At the corner of what is now Royal Street and Governor Nichols Street stands a three-story mansion with a beautifully carved white door and wrought-iron Spanish-style railings around the second story gallery. It is a private home, once owned by Nicolas Cage, and there are no tours offered.
Now why, you might be asking, would someone want to tour this house? Well, I’ll tell you: it is reputed to be one of the most haunted places in New Orleans. Here’s why.
On April 10, 1834, a fire broke out in the cookhouse of the mansion at the corner of Royal and Hospital streets, which belonged to Doctor Leonard LaLaurie and his wife, Delphine McCarty LaLaurie. Delphine was a wealthy woman, twice widowed, with one grown daughter and two still living at home. Leonard was a young physician who, upon deciding to leave France to seek his fortune in the 1830s, was advised by his father to marry a woman of means — which he did. The McCarty family owned significant tracts of land outside of New Orleans proper; Andrew Jackson stayed at their home during the Battle of New Orleans due to its proximity to Chalmette.
Leonard arrived in New Orleans advertising himself as an orthopedist of sorts, claiming he had the ability to “cure hunchbacks.” Delphine was delighted to be the wife of a well-to-do physician who was at least 10 years younger than herself.
Anyway, kitchens were separate from houses for safety reasons in those days and there was great fear that the flames might spread to the two-story mansion itself. Leonard and Delphine were busily loading their belongings into coaches and wagons rather than attending to the flames, according to the account of Judge J.F. Canonge, who was one of the first on the scene. He heard cries for help, but was overwhelmed by the smoke and flames coming from the building. He helped organize a bucket brigade and, when the fire was somewhat under control, his clerk Amedée Ducatel entered the building … which resulted in one of the most horrifying sights New Orleanians had seen to date.
Ducatel and the other men eventually brought out a total of seven slaves in such alarmingly bad condition that even slave owners were shocked. Most of them were in a severe state of starvation. Their bodies showed evidence of having been bound, and some of them had bones broken in ways that indicated they may have been Leonard’s test cases on his back straightening machine.
The slaves were half-carried to the Cabildo so that they could get medical treatment. While all of this was going on, Leonard and Delphine continued loading their belongings into the wagons. The citizens and police were horrified, and tried to take the two into custody. They apparently had some pretty fast horses, because they had their coachman gallop them out of town at full speed and eventually the police gave up chase.
The angry citizens of New Orleans broke into the home and wreaked so much havoc that the home was uninhabitable for many years to come. It was eventually rebuilt, with a third story added.
You can read the original report 1834 report about the fire in the New Orleans Bee at this link.
Legends sprang up that Madame LaLaurie had buried tortured slaves in the courtyard, whipped one small child until she leaped from the roof to save herself, and more. These are entirely apocryphal. What we do know, from historical records, is that slaves were taken from her because of abuse; New Orleans’ Code Noir had very strict requirements for humane treatment of slaves, and Delphine fell way short. The slaves were bought by relatives and given back to her, but the record for cruelty remains.
If you would like to know more about the LaLaurie fire, or the family, I highly recommend Caroline Morrow Long’s Madame LaLaurie: Mistress of the Haunted House.
(Photos of the LaLaurie mansion taken by the author. Delphine LaLaurie portrait in the public domain, via WikiMedia Commons.)