God I love New Orleans. Ben and I went there recently when I had the opportunity to travel for a work conference. I went to sessions during the day and the night was ours. It was so much fun. It’s pretty much Ben’s favorite city and he says that it’s one of the only places he’s been to in the U.S. that truly feels different to him.
While there, we went on one of those hokey ghost tours and it was super fun. You get more legend than history with that kind of thing, but it still gets you into the spirit of the place. Especially in New Orleans.
One of the stops on the tour was the Lalaurie mansion, originally home to Delphine Lalaurie, the inspiration for Kathy Bates’ character in American Horror Story: Coven. After hearing the legend of Madame Lalaurie, in which she tortures and kills her slaves and possibly (it was strongly implied by our tour guide) murders her husbands, I had to research the real history of Delphine and the ill-fated mansion (later owned by Nicolas Cage, incidentally).
After reading some reviews online, I turned to Madame Lalaurie, Mistress of the Haunted House by Carolyn Morrow Long. Despite is sensational title, this is an exhaustively researched biography that endeavors to tell the real story of Delphine’s life, and her alleged crimes, based on original sources, along with an examination of the legends. I was delighted that the book also provides a good history of the city from its founding and life during the Civil War era.
I love to read both true crime and well-researched biographies of historically significant women and this book definitely fits the bill there—but knowing that Delphine was about to torture/kill her slaves, knowing that she “owned” people at all, was creepy and the whole biography has a depressing mood. If you read it, I recommend a palate cleanser afterwards or, if you read books simultaneously, opt something more light-hearted in between chapters.
At any rate, Morrow Long provides a 3D view of Delphine. We see her grow up in the upper echelons of New Orleans society. Her family history is interwoven with the history of the city as her grandfather brought the (MacCarthy) family there from Ireland during the French colonial era.
We hear about Delphine’s childhood and her three marriages, as well as what’s known about her family, friends, and of course, her slaves, or what’s known of them based on record and rumor.
If you don’t know the history, I won’t ruin it for you. I will say that the major plot points were covered by our ghost tour guide but at the end, she very mysteriously declared “…and Delphine was never seen or heard from again…” Lol. That’s not what happened. If you don’t want to read the book, check wikipedia.