Monday, October 31, 2011

Some Historical Truths Are More Frightening than Halloween Fictions: Torturing Slaves at the Lalaurie House in New Orleans



Happy Halloween...

Paul Mooney always cuts to the bone. He offers a fair question though: where are all the black ghosts? And why are white folks in America obsessed with spooks, ghouls, and things that go bump in the night?

There is a rich tradition of belief across the Black Atlantic in which the elders in the spirit world mingle with the living and offer advice and guidance across the great divide that separates their world from ours. But to my knowledge, we have yet to see a practitioner of Obeah, Santeria, or Vodun on any of various ghost hunter reality shows.

Wouldn't it make a great episode though? Imagine the frights if the ghost hunters went to an old plantation and recorded some electromagnetic voice phenomena. What would the long departed slaves communicate to us in the present? Would they be happy? Would they be angry?

The following is a story fit for a horror movie. In the 1800s, The Lalaurie House in New Orleans was the site of deeds that were gross, evil, banal, and barbaric. Here, slaves were subject to tortures beyond imagination by an owner who would make Jigsaw from the Saw films look gentle.

If the story is to be believed, apparently the unsettled souls of our ancestors still reach out to torment the living.

For folks like me who came of age in the 1980s, the Amityville Horror was the ultimate "what if?" sleep over scenario. After reading about the horrors of the Lalaurie house I will have to reevaluate that standing rule.

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The finery of the Lalaurie house was attended to by dozens of slaves and Madame Lalaurie was brutally cruel to them. She kept her cook chained to the fireplace in the kitchen where the sumptuous dinners were prepared and many of the others were treated much worse.

We have to remember that, in those days, the slaves were not even regarded as being human. They were simply property and many slave owners thought of them as being lower than animals. Of course, this does not excuse the treatment of the slaves, or the institution of slavery itself, but merely serves as a reminder of just how insane Madame Lalaurie may have been.... because her mistreatment of the slaves went far beyond cruelty.

It was the neighbors on Royal Street who first began to suspect something was not quite right in the Lalaurie house. There were whispered conversations about how the Lalaurie slaves seemed to come and go quite often. Parlor maids would be replaced with no explanation or the stable boy was suddenly just disappear... never to be seen again.

Then, one day a neighbor was climbing her own stairs when she heard a scream and saw Madame Lalaurie chasing a little girl, the Madame’s personal servant, with a whip. She pursued the girl onto the roof of the house, where the child jumped to her death. The neighbor later saw the small slave girl buried in a shallow grave beneath the cypress trees in the yard.

A law that prohibited the cruel treatment of slaves was in effect in New Orleans and the authorities who investigated the neighbor’s claims impounded the Lalaurie slaves and sold them at auction. Unfortunately for them, Madame Lalaurie coaxed some relatives into buying them and then selling them back to her in secret.The stories continued about the mistreatment of the Lalaurie slaves and uneasy whispering spread among her former friends. A few party invitations were declined, dinner invitations were ignored and the family was soon politely avoided by other members of the Creole society.

Finally, in April of 1834, all of the doubts about Madame Lalaurie were realized.....A terrible fire broke out in the Lalaurie kitchen. Legend has it that it was set by the cook, who could endure no more of the Madame’s tortures. Regardless of how it started, the fire swept through the house.

After the blaze was put out, the fire fighters discovered a horrible sight behind a secret, barred door in the attic. They found more than a dozen slaves here, chained to the wall in a horrible state. They were both male and female.... some were strapped to makeshift operating tables... some were confined in cages made for dogs.... human body parts were scattered around and heads and human organs were placed haphazardly in buckets.... grisly souvenirs were stacked on shelves and next to them a collection of whips and paddles.

It was more horrible that anything created in man’s imagination.According to the newspaper, the New Orleans Bee, all of the victims were naked and the ones not on tables were chained to the wall. Some of the women had their stomachs sliced open and their insides wrapped about their waists. One woman had her mouth stuffed with animal excrement and then her lips were sewn shut.

The men were in even more horrible states. Fingernails had been ripped off, eyes poked out, and private parts sliced away. One man hung in shackles with a stick protruding from a hole that had been drilled in the top of his head. It had been used to “stir” his brains.

The tortures had been administered so as to not bring quick death. Mouths had been pinned shut and hands had been sewn to various parts of the body. Regardless, many of them had been dead for quite some time. Others were unconscious and some cried in pain, begging to be killed and put out of their misery.

The fire fighters fled the scene in disgust and doctors were summoned from a nearby hospital. It is uncertain just how many slaves were found in Madame Lalaurie’s “torture chamber” but most of them were dead. There were a few who still clung to life.... like a woman whose arms and legs had been removed and another who had been forced into a tiny cage with all of her limbs broken than set again at odd angles.

Needless to say, the horrifying reports from the Lalaurie house were the most hideous things to ever occur in the city and word soon spread about the atrocities. It was believed that Madame Lalaurie alone was responsible for the horror and that her husband turned a blind, but knowing, eye to her activities.Passionate words swept through New Orleans and a mob gathered outside the house, calling for vengeance and carrying hanging ropes.

Suddenly, a carriage roared out of the gates and into the milling crowd. It soon disappeared out of sight. Madame Lalaurie and her family were never seen again.

Rumors circulated as to what became of them.... some said they ran away to France and others claimed they lived in the forest along the north shore of Lake Ponchatrain. Still other rumors claimed the family vanished into one of the small towns near New Orleans, where friends and relatives sheltered them from harm. Could this be true? And if so, could the terrible actions of Madame LaLaurie have "infected" another house in addition to the mansion in the French Quarter?

Whatever became of the Lalaurie family, there is no record that any legal action was ever taken against her and no mention that she was ever seen in New Orleans, or her fine home, again.

Of course, the same thing cannot be said for her victims.....The stories of ghosts and a haunting at 1140 Royal Street began almost as soon as the Lalaurie carriage fled the house in the darkness...


2 comments:

Tanya said...

From New Orleans. Grew up on Royal St. Never heard this before. Oh my woefully inadequate southern education - although I think this would have been a little heavy for 7th grade Louisiana history.

chaunceydevega said...

@Tanya. Kids need to learn. Scare 'em young! I always wanted to visit. Is it still worth coming down post Katrina?