The Ghosts of LaLaurie Mansion

In New Orlean's Vieux Carre sits a house with an old-fashioned facade. Even before the turn of the 20th century, the Franco-Spanish residents of the old faubourg would whisper, "la maison est hantee",

This portrait exemplifies the Spanish French Creoles that Delphine Macarty Lalaurie sprang from. “Don Antonio Mendez and His Family,” 1795, (Source - Ogden Museum of Southern Art)

After nightfall many walked past it with hurried steps. They were afraid to peer upwards and see the figure of a ghost child that haunted the rooftop once decorated by a latticed belvedere.

The three-storied home at 1140 Royal Street (Rue Royale) stood empty and ruined for many years.

In 1892, The Times Picayune wrote:

The drawing-rooms are spacious and different doors that lead to them.  At the end of one of these room there was some years ago, a little door, with large iron hinges, which opened upon a small, dark place, without steps to let down to the floor beneath. Many strange stories have been connected with this door, thrilling, blood-curdling stories which no one could ever authenticate, but which floated out at time upon the Rue Royale, and are a part of the many wild traditions which surround the old house.

The true origins of the house are veiled in mystery. The oldest traditions claim it was once owned by the Pontalba family. The Duc d'Orleans and the Duc de Montpensier were welcomed as guests and slept in a richly furnished suite on the second floor. The Marquis de Lafayette stayed in the same apartment. In 1831, Edmond Soniat du Fossat owned the house which he sold to the Lalaurie family in 1832.

Marie Delphine McCarty (Macarty) was born March 19, 1787, in Spanish Louisiana to a prominent Creole family. Her uncle governed the Spanish provinces of West Florida and Louisiana, and her cousin Augustin de Macarty was mayor of New Orleans from 1815 to 1820. Macarty Square in downtown New Orleans was part of the plantation on which she was born.

She became a child bride on June 11, 1800 when she married Don Ramon Lopez y Angulo de la Candelaria. He was 35 years old, she was 14. Four years later, pregnant and traveling from Spain with her husband, she became a widow at the edge of 17 when her husband dropped dead from a stroke. They buried him in a cemetery in Havana Cuba, and within a few days she gave birth to a daughter named Marie Delphine Francesca Borja Lopez y Angulo de la Candelaria (nicknamed Borquita).

Delphine returned to her family in New Orleans.

She was 21 when she married the family banker, Jean Blanque a successful merchant and lawyer. He counted among his associates the pirate brothers, Jean and Pierre Lafitte. The family lived at Villa Blanque located at 409 Rue Royale, next to the Bank of Louisiana of which he was a director. The townhome was situated near the river on the border between today’s Faubourg Marigny and the Bywater. In the next eight years she gave birth to four children. Daughters, Pauline, Laure, Jeanne and one son, Jean Pierre "Paulin" born in 1815. Her husband died the following year, leaving her heavily in debt. She sold many of his assets in order to safeguard those she'd brought to the marriage.

She continued living at Villa Blanque with her children. In 1824, her father died and divided his estate between her and her brother Louis. Three days after, she sold half of her inheritance to Marie Azelie Zeringue. The land would become the Lombard Plantation.

In these years, New Orleans fermented in intrigue and scandal. Political and romantic disputes were settled almost daily with duels. Marie Laveaux, the Voodoo Queen became wealthy through her root work and blackmail of wealthy patrons.

In 1825, Leonard Louis Lalaurie, a newly minted doctor, only 22 years of age left his native France and sailed for New Orleans. 

Widow Blanque, now 37, became romantically involved with Louis despite the difference in age and social standing. In 1826, she became pregnant with his child. Gossip circulated this was an attempt to force her young lover to marry her. In 1828, five months after she gave birth to their son Jean Louis, they married at St. Louis Cathedral and legitimized their child. Delphine insisted on a pre-nuptial contract stipulating she would retain all the property she brought to the marriage.

Two weeks after her marriage she sold her inherited land. During the intervening years she had improved it by building a sawmill and brick factory on it.

In 1832, she ordered a home to be built at 1140 Rue Royale (originally named Rue Casacalvo). It's not clear if she demolished the prior structure or enlarged the existing one. In the same year, she filed for separation with the local courts from her husband, to which he agreed. He moved  to a home in Plaquemines Parish, however his presence at the house on the day of the fire indicates he frequented the house on Rue Royale.

Delphine LaLaurie hosted lavish parties and welcomed the creme of Creole society. She owned a splendid carriage and horses which she paraded on drives along the Old Bayou Road, where the socialites of New Orleans gathered for an airing.

The mansion at the corner of Royal and Hospital Streets (later Governor Nicholls), towered above other edifices in the French Quarter, and every night a servant would ascend narrow steps from the attic to hang a signal light from the observatory on the rooftop to guide travelers.

Her manners were polished and she was known for her charitable deeds. Invitations to her lavish parties were sought after, however despite her wealth and family prestige, whispered rumors circulated behind the fans of Creole ladies, and by extension their servants. It involved stories that Madame LaLaurie beat and tortured her slaves. 

However, these vague stories were swept away when others witnessed her being kind to her servants.

Other rumors told of a child falling from the roof as she ran away from Madame Lalaurie who'd whipped her.

On a spring day in April 1834, the kitchen caught fire. The flames spread and the upper stories of the house filled with smoke. Neighbors rushed in to save the slaves and retrieve valuables. 

After leaving the kitchen located over the carriageway building across the courtyard, volunteer firemen and others entered the main house in search of anyone trapped inside.  In the attic they found a secret room, with seven poor wretches locked away where their screams could not be heard.  

The fire was extinguished, however a scandal swept the city ignited by an article published by The New Orleans Bee describing Madame Lalaurie as “the demon, in the shape of a woman”. 

Throughout the day an angry crowd increased in front of the mansion. Delphine and her family planned their escape. That evening she appeared to go out for her usual carriage ride. Before the mob knew what was happening, the driver raced the horses down to Bayou St. John and to a schooner which took them to Mobile and then off to Paris.

Despite stories that she left Paris to escape her notoriety, others sources described that she lived in great wealth and was welcomed by the most exclusive Parisian circles.

As the story of her escape swirled throughout New Orleans, the fury it stirred finally broke loose five days later and the infuriated citizens of the Vieux Carre stormed the house and destroyed the interior.  

In the following days, many remembered Delphine's uncle, Jean le Breton was murdered by his own slaves on a Carrollton plantation in 1771, after they set fire to several buildings. 

In 1791 and 1795, there were insurrections in Pointe Coupee, 150 miles upriver from New Orleans.

Could this be the source of her distrust and behavior towards her servants?

Abandoned by its mistress, the house once sparkling with candlelight from its windows sat dark and derelict. Before long it spawned stories of disembodied screams heard in the still of night; doors and windows opening by themselves.

In 1837, Madame LaLaurie's agents sold the property, then officially referred to as "The Haunted House" to a gentleman who kept it only three months. Pierre Trastour rebuilt what was left of the derelict mansion into its more well known facade for the new owner. A third floor and rear building were added later in the 19th century and the rear building on Hospital Street, had only one floor until a second one was added in the 20th century.

​Rooms converted into apartments were rented to families who did not stay long. The basement and first floor were let to different business establishments.

In 1859, the house was renovated and stripped of "mildewed plaster and obsolete gingerbread work".  It became Madame Parent's Academy (for girls).

During the Civil War the Union army headquartered in the Haunted House, and the stories of ghosts persisted, especially the sound of clanking chains coming from the attic rooms.

At the end of the Civil War the Yankee school board used it as an integrated school.

In 1882, an Englishman opened a music conservatory and fashionable dancing school. A scandal forced him to close it down soon after. 

In 1884, in celebration of the World's Fair a northerner opened a boarding house on the premises. He named it The Mansion House. Within a few weeks the sign that hung from the balcony disappeared and it closed down as ghost stories drove away any willing to spend the night there.

From 1889 to 1892 Jules Edouard Vignie lived there behind closed doors and windows. He was an eccentric antiquarian and auctioneer, in his younger years he'd been a "soldier of the French revolution and a colonel of the old days of the crack militia in New Orleans." He quietly amassed a museum's worth of antique furniture, paintings and bric-a-brac.

He was found dead up in the attic, lying on an old cot. Inside the mattress they found $2500. An auction was held in March 1892, where his accumulated treasures were sold for thousands of dollars.

Rumors say that Delphine died in Paris at her home on December 7, 1849  and was interred at the Cimetiere de Montmartre. Her remains were exhumed on January 7, 1851, and reinterred in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. It is not surprising there is no record of this secret burial. 

There is a story that Eugene Backes, sexton to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 until 1924 found an old copper plate in Alley 4 of the cemetery inscribed with "Madame LaLaurie, née Marie Delphine Macarty, décédée à Paris, le 7 Décembre, 1842, à l'âge de 6--."  The English translation of the inscription reads: "Madame Lalaurie, born Marie Delphine Mccarthy, died in Paris, December 7, 1842, at the age of 6-- ".  There is conflict in this story since other sources cite that Mr. Backes discovered it in 1941. In the 1920 census his occupation was a marble cutter.

Her death in 1849, at age 62, dovetails better with the events following the death of her brother Louis in 1846 (four years after the date inscribed on the plate). He left her three-quarters of his $7M estate (today's price). Why would he leave this fortune to her if she was dead?

Her husband Louis Lalaurie died in 1862, age 59.

In 1893, the house was sold at auction for $5800. Mr. F. Greco won it, and within a few month he furnished it and made a profit from its reputation as a haunted house by charging 10 cents admission to sight seers. Later he made the first floor into a bar room, and named it the "Haunted Exchange". He also had a pool room on the premises.

By December 1908, Mr. Greco ran an advertisement announcing an auction of the contents of the "Haunted Saloon".

By the 1920’s it was a tenement. Five families lived in the rundown home, and men occupied small rooms at the rear of the house which were once the slave quarters. One of the tenants who'd made it his home for eight years said, "I was the first person to live in this house after they decided to rent it as a tenement. There were no other families living here and one night, on the third floor, I saw a man walking around carrying his head on his arm. I only saw him once, and that was five years ago.

The Palmens and the their daughter occupied the former dining room. Mrs. Palmen said, "About three years ago my daughter used to see a man on the balcony every night about twelve o'clock. One she pretended she was asleep and when the man came, said, 'Come on, I'm ready for you,' but there was no answer and when they went to chase the man he vanished into thin air. It was no thief either, for why would a thief come every night just at midnight. My daughter was not afraid, however, about two  years ago there was awful noises in this very room where I am living. No one was ever able to stay in it. Up to last summer we would hear noises occasionally, but we are not afraid and do not notice them."

Maggie Donohoe lived there for seven years, and recounted the following: "In the summer when it's warm I sleep out on the balcony where the spirits are supposed to run about, but I have never been bothered. Lots of people won't stay in here, but we get along fine and are not afraid in the least. I really think that all the spirits are gone now and I think it is because the house has been blessed so often."

The house was described as in "the last stages of ruin and dilapidation". One of the rooms had even been used as a stable. The basement which was uninhabited was used as a playroom by the children of the neighborhood.

It was during these years that William "W.J." Warrington, philanthropist and member of an aristocratic southern family restored the dilapidated house. A millionaire bachelor, he'd been involved in helping the needy since 1873. He claimed it was his great, great grandfather Jean Remairie who built the mansion originally. He completed the 40-room house in 1780. All the materials used to construct it were brought from France, and the furnishings from Europe.

Warrington converted it into a school for poor boys, and a place to feed those who were hungry. He gave lodging to about 75 men and boys every night. He renamed it the Warrington House.

Despite his best intentions at helping the destitute, it inevitably attracted a less than desirable element. In 1924, Owens Murray left his room at the Warrington House and walked 25 blocks totally nude. When asked by a police officer what he was doing, he responded, "Lookin' for a place to sleep."  He found one inside a jail cell.

In 1937, 85-year-old WJ Warrington was injured after he tried to stop an argument between drunk residents of the house. The event culminated in the stabbing of three persons by Melchior John Gerlinger Jr. in the Warrington House. When Gerlinger was confronted by another resident of the house, named Carl Call he shot him in the forearm and abdomen.

After Warrington's death the house was purchased by Catherine Howell Laycock who leased it to the National Housing Administration. In 1943, the structure was renovated into a 36-apartment building for war workers.

The years passed, and despite its different incarnations the house at 1140 Royal Street in New Orleans is best known for its mistress Delphine Lalaurie and the phantoms reported since her occupancy.

There were those which insinuated that many of the stories written about Madame LaLaurie, and what transpired on April 10th, 1834, were grossly exaggerated and she was the victim of yellow journalism fanned by abolitionist sentiments.

Where the truth lies is unknown, even the facts of her demise and whether she ever returned to New Orleans, dead or alive remain uncertain, however her children and their families lived, prospered and died there.

In contrast to her reputation as a hardened woman with no empathy towards her servants, she, along with her brother Louis served as godparents to their half-sister Delphine Emesie Macarty.  She was the product of a long term relationship between their father and his free quadroon concubine Sophie Mousante.

However, years before the LaLaurie mansion caught fire, letters from acquaintances mention that Delphine was fined by the criminal courts for "barbarous treatment of her slaves." It never became more serious because none would testify they'd witnessed her mistreatment.

In 1867, a note was made of a lot of land sold to Mrs. August de Lassus by Louis Lalaurie and Miss Laure Blanque.

Delphine's daughter by her first husband, married Placide Forstall, a merchant, when she was 16 years old. She bore 8 children and died in 1884.

In 1869, Louis LaLaurie made the newspapers when he was involved, in a duel with an Englishman named Leonard Sewell an ex-officer of the Hussar Brigade in India. The dispute was over a $1200 note owed to Louis. Both met at an accustomed meeting place for duels located in the rear of the city, "on the Metairie Ridge, back of the Half-Way House, where hundred have met in past years to wash out with blood real or imaginary injuries." They shot at each other three times, and mishaps occurred, and only after Louis shot Mr. Sewell in the foot was the conflict settled.

The house has been owned by actor Nicholas Cage, and it was last purchased by the owner who lives there now in 2013. 

A review of real estate transactions dating back to 1834, show that no one lives in the house on 1140 Rue Royal for more than five years. Those who do, are plagued even after leaving by financial problems, death and insanity.


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