I first saw her face on a beignet break in the French Quarter. My native New Orleans tour guide/friend lay sleeping off our binge at a wine bar appropriately named Bacchanal, so I decided killing some time eating deep fried goodness to be a bonne idea. After reveling for the umpteenth time in the sinful caffeine orgasm that is French fried donuts sponging up some frozen coffee, I puttered around a few shops in the area. In a little bric-a-brac cluttered window on Royal Street my gaze froze on the face of a woman pale as death and a pair of hypnotic eyes that quickly reeled me into the overpriced tourist trap.
The vampirish woman emblazoned the cover of a book entitled Madame Lalaurie — Mistress of the Haunted House. The tome by Carolyn Morrow Long basically purported to be the true story of the notorious haunted mansion just a few blocks further down Royal Street. I vaguely remembered picking up something of the story on my last trip to NOLA. It is a twisted tale of diabolical evil a carriage driver took much joy in relating to me with his own sanguine embellishments. Something about a woman who tortured her slaves and let her doctor hubby conduct all kinds of unholy experiments upon their innocent flesh before trying to burn all the evidence in a catastrophic fire. Something to that effect. But with much focus on the tortures of the damned, maggots, whips, hellfire and Nicholas Cage — he happened to be the owner of the house at the time.
Thumbing through the book I quickly figured out this was a legitimate history book and not just a retelling of urban legends. The author makes use of original documents, genealogies, newspaper accounts, etc. to build a compelling case for the true story about Madame Lalaurie and her ghoulish goings on. Turns out, the urban legends weren’t too far off the mark from reality. This was one sadistic bitch of a Creole and apparently very guilty of most everything she was accused of. Madame was a member of the original New Orleans blue bloods, had been married to the Spanish Governor as a tender teen, married a second time to a slave trader who did quite a hopping business with the Lafitte brothers, and finally getting hitched a third time to a young doctor about 20 years her junior. And this was about a year after he got her pregnant. She was already a fairly fascinating lady before you even get to the slave abuse aspect of her tale. Things turn pretty dark pretty quickly.
Not only was she notorious throughout the city for abusing her slaves, she had even been taken to court over the accusations which, in those days, should tell you how absolutely awful she was. The Code Noir of 1820’s New Orleans was far more liberal that the rest of the South but slaves were still slaves and couldn’t bear witness against a white person. She was acquitted of the charges but her neighbors still despised her and spied on her. One night she was seen chasing a screaming young serving girl with a horsewhip off the edge of her roof. The unfortunate young lady’s broken body mysteriously disappeared. Then the fire happened. After the cruel Creole and her family escaped the flames, the nosy neighbors quickly realized that many of her slaves were unaccounted for. The heroic Samaritans charged inside amongst the smoke and flame finding to their horror ten or so slaves chained in a small attic like room. The poor wretches were emaciated and covered with sores, maggots gnawing at their insides. The slaves were taken immediately to the doctors to be treated but not before a growing mob had seen the nasty result of Madame’s hobby. They were none too pleased. When the authorities allowed her to escape the city, the grumbling mob exploded into flame.
A thousand screaming demons rushed the empty Lalaurie mansion and tore it almost entirely to the ground. The destruction was so complete that the house had to be entirely rebuilt – meaning the famous haunted mansion of today isn’t really the same building where the poor slaves lived out their terrible existence. The author of the biography using what’s left of the slave records figured out that at least twenty of Lalaurie’s slaves died between 1816 and 1833. Another nineteen simply vanished from all records after the fire in 1834. Even accounting for some natural deaths in a time without modern medicine, that’s a big pile of corpses. Oh, and they never caught up with the mistress of that house of horrors. She fled to France with the aid of her loyal butler and lived out the remainder of her days in the motherland with her family, exiled by the scandal but otherwise unharmed. Her young hubby left her and she was eventually forced to live off others’ charity the rest of her days. But after she died in her early 60’s (according to some tales gored to death by a wild boar!) her body was returned to New Orleans and there her ghost festers to this day.
Now, as I read this sordid tale, certain aspects of it seemed to strike sparks in my synapses:
(1.) A savage Creole mistress of an old family abuses not only all her slaves but focuses on a young slave girl in particular;
(2.) The slave girl and other slaves eventually disappear;
(3.) A grim attic hiding the loathsome secret of chained bodies;
(4.) The evil woman disappears and is never heard from again.
I couldn’t put my finger on what seemed so familiar about it. But fortunately I had Rusty Burke’s history of REH in New Orleans from several mailings of REHupa with me. One of the articles talked about Howard’s three landladies, the Durell sisters, whom he believed to be the inspiration for the three Blassenville sisters in “Pigeons from Hell.” Reading over that material lit my imagination and I quickly realized why Madame Lalaurie seemed so familiar — she’s basically the monstrous Celia Blassenville of “Pigeons from Hell!”
In Howard’s tale, the Blassenvilles are of French-English descent and from the West Indies, moving to their home before the Louisiana Purchase. They, like many wealthy Southerners, were ruined in the War Between the States. Celia is described as a fine, handsome woman in her early thirties. The family was unusually brutal towards their slaves, an idea picked up from their time in the West Indies. Celia whipped her mulatto serving girl just like a slave. She also tied the unfortunate young beauty naked to a tree and lashed her with a horsewhip. In the story, a hidden room was built in the manor house where the three sisters’ mummified bodies would be found, hanging by their necks from the ceiling in the windowless chamber.
Going back to the biography of Madame Lalaurie, I found that her family was of French-Irish descent with connections to the West Indies. Her story takes place a good thirty years before the War Between the States but she certainly does lose pretty much everything because of the fire and the scandal. The bonne vie of Creole plantations and grand parties and balls were no longer in her future. Madame Lalaurie was well known as a great beauty and must have been quite seductive and charming to have a love child with a much younger man in that day and age. She was certainly no Kathy Bates — the actress who portrayed her in American Horror Story: Coven. The one known portrait of her is striking. She became infamous for horsewhipping a young slave girl as she chased her off the roof. Then of course both women’s homes have secret attic rooms convenient for storing bodies. Also, her house is on Royal Street — the same street that the Durell sisters lived on for a time. Oh and Madame Lalaurie’s first name is Delphine, the same name as one of the Durell sisters.
Of course much of this could be circumstantial. A decadent old southern family guarding dark secrets is a pretty familiar cliche in the horror genre. Howard could have easily tapped into that whole traditional Southern gothic atmosphere. I have no evidence he ever mentioned Delphine Lalaurie or had read any of the books she is featured in. But she is a legendary figure in New Orleans and a precocious kid like Howard who loved local legends and ghost stories would have quickly learned about her. The building had been a haunted tourist attraction since the 1890’s and it’s not far from where he briefly lived on Canal Street when he was 13. There were also several popular New Orleans history books published at that time which mentioned her that Howard could have easily found at the local library. Maybe not concrete evidence but I think it builds up an interesting case.
We will never know for sure, but I feel pretty positive that he mixed Delphine Lalaurie’s evil shadow with the Durell sisters, sprinkled in the ax works from a ghost story he heard as a child, stirred in a little double double toil and trouble and before you can say zuvembie, Howard had cooked up “Pigeons from Hell,” recognized today as one of the best horror stories ever written.