If you tuned in to watch the premiere of American Horror Story: Coven last night, you're probably already semi-obsessed with Madame Delphine LaLaurie and Marie Laveau, played by Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett, respectively. I mean, really -- how can our television handle such fierceness? What you might not know is that LaLaurie and Laveau are based on real women from New Orleans' fascinating history. In the case of LaLaurie, at least, fiction is more sinister than truth ... but just barely.
Madame Delphine LaLaurie (nee Macarty) was born around 1775. Her first two husbands died under mysterious circumstances, and in 1825 she married her third husband, the much younger physician Leonard Louis Nicolas LaLaurie. Madame LaLaurie purchased the property at 1140 Royal Street and converted it into an extravagant mansion, managed in her own name. It was there that she held lavish parties and was known as a woman of high society. Through her marriage, she acquired ownership of her husband's slaves, but like most members of the upper class, LaLaurie didn't think the laws applied to her -- specifically the laws pertaining to treatment of slaves. Rumors began swirling that LaLaurie treated her slaves poorly, and some of them were often seen about looking frail and ragged, but how could that be when LaLaurie herself had emancipated two of her own slaves?
Sometime in 1833, one of LaLaurie's neighbors saw her chasing a young slave girl named Lia. As the story goes, Lia was brushing LaLaurie's hair when she hit a snag and enraged the Madame, who went after her with a whip. Terrified for her life, the girl ran up to the roof to escape the beating, but LaLaurie persisted until Lia fell off the roof and died. A subsequent investigation led to charges of illegal cruelty, and the LaLauries were forced to give up nine of their slaves. But they weren't done with them yet -- LaLaurie had her family members purchase the slaves at auction and return them to her service. And yet it wasn't until 1834 that the true extent of LaLaurie's house of horrors became known.
On April 10, police arrived to investigate the fire, which originated in the kitchen. There, they found a 70 year-old slave woman, chained by the ankle to the stove, who admitted to starting the fire herself in a desperate attempt to escape the cruelties of LaLaurie once and for all. A judge also entered the property to investigate, and there found a woman with an iron collar around her neck, and another with a deep head injury that left her too weak to walk. It's also been said that the slaves in the home were starved, their skin flayed from repeated lashings, and many were chained in painful, contorted positions. Many other accounts have surfaced over time in books in the 1900s, detailing the ghosts of New Orleans. These accounts, which are unreliable and unsourced, include descriptions of slaves with their eyes gouged out, intestines pulled out and wrapped around their waists, and lips sewn together, among myriad other atrocities.
What we do know is that after the 1834 fire, when the public was made aware of LaLaurie's cruelties, a mob formed outside her house, but by the time police arrived to calm the angry crowd, they had torn down most of the LaLaurie mansion. LaLaurie herself managed to escape, and it's said she ran off to Mobile, Alabama before relocating to Paris. While it's unclear exactly how she died (and some still believe she stuck around Louisiana after the mob attacked her home), there have been rumors that she perished in a boar-hunting accident in Paris. Regardless of the nature of her demise, a grave plaque was found in Paris in the 1930s bearing her name: "Madame LaLaurie, née Marie Delphine Macarty, décédée à Paris, le 7 Décembre, 1842, à l'âge de 6---."
As for her slaves, once they were found in the house and rescued by the police in 1834, they were taken to a local jail where they were put "on display" for the public to bear witness to the evidence of their torment and suffering.
The house at 1140 Royal Street still stands -- it was rebuilt sometime before 1888, though it doesn't much resemble the original structure. Yes, it is the actual location used in American Horror Story: Coven, and yes, it did once belong to Nicolas Cage ("the guy from Face/Off") from 2007 to 2009, until it went up for sale as a result of foreclosure.
And just around the corner, two blocks away, lived Marie Laveau. Born a free woman in the French Quarter to a white father and Creole mother in 1794, Laveau was a renowned voodoo priestess. It's said by some that she combined elements of Catholic practices with those of her African ancestors, and that she owned a pet snake named Zombi. When her Haitian husband Jacques died in 1820 under mysterious circumstances (most deaths were pretty mysterious back then -- people were rather liberal with record-keeping and spelling), Marie took up a lover named Christophe and worked as a hairdresser for wealthy white families. Like LaLaurie, there isn't much substantiated information about Laveau. Some say that her daughter, Marie II, took up her mother's voodoo practice and was the real voodoo priestess, while others maintain that Marie I was the powerful one, and her daughter was more of an entertainer. It's also unclear which daughter followed in her mother's footsteps, since many of her daughters had Marie in their name due to the Catholic naming customs of the time.
In some accounts, Marie Laveau's powers of divination were said to come from the gossip she overheard working for her wealthy white clients, and it's been rumored that she had a brothel, where she used her prostitutes to gather the information she would use to impress and manipulate her clients. Others say she intimidated the servants of her clients into giving up valuable information.
Laveau died in 1881, and her grave site at the Glapion family crypt in New Orleans is a big tourist draw. People visit her tomb and draw three Xs on the side, hoping that Laveau will grant them a wish. While there is no evidence that Laveau and LaLaurie knew one another, it is likely that their paths crossed given the proximity of their homes in the French Quarter.
And yet even though their lives have been embellished for American Horror Story: Coven, it's still pretty fascinating to imagine these two notorious women of New Orleans getting mixed up in each other's business. While it's important to note the distinction between fiction and fact, sometimes fiction is just more fun to watch.