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.
As 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.
Poe rose to admit the visitor. Judge Jean Francois Canonge extended a hand and
entered at Poe’s invitation.
“Gentlemen,” Canonge greeted Poe and Pinkerton.
Judge 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.
“Would you care for a Brandy?” Poe asked their guest.
“It’s 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.”
“The pleasure is ours,” said Poe. “New Orleans is an enchanting
it is,” the magistrate agreed. “The diverse backgrounds of its citizens result
in no end of excitements.”
Poe 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.
“This 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.
“Yes, fill us in,” Poe said.
“Well,” 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.”
“Grisly business,” said Pinkerton.
“You 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.
“What fate awaited the surviving slaves?” Poe asked.
“Madame 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
you saying,” the Scotsman asked, his face reddening, “that LaLaurie experienced
no consequences other than losing her slaves? The woman should be tried for serial murder.”
Canonge 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 hands on.”
“And Madame LaLaurie?” Poe asked.
“Escaped,” 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.”
“That would place her beyond our jurisdiction,” Pinkerton noted, “assuming
that the account is true.”
“There’s the rub,” said Canonge. “No one knows for certain,
and gossip takes on a life of its own.”
“You must have some reason to believe she might still be in New Orleans,”
Poe said directly.
“A suspicion, indeed,” said Canonge.
“What do you suspect?” Pinkerton asked.
“After LaLaurie’s alleged departure to France, a man’s decapitated
body was found floating in one of the canals.”
“Horrid business, to be sure,” said Pinkerton.
“Yes,” Canonge replied. “However, in the absence of a head, there
was little chance we’d ever be able to identify the victim.”
“Yet, 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.”
“How 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.”
“You surmise correctly,” said Canonge. “I have a strong suspicion
that the beheaded man may be LaLaurie’s husband.”
“Decapitation is a ritual practice of Voodoo,” said Poe.
“A 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.”
“I 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.’”
Allan Pinkerton snuffed derisively.
“See here,” he interrupted. “What motive might LaLaurie have for
murdering her husband?”
“The 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.”
“Rubbish,” 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.”
“But 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, Monsieur Canonge?”
“Once 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.”
“What prompted him to come forward?” Pinkerton asked.
“When Madame LaLaurie sent him on a small errand, Simon saw an opportunity
“But wasn’t he afraid of Delphine’s curse or hex or spell -- or
whatever?” Pinkerton asked.
“He 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.”
“You act as if this -- stuff -- is real,” Pinkerton scoffed.
“It 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.”
“The people of New Orleans do,” Canonge asserted. “That’s
why Simon went to the one woman who could unbind a spell:
“Ah, 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 and Catholicism.”
“What can be worse than the marriage of two
superstitions?” Pinkerton asked.
“It 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.
“My 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.”
“What makes you think he won’t flee the city?” Pinkerton asked.
sat quietly, listening to the exchange between both men.
“Because I have Madame Laveau’s word,” Canonge announced solemnly.
word of a Voodoo priestess?” Allan Pinkerton said, shaking his head.
“Yes,” 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.
“A 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?”
Poe and Canonge exchanged glances.
“It’s 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.”
“But we have an eyewitness,” Pinkerton protested.
“I regret to say that a slave’s testimony is unacceptable in a court
of law, not only in New Orleans but throughout the South.”
“Then why have laws at all?” Pinkerton sputtered.
“Perhaps 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 case.”
Poe smiled at his friend’s reference to the devil.
“With all due respect, Detective Pinkerton, I beg to differ,” Canonge
“Really. Why’s that?” Poe asked, detecting a change in Canonge’s
tone indicating the magistrate may have recalled a hitherto undisclosed piece of information.
“Trust 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.
“Forgive 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.”
“What does any of this have to do with Madame LaLaurie’s husband’s
head?” Detective Pinkerton asked.
“As 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.
“Madame 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.”
“Savagery!” Pinkerton summed it up in a word.
“To a modern sensibility, perhaps such rituals appear savage,” said Poe. “However, history demonstrates blood
sacrifice to be at the core of all major religions.”
At this statement, the men grew quiet for a time, each absorbed in a reverie of
his own, disturbed only by a ticking clock.
“Has 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 tow?”
“I 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.
“It’s a reasonable conclusion given the piece of information Monsieur
Canonge just gave us.”
Magistrate 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
right,” Canonge affirmed.
“Then 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.”
“What are you saying?” Pinkerton asked.
“Only that while the imputed rumor would be useful to Madame LaLaurie, it
might also serve the interests of a person hiding her.”
“An accomplice?” Pinkerton asked.
“Not necessarily,” said Poe. “In fact, maybe someone wishing to
Laveau!” said Monsieur Canonge excitedly, instantly seeing the role his piece of
intelligence played in Poe’s thinking.
“Yes,” 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.”
“Then do you think,” Pinkerton asked, “that Madame Laveau is holding
Delphine LaLaurie hostage for purposes of torturing her?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Poe declared.
“If so,” Pinkerton said grimly, “I fear we may be too late.”
fear we may not be late enough,” said Poe.
Poe’s 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.
“I 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.
“Gentlemen, 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.”
Poe 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.
Marie Laveau strode over to Delphine LaLaurie and spoke in her ear, the lobe looking
as if an animal had chewed it.
“Still 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.
“You misunderstand, Detective,” said Madame Laveau. “My desire
isn’t for revenge. My desire is for a reckoning.”
“Be that as it may,” Pinkerton said, “but I must insist that you
stop torturing her.”
“I’m afraid that isn’t possible,” said Laveau. “Not
until every last offense is answered.”
“Offense?” said Pinkerton.
“Let 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 hurt you.”
Out 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.
“Now 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.”
Allan 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.
“Madame 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.”
“I’m sorry you came so far for so little,” said Marie Laveau.
“C’est la vie,” Poe said. “However, before we leave, I wonder
if you’d indulge me by engaging in a small thought experiment?”
“I’ll try,” she said, sensing Poe wished to satisfy some matter
“Thank you,” said Poe. “I’d like for you to imagine you
are writing the story of Delphine LaLaurie. How does that story end?”
Poe, 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.
“I’m afraid it’s the only
ending possible,” said Madame Laveau.
With 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.