by Edward Francisco
Allan Poe and Detective Allan Pinkerton occupied a suite of rooms in the Royal
Hotel, located in the French Quarter, in one of the most charming cities in
America, New Orleans. The two men had been enlisted by local authorities to
investigate the disappearance of a notorious Creole socialite and alleged
serial killer, named Delphine LaLaurie. LaLaurie was accused of torturing and
murdering at least nine slaves in her mansion, the ruins of which sat directly
across the street from the hotel where Poe and Pinkerton were staying, and
where they awaited the arrival of Chief Magistrate Jean Francois Canonge, a
legal author who’d commissioned the now famous duo of sleuths to locate the
missing matron, if possible, and to bring her to justice.
a die-hard abolitionist, the Scottish-born Pinkerton believed in the equality
of all beings and was appalled that slavery continued to exist in a so-called
civilized place and time. A southern gentleman, who moved easily in social circles,
above and below the Mason-Dixon line, Poe believed that an end to slavery was
inevitable. However, unlike Pinkerton, who’d travelled to Louisiana to redress
a wrong, Poe was attracted to the case itself -- one already inspiring wild
claims, alleged disappearances, and the diabolical practices of Voodoo. A rap
at the door interrupted the protracted reverie of the two men, each one
comfortable being silent in the company of the other.
rose to admit the visitor. Judge Jean Francois Canonge extended a hand and
entered at Poe’s invitation.
Canonge greeted Poe and Pinkerton.
Francois Canonge was a short, compact man, dressed in the distinguished fashion
of the day. A watch fob and chain hung from his vest. On removing his top hat,
he revealed a bald pate. Both Poe and Pinkerton took note of the hat, its
brand, one of a kind produced by a milliner in St. Louis. (It was the sleuths’
stock and trade to notice such details.) Poe bade the judge sit in a vacant
chair. The seating arrangement formed a triangle of the men facing one another.
you care for a Brandy?” Poe asked their guest.
a bit early for me,” Canonge replied. “Thank you, nonetheless.” The judge
cleared his throat before resuming. “First, let me thank you gentlemen for
coming to New Orleans.”
pleasure is ours,” said Poe. “New Orleans is an enchanting city.”
it is,” the magistrate agreed. “The diverse backgrounds of its citizens result
in no end of excitements.”
smiled. He was naturally predisposed to hedonism. Pinkerton, on the other hand,
was a proper Scot, teetotaler, and Presbyterian. Sins of the flesh were
repugnant to him. He was the sort of man who’d refuse anesthesia in the
unfortunate case his leg needed amputating. Poe suspected that Pinkerton was
far less forgiving of Poe’s carnal impulses than Poe was of Pinkerton’s
stuffiness. Maybe Pinkerton knew he was stuffy. Whatever the case, the Scotsman
was gentleman enough not to fuss or scold.
case you wrote us about,” said Poe, “sounds intriguing.”
“Bizarre is how I’d describe it,” the
you can tell us about it,” Pinkerton urged.
fill us in,” Poe said.
Canonge began, “across the street from this hotel lie the ruins of the most
majestic house in all the city. It belonged to a Creole woman named Delphine
LaLaurie, twice widowed at the time the fire broke out in the house. When
rescuers responded, they found a seventy-year-old woman, the cook, chained to
the stove by her ankle. She admitted to setting the fire in an attempt to
commit suicide rather than be taken to the uppermost room of the house for
punishment because, as she alleged, those taken there never came back.”
business,” said Pinkerton.
haven’t heard the worst,” announced the judge. “Upon being refused keys by
Delphine LaLaurie, bystanders broke down the doors to the slave quarters and
discovered seven slaves naked, starved, and mutilated. Two had their eyes
gouged out and were barely clinging to life. Two of the male servitors were
already dead, having bled out after being castrated. All the poor wretches had
their lips sewn together to muffle screams.”
rare to find a woman engaging in such extremes of sadism,” Pinkerton noted.
fate awaited the surviving slaves?” Poe asked.
LaLaurie was found guilty of illegal cruelty and was forced to forfeit nine
slaves later manumitted in response to demands of an outraged citizenry. The
freed slaves quickly sought refuge and protection in local Creole neighborhoods
or left the city entirely, fearing that LaLaurie might order them captured and
returned for more torture.”
you saying,” the Scotsman asked, his face reddening, “that LaLaurie experienced
no consequences other than losing her slaves? The woman should be tried for
gave a heavy sigh. “It is a curse of our society that slaves have no rights
that anyone is obliged to observe. However,
I would be misleading if I failed to disclose that LaLaurie’s atrocities did
not escape the notice of the Creole community. A mob of locals attacked the
LaLaurie residence and demolished and destroyed everything they could lay their
Madame LaLaurie?” Poe asked.
said Canonge. “Rumor has it she fled New Orleans during the mob violence, took
a coach to the waterfront and, traveling by schooner, from there to Mobile,
Alabama, and on to Paris.”
would place her beyond our jurisdiction,” Pinkerton noted, “assuming that the
account is true.”
the rub,” said Canonge. “No one knows for certain, and gossip takes on a life
of its own.”
must have some reason to believe she might still be in New Orleans,” Poe said
suspicion, indeed,” said Canonge.
do you suspect?” Pinkerton asked.
LaLaurie’s alleged departure to France, a man’s decapitated body was found
floating in one of the canals.”
business, to be sure,” said Pinkerton.
Canonge replied. “However, in the absence of a head, there was little chance
we’d ever be able to identify the victim.”
you think you know the man’s identity,” Poe said. “It is not the man’s body but
the nature of his murder wherein you find the clue.”
did you know?” asked Canonge, a bit surprised at Poe’s acumen.
could be little else,” said Poe. “You must also believe that Madame LaLaurie
had a hand in the man’s murder, which means she couldn’t possibly have been out
of the country at the time he was killed.”
surmise correctly,” said Canonge. “I have a strong suspicion that the beheaded
man may be LaLaurie’s husband.”
is a ritual practice of Voodoo,” said Poe.
fact I only recently discovered while investigating this case,” Canonge
admitted. “But frankly, gentlemen, I’m out of my league here. I know very
little of the dark arts and am superstitious enough not to want to know more.
That’s why I contacted you, Mr. Poe. Your reputation and stories indicate
someone knowledgeable in matters of the occult.”
confess a penchant for such phenomena,” said Poe. “As for their being
superstitions, I’m reminded of Hamlet’s statement to his skeptical friend:
‘There are more things in heaven and earth,
Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’”
Pinkerton snuffed derisively.
here,” he interrupted. “What motive might LaLaurie have for murdering her
same motive as for killing her first two husbands,” Canonge speculated, “both
of whom died suddenly and suspiciously. Her first husband, a high-ranking
Spanish royal, named Lopez, simply dropped dead on a ship en route to Havana.
Her second husband, Jean Blanque, was a
prominent banker, merchant, lawyer, and legislator. The cause of his death,
too, was unknown. With these two husbands, Madame LaLaurie was able to improve
her circumstances and elevate her position in New Orleans society. As a young
woman, Delphine LaLaurie was a great beauty. She possessed a bewitching air and
likely could have ensnared any man she wanted. To a woman possessing such
pulchritude, however, nature and time are sworn enemies. Still, she was able to
convince a third man, a physician named Leonard LaLaurie, to marry her. Because
he was much younger than
she, rumors floated to the effect that she’d ensnared him with charms and
spells peculiar to Voodoo.”
said the proper Scotsman, Pinkerton. “It’s more likely that the young man saw
an opportunity to fleece a dowager out of her fortune. If she gleaned that was
his intent, she’d need no additional motivation to kill him. She wouldn’t need
the help of charms and spells, either.”
she would need the help of someone to decapitate him and dispose of his body as
part of an elaborate rite of sacrifice,” Poe announced. “Isn’t that right,
more, Mr. Poe, you are a hound hot on my heels, and, once again, you are
correct. Shortly after the discovery of the dead man’s body, one of Delphine
LaLaurie’s slaves, a man named Simon, came to the police station, insisting
that he’d not killed Leonard LaLaurie -- Delphine LaLaurie had done that with
poison -- but had been enlisted by Madame to assist in decapitating her husband
and disposing of his body. She promised to put a curse on the slave if he
refused or breathed a word of what he’d helped her do.”
prompted him to come forward?” Pinkerton asked.
Madame LaLaurie sent him on a small errand, Simon saw an opportunity to
wasn’t he afraid of Delphine’s curse or hex or spell -- or whatever?” Pinkerton
was,” Canonge stated. “However, he fled to the home of the one person on whom
Delphine LaLaurie’s treachery would have no appreciable effect and who could
repel any hex placed on Simon.”
act as if this -- stuff -- is real,” Pinkerton scoffed.
may be hard for outsiders to understand,” said Canonge, “but the magic of Voodoo
is centuries, perhaps eons, old. It may well date back to the Devil himself.
You do believe in the Devil, don’t you, Detective Pinkerton?”
I never gave the Devil much thought one way or another.”
people of New Orleans do,” Canonge asserted. “That’s why Simon went to the one
woman who could unbind a spell: Marie
yes,” said Poe. “Madame Laveau. Her reputation precedes her.”
is the undisputed Queen of Voodoo in New Orleans,” Canonge said, almost
proudly. “Despite, or perhaps because of, the Voodoo rituals she conducts,
Laveau is held in high esteem for her devout Catholic faith. She attends church
daily and was recently granted permission to practice her rituals behind St.
Louis Cathedral. Early on, Creoles in the city saw the parallels between Voodoo
can be worse than the marriage of two
superstitions?” Pinkerton asked.
is noteworthy, I think,” Canonge said, “that it was Madame Laveau who convinced
Simon to present his account of Leonard LaLaurie’s murder to the authorities.
She promised to protect him from Delphine LaLaurie if he did.”
didn’t you take this Simon into custody?” Pinkerton asked.
agreement with Marie Laveau was that Simon would provide details of Delphine
LaLaurie’s murder of her husband and gruesome treatment of her husband’s corpse
in exchange for his release into Madame Laveau’s custody.”
makes you think he won’t flee the city?” Pinkerton asked.
sat quietly, listening to the exchange between both men.
I have Madame Laveau’s word,” Canonge announced solemnly.
word of a Voodoo priestess?” Allan Pinkerton said, shaking his head.
Canonge said. “Besides, Simon is terrified of Delphine LaLaurie. He would never
forsake Laveau’s protection. He’s staying in her home.”
found it all too difficult to believe and said so.
grown man seeking the protection of one woman from another? Assuming we’re able
to locate and bring LaLaurie to justice, will Simon be willing to testify
against her in court?”
and Canonge exchanged glances.
not that simple,” said Magistrate Canonge. “I’m afraid the burden will be ours
to prove LaLaurie killed her husband. That’s why I enlisted the aid of the two
greatest sleuths in America.”
we have an eyewitness,” Pinkerton protested.
regret to say that a slave’s testimony is unacceptable in a court of law, not
only in New Orleans but throughout the South.”
why have laws at all?” Pinkerton sputtered.
that should be a discussion for another time,” his friend, Poe, insisted,
ending his own silence. “What I’m curious about is the rumor that LaLaurie fled
the country after the discovery of tortured and mutilated slaves in her home
and the conflagration sparked by an enraged populace. If Simon is telling the
truth -- and we’ve no reason to believe he isn’t given the risks he took coming
forward -- then Delphine LaLaurie was busy murdering her husband at a time she
was supposed to be out of the country. Tell me, then. In whose best interest
would it be for such a rumor to circulate?”
think I see what you’re getting at,” said Pinkerton. “There might be two
intended outcomes of such a ruse. The first would be to quell the vigilante
mob’s persistent attempts to find and lynch her. If the bird has flown the
coup, what reason to pursue her? The second effect created by a rumor of
Delphine LaLaurie’s hasty departure would offer her an alibi in the event
someone discovered the decapitated victim actually was Delphine’s husband,
Leonard LaLaurie. If in France at the time of the hapless man’s murder,
Delphine LaLaurie couldn’t be his killer. Of course, in the absence of the
man’s head and the inability of the one witness, a Negro, to testify to the
dead man’s identity, we don’t seem to have a devil’s chance of solving the
smiled at his friend’s reference to the devil.
all due respect, Detective Pinkerton, I beg to differ,” Canonge said.
Why’s that?” Poe asked, detecting a change in Canonge’s tone indicating the magistrate
may have recalled a hitherto undisclosed piece of information.
me when I say if we are lucky enough to apprehend Madame LaLaurie, then her
husband’s head will almost certainly be in her possession.”
detectives traded glances at the macabre suggestion. Canonge sought to explain
at once on seeing their perplexed looks.
me, gentlemen. It appears I failed to mention that Madame LaLaurie was also a
practitioner of the dark arts, as they are sometimes called. I have that on the
authority of Marie Laveau. In fact, at one time, Delphine LaLaurie was an
acolyte of Madame Laveau until the teacher discovered the student’s uses of
magic to harm, rather than help, those weakest and in most need - the slaves of
her own household.”
does any of this have to do with Madame LaLaurie’s husband’s head?” Detective
I said, I’m squeamish when it comes to such subjects,” Canonge confessed.
“However, Madame Laveau explained that ritual sacrifices sometimes take place
to appease the gods and to partake of their power.
Laveau is correct,” Poe interjected. “My own researches into the occult reveal
that severing an enemy’s head was originally a trophy-taking behavior designed
to ensnare life forces for the victim’s slayer. The head is regarded as a totem
imbued with divine powers. For that reason, I suspect Monsieur Canonge and
Madame Laveau are right in assuming that Delphine LaLaurie and her husband’s
head are in close proximity.”
Pinkerton summed it up in a word.
a modern sensibility, perhaps such rituals appear
savage,” said Poe. “However, history demonstrates blood sacrifice to be at the
core of all major religions.”
this statement, the men grew quiet for a time, each absorbed in a reverie of his
own, disturbed only by a ticking clock.
anyone considered how preposterous it would be,” Pinkerton asked finally, “for
Delphine LaLaurie to attempt to escape the country with her husband’s head in
believe we can conclude with a reasonable degree of certainty,” said Poe, “that
Madame LaLaurie hasn’t left the country, or even the city.”
can you be assured of that?” Pinkerton asked.
a reasonable conclusion given the piece of information Monsieur Canonge just
Canonge appeared shocked that he might have something important to reveal.
on,” Pinkerton urged.
this,” said Poe. “For the rumor to circulate that Madame LaLaurie fled the
country before, or after, allegedly murdering her husband, someone had to see
her leave. Am I right in assuming, Monsieur Canonge, that no one having
observed her departure has come forward?”
right,” Canonge affirmed.
it behooves us to ask how such a rumor originated and who most benefits from
its circulation. The obvious answer to both is Delphine LaLaurie. Her best
chances for survival are for both the authorities and the vigilantes to believe
she’s beyond their grasp, most especially if she’s still in their midst. Keep
in mind she would have no need of a rumor if she’s already in exile. However,
these broad strokes, I suspect, do not paint a complete picture.”
are you saying?” Pinkerton asked.
that while the imputed rumor would be useful to Madame LaLaurie, it might also
serve the interests of a person hiding her.”
accomplice?” Pinkerton asked.
necessarily,” said Poe. “In fact, maybe someone wishing to harm her.”
Laveau!” said Monsieur Canonge excitedly, instantly seeing the role his piece
of intelligence played in Poe’s thinking.
Poe said. “You yourself, Monsieur Canonge, disclosed the one person with a
motive and the capabilities to guarantee not only that justice is served in the
case of Delphine LaLaurie, but that the punishment fits her crime. Not only did
Madame LaLaurie torture her slaves, but she also betrayed Marie Laveau by using
her mentor’s knowledge -- for evil purposes.”
do you think,” Pinkerton asked, “that Madame Laveau is holding Delphine
LaLaurie hostage for purposes of torturing her?”
wouldn’t be surprised,” Poe declared.
so,” Pinkerton said grimly, “I fear we may be too late.”
fear we may not be late enough,” said Poe.
cryptic remark made sense to Pinkerton once the two detectives arrived at Marie
Laveau’s home and were invited inside. Somewhat to their surprise the Voodoo
Queen offered no resistance to their entry.
thought you’d have come sooner,” she said. “Follow me.”
Laveau was a statuesque woman of color. Poe surmised her to be an attractive
mix of African, Indian and Caucasian ancestry, known as a Quadroon. As the
detectives followed Laveau to a room off the kitchen, their noses were
assaulted by the unmistakable stench of blood and viscera. Its source was that
of a woman -- naked, bound, gagged, and trussed in the most contorted fashion.
let me introduce you to Madame Delphine LaLaurie, at one time of one of the
most beautiful women in New Orleans,” said Marie Laveau. “However, as you can
see, Madame LaLaurie has fallen on hard times.”
and Pinkerton stared at the grisly spectacle. Most noticeable was the spiked
iron collar holding the figure’s head in a static position. Her skin appeared
to have been flayed from every conceivable angle. Two Negro men flanked her
with whips in hand. A deep gash in Madame LaLaurie’s head dripped blood into a
bucket on the floor. The most striking abuse of Delphine LaLaurie was that her
eyes had been gouged out - now hollow and bloody sockets. Wielding instruments
of torture, a half dozen other Negroes waited their turn while a
chocolate-colored youth hobbled over to the lump of flesh that was Delphine
LaLaurie, swung a sledge hammer down hard on the victim’s foot, and listened
for the bones to break. Poe and Pinkerton would later learn that the Negroes
were all slaves belonging to Madame LaLaurie and that the slaves were
replicating injuries inflicted on them. If Poe had hoped that LaLaurie would be
dead when they found her, he was disabused of that possibility in the next
instant when a low, cavernous moan issued from the woman’s throat.
Laveau strode over to Delphine LaLaurie and spoke in her ear, the lobe looking
as if an animal had chewed it.
want to die?” Marie Laveau asked. “You see, that isn’t possible at the moment.
You still have many sins to atone for and much suffering to endure. Do you
recall using my potions to keep your victims alive while you experimented on
them? Trust me when I say I want you to live and will do all in my power to
make sure you don’t leave a moment too soon. You of all people, Delphine,
should know it’s a fine line between inflicting enough pain to make a victim
wish he were dead but not enough pain to kill him.”
Laveau finished her speech and turned to face the detectives. Allan Pinkerton
had drawn a pistol from his pocket but couldn’t bring himself to point it at
her. Poe stood quietly at his side.
Laveau, I must insist that you stop torturing Delphine LaLaurie. I understand
your desire for revenge but --” Pinkerton broke off, not knowing what else to say.
Marie Laveau’s eyes were smoky and alluring.
misunderstand, Detective,” said Madame Laveau. “My desire isn’t for revenge. My
desire is for a reckoning.”
that as it may,” Pinkerton said, “but I must insist that you stop torturing
afraid that isn’t possible,” said Laveau. “Not until every last offense is
me introduce you to some friends of mine,” Marie Laveau announced. She seemed
next to address only the darkness behind her. “It’s all right. These men won’t
of the shadows and into the dim light emerged six Negroes, four men and two
closer, so they can see you,” Marie Laveau instructed. One by one each took a
step and paused, awaiting inspection. The first thing Poe and Pinkerton noticed
was that they all were disfigured. One Negro woman was missing her ears; the
other was hunchbacked owing to bones broken and reset making her look like a
crab. One male Negro youth had great patches of white skin where he’d been
flayed. Another adult male opened his mouth to reveal the absence of a tongue
torn out at the roots with pincers by Delphine LaLaurie. Another man, naked,
had survived castration. The last thrust out his arms. Where hands had been,
there were only nubs now. The wounds sustained by Madame LaLaurie’s slaves were
hideous and grotesque, unspeakably so.
you see with your own eyes why Delphine LaLaurie can’t be released;” said Marie
Laveau, “The law would protect her, and the fate of my friends would be to
suffer more than they already have. There would be no justice for them. They
might even be returned to her or sent to another harsh slaver once she’s dead.
I can’t permit that. As long as they remain with me, they are safe, until a
time when I can arrange their departure for a destination where slavery doesn’t
exist. There they will be free. As for Delphine, she took a blood oath to honor
our craft, knowing that failing to do so would result in torture and death. She
knew what to expect. Don’t waste a moment feeling sorry for her.”
Pinkerton’s pistol drooped at his side.
There was no way he could bring himself to imperil Delphine LaLaurie’s slaves
further. It was a devil of a dilemma in which he and Poe found themselves: Pinkerton
couldn’t condone torture, but he
couldn’t condone slavery - especially when slaves themselves were tortured. He
would choose the lesser of two evils and hope Poe agreed.
was imagining all the ways to forget what they’d just seen. He remarked to
himself that it had all seemed akin to a terrible nightmare and that he and
Pinkerton had discovered a door opening onto the landscape of hell. Now he and
Pinkerton should back out the way they came in. What Poe said next put the
minds of Marie Laveau and Allan Pinkerton at ease.
Laveau, thank you for your assistance in this case, but it seems Detective
Pinkerton and I have reached an impasse in our murder investigation. Without a
confession from Delphine LaLaurie and without a way to identify the headless
corpse, we have no case and likely never will.”
sorry you came so far for so little,” said Marie Laveau.
la vie,” Poe said. “However, before we leave, I wonder if you’d indulge me by
engaging in a small thought experiment?”
try,” she said, sensing Poe wished to satisfy some matter of curiosity.
you,” said Poe. “I’d like for you to imagine you are writing the story of
Delphine LaLaurie. How does that story end?”
the writer, wanted a conclusion to the saga only the Voodoo Queen could provide.
I were to peer into a crystal ball,” Madame Laveau intoned, “I’d discover that
Delphine poisoned Leonard LaLaurie and then decapitated her husband, with the
aid of a slave. She carried the head to a powerful priestess, versed in the art
of curses, hexes, and spells. Delphine believed the head would serve as a blood
offering, enabling her to atone for transgressions against the priestess. She
was mistaken. The priestess buried the sacrificed head where no one would find
it. When it came time for Delphine LaLaurie to die, the priestess beheaded her,
with the aid of a slave. Together they buried Delphine’s head with that of her
husband so each could stare into the eyes of the other for eternity.”
grim ending, indeed,” Pinkerton said nervously.
afraid it’s the only ending possible,” said Madame Laveau.
that, the detectives showed themselves to the door.
Francisco is the author of ten books. His poems and stories have appeared in
more than one hundred journals. He lives and writes in Knoxville, Tennessee.