Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Mistress of Death

After reading Truman Capote's chilling novel In Cold Blood, my teacher assigned an essay in which we were to select a criminal and analyze the cause of their criminal actions. However, this paper was to be a persuasive essay in which we would either attribute the actions of the selected criminal to their "nature", as in an inherent tendency for vice and evil, or their "nurture", as in their upbringing.

Having always been fascinated by the criminal tales of the south, I wrote my essay about Madame Delphine, a wealthy slave owner in New Orleans who allegedly tortured her servants with cruel punishments.

As usual, I procrastinated this assignment and consequently drafted, edited, and submitted the essay in a single day. While on vacation. Oh well. Maybe next time I'll make sure to get started early. (No I won't.)

Although the gruesome actions and decisions of criminals are often perceived as inherently immoral, such vice is often caused not by a genetic affinity for malice, but environmental circumstances and upbringing. In relation to the infamous Madame Delphine Lalaurie, though her torture of slaves is an indication of such seemingly inherent evil, as represented through her upbring as well as previous experiences, her violent actions were not induced by an inherited propensity for evil, but are an effect of her environment.
The second child of Louis Chevalier Barthelemy de Macarty and Marie Jeanne Lerable, Delphine was born on March 19, 1787 to the wealthy and politically influential Macarty clan. Financially supported by her family, Delphine married three different men within a couple of decades, living lavishly with each of her suitors. She first married Don Ramon de Lopez y Angullo, a high ranking Spanish officer, whom she wed at the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans. Four years into their marriage, the couple ventured to Spain so that Don Ramon may “take his place at court as befitting his new position” (Nealon, Timothy), as he had been promoted in the Spanish military  Unfortunately, Don Ramon died in Havana of an undiagnosed illness. Soon thereafter, Delphine gave birth to a daughter, Maria Borgia Delphine Lopez y Angulla de la Candelaria, and disheartened, returned to New Orleans with her newborn. After a period of grievance, Delphine married Jean Blanque, a man of several noble occupations deemed financially suitable by the superior members of the Macarty clan. Subsequent to Delphine’s official union to Jean Blanque in June of 1808, Delphine secured an expensive property for the new family, later bearing four more children. Paralleling the conclusion of her previous marriage, Blanque also died of an undiagnosed disease. Following another brief period of lamentation, Delphine married a third time. Whereas Delphine’s initial interactions with her previous husbands had been romantic meetings, Delphine was first introduced to Leonard Louis Nicolas LaLaurie after she had hired him to administer treatment to one of her daughters that possessed a rare spinal deformity. Although the burdening condition of Delphine’s daughter steadily improved throughout the marriage of Delphine and Louis LaLaurie, the developing conflict between the couple drove Louis to leave their property and abandon the family with minimal financial compensation. Having experienced immeasurable tragedy in all three of her marriages, rumors soon circulated that Delphine tortured her servants as a crude coping mechanism for the succession of severe difficulty she had endured.
Although several violent incidents had been reported regarding LaLaurie and her mansion, suspicion was especially aroused after the death of Leia, a young slave girl. According to local reports, Leia plummeted to her death as she fled from Madame Delphine, who had threatened to whip the young girl. Consequently, the local council conducted a brief investigation of the LaLaurie manor, ultimately granting all of Madame Delphine’s captive slaves immediate freedom. However, because this verdict had been made without intense analysis or deliberation, the slaves were freed not on account of LaLaurie’s alleged violence, but due to the poor conditions in which the slaves had lived and operated. Thus, though this investigation granted the slaves of the LaLaurie manor their freedom, the investigation did not yield any information regarding the administration of torture as previously speculated. Regardless of the underwhelming lack of evidence, many continued to maintain the perception that “beneath the delicate and refined exterior was a cruel, cold-blooded...insane woman” (Troy Taylor). Outraged at the abrupt loss of her slaves, Delphine, forbidden to repurchase her slaves, circumvented this limitation by covertly arranging for her relatives to purchase the freed slaves on her behalf. Once purchased, the slaves were subsequently returned to the LaLaurie mansion, once again subject to the cruel punishments of Madame Delphine LaLaurie.
Several years after the death of Leia, a fire erupted at the manor the morning of April 10, 1834. The fire not only destroyed the house, singeing both the interior and exterior, but publicly revealed the cruel punishments endured by the slaves of Delphine. As a mass of enraged locals congregated and rescuers entered the manor, the first servant discovered, a seventy year old black woman trapped in the kitchen, explained that as the fire erupted she had been chained in the kitchen while LaLaurie left to gather valuables scattered throughout the property. Although the bondage of the enslaved cook to the kitchen may be argued as an act of inherent evil, this form of torture may be attributed to Madame Delphine’s environment and previous experience. After her third husband deserted her, Madame Delphine developed an irrational fear of loss and general paranoia, resorting to bonding her cook to the manor’s kitchen to prevent any further desertion. Accompanied by a small force of authorities to the attic, the slave cook and the rescuers discovered a dozen slaves bound and choking with spiked collars. This same slave woman later revealed that “she had set the fire to escape LaLaurie’s torture” (A Torture Chamber is Uncovered). The Sheriff never arrived to subdue Madame LaLaurie, thus providing LaLaurie the proper circumstances to evade arrest and flee to France. Furthermore, although charges were never formally filed against Delphine LaLaurie, “her reputation in upper-class society was destroyed” (A Torture Chamber is Uncovered), and she never returned to New Orleans. Consequential to the lack of legal action and law enforcement, the amassing crowd rushed into the mansion, ransacking the contents of the manor, but unsuccessfully detaining Madame LaLaurie, as she had already fled.
With the fire extinguished, several local newspapers documented the gruesome details of brutalization that the rescued slaves accounted following their liberation. According to one newspaper, the slaves recounted a variety of obscure forms of torture, all of which “had been administered so as to not bring quick death” (Taylor, Troy), including: their bones being broken and reset in crude and unnatural positions holes being drilled into their heads, the skin of their backs being peeled back so that the muscle and tissue were exposed to the air, being coated with honey and black ants, and their intestines being removed and subsequently wrapped around their waists. As determined through documents salvaged from the charred mansion, Madame Delphine LaLaurie consistently referred to these inhumane acts of cruelty as simply “experiments” rather than “torture.” Therefore, because Madame Delphine LaLaurie used this particular term instead of the alternative “torture,” a critical distinction remains in Delphine’s differentiation  between these two terms and that which they entail. Many speculate that because of this peculiarity in reference to the cruelties of Delphine, she had conducted these “experiments” so that she may discover a cure for her daughter’s spinal disfigurement herself, by means of experimentation, of course. Therefore, if this argument were true, regardless of Delphine’s distinction between “torture” and “experimentation”, because Delphine’s intentions were with reason and for the sake of improving her daughter’s health, her violent actions are not an indication of an inherent nature for evil. Thus, Delphine’s actions are consequential effects to her environment and specific circumstances rather than heritable vice.
Once it had been recognized that all of Delphine’s victims were black, she was henceforth accused of prejudice against blacks, acting upon this prejudice through the administration of torture. However, during this time period, especially in the southern states, prejudice was common practice. Thus, if Delphine were prejudiced against blacks, because such prejudice was a societal norm, the argument that Delphine’s violence stemmed from inherent evil entails that the majority of the southern population was also born with tendencies for evil, when such people, Delphine included, were simply practicing the societal norm of their environment - superiority over blacks. Conversely, Delphine was also accused of racially specific torture due to jealousy over the affairs of her male relatives, including her father, with black mistresses. Therefore, if Delphine were either accepting the prejudicial norm of her environment or torturing black slaves due to the affairs of her relatives with black slaves, her violent actions are still incapable of attribution to an inherent nature. Regarding both arguments, Delphine’s practice of torture was an effect of her upbringing, as in prejudice toward blacks, and her environment, as in the affairs of her male relatives.
      Throughout her life, Madame Delphine LaLaurie endured a torture of sorts herself in preceding years. She married three times, her first two husbands dying of undiagnosed causes, while her third abruptly deserting her and her children. Furthermore, LaLaurie’s daughter, for whom she had temporarily secured spinal treatment, was left uncured. As indicated, it therefore was not solely the inherent lack of morality that spurred Delphine LaLaurie to commit such brutal acts of torture, but the tribulations she experienced throughout her life. Although Madame Delphine LaLaurie’s torture of slaves was by no means morally justified, as indicated through analysis of her environment and upbringing, it is apparent that her violence should not be attributed to an innate affinity for evil, but instead regarded as an effect of her nurture.