If you've ever visited New Orleans, you've almost certainly been introduced to the story and the legend. But even if you didn't know who Delphine Lalaurie was prior to October 9, 2013, chances are the premier of Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story: Coven (the third season of the hit FX horror anthology), or at least the water cooler discussions the next day, introduced you to this hauntingly fascinating woman.
On a beautiful and sunny Thursday in June, I met my new friend, Victoria Cosner Love, at Picasso's Coffee House on historic Main Street in St. Charles, Missouri. We've met before, but this time I was honored to have the opportunity to interview her about her fascinating book, Mad Madame Lalaurie: New Orleans' Most Famous Murderess Revealed, which as you'll learn below, was used by the brilliant Kathy Bates to research her role. As you'll also see, Victoria is so very passionate about history and how we view it. Her and I could hang out and talk all day.
Part One of My Interview with Author, Victoria Cosner Love
For Part Two, click HERE
Patrick Keller: So for those readers who may be new to Madame Lalaurie or this story, is it possible to give us a quick glimpse into the life of this strangely fascinating woman?
Victoria Cosner Love: Delphine Lalaurie was a Creole socialite, and the incidents take place in 1834. That’s when it culminated. And she had been married to extremely influential men. She was from a very influential, early New Orleans family. And in 1834 the house caught on fire and everyone kept asking where the slaves were and one of the judges that was a neighbor, broke into where they said the slaves were, and they found seven people who had obviously been, you know, malnourished, tortured, and kept there for a very, very long time. And so they start clearing everybody out. The mob starts growing. Madame Lalaurie and her slimy husband—not that I have any opinions—go on the road and disappear from history, leaving the people there of New Orleans to be angry, and burn down the house. And when you go on the ghost tours, they tell a very, very vivid story of medical experiments, of… I mean just really nasty, pealing skin back type of medical experiments. And for a woman to do that, it was fascinating, because women generally just don’t do that. They have their own ways of torturing men, and it intrigued me, and so that’s where the chase of the story started.
PK: Cool! So obviously I have a lot of questions about the book, but how do you go about researching for a project like this? This was your first, right?
PK: Like this? No? [referring to Mad Madame Lalaurie]
VCL: Well like this, yes. This is my first true crime. I wrote a bio-bibliography on women under both sides of the Third Reich [Women under the Third Reich: A Biographical Dictionary]. It’s a library book. But we found all these incredible women, and when you go to like the holocaust museum in D.C., which is where I worked for a long time, there’s nothing in there about the women. And so this whole women’s history piece of forgotten history is what fascinates me. In my job I’m a historian. So in my geek world I’m a historian and in my job I’m a historian, and the women generally are left out, along with, you know, the homosexual/transsexual community, along with the people of different colors, along with… they’re all left out. White man wins, white man gets to do it. And you know, this is not mocking you, sir [referring to yours truly]… and your white manness. [We both have a laugh.] But we’ll let that go. But, you know, so why is a woman doing this, in 1830, when she’s filthy rich, she’s rich in her own right, she has a young husband who is a doctor, who happened to specialize in alternative medicine, e.g. straightening spines, among other things. He also had a dental background, which I found fascinating… [I interrupt] …because that was just creepy.
PK: I needed to get to know him probably. (Referring to my scoliosis, while giggling.)
VCL: I don’t know. You should see the… did you see the picture of the… [An illustration of a torture victim in the book.] I don’t think so. I think that you’d want to just live the way you are. So when I started researching it, there were two issues. One is that a lot of it was in French, and luckily my husband is fluent in French. So I felt like the dog in the [Beggin’ Strips] commercial. What does it say? What does it say? But all the court documents were in English, because at that point we are in the United States in New Orleans, even though many people didn’t believe that, nor would stand by it, so you have everything in French and English going on. Lucky for me, I had the internet. I only had to go down to New Orleans a couple times. When I found out there was no book on her, I was… like I said, how can you have tours that go by there every single day, six and seven times a day, and nobody’s ever written on her? And I got asked by a lot of New Orleans people… [as I] I live here in St. Louis. And they’d say why did you write this?, and my answer was always why didn’t you? You know? Why didn’t a New Orleans person write this book? So I started looking at the internet and met some fascinating people, including a guy whose job is making floats for the Mardi Gras parade, which goes into that whole Scooby Doo thing. I don’t know if you know this, but there’s an old floats museum. My co-author and I always wanted to go, because that’s like the Scooby Doo setting… So it led from one thing to another and one thing to another, and then I found out that there is a collection here in St. Louis, and the collection broke the story of where she went, what she thought about it. There were handwritten documents in there from her to her lawyer, who was her son-in-law, who is from the Delassus family. But Delassus, Missouri… her son-in-law found that. He was her lawyer after they fled. And there was a very clear message in her letters that she didn’t know how bad it was. And that led me to start thinking about who was really perpetrating the crimes, or what her mental illness was. If she was doing it and she didn’t get it, then you have this whole mental illness thing, which is another part of history that is always dropped out. And if she did not do it, who was? And why didn’t she know about the true extent of it? And that’s where a lot of conjecture had to come in.
PK: So you found, probably, that not many people knew that those documents were here, because people wouldn’t have probably jumped to think that they were here, would they?
VCL: You know, it’s kind of one of those mixed bags, because if you read the documents, you kind of are disappointed about the story, because it led us to believe that maybe she didn’t do it. And nobody wanted to hear that. But the one guy did an article on it and put it out in the Missouri history museum news, and nobody knew who Madame Lalaurie was. Nobody cared. So it was like this little gem. And I mean, I was standing there, like I said, drooling—they almost kicked me out—on these handwritten documents from Delphine Lalaurie, talking about going back to New Orleans and that she wanted her affairs put in [order]. And then letters from her children saying Mom is crazy. She cannot go back. She cannot go back. The catastrophe of 1834 and the family dynamics… it’s an incredible collection. And it was here in St. Louis, so I didn’t have to travel. So when I did travel down, I went to the historic New Orleans Collection, and they had the blueprints that showed the original Lalaurie Mansion. They had all kinds of stuff. It was just incredible. I found people who were related to her and the McCartys… Yeah. It was an incredible journey.
PK: In the book there is a lot of discussion about what Madame Lalaurie looked like and the artists who have painted her since her death. What do you think about Kathy Bates’ character and how she was portrayed in Season 3 of American Horror Story? And what are the chances that they used your book as a resource?
VCL: We know that she used our book. She said so in the Rolling Stone magazine, and truthfully, I could have died happy right there. To have Kathy Bates even know that my book, and Lorelei, we both really dorked out big time. It was really, really flattering. Of course we tried to reach out to Kathy Bates. [Her] security guards and stuff were very quick to tell us that… we probably wouldn’t hear from her. But that stalking aside, it was just incredible. That being said, Madame Lalaurie was supposed to be vividly beautiful. There are stories about the Queen of Spain saying, You’re so beautiful that I’ll give you everything that you want, and that they chose Kathy Bates because of her ability to be horrifying, was really cool, that they stepped outside of what could have been or not been a beautiful woman. Kathy Bates is beautiful, but she was not playing a beautiful woman. I mean, nobody plays a sociopath like Kathy Bates. And we were thrilled when they picked them. And everybody asked us, I thought Madame Lalaurie was supposed to be this… and Kathy Bates did that in her flashbacks with the, you know, the demeanor, and the clothes… We loved it. And a lot of people ask the question about, you know, Does it make you mad that somebody does a character and makes, like, her so horrifying, that they went for the legend rather than the fact? And no, because that’s what drew me in. I like the legend, and then when I found out the facts, I was even more fascinated. So as a historian, you want people to question history, whether it’s for good or for bad. It’s the same thing with [when] Pocahontas came out. And… to the paranormal craze vs. the Disney craze, it’s kind of insulting, but it’s, you know I got the same questions. People would come in at the Holocaust museum and ask about Pocahontas. And then you were able to point them to a true and false story of who she was and what she did, and what’s historical and what’s Disney, and you know, why she was built like a Barbie doll. And you know, but it’s the same as why Madame Lalaurie was glorified as beautiful, you know. So I was thrilled, basically… and geeky.
PK: I would be too.
VCL: Oh man.
PK: Before American Horror Story and before I read your book, I knew about Delphine from reading about her in a few different, you know, just small segments in a few books. I did not, however, realize that Marie Laveau was a real person until reading your book. For some reason I assumed she was made up! Can you tell us a little about the relationship that these ladies were likely to have had?
VCL: As fun as it is, remember Marie Laveau was the Voodoo queen. She was the ultimate Voodoo queen. Her legacy of magic and of Voodoo is incredible. There were three Marie Laveaus, so it always looked like she remained ageless, which is one of the things that American Horror Story really did with Angela Bassett is kept her ageless, and they said through magic, rather than in real life. The three generations very clearly put themselves into power to keep that illusion that the woman was timeless and that it was her power. She’s an incredible woman. She used a lot of her everyday stuff, like she had some beauty shops; she had some other types of businesses, to pull like secrets. And then you can take the secret… and so she would come to your house and say, you know, I think that your daughter is having an affair with some, you know, slimy man. And here’s a voodoo thing to stop it from happening. So you would purchase that. And then she’d go to the slimy man and say, He’s going to stop you from seeing his daughter, and sell him one. And then she’d go to the daughter and sell her one. And then she’d come back and break the spell for you. And so she just made six transactions on your troubles, basically, that someone spilled while they were getting their hair done in the beauty salon. She was brilliant. She’s an incredible businesswoman. She marketed herself brilliantly. Angela Bassett is probably the best Marie Laveau I’ve ever seen, written or visually. I was in awe of her. So Marie Laveau’s connection to Madame Lalaurie? There’s a story that Marie Laveau got a devil baby. And the devil baby of New Orleans is very intriguing and we make fun of it when we shouldn’t, because it was probably a Harlequin baby, which is a rare disease that makes them scream and screech. But if we’re going to do the paranormal devil baby, he’s really cool, because he growls and grunts. You know, and supposedly she asked Madame Lalaurie to be his godmother. I didn’t find anything that stated that there was any connection between Madame Lalaurie and Marie Laveau. There is a chance that they had a connection, because obviously they had their hair done and Marie Laveau owned almost all of the black-owned businesses. But more likely than not, she had her own girl to do it, which goes to another story of true or false, whether she threw the kid off of the top of the roof, and whether that’s reenacted every night for all to see, which I never got to.
VCL: So short answer? I don’t think they had a connection.
PK: [Laughs] Ok. But maybe that’s another book coming or something.
VCL: It might be. There’s a woman that did two books, one on Marie Laveau and one on Delphine Lalaurie. Her name is Carolyn [Morrow] Long. Her research is impeccable. She got incredible grants… She out researched me. They’re very academic. She published after us, because she got the grant to go to Cuba, and I’m jealous… and bitter… I think she debunks the whole… that there was ever a connection documented.
Don't forget to check out Part Two of my interview with Victoria!
Victoria Cosner Love has spent the better part of thirty years poking around graveyards and digging for lost pieces of history. She is especially fond of delving into missing pieces of women's history. She coauthored a book, Women Under the Third Reich (Greenwood Publishing), and now has turned her attention to the infamous Madame Lalaurie and her incredible family. A longtime member of the Association for Gravestone Studies, she has worked in public history facilities for more than twenty years and has her master's degree in American studies, specializing in cultural landscapes of garden cemeteries. Source: Amazon.com