Today I bring you Part Two of my fascinating interview with Victoria Cosner Love, author of Mad Madame Lalaurie: New Orleans’ Most Famous Murderess Revealed. Thank you again, Victoria, for the opportunity.
Part Two of My Interview with Author, Victoria Cosner Love
If you missed it, check out Part One
Patrick Keller: The book has an amazing chapter called “What If It’s All True?”, which I really liked and thought was awesome! It seems like it would have been really fun to let go of all the careful fact-finding and let all the rumors and stories come out to play. Was it?
Victoria Cosner Love: Yes. My co-writer, Lorelei Shannon, is a horror writer. She does primarily Southern Gothic… The first chapter is the ghost tour, and how the ghost tours are given every single night in New Orleans. And I called Lorelei and said, I need you to Goth this up. I need you to add these things, and I gave her the information and let her go to town. And so she came back and said, you know, here’s where my fiction is; it’s the “What If It’s All True?” And we had the best time with it, because you know, as horrifying as the history is, on the Gothic fiction level, this story can’t be beat. You can’t write fiction this good. And Lorelei did a really good job of meshing everything in, and including our beloved devil baby.
PK: That’s very cool.
VCL: Yeah. She is.
PK: Another chapter of the book that I appreciated was “Myths v. Facts”. It helped to clear some things up for me. Was there anything that led you to deciding to include it?
VCL: When we came to the conclusion that perhaps Delphine wasn’t the perpetrator, we decided that this was the time to go back and put her into a little bit more of a historical context, and pull the ghost tours. Because almost everybody who is introduced to her is either introduced to her through a ghost tour or a book like you were, with the chapters. And so we have this real person, we have this mythology, and you have to look at them. At the Holocaust Museum, at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, which is a body part museum, you always had to pull out the myth and the legend, because people would always come in, like to the Holocaust museum and say, Where’s Anne Frank? And it’s like, Yeah, you know there were more women and more people involved in the Holocaust then just Anne Frank, but that’s what they know. People glom onto one piece of history when they go to anywhere, [or a] a civil war site. And so they glommed on to the medical experiments with Delphine Lalaurie. And so we had to go in and break down, because if she did it, how was she doing it? How was she peeling somebody? In her corset? You know with her… did she have a peeling costume that was more of a man’s costume? [I was laughing very hard at this point. “Peeling costume.” Ha!] …these taffeta gowns that she wore, that we know that she wore, would she get blood on them? I mean think about it. Put it into thinking about what a woman would be doing. So like the wax museum has her standing there with the whip, and has her, how did they put it, well-fed personal driver doing the damage. So, you know, then we looked at Bastien, which is his name, we think, and talked about that type of thing, and what that relationship might have been. And, you know there’s a lot of guessing at this point. So yeah, we had a good time!
PK: It sounds like it. You’ve gone into this a bit, but can you talk a little bit about Missouri’s connection to Madame Lalaurie?
VCL: That’s the Missouri Historical Society, there on Skinker Road, it has the collection. It’s called the Saint Vrain Delassus collection, and like I said, if you want to see handwritten documents… and I hate to tell the general public about it, because you know, that’s when sometimes things start going missing—not that any of your readers would do that—but it’s there, and it’s spectacular!
PK: I was disappointed to learn the mansion doesn’t look like it did when Madame Lalaurie lived there. I wonder how many people know about the changes since the events. Did you know before you began your research?
VCL: No. They kept referring to [the fact] that the mansion had burned to the ground. But for some reason all these ghost tours and stuff kept referring to it like it was this Federal style building from 1850, and it didn’t make sense to me. And when I was going through the blueprints and found the original blueprint, it did burn to the ground. And even Harriet Martineau, which was the first reference to Madame Lalaurie as a serial killer, or a horrifying woman in slave history, she said that the building was still smoldering. Now she wasn’t there until 1848, so that’s [sixteen] years later and that building is still smoldering. It didn’t get rebuilt until 1850, so there was actually nothing there for that… sixteen years until it was rebuilt. And when they say that you can reenact the girl falling off the roof every night, well the roof was one story shorter. And so no one has ever said anything about her… I’m not as much paranormal as I am Goth, but it seems to me if you’re reenacting something, that you would be on the second floor where you did it from. And so everybody would always be looking at the roof… and there was one bricked in window that was a bathroom, you know architecturally 1850, it was a bathroom and everybody would be like, That must be the window that she fell out of. But nobody was falling out of windows. There’s nothing in the story about anyone, except one person supposedly jumped out of a window during the fire, and that was proven wrong by the newspaper and police reports. So the embellishment, I don’t think people wanted to acknowledge that it was right. And as a matter of fact, I made people angry when I came out with this. I don’t know if I mention it in the book or not, but there was this Voodoo woman who cursed me because I had just discovered that it wasn’t the same building and I was all, you know, geeky and, Oh, guess what I found!, you know I’m all from out of town and everything. And she became very angry with me and she cursed me. And when I found out that she was from New Jersey herself, I wasn’t too concerned with the curse anymore, but they were angry. A lot of people still say that I’m wrong, but it was very clear I was looking at the blueprints, because the architect was a very famous architect, and the collection was at the Historic New Orleans Collection, and it was like, Wow. So everybody’s looking at the wrong building. You know, but here we all are. I sat there for hours waiting to see that reenactment. I didn’t get nothing.
PK: Well plus, in those days, I mean, you know a fire truck wouldn’t have just rolled up and put out the fire. It would have burned down.
VCL: Yeah they were doing buckets. And then on top of that, they were angry at her, so they weren’t going to fight the fire. You know, they were throwing stuff into the bonfire. It was, you know, It’s a portrait of her, which is why we don’t know what she looks like. So…
PK: I didn’t think about that. (Moving onto the next question.) Well on several occasions, I’ve shared my opinion and mixed feelings about what I see as side effects from what I call “the great paranormal craze”. And you speak quite a bit in the book about the myths and embellished stories that have been passed on by tour guides and ghost tours to New Orleans visitors for over a century now. The Lalaurie Mansion is certainly one of the more dramatic examples, but I think it’s fair to say that this happens all over. Do you have an opinion about the craze and hype and how it affects our historical “haunted” locations, and maybe even history itself?
VCL: This is one of those… ying and yang answers. Because as a historian, yes it bothers me, that people don’t really look into the history, but not everybody likes history. As a tourism professional, this stuff is hot! I go to them everywhere I go. I go on ghost tours. And that mix of fun and history and paranormal research really, really appeals to me, and so when we wrote this book, we were basically writing to my demographic, you know because that’s who is taking a lot of these tours, except for the drunk kids. And you can always straighten out history. You know history is what it is. And you can always interpret and you can always bring it back. And that’s why I have a job, because history changes, and history changes because of stuff like this. One of the things I found most fascinating was that the extremely gruesome, graphic medical experiments weren’t added until 1947. And so they were saying that it came out in the New Orleans Bee in 1834. It didn’t. They were still very factual about these seven people who were [found in] horrifying [conditions]… but they weren’t being peeled, and they weren’t in a crab, and they weren’t, you know, broken. And they weren’t—oh they were a little broken—but so that’s a fifty year morph from what was being said to when [Jeanne] DeLavigne—and they just re-put her book out, by the way, if you haven’t got it. It’s Ghost Stories of Old New Orleans. She is fantastic, but she wrote it in 1947 and she wrote it as a ghost story. There was no… She says straight up, these are all ghost stories. I didn’t do any research. And everybody’s like quoting her, you know, as fact and as part of the story of history, rather than the story of ghost history. So, I don’t know. Folklore is everywhere.
PK: Well now I have a question from a BigSéamce.com reader. Joe asks, “In American Horror Story, by the end they tried to make Madame Lalaurie look like a sympathetic character.” …which I would agree with.
VCL: I think so too, yeah.
PK: (Joe’s question continued) “Do you think she ever had a chance at being rehabilitated?”
VCL: The character… or the historical figure?
PK: (Blank stare from her interviewer) Ah man… um… let’s…
VCL: I’ll do both. [Whew!] The historical figure… I think she was a narcissist. I think she was a sociopath. I do not think that she was torturing people. I think that she either knew that they… I think that she was the type that would come in and say, Fix him. He’s being uppity. And then Dr. Lalaurie would go and do whatever Dr. Lalauries do up there, and I truthfully think that the husband was the perpetrator. I don’t believe in coincidences. I have two Peter Falk Columbo quotes—I love Columbo—that helps with my historical insights and research. One is, “there are no coincidences”, and the other one is, “people don’t often forget to do what it is that they always do.” So when you have someone that is an anomaly, you have to look at the anomaly and see where they fit into those two things, and is it a coincidence that he was into back straightening, that he was a dentist, that he wanted to do pioneering medical… and these people were being held for no reason. Also, why is Madame Lalaurie manumitting slaves? And then torturing slaves. That’s one of those that doesn’t fit. And why did a woman that would manumit a slave, why did she get beaten by her husband on the courtyard steps… on the exact day that she manumitted a slave? Is that a coincidence? No, I think that [Louis] Lalaurie was the perp… I don’t think she knew what was going on all the way. I think that… whether through mental illness or not, I don’t think she had a good handle [of] how bad it was.
VCL: On the TV show I was disappointed that they started making her sympathetic. Although I did want a t-shirt that had her severed head that said “What the head said”. [We both laugh.] And then Angela Bassett says “What the head said”. I wanted that really bad, and I still might make that t-shirt, but I also wanted the one that said “What is this, knotty pine?” You know, with Jessica Lange at the very end and the hell… I loved it. But I would have liked for them to have maintained Delphine’s horror, you know and not made her… I mean the cheeseburger stuff was very funny. Their idea of hell for her was ingenious, but… yeah, either you start with her peeling eyeballs or… you should end with her peeling, you know what I mean? There was no reason to take her into the sympathetic thing, and just let Queenie do whatever.
PK: Is there anything that you want to add or talk about? Any future projects?
VCL: You know, there are so many stories. I’m looking for future projects. If any of your readers have anything that has that historical bent to it. There’s a cave up in Hannibal [Hannibal, Missouri] where a guy supposedly was keeping his daughter’s corpse, and then he moves down here and opens up a hospital down here [St. Louis, Missouri]. It was a confederate hospital. He was doing medical experiments, and I’m looking at him, but I’d rather look at women. The axe man, who was in American Horror Story, the only book that is written on him is a graphic novel. And it’s a well-researched graphic novel, but the mafia connection with that might be a little… I’m not sure I want to go there, even in 1921. So I’m looking at the axe man, but I don’t know whether we’re going to go there. But the publisher has asked for one on the Storyville Madams. Storyville was the area of legalized prostitution in New Orleans at the turn of the century, and there were some incredible women that were… making a lot of money down there, and so we’re looking at doing that. As far as like the true crime stuff, I’m looking for something like the axe man, that everyone thinks that they know the story, but it hasn’t been told, so… I’m looking. The guy with the cave is looking good.
PK: I think I remember reading about that one.
VCL: Yeah. And it’s the same thing as with Madame Lalaurie. It comes up here and there, like in a little article, because he was eventually arrested because he was a confederate. But he was trying to regenerate flesh, and keep decomposition from happening. Which is really funny, because I don’t think he had a daughter. I ran his ancestry.com and I don’t think he had a daughter. It doesn’t look like he ever had one. He had three sons. So… was it a daughter-in-law? Was it a cousin? So right there was already a stumbling block in the legend.
Need More on Madame Lalaurie?
Victoria Cosner Lovehas 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