For the full set of photos, visit the Saint Peter’s Cemetery album on my Flikr page.
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For the full set of photos, visit the Saint Peter’s Cemetery album on my Flikr page.
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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.
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.
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
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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.
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.
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
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