If you watched even just the first five minutes of the premiere of American Horror Story: Coven last night, you know that creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk certainly haven’t lost their touch since Asylum and have plenty of disturbing tricks up their sleeves.
Among them was the incorporation of Delphine LaLaurie, played to chilling effect by Kathy Bates who, even with just a few minutes of air time, slips her name into the next awards season on the tip of a serrated blade. The premiere’s opening stinger defies explanation (even as it almost satanically tempts analysis) and has more than a few viewers wondering “where do they come up with this stuff?”
Delphine LaLaurie was a real person. She was a wealthy, Louisiana-born socialite, she lived in New Orleans, and she delighted in torturing slaves.
Basically, everything we saw in American Horror Story: Coven last night was pretty historically accurate. In fact, some of the stories about LaLaurie and her infamous New Orleans mansion/torture house are even worse than what FX aired.
Rumors of LaLaurie’s mistreatment of her slaves made rounds in the community between 1831 and 1834, but since she was generally polite and caring toward black people and slaves in public, the authorities didn’t take much stock in the gossip.
It wasn’t until a fire broke out in the LaLaurie residence in 1834 that authorities learned that not only were the rumors true, the reality was far worse than they could have imagined.
The fire started in the kitchen, where police and fire marshals found a 70-year-old woman, the cook, chained to the stove. The cook later confessed that she started the fire as a suicide attempt because she feared being taken to the “uppermost room,” a place no one ever returned from.
Though they were denied keys to the uppermost room by the LaLauries, authorities nevertheless broke the door down, and found “seven slaves, more or less horribly mutilated… suspended by the neck, with their limbs apparently stretched and torn from one extremity to the other.”
They had been imprisoned for months.
As bad as Coven portrayed it, the later folk histories and allegations surrounding LaLaurie’s torture and murder of slaves are much more graphic and disturbing.
Jeanne deLavigne, for Ghost Stories of Old New Orleans (1946), claimed that LaLaurie had a “sadistic appetite [that] seemed never appeased until she had inflicted on one or more of her black servitors some hideous form of torture” and claimed that those who responded to the 1834 fire had found “male slaves, stark naked, chained to the wall, their eyes gouged out, their fingernails pulled off by the roots; others had their joints skinned and festering, great holes in their buttocks where the flesh had been sliced away, their ears hanging by shreds, their lips sewn together… Intestines were pulled out and knotted around naked waists. There were holes in skulls, where a rough stick had been inserted to stir the brains.”
Modern re-tellings source deLavigne’s account, which themselves were unsourced and unsupported by primary sources. The scene of Kathy Bates smearing blood on her face like Noxzema is also unhistorical, and seems to be borrowed from Elizabeth Báthory, known as “The Blood Countess.”
Still, LaLaurie’s crimes were so egregious that an outraged mob of New Orleans citizens actually stormed her mansion shortly after the 1834 fire and destroyed nearly everything, leaving only the walls standing. LaLaurie herself fled to Paris, where she is believed to have died.
Anyway, LaLaurie’s house was eventually restored and purchased by actor Nicholas Cage in 2007. We have no idea why.