More Options

Ghosts at New Orleans’ Secret Horror Chamber

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Briefs Volume 26.2, Summer 2016

The Lalaurie House—once the New Orleans residence of the now-
infamous Delphine Lalaurie (or LaLaurie) and her third husband, Louis—has become synonymous with horror. There, lurid stories of torture and death in 1834 combine with later tales of macabre spirits, rendering it one of the mostspine-tingling sites in the Vieux Carré (or “Old Square”), more commonly known today as the French Quarter. (I was able to begin investigating the case in October 2011, while in New Orleans to speak at a Committee for Skeptical Inquiry conference.)

The elegance of the Lalaurie House in New Orleans’ French Quarter belies its reputation as a chamber of horrors. (Sketch by Joe Nickell)

Horror Revealed

The story begins with the elegant masonry townhouse catching fire on the morning of April 10, 1834. The fire brigade extinguished the flames with difficulty but not before discovering, in a locked attic room whose door they forced open, a veritable torture chamber, a dark room where almost unimaginable human abuse reportedly transpired. According to one source (Klein 1996, 8–9):

The slaves were both male and female. Some were fastened to the walls with cruel chains. Others were restrained on makeshift operating tables. Still others were confined in metal cages hardly large enough for an average size dog. Laying helter-skelter were human body parts and pails containing organs and severed heads. Haphazardly arranged on the shelves which hung from the back wall were scientific specimen jars holding grizzly souvenirs appropriated from the hapless wretches who were sold into slavery to serve the rich and elegant Lalauries.

The stout firemen fled in disgust to summon the municipal police. The police arrived with doctors and ambulances from Charity Hospital. Most of the wretched slaves were dead. Those that still clung to life were scarcely recognizable as human beings. One hapless Negress was reduced to a writhing trunk. Her limbs had been amputated and the majority of flesh had been surgically pared from her skull. Another woman, confined in a small cage, had virtually every bone in her body broken and reset at obscene angles. She appeared to be more crab-like than human. Hanging from a gore splattered wall was what was left of a large Negro male. He had been castrated in a fashion which seemed to suggest he had been the victim of a crude sex change experiment. Others had parts of their jaws and facial features so mutilated that they resembled gargoyles. The dead were fortunate for their torments had been silenced by the cold embrace of death.

The Lalauries fled before an angry mob arrived to ransack the horror house, and their subsequent fate remains uncertain. Apparently, Madame Lalaurie died in Paris on December 7, 1849 (“Delphine LaLaurie” 2014).

Other sources give very similar accounts of the affair with added details (Ramsland 2013, 73; deLavigne 1946); these were said to be part of physician Louis Lalaurie’s “cruel medical experiments” (Smith 2010, 27).

Horror Elaborated

Unfortunately, the Lalaurie catalog of horrors is mostly a litany of imaginings. The earliest accounts (which I obtained and studied) beginning with a New Orleans newspaper that was published on the day of the fire (“From the Courier” 1834) give a different picture, albeit horrible enough.

The fire had broken out in the kitchen, and as the flames progressed, and neighbors informed authorities that the upper floor contained “a prison.” “Mr.” (not Doctor) Lalaurie was asked to remove the slaves to safety. When he failed to respond, the doors were broken open. A woman over sixty had to be carried out while six badly scarred men emerged, “loaded with chains.” One “had a large hole in his head; his body from head to foot was covered with scars and filled with worms!!!”

The next day The Bee reported: “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.” The slaves were reported to have been confined by “the woman Lalaurie,” the paper stated, “for several months . . . to prolong their sufferings, and to make them taste all that the most refined cruelty could inflict . . .” (“The Conflagration . . .” 1834). So while the slaves were indeed much abused, the medical “experiments” conducted by “Dr.” Lalaurie were imagined by writers over time. Ironically, The Bee stated the mistreatment was “too incredible” to describe, so it would be left “rather to the reader’s imagination to picture what it was.” In a book published just four years later, “M[onsieur] Lalaurie” was described as “many years younger than his lady, and had nothing to do with the management of her property so that he has been in no degree mixed up with her affairs and disgraces” (Martineau 1838, 263–264).

According to that writer, of nine mistreated slaves:

The skeletons of two were afterward found poked into the ground; the other seven could scarcely be recognized as human. Their faces had the wildness of famine, and their bones were coming through the skin. They were chained and tied in constrained postures, some on their knees, some with their hands above their heads. They had iron collars with spikes which kept their heads in one position. The cowhide, stiff with blood hung against the wall; and there was a stepladder on which this fiend stood while flogging her victims, in order to lay on the lashes with more effect. (Martineau 1838, 265–266)

Gradually the story became elaborated through folklore, and, after 1945, by fakelore, as details began to be conjured up by popular writers. For example, Jeane deLavigne in her Ghost Stories of Old New Orleans (1946) imagined:

Male slaves, stark naked, chained to the wall, their eyes gouged out, their fingernails pulled off by the roots; others had their joints skinned and festering, great holes in their buttocks where the flesh had been sliced away, their ears hanging by shreds, their lips sewn together . . . intestines were pulled out and knotted around naked waists. There were holes in skulls, where a rough stick had been inserted to stir the brains.

Not surprisingly, she failed to directly cite sources, and the primary sources she did list failed to support the incredible claims (“Delphine LaLaurie” 2014).

Other myths abound, for example that the house standing today at 1140 Royal Street was built in 1780 and that the subsequent King of France, Louis Philippe, as well as the Marquis de Lafayette, slept there. In fact, while Louis Philippe visited New Orleans in 1798 and Lafayette in 1825, the Lalaurie House was not erected until 1832.

The noted New Orleans expert, Stanley Clisby Arthur (1880–1963), wrote (1936, 96) that the central story of slave abuse “has grown in ferocity through its countless retellings and the probabilities are that even the original story . . . was a gross exaggeration. It now appears that the mistress of this home was the first victim of yellow journalism in this country and that she was far from being the ‘fiend’ tradition has labeled, or should we say, libeled her.” Be that as it may, Arthur is even more explicitly skeptical of the ghost tales that sprouted from the story.

Spirits Appear

For years, the Lalaurie House stood abandoned, the “strange sight of its gaping windows and empty walls, in the midst of a busy street” rendering it a spooky place (Martineau 1838, 267). Tales began to grow that it was a “midnight rendezvous for ghosts,” complete with clanking chains (Arthur 1936, 96, 98). It eventually became known locally as “the Haunted House.” (I have in my collection an old New Orleans postcard view of the mansion with that title. Although it is undated, I would attribute the card to the early twentieth century, before 1907, based on printing and format.) Cries and screams were said to be heard, emanating from within, and the superstitious crossed the street to avoid its supposedly ghostly horrors (Smith 2010, 28; Arthur 1936, 96).

As Arthur (1936, 98) noted, “The principal ‘ghost’ is, according to the most frequently quoted tale, that of a little girl slave who, to escape the whip of her mistress, climbed to the roof and jumped to her death into the courtyard below.” (This story—but not the ghost portion—first appeared in Mar­tineau [1838, 264–265].) Arthur continued, “Another tale, equally untrue, was that the mistress of the mansion buried all her victims in the courtyard well.”

Victor C. Klein in his New Orleans Ghosts (1996, 11) attributes the end of a long silent period of ghost activity at the house to an 1890s influx of Italian immigrants who used it as a tenement. “Almost as soon as the hardy Italians had taken up residence then did a whole new generation of hauntings appear,” reported Klein. This suggested that—if that characterization is correct—the percipients may have been superstitious and susceptible to suggestion from the lurid ghost folk tales. A longshoreman who came home late from work one evening allegedly encountered on the dark stairs the specter of a slave bound with chains, who then instantly vanished.

Assuming the story is true, it relates what is called an apparitional experience. Dissociative states—such as daydreaming or (as in this instance) sleeplessness—can produce ghost sightings. The spectral image wells up from the subconscious and becomes superimposed onto the visual scene (Nickell 2012, 345). One must wonder, if ghosts consist of “life energy” as many paranormalists imagine, how is it that such inanimate objects as slave chains and manacles appear? The answer is that they are seen in apparitions (just as they are in dreams) because they are necessary to the “apparitional drama” (Tyrell 1953, 83–115).

Over time, the house had become, in turn, a girls’ school, a music conservatory, and a crowded tenement. Before going on to become a furniture store, apartment building, and again a private residence, it was a “Haunted Saloon.” Its owner proved to be “a fount of ‘ghost stories’” (Klein 1996, 11), perhaps intending to boost business.

One night in the 1970s, reports Smith (2010, 29), a tenant, who had an apartment at the rear, was “awakened from a deep sleep” to be “confronted by a man who stood above him looking down.” At the time, he believed he was dreaming, but, when he saw the next morning that a table had been moved, he concluded he had seen a ghost. The case is easily explained. The dreamlike occurrence was obviously what is called “a waking dream”—an experience that occurs between being fully asleep and fully awake and has features of both. As to the table, it may have been moved (earlier or later) by a family member or housekeeper (the account does not say the percipient saw the table being moved).

According to Hauck’s Haunted Places: The National Directory (1996, 192), “strange sounds were also heard: an invisible chain being dragged down the staircase; the pitiful cries of the slave girl near the cherub fountain in the courtyard; and tortured screams coming from the attic.” Note that the chain, visible in the earlier-mentioned apparition, is now “invisible.” Of course, auditory hallucinations may occur under the same circumstances as apparitions, but such brief, colorful incidents as Hauck relates sound like the story elements (or motifs) of folklore—nothing approaching firsthand accounts.

On Site

On October 27, 2011, I visited the Lalaurie mansion, although I had been told it was privately owned and not open to the public. When I got there, I found it was even closed for renovation. I searched around the house, finding a side door open, and slipped inside but was soon stopped by workmen. However, for the price of a few of my wooden-
Nickell business cards—presented in a brief sleight-of-hand show—I was admitted and allowed to look around. No ghosts appeared, but I was told how a caretaker once played a prank on a ghost-tour group that stopped outside. He secretly broadcast through the speaker-box located by the doorbell a muffled “Get out! Get out!”—thus, he said while laughing at the results, spooking the group.

Perhaps such antics will inspire a new generation of ghost hunters, modeled after guide Kalila Katherina Smith of Haunted History Tours and author of New Orleans Ghosts, Voodoo and Vampires (2010). Judging from her book and a nighttime tour I had with her, it appears such ghost-hunting raconteurs need very little evidence—perhaps only a thrice-told anecdote or a bit of pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo—in order to spin their fantastic tales.

Acknowledgments

I am grateful to CFI Libraries Director Tim Binga for research assistance, and I also appreciate the professional assistance of the New Orleans Public Library in providing copies of early newspaper articles.

References

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.