Irish Ghosts of America: The murderess Delphine LaLaurie, New Orleans

Delphine LaLaurie: Good for ghost stories, bad in every other way.

I used to live in New Orleans, which is famous for its ghosts stories, some rooted in history, some in invention. The past is a slippery thing in NOLA, and I would hear tour guides go past my apartment in the French Quarter. The first would point to the Lafitte blacksmith shop, now a bar. “This bar is one of the oldest in the Quarter,” he would say, “and one of the last examples of French architecture.” All this was true.

Another would go by. “Lafitte’s,” he would say, “was owned by the pirate Jean Lafitte.” This might be true, but is probably legend.

And then a third would pass and speak to his group. “The ghost of Jean Lafitte can be seen on the street every night,” he would say.

I never saw the ghost of Jean Lafitte, and so it is that New Orleans ghost stories must be enjoyed skeptically. There is a location at 1140 Royal Street that is an especially popular spot for New Orleans ghost stories, because it was the mansion of Delphine LaLaurie.

Two things: Although LaLaurie doesn’t sound like an Irish name, Delphine’s maiden name was reportedlyMacarty, and her parents were supposedly natives of Ireland. Secondly, if the stories about Delphine are true, she must rank as one of the most evil women in history. In fact, Listverse ranks her as number 10 on their ranking of 10 Most Evil Human, a list that includes Pol Pot and Adolf Hitler.

What made Delphine so awful? Well, she kept slaves, and was long rumored to mistreat them. And then, in April of 1834, a fire broke out at the Royal Street mansion. It turned out to have been started by a slave who worked as a cook, shackled in the kitchen, who had wanted to burn herself to death. She told her rescuers stories of torture and murder, and a mob broke into the slave quarters, where they discovered seven slaves who had been imprisoned and horrifically tortured.

An enraged crowd attacked the LaLaurie mansion, smashing furniture and tearing wallpaper, and later searches found at least two bodies buried on the grounds. There were additional rumors of murders, and Delphine and her husband fled New Orleans, to an uncertain fate.

Unsurprisingly, the mansion has developed a reputation for being haunted. According to tour guides of haunted tours, neighbors reported hearing screaming from inside. A man who bought it in 1837, we are told, abandoned it after three months, terrified by the sights and sounds from inside the house. The house mostly lay derelict, although at one point it was secretly inhabited by an eccentric millionaire, Jules Vignie, who died there surrounded by antiques and stashes of money.

In the 1890s, the story goes, the house was converted into inexpensive apartments, and the tenants complained of unnatural occurrences: A naked black man in chains who attacked a tenant; a phantom with a whip who lashed out at children; a well-dressed woman bending over a sleeping infant.

The house has gone through multiple owners since then, including Nicolas Cage, who called it “ghost front property.”

How much of this is true? Well, the abuse suffered by LaLaurie’s slaves is well-documented. Was Delphine Irish-American? Probably: Her father’s name may have been Louis Barthelemy Chevalier de McCarthy, and his heritage is sometimes given as Irish-French, coming from a family that had followed James II to France after the Battle of the Boyne.

The LeLaurie house, from a 1892 story in the Times-Picayune.

And the hauntings? Well, they also have a long history. The first story I find on the subject is from March 13, 1892, in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, called, suitably, “The Haunted House.” The article claims neighbors witnessed ghostly processions that climbed the main staircases at midnight, and repeats the tale of the man who only kept the house for three months. It also repeats the story of Jules Vignie, claiming that about $2500 was found near the millionaire’s body.

And the stories of ghosts continued to appear in the Times-Picayune, which delighted in retelling the grisly story of Delphine LaLaurie, sometimes twice or more times per year. The story entered into popular culture, with LaLaurie immortalized in wax in New Orleans’ wax museum, as well as turning into a character in books, video games, film, and television: A heavily fictionalized version of her story was retold in season three of “American Horror Story,” with Kathy bates playing LaLaurie.

As ghost stories go, this is both more awful and more true than many, and better documented. It has me starting to wonder if Jean Lafitte’s ghost really did appear in the streets near my apartment every night, and I just missed him

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.