Posts Tagged ‘historiettes’

historiettes; Mme Delphine LaLaurie

October 21, 2010

Curtain up! I beg silence from the circle, and hearts of Herculean hale; couch-cowerers, duvet-divers and nursers of nausea – you have had fair warning!

Tonight, oh tonight, the most grisly of girls will be laid clinical before your ogling optics – the most repulsive of Rapunzels, beastly Belle before your perverse peepers. I give to you… Madame Delphine LaLaurie, Grande Dame Guignol, American socialite and veritable godmother of gore.

boo!!

(editorial aside: this painting is haunted. don’t be surprised to wake up in cold sweats.)

So what did this Cher Belle Gordon Lewis do to resign herself to the unsavoury annals of American history? She was, oh spritely reader, one of New Orleans’ most legendary legendary serial killers. Killer.

Due emphasis, as I am sure I can convince you, on her truly legendary status.

There is little background information on the fair lady that Wikipedia cannot also provide. But for the sake of loading a new tab, and my losing an audience, I can reveal that: she was born Marie Delphine MacCarty, allegedly circa 1775, into a wealthy New Orleans family. There are rumours that her mother was killed by a slave, and a series of marriages cut unfortunately short, as she was twice widowed – though married a third, Dr. Louis LaLaurie in June 1825. The persistent paragraphic punctuations of ‘allegedly’ and ‘rumour’ are, I’m afraid, going to be quite a feature of this bileography.

It is my suspicions, Watson, that much of the details of her youth came into being only post-Tempo di Massacro fame; an attempt, a justification of sorts, to account for her antisocial tendency to wine, dine and dismember.

It was with Louis that Mme Delphine bought a mansion on Royal Street in New Orleans in 1831. And it is inside this house, to make Amityville blush, that I shall now lead you.

An article in the New Orleans Bee, dated 11th April 1834, informs its readers of a fire which had broken out at the LaLaurie’s the day before (10th April, for the mathematically challenged), specifically in the kitchen –  a building separate from the mansion itself. In spectacular tabloidisms, it describes how the public entertained ‘the horrible suspicion … that some of the inmates of the premise … were incarcerated therein’. However, after having demanded the keys, for the doors were locked, the public were refused them by the charmless lady and her husband, in – and this is a particularly brilliant sentence – ‘a gross and insulting manner’. After somehow breaking in (we are not enlightened as of their means of breaking & entering…) the heroic public were apparently met with a hideous sight, a sight the Bee claims that ‘language is powerless and inadequate’ to describe… but dammit, they give it a bloody good go: ‘seven slaves more or less horribly mutilated were seen suspended by the neck, with their limbs apparently stretched and torn from one extremity to the other’.

In summary, the article, calm and considered, hopes for ‘vengeance [to] fall heavily upon the culprit’. A lengthy appendage to the article describes how that heroic public went about destroying all the furniture in that property. For, you know, justice and the like. And what of that unlucky seven, those stretched armstrongs? Well, we hear no more…

Until! The next day.

12th April 1834, the Bee runs another article on the LaLaurie’s, those glory-guzzlers. This time, however, and this is where we start to smell the presence of some urban little rodents, the level of horror is remarkably toned down. Atop yesterday’s raging plate of indignation, the Bee has served us a great slice of humble pie. The primary concern of the article are the costs of damages to the property ($40,000, allegedly), although the newspaper suggests this may be somewhat ‘exaggerated’. A bold claim, in light of their own truth-bendings the day prior.

Another appendage records the testimony of a number of visitors to the LaLaurie property, the citizens Montreuil and Fernandez. They conduct a search and to their sheer unholy horror they find… nothing. Upon the suggestion of a third man, Felix Lefebure, they do eventually discover two slaves chained up behind a locked door, who have difficulty in walking, and a third with ‘a deep wound on the head’. No one dead, however. No gore. No guts. No fun.

Interestingly, it is Dr. LaLaurie who takes the starring role in this second article, and to whom is given the rather hilariously rehearsed final words. When asked if he had any more slaves locked up, he replied ‘”that there were persons who would do much better by remaining at home than visiting others to dictate to them laws in the quality of officious friends“‘. Boo yah. What a joker.

So why the enduring history of Delphine LaLaurie as New Orleans most notorious no-goodnick? It’s a puzzler. Evidently, the LaLauries kept slaves, and it is unlikely they were treated in the most humane manner possible. There is perhaps more truth in a story that recounts an incident in 1833, where the couple were taken to court after a little slave girl fell to her death from one of the house’s balconies. But I am inclined to take that as mere bad luck, at most severe negligence, than as a malacious act. The public, however, seem to have been incensed with LaLaurie, and were determined to show her as the cruella she, allegedly, was. Alas, it was not to be. At least, not anymore, now that I have convincingly proven her quasi-innocence. It was just an eager tabloid, and equally eager mob-mentalities.

Of course, the LaLaurie’s subsequent acts don’t suggest an Ariel-white conscience; they supposedly fled to France, and it is historically accurate to state that Delphine died in Paris – her gravestone has been identified, and it rather boringly reads simply ‘”Madame LaLaurie, née Marie Delphine Macarty, décédée à Paris, le 7 Décembre, 1842, à l’âge de 68 ans.”‘

That isn’t to say there aren’t those still promoting the Bathorial memory of LaLaurie. A book, a book I own, and have unfortunately had the misfortune to read, a book called Journey Into Darkness: Ghosts and Vampires of New Orleans, available from all good freak-shows, mystics and frauds, appears to be the earliest source of some of these outrageous claims against LaLaurie. Published in 1998, it is unlikely to convince the historian of its accuracy, especially as its few footnotes are plain wrong: details it claims to take from the Bee, just don’t exist in the published articles.

It is almost painfully safe to say that this book just makes it up. Its author? A lady with a vested interest in all things macabre in The Big Easy – she runs ghost tours of the city. And is she qualified to do such dangerous things? Oh boy, is she ever. She is both an authority on eclectic magic and holds a degree/award/farce in Oriental Natural Healing and Integrated Body Mind Therapy. Oh, also, she believes in vampires.

I think I would enjoy eclectic magic. Most magic is just too… mainstream.

Clinging vehemently to its claims, it produces one of the greatest descriptions of LaLaurie’s Frankensteinian frivolities. A quote, I believe, it is worth closing with. So, I am sorry for basically pretending to write a blog on a fascinating serial-killing bimbo, only to claim that actually she was just a boring normal citizen, like you and me. Boring boring boring. But this quote will totally make you forgive me for wasting your time. So, au revoir Simone, here is your payoff:

‘One man looked as if he had been the victim of some crude sex change operation … Another victim obviously had her arms amputated and her skin peeled off in a circular pattern, making her look like a human caterpillar. Yet another had been locked in a cage that the newspaper described as barely large enough to accommodate a medium-sized dog. Breaking the cage open, the rescuers found that the LaLaurie’s had broken all of her joints, resetting them at odd angles so she resembled a human crab.’

So, slaves, lies and masking-tape, and the genesis of an exceptional horror film.

j.

post-script; that painting isn’t really haunted. Sorry to scare you by saying that it was. Oh, and if you ever find yourself worrying that something really is haunted, just remember… it isn’t. It isn’t possible.

You Wanna Bibliography? Of Course You Do:

Journey Into Darkness: Ghosts and Vampires of New Orleans – Katherina Smith
The New Orleans Bee, 11th April 1834: http://nobee.jefferson.lib.la.us/Vol-009/04_1834/1834_04_0034.pdf
The New Orleans Bee, 12th April 1834: http://nobee.jefferson.lib.la.us/Vol-009/04_1834/1834_04_0038.pdf

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historiettes; Mary Toft

October 28, 2009

So, it has come to this. A weekly blog-cast in which I dissect and dissever a lady of the historical persuasion, an historiette, pulling her from the tragic mire of oblivion, that municipal Lethe. We shall amble with the most muliebral, romp with the strumpets, and cavort with the crafty.

Tonight, our opening act, a lady of the latter, welcome to the stage; Mrs Mary Toft of Godalming

Mary Toft

Mary Toft, stout, illiterate and five weeks pregnant, caught sight of a rabbit whilst out weeding in April 1726. Pursuing it briefly, driven by pauperal hunger, or doltish fascination, Toft soon lost sight of the rabbit; though it remained firmly lodged in the warrens of her mind for months to come, four months to be precise. In August, Toft suffered a miscarriage, discharging “a large lump of flesh”. Three weeks later, this happened again. The vaguely described “symptoms” of pregnancy remained. But what could her bloated belly hold?

On the 27th September, she “voided somewhat, which she took to be the Lights and Guts of a Pig”. Quel horreur. Quickly! Send for Mr John Howard, 30 years the Man Midwife of Guildford. In whose presence, the giblets of piglets proceeded to gamble from her gynaecic particulars.

Eleven litters and a perplexed midwife later, a letter was sent by Howard to King George I’s secretary, who, under command from his majesty himself, went to verify the claims. Accompanying the Hon. Mr Samuel Molyneux, the secretary, was a Nathaniel St André, a Swiss linguist-cum-fencer-cum-surgeon-cum-court anatomist; a popular figure, since fluency in German in Hanoverian England had its advantages. They arrived just in time; Toft was delivering her fifteenth bunny.

Howard had kept all the deliveries, claimed mostly to be rabbits, in jars of alcohol, preserving the medical monstrosities. None of which, it should be noted, had been delivered in one piece, tumbling out more like an anatomical airfix kit. The fifteenth was no different; Toft birthed “the trunk of a rabbit of about four months’ growth stripped of its skin but containing the heart, lungs and diaphragm”, followed two hours later by “the lower body of a male rabbit, also stripped of its skin and perfectly fitting the part delivered earlier.” Excellent. The whole set.

All the while Mary Toft sat by, cheerful, chipper and thoroughly unstrained.

St André returned with several jars of rabbit for the king & Prince of Wales, and a hankering for a pamphlet; A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbets. Was it a hit? Boy, was it. Public and medical London was ablaze with conversation about the rabbit-bearing woman. On the 29th November, Toft was whisked to Lacy’s Bagnio in Leicester Fields in London’s West End, a public bath.

Joining Howard and St André at Bagnio were many noblemen, notably Sir Richard Manningham, a leading obstetrician, James Douglas, a gynaecological specialist, and John Maubray, who had dealt with animal-breeding women before. A distinguished bunch… and Maubray. Understandably, Douglas and Manningham were suspicious; Manningham had even examined the placenta of a previous tot, and found it identical to the bladder of a hog. But everyone was waiting with bated breath for Toft to throw forth her eighteenth bundle of fur.

So eager was St André for his discovery to astounded modern medicine, that he at one point barred Douglas from seeing Toft, presumably for fear that he should tear aside the smock-like veil and bring an end to this leporidal tour de force. And eventually, this is exactly what happened.

On the 4th December, Toft went into labour, but a porter at the Bagnio, Thomas Howard, pipped her at the post, for he went one better, and delivered the news to justice of the peace Sir Thomas Clarges that he had been bribed earlier to bring her a rabbit. Curses! if it wasn’t for those meddling kids…

Toft confessed, though not before Manningham had threatened to open her up and “explore her pelvic organs”. Toft told an audience how, allegedly under the guiding hand of an old travelling woman, she had learned to keep bits of rabbit in her skirt and then insert them into her person when curious eyes were averted. She would feign most dramatically a labour, and easily release her horrible soup of rabbit-child chunks.

London medical society was suitably embarrassed and satirized. Astoundingly, no one seems to have subsequently lost their job; even St André, stripped of duties and salary, was allowed to keep his title, and was presumably still technically allowed to practice, though unsurprisingly business was slow.

You may think the doctors deserved it. Amongst the gory excreta were cats paws, hog and lungs that floated in water, having clearly breathed air once. Still, I don’t suppose they’re paid to know the difference between cats and rabbits, they’re not exactly vets.

Toft herself was imprisoned. Her husband was allowed to visit her, though only after he was thoroughly searched for rabbits each time, as was the general public. She became a freak attraction in her cell. In a way, not entirely far from her original aims. Then, her vitals having miraculously survived this harrowing ordeal, she gave birth to an actual, real-life, living, breathing daughter in early 1727. Mary Toft died in 1763.

Sympathetically perhaps, historians – “historians” – have generally disregarded Toft as the brains behind this scheme. She was, after all, a poor country bumpkin. Numerous other agent provocateurs include; her husband, Joshua Toft, midwife John Howard, and St André.

And so we say goodbye to our coney-warren baby. May her total trumping of our medical society ne’er be forgot.

j.

post-script; in case you thought Toft was alone in her bestial births, many more abound; Pliny the Elder reliably informs us of a Roman lady named Alcippa who birthed a young elephant. Well, you wouldn’t like to birth an old elephant, would you? One wonders how many pieces Jumbo was delivered in.

for more on Mrs Toft;
A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities – Jan Bondeson
Mysteries of History, with Accounts of Some Remarkable Characters and Charlatans –  CJS Thompson
Tracts Related to Mary Toft, in Royal Society of Medicine Manuscripts Collection, MSS 265 – Samuel Merriman (ed.)