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THE "HAUNTED HOUSE" IN ROYAL STREET.
BY GEORGE W. CABLE,
Author of "The Grandissimes," "Bonaventure," etc.
AS IT STANDS NOW.
HEN you and that much-talked-of visit to New Orleans, by all means see early whatever evidences of progress and aggrandizement her hospitable citizens wish to show you; New Orleans belongs to the living present, and has serious practical relations with these United States and this great living world and age. And yet I want the first morning walk that you two take together and alone to be in the old French Quarter. Go down Royal street.
You shall not have taken many steps in it when, far down on the right-hand side, where the narrow street almost shuts its converging lines together in the distance, there will begin to rise above the extravagant confusion of intervening roofs and to stand out against the dazzling sky a square, latticed remnant of a belvedere. You can see that the house it surmounts is a large, solid, rectangular pile, and that it stands directly on the street at what residents call the "upper, river corner," though the river is several squares away on the right. There are fifty people in this old rue Royale who can tell you their wild versions of this house's strange true story against any one who can do this present writer the honor to point out the former residence of 'Sieur George, Madame Délicieuse, or Dr. Mossy, or the unrecognizably restored dwelling of Madame Delphine.
I fancy you already there. The neighborhood is very still. The streets are almost empty of life, and the cleanness of their stone pavements is largely the cleanness of disuse. The house you are looking at is of brick, covered with stucco, which somebody may be limewashing white, or painting yellow or brown, while I am saying it is gray. An uncovered balcony as wide as the sidewalk makes a deep arcade around its two street sides. The last time I saw it, it was for rent, and looked as if it had been so for a long time; but that proves nothing. Every one of its big window
shutters was closed, and by the very intensity of their rusty silence spoke a hostile impenetrability. Just now it is occupied.
They say that Louis Philippe, afterwards king of the French, once slept in one of its chambers. That would have been in 1798; but in 1798 they were not building such tall buildings as this in New Orleans did not believe the soil would uphold them. As late as 1806, when 'Sieur George's house, upon the St. Peter street corner, was begun, people shook their heads; and this house is taller than 'Sieur George's. I should like to know if the rumor is true. Lafayette, too, they say, occupied the same room. Maybe so. That would have been in 1824-25. But we know he had elegant apartments, fitted up for him at the city's charge, in the old Cabildo. Still
It was, they say, in those, its bright, early days, the property of the Pontalbas, a noble Franco-Spanish family; and I have mentioned these points, which have no close bearing upon our present story, mainly to clear the field of all mere they-says, and leave the ground for what we know to be authenticated fact, however strange.
The entrance, under the balcony, is in Royal street. Within a deep, white portal, the walls and ceiling of which are covered with ornamentations, two or three steps, shut off from the sidewalk by a pair of great gates of open, ornamental iron-work with gilded tops, rise to the white door. This also is loaded with a raised work of urns and flowers, birds and fonts, and Phoebus in his chariot. Inside, from a marble floor, an iron-railed, winding stair ("said the spider to the fly ") leads to the drawing-rooms on the floor even with the balcony. These are very large. The various doors that let into them, and the folding door between them, have carved panels. A deep frieze covered with raised work-white angels with palm branches and folded wings, stars, and wreaths-runs all around, interrupted only by high, wide windows that let out between fluted Corinthian pilasters upon the broad open balcony. The lofty ceilings, too, are beautiful with raised garlandry.
Measure one of the windows- eight feet across. Each of its shutters is four feet wide.
Look at those old crystal chandeliers. And already here is something uncanny at the bottom of one of these rooms, a little door in the wall. It is barely a woman's height, yet big hinges jut out from the jamb, and when you open it and look in you see only a small dark place without steps or anything to let you down to its floor below, a leap of several feet. It is hardly noteworthy; only neither you nor can make out what it ever was for.
The house is very still. As you stand a moment in the middle of the drawing-room looking at each other you hear the walls and floors saying those soft nothings to one another that they so often say when left to themselves. While you are looking straight at one of the large doors that lead into the hall its lock gives a whispered click and the door slowly swings open. No cat, no draft, you and exchange a silent smile and rather like the mystery; but do you know? That is an old trick of those doors, and has made many an emotional girl smile less instead of more; although I doubt not any carpenter could explain it.
I assume, you see, that you visit the house when it is vacant. It is only at such times that you are likely to get in. A friend wrote me lately: "Miss-and I tried to get permission to see the interior. Madame said the landlord had requested her not to allow visitors; that over three hundred had called last winter, and had been refused for that reason. I thought of the three thousand who would call if they knew its story." Another writes: "The landlord's orders are positive that no photographer of any kind shall come into his house."
The house has three stories and an attic. The windows farthest from the street are masked by long, green latticed balconies or "galleries," one to each story, which communicate with one another by staircases behind the lattices and partly overhang a small, damp, paved court which is quite hidden from outer view save from one or two neighboring windows. On your right as you look down into this court a long, narrow wing stands out at right angles from the main house, four stories high, with the latticed galleries continuing along the entire length of each floor. It bounds this court on the southern side. Each story is a row of small square rooms, and each room has a single high window in the southern wall and a single door on the hither side opening upon the latticed gallery of that floor. Wings of that sort were once very common in New Orleans in the residences of the rich; they were the house's slave quarters. But certainly some of the features you see here never were common -locks seven inches across; several windows without sashes, but with sturdy iron gratings and solid iron shutters. On the fourth floor
the doorway communicating with the main house is entirely closed twice over, by two pairs of batten shutters held in on the side of the main house by iron hooks eighteen inches long, two to each shutter. And yet it was through this doorway that the ghosts- figuratively speaking, of course, for we are dealing with plain fact and history-got into this house.
Will you go to the belvedere? I went there once. Unless the cramped stair that reaches it has been repaired you will find it something rickety. The newspapers, writing fifty-five years ago in the heat and haste of the moment, must have erred as to heavy pieces of furniture being carried up this last cramped flight of steps to be cast out of the windows into the street far below. Besides, the third-story windows are high enough for the most thorough smashing of anything dropped from them for that purpose.
The attic is cut up into little closets. Lying in one of them close up under the roof maybe you will still find, as I did, all the big iron keys of those big iron locks down-stairs. The day I stepped up into this belvedere it was shaking visibly in a squall of wind. An electric storm was coming out of the north and west. Yet overhead the sun still shone vehemently through the rolling white clouds. It was grand to watch these. They were sailing majestically hither and thither southward across the blue, leaning now this way and now that like a fleet of great ships of the line manoeuvering for position against the dark northern enemy's already flashing and thundering onset. I was much above any neighboring roof. Far to the south and south-west the newer New Orleans spread away over the flat land. North-eastward, but near at hand, were the masts of ships and steamers, with glimpses here and there of the water, and farther away the open breadth of the great yellow river sweeping around Slaughterhouse Point under an air heavy with the falling black smoke and white steam of hurrying tugs. Closer by, there was a strange confusion of roofs, trees, walls, vines, tiled roofs, brown and pink, and stuccoed walls, pink, white, yellow, red, and every sort of gray. The old convent of the Ursulines stood in the midst, and against it the old chapel of St. Mary with a great sycamore on one side and a willow on the other. Almost under me I noticed some of the semicircular arches of rotten red brick that were once a part of the Spanish barracks. In the north the "Old Third " (third city district) lay, as though I looked down upon it from a cliff- a tempestuous gray sea of slate roofs dotted with tossing green tree-tops. Beyond it, not far away, the deep green, ragged line of cypress swamp half encircled it and gleamed weirdly under a sky packed with
dark clouds that flashed and growled and boomed and growled again. You could see rain falling from one cloud over Lake Pontchartrain; the strong gale brought the sweet smell of it. Westward, yonder, you may still descry the old calaboose just peeping over the tops of some lofty trees; and that bunch a little at the left is Congo Square; but the old old calaboose the one to which this house was once strangely related—is hiding behind the cathedral here on the south. The street that crosses Royal here and makes the corner on which the house stands is Hospital street; and yonder, westward, where it bends a little to the right and runs away so bright, clean, and empty between two long lines of groves and flower gardens, it is the old Bayou Road to the lake. It was down that road that the mistress of this house fled in her carriage from its door with the howling mob at her heels. Before you descend from the belvedere turn and note how the roof drops away in eight different slopes; and think-from whichever one of these slopes it was-of the little fluttering, befrocked lump of terrified childhood that leaped from there and fell clean to the paved yard below. A last word while we are still here: there are other reasons - one, at least, besides tragedy and crime that make people believe this place is haunted. This particular spot is hardly one where a person would prefer to see a ghost, even if one knew it was but an optical illusion; but one evening, some years ago, when a bright moon was mounting high and swinging well around to the south, a young girl who lived near by and who had a proper skepticism for the marvels of the gossips passed this house. She was approaching it from an opposite sidewalk, when, glancing up at this belvedere outlined so loftily on the night sky, she saw with startling clearness, although pale and misty in the deep shadow of the cupola,"It made me shudder," she says, "until I reasoned the matter out,". -a single, silent, motionless object; the figure of a woman leaning against its lattice. By careful scrutiny she made it out to be only a sorcery of moonbeams that fell aslant from the farther side through the skylight of the belvedere's roof and sifted through the lattice. Would that there were no more reality to the story before us.
ON the 30th of August, 1831, before Octave de Armas, notary, one E. Soniat Dufossat sold this property to a Madame Lalaurie. She may have dwelt in the house earlier than this, but here is where its tragic history begins. Madame Lalaurie was still a beautiful and most
attractive lady, although bearing the name of a third husband. Her surname had been first McCarty, a genuine Spanish-Creole name, although of Irish origin, of course,then Lopez, or maybe first Lopez and then McCarty, and then Blanque. She had two daughters, the elder, at least, the issue of her first marriage.
The house is known to this day as Madame Blanque's house,—which, you notice, it never was, so distinctly was she the notable figure in the household. Her husband was younger than she. There is strong sign of his lesser importance in the fact that he was sometimes, and only sometimes, called doctor- Dr. Louis Lalaurie. The graces and graciousness of their accomplished and entertaining mother quite outshone his step-daughters as well as him. To the frequent and numerous guests at her sumptuous board these young girls seemed comparatively unanimated, if not actually unhappy. Not so with their mother. To do her full share in the upper circles of good society, to dispense the pleasures of drawing-room and dining-room with generous frequency and captivating amiability, was the eager pursuit of a lady who nevertheless kept the management of her money affairs, real estate, and slaves mainly in her own hands. Of slaves she had ten, and housed most of them in the tall narrow wing that we have already noticed.
We need not recount again the state of society about her at that time. The description of it given by the young German duke whom we quoted without date in the story of "Salome Müller" belongs exactly to this period. Grymes stood at the top and front of things. John Slidell was already shining beside him. They were co-members of the Elkin Club, then in its glory. It was trying energetically to see what incredible quantities of Madeira it could drink. Judge Mazereau was "avocat-général” and was being lampooned by the imbecile wit of the singers and dancers of the calinda in Congo Square. The tree-planted levee was still populous on summer evenings with promenaders and loungers. The quadroon caste was in its dying splendor, still threatening the moral destruction of private society, and hated -as only woman can hate enemies of the hearthstone-by the proud, fair ladies of the Creole pure-blood, among whom Madame Lalaurie shone brilliantly. Her elegant house, filled with "furniture of the most costly description," says the" New Orleans Bee" of a date which we shall come to,-stood central in the swirl of "downtown" gaiety, public and private. From Royal into Hospital street, across Circus street
rue de la Cirque-that was a good way to get into Bayou Road, white, almost as snow, with its smooth, silent pavement of powdered
shells. This road followed the slow, clear meanderings of Bayou St. Jean, from red-roofed and embowered suburb St. Jean to the lake, the swamp of giant, grizzly bearded cypresses hugging it all the way, and the whole five miles teeming with gay, swift carriages, some filled with smokers, others with ladies and children, the finest equipage of all being, as you may recollect, that of John Fitz Miller. He was at that very time master of Salome Müller, the pure white slave, and of "several others fairer than Salome." He belongs in the present story only here in this landscape, and here not as a typical, but only as an easily possible, slaveholder. For that matter, Madame Lalaurie, let it be plainly understood, was only another possibility, not a type. The moral of the two stories-if you care to consider it-is the same: a public practice is answerable for whatever can happen easier with it than without it, no matter whether it must, or only may, happen. However, morals can wait: a regular feature of that bright afternoon throng was Madame Lalaurie's coach with the ever-so-pleasant Madame Lalaurie inside and her sleek black
coachman on the box.
"Think," some friend would say, as he returned her courteous bow-" think of casting upon that woman the suspicion of starving and maltreating her own house-servants! Look at that driver; his skin shines with good keeping. The truth is those jealous Americans"
There was intense jealousy between the Americans and the Creoles. The Americans were just beginning in public matters to hold the odds. In private society the Creoles still held power, but it was slipping from them even there. Madame Lalaurie was a Creole. Whether Louisiana or St. Domingo born was no matter; she should not be criticized by American envy! Nor would the Creoles themselves go nosing into the secretest privacy of her house.
"Why, look you, it is her common practice, even before her guests, to leave some wine in her glass and hand it, with some word of kindness, to the slave waiting at her back. Thin and hollow-chested — the slaves? Yes, to be sure; but how about your rich uncle, or my dear old mother; are they not hollow-chested? Well!"
But this kind of logic did not satisfy everybody, not even every Creole; and particularly not all her neighbors. The common populace too had unflattering beliefs.
"Do you see this splendid house? Do you see those attic windows? There are slaves up there confined in chains and darkness and kept at the point of starvation."
A Creole gentleman, M. Montreuil, who seems to have been a neighbor, made several attempts to bring the matter to light, but in
vain. But rumors and suspicious indications grew so rank that at length a prominent citizen, an" American" lawyer, who had a young Creole studying law in his office, ventured to send him to the house to point out to Madame Lalaurie certain laws of the State. For instance there was Article XX. of the old Black Code: "Slaves who shall not be properly fed, clad, and provided for by their masters, may give information thereof to the attorney-general," -no laughing in court!—" or the Superior Council, or to all the other officers of justice of an inferior jurisdiction, and may put the written exposition of their wrongs into their hands; upon which information, and even ex officio, should the information come from another quarter, the attorney-general shall prosecute said masters," etc. But the young law student on making his visit was captivated by the sweetness of the lady whom he had been sent to warn against committing unlawful misdemeanors, and withdrew filled with indignation against any one who could suspect her of the slightest unkindness to the humblest living thing. And yet the public ear was soon to be shocked by the indisputable fact of a sudden, violent, horrible death on those premises, of which the amiable and captivating Madame Lalaurie was the direct and responsible cause.
A TERRIBLE REVELATION.
THE house that joined Madame Lalaurie's premises on the eastern side had a staircase window that looked down into her little courtyard. One day all by chance the lady of that adjoining house was going up those stairs just when the keen scream of a terrified child resounded from the next yard. She sprung to the window, and, looking down, saw a little negro girl about eight years old run wildly across the yard and into the house with Madame Lalaurie, a cowhide whip in her hand, following swiftly and close upon her.
They disappeared; but by glimpses through the dark lattices and by the sound of the tumult, the lady knew that the child was flying up stairway after stairway, from gallery to gallery, hard pressed by her furious mistress. Soon she heard them rise into the belvedere and the next instant they darted out upon the roof. Down into its valleys and up over its ridges the little fugitive slid and scrambled. She reached the sheer edge, the lady at the window hid her face in her hands, there came a dull, jarring thud in the paved court beneath, and the lady, looking down, saw the child lifted from the ground and borne out of sight, limp, silent, dead.
She kept her place at the window. Hours passed, the day waned, darkness settled down.
Then she saw a torch brought, a shallow hole was dug, as it seemed to her; but in fact a condemned well of slight depth, a mere pit, was uncovered,—and the little broken form was buried. She informed the officers of justice. From what came to light at a later season, it is hard to think that in this earlier case the investigation was more than superficial. Yet an investigation was made, and some legal action was taken against Madame Lalaurie for cruelty to her slaves. They were taken from her and- liberated? Ah! no. They were sold by the sheriff, bid in by her relatives, and by them sold back to her. Let us believe that this is what occurred, or at least was shammed; for unless we do we must accept the implication of a newspaper statement of two or three years afterwards, and the confident impression of an aged Creole gentleman and notary still living who was an eye-witness to much of this story, that all Madame Lalaurie ever suffered for this part of her hideous misdeeds was a fine. Lawyers will doubtless remind us that Madame Lalaurie was not legally chargeable with the child's death. The lady at the window was not the only witness who might have been brought. A woman still living, who after the civil war was for years a domestic in this "haunted house," says her husband, now long dead, then a lad, was passing the place when the child ran out on the roof, and he saw her scrambling about on it seeking to escape. But he did not see the catastrophe that followed. No one saw more than what the law knows as assault; and the child was a slave.
Miss Martineau, in her short account of the matter, which she heard in New Orleans and from eye-witnesses only a few years after it had occurred, conjectures that Madame Lalaurie's object in buying back these slaves was simply to renew her cruelties upon them. But a much easier, and even kinder, guess would be that they knew things about her that had not been and must not be told, if she could possibly prevent it. A high temper, let us say, had led her into a slough of misdoing to a depth beyond all her expectation, and the only way out was on the farther side.
Yet bring to bear all the generous conjecture one can, and still the fact stands that she did starve, whip, and otherwise torture these poor victims. She even mistreated her daughter for conveying to them food which she had withheld. Was she not insane? One would hope so; but we cannot hurry to believe just what is most comfortable or kindest. That would be itself a kind of " emotional insanity." If she was insane, how about her husband? For Miss Martineau, who was told that he was no party to her crimes, was misinformed;
he was as deep in the same mire as passive complicity could carry him. If she was insane her insanity stopped abruptly at her plump, well-fed coachman. He was her spy against all others. And if she was insane, then why did not her frequent guests at table suspect it? All that society knew was that she had carried her domestic discipline to excess, had paid dearly for it, and no doubt was desisting and would henceforth desist from that kind of thing. Enough allowance can hardly be made in our day for the delicacy society felt about prying into one of its own gentleman or lady member's treatment of his or her own servants. Who was going to begin such an inquiry — John Fitz Miller?
And so time passed, and the beautiful and ever sweet and charming Madame Lalaurie— whether sane or insane we leave to the doctors, except Dr. Lalaurie-continued to drive daily, yearly, on the gay Bayou Road, to manage her business affairs, and to gather bright groups around her tempting board, without their suspicion that she kept her cook in the kitchen by means of a twenty-four-foot chain fastened to her person and to the wall or floor. And yet let this be said to the people's credit, that public suspicion and indignation steadily grew. But they were still only growing when one day, the 10th of April, 1834, the aged cook,-she was seventy,-chained as she was, purposely set the house on fire. It is only tradition that, having in a dream the night before seen the drawing-room window curtains on fire, she seized the happy thought and made the dream a reality. But it is in the printed record of the day that she confessed the deed to the mayor of the city.
The desperate stratagem succeeds. The alarm of fire spreads to the street and a hundred men rush in, while a crowd throngs the streets. "Those who rush in are of all classes and colors," says "The Courier" of next day; but "No, no!" says a survivor of to-day who was there and took part; "we would n't have allowed that!" But some are neighbors, some friends, some strangers. One is M. Montreuil, the gentleman who has so long been watching his chance to bring the law upon the house and its mistress. Young D, a notary's clerk, is another. And another is Judge CanongeAha! And there are others of good and wellknown name!
The fire has got a good start; the kitchen is in flames; the upper stories are filling with smoke. Strangers run to the place whence it all comes and fall to fighting the fire. Friends rally to the aid of Monsieur and Madame Lalaurie. The pretty lady has not lost one wit — is at her very best. Her husband is as passive as ever.