sealed and remained silent, uninhabited, and abandoned. Or did it?
The stories of hauntings at 1140 Royal Street began almost as soon as the LaLauries fled. The mansion, which remained vacant for a few years after its sacking by the mob, fell into a state of ruin. Many people claimed to hear screams of agony coming from the empty house at night and to observe apparitions of slaves walking on the balconies and grounds. Some stories claimed that vagrants who had entered the mansion seeking shelter were never heard from again.
The mansion was placed on the market by the LaLauries’ agent in 1837. But the man who bought it lived there for only three months, plagued by strange noises, cries, and groans in the night. He tried leasing the rooms, but the tenants stayed for a few days at the most. The new owner finally gave up, and the mansion was abandoned.
After a turn as an integrated high school, then a school for black children, the mansion once again became a center for New Orleans society in 1882, when an English teacher turned it into a “conservatory of music and a fashionable dancing school.” That ended after a local newspaper apparently claimed the teacher engaged in some improprieties with female students, and the school was closed.
“Children were attacked by a phantom with a whip”
The mansion was abandoned again until the late 1890s, when it was bought and converted into cheap housing for a new wave of Italian immigrants. For many of the tenants, not even the low rent was enough to keep them there—hardly surprising, given the strange occurrences. One man claimed to have been attacked by a naked black man in chains, who then suddenly vanished. Others claimed to have found butchered animals in the mansion. Children were attacked by a phantom with a whip, and others saw strange figures wrapped in shrouds.
One night, a young mother was terrified to find a woman in elegant evening clothes bending over her sleeping infant. The mysterious woman vanished when approached. Aside from the ghost sightings, the sounds of screams, groans, and cries—said to have come from the locked and abandoned attic—regularly reverberated through the house at night. After word spread of the strange goings-on, the mansion was deserted once again.
A TEMPORARY LODGER?
In the late 1880s, rumors tied the eccentric son of a wealthy New Orleans family to the LaLaurie Mansion. Joseph Edouard Vigne supposedly lived secretly in the house for several years until his death in 1892. He was found dead on a tattered cot, apparently having lived in filth.
Hidden away in the surrounding rooms was a collection of antiques and treasure. A bag containing several hundred dollars was found near his body, and another search uncovered several thousand dollars hidden in his mattress. For some time after, rumors that the mansion held a concealed treasure circulated, but few people dared to go in search of it.
How much of the tale is true is lost to time. Still, was Vigne’s ghostly voice one of the many that frightened later inhabitants of the cursed house?
A Succession of Owners
The mansion later became a tavern, then a furniture store. The tavern owner, taking advantage of the building’s history, named his establishment The Haunted Saloon. The owner even kept a record of any strange things encountered by patrons.
The furniture store didn’t fare so well. The owner first suspected vandals when, on more than one occasion, he found all of his merchandise covered in a dark, foul-smelling liquid. He waited one night with a shotgun, hoping the vandals would return. When dawn came, the furniture had been ruined yet again, even though no one had entered the building. The owner soon closed down the store.
The mansion changed hands several times until 1969, when a retired New Orleans doctor bought it. He restored the house to its original opulent state, though with a common living room in the front and five luxury apartments in the rear. While he was able to attract new tenants, not all of them lived in the mansion without incident. In the early 1970s, a tenant named Mrs. Richards claimed to have witnessed a number of unexplained events in her apartment: water faucets turning on by themselves, doors opening and closing, and assorted minor annoyances. Other tenants spoke of a young girl’s screams coming from the courtyard at night.
These stories lived on for years. Only after the mansion again became a private residence did the strange occurrences cease. Many in New Orleans believed the hauntings had simply faded away with time. That is possible, of course, but only if spirits born of a tragedy so horrifying could ever find their rest.
A number of years ago, the owners were remodeling the LaLaurie Mansion when they found skeletal remains in a large pit beneath the wooden floor of one of the back rooms. The haphazard positioning of the remains suggested that the bodies had been dumped unceremoniously into the pit.
Speculation is that this was Madame LaLaurie’s own private graveyard—that she had removed sections of the floor and hastily buried the bodies to avoid detection. While the discovery of the remains answered one question, it unfortunately created another. Solving the mystery of the sudden disappearance of many of the LaLaurie slaves made some people wonder just how many other victims Madame LaLaurie had claimed—and to wonder how many of them might still be lingering behind.
This building was converted to a private residence by the current owners, who ask that readers please respect their privacy.
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