The portrait of Delphine Lalaurie is said to emanate a darkness which affects all who cast their eyes upon it. The air becomes saturated, heavy with the dark emotions which fester in every brush stroke. There have been many reports of paranormal happenings in its presence. Yet, in order to appreciate the chilling nature of this portrait, the abhorrent story of Madame Lalaurie must be told.
The history of Delphine Lalaurie
Madame Marie Delphine Lalaurie was a renowned socialite who inhabited the elegant manor house of 1140 Royal Street, New Orleans during the early 19th century. Indulging in the lavish lifestyle of an affluent aristocrat, Lalaurie hosted many dinner parties that were always very popular with her fellow patricians.
On the 10th of April, 1834, a fire broke out in the kitchen of the Lalaurie residence. The flames spread quickly, attracting the attention of bystanders. These brave neighbours of the Lalauries set about rescuing any and all trapped within the manor. Like many at the time, the Lalaurie household was heavily staffed by slaves. Yet, when the keys to the slaves’ quarters were requested from the mistress of the house, Lalaurie “refused them in a gross and insulting manner”.1 Determined to save all from the fire, the bystanders knocked down the door to the slave apartments. What they discovered would be later described as “too incredible for human belief”.2
Seven slaves were found horribly mutilated. The corpses of two others poking from a hole in the ground. The living had been suspended by their necks, with their limbs torn and stretched from one extremity to the other. Constrained in agonising positions, they had been forced to wear iron, spiked collars so as to restrict the movement of their heads. Emaciated and beaten, the fire had been the unexpected saviour of these poor souls.3
“Language is powerless and inadequate to give a proper conception of the horror which a scene like this must have inspired.”4
Afterwards, it was revealed that it had been the household cook who had started the fire. Captive, chained within eight yards of the blazing fireplace, she had declared that it was better that they all burn together than be subjected to the torture of her deranged mistress.5
Although Madame Lalaurie had a reputation for propriety and grace amongst her fellow French creoles, many had suspected that the Lalaurie residence had concealed dark secrets. When the English writer Harriet Martineau spoke with New Orleans residents two years after the fire, in 1836, she discovered that the “haggard and wretched” appearance of her slaves had long been observed by Lalaurie’s neighbours. A well-meaning local lawyer had even warned Lalaurie that, should evidence of illegal cruel treatment of slaves been found, the Madame was liable to have those slaves confiscated and sold by the State. However, the hint had clearly fallen on deaf ears. For even beyond the secret torture rooms of the Lalaurie mansion, Delphine’s cruelty was paraded in plain sight. One witness, who lived adjacent to the manor, recalled how she had been going up her stairs when her thoughts were interrupted by a piercing shriek from the Lalaurie courtyard. From where she stood, she witnessed a young female slave of about eight years of age “fly across the yard towards the house”. Pursing her was Madame Lalaurie, “cowhide in hand”. The lady watched in horror as the mistress of the house chased the terrified child from storey to storey, until both reached the roof of the building. So scared of punishment was the girl that she fell from the roof – to her death. Later that night, the woman saw the mangled corpse be buried in a shallow grave in the corner of the yard. 6
After the fire, stories of Lalaurie’s cruelty spread. It was even said that every morning after breakfast she would lock herself in with her captives and flog them until her strength failed. 7 Lalaurie relished expending her anger on her slaves.
According to local legend, scores of bodies of tortured slaves were still being found in the mansion over 100 years later, sealed beneath the floorboards of the Madame’s torture chamber.8
A traumatic childhood?
Some have speculated that a childhood experience, involving her uncle’s murder at the hands of two slaves in 1771, may have influenced Madame Lalaurie in later life. In order to extract a confession from the two suspected slaves, Temba and Mirliton, the authorities had tortured them upon a rack. They were later sentenced to a brutal execution. Influenced by the events at such a young age, it could have been the case that, in Lalaurie’s mind, the inflicting of intense physical pain and mutilation of slaves was normal. Perhaps, she did not even realise what she did was wrong.9
The Lalaurie mansion was demolished after the revelation of its dark secrets and the inhumane torture which took place within.
“Nearly the whole of the edifice is demolished, and scarcely any thing remains but the walls, which the popular vengeance have ornamented with various writings expressive of their indignation and the justness of their punishment.
“The loss of property sustained is estimated by some at $40,000, but others think this calculation is exaggerated. It must, however, been very great indeed, as the furniture alone was of the most costly kind, consisting of pianos, armoirs, bufets … which were removed to the garret and thrown from thence into the street for the purpose of rendering them of no possible use whatever.”10
After the fire the slaves were taken to the local jail for their own safety. Reporting just two days after the incident, the New Orleans Bee indicated that at least four thousand people “have already visited these victims to convince themselves of their sufferings.”11
As for the woman herself, Lalaurie fled from New Orleans – chased out of town by an angry crowd – to France, where she is believed to have lived out her days in peaceful, self-imposed exile.12
The portrait of Delphine Lalaurie is commissioned
Centuries after these horrific events, sometime in the 1970s, the Lalaurie mansion of Royal Street underwent major renovations to transform it into luxury apartments.13 In 1997, the new owners sought the services of a local artist by the name of Ricardo Pustanio, and commissioned a portrait of the building’s previous owner, Delphine Lalaurie. However, once the painting was placed within its fateful walls, a stream of reports of a darkness having attached itself to the painting began to flood the local area. For many years prior there had been several reports of ghosts being sighted in the old Lalaurie mansion. Yet, it seems that this painting, once hung inside, attracted one of these entities. It was haunted by the dark soul of Madame Lalaurie herself.
There have been reports of the painting moving on the wall by itself. On several occasions, it has been witnessed to rock so violently that the canvas freed itself of its fitting and tumbled to the floor. Residents of the apartments would describe feeling extremely unnerved around the portrait of Lalaurie. They would hear echoing faint voices; feel cold touches on their skin; experience the strong smell of smoke; as well as report moved or missing personal possessions. One female tenant even claimed that the painting whispered to her directly as ghostly footsteps followed her around the apartment. The evil spirit of Madame Lalaurie, she stated, was tormenting her.
The painting exuded such darkness that it was eventually returned to the artist.
In life, Delphine Lalaurie would have enjoyed showing off her prized pieces of art. As one of New Orleans foremost socialites, people would have travelled from all over to spend the evening amongst the sumptuous settings of the mansion. Could it be that, even in death, Lalaurie was attracted to a portrait of herself, her ghostly hands wishing to indulge once more in showing off her art?
As for the artist himself, Pustanio states that he never had the intention of labelling the piece ‘haunted’. In fact, since finishing the original portrait, the artist has created several more likenesses of Delphine Lalaurie, in different mediums – fascinated by her appearance and her dark story. As far as Pustanio knows, none of the other pieces are haunted: “I have never heard anything or been contacted about them being as such as of yet.”14
The original Portrait of Delphine Lalaurie is now in a private collection. The new owners refuse to discuss its present whereabouts, or of any unexplained occurrences that happen in it presence.
Since the days of Madame Lalaurie, the tale of what occurred on Royal Street has been warped beyond reality, with stories of even more nightmarish scenes unfurling in books, folklore and haunted house tours. Yet, when one strips back the lies, the bare bones of truth do not disappoint – for these events were truly barbarous, without the need for exaggeration. Delphine Lalaurie, the murderer reviled as “a demon in the shape of a woman” 15, seems like exactly the sort of character to linger on – so malevolently – after death.
“[This] is a revelation of what may happen in slave-holding country, and may happen nowhere else.”16