H.H. Holmes and dubbed him the “first serial killer in America,” who was dubbed America’s first serial killer by many documentaries and books. Multiple readers would contact me telling me that Holmes was not America’s first serial killers and provide examples of ones that preceded him — and one reader told me about a woman named Madame LaLaurie preceded Holmes.
LaLaurie’s mansion in New Orleans is called “the most haunted house in the city.” She had 12 of her slaves die in a four-year span with no cause of death mentioned for any of them.
I did some more digging into Madame LaLaurie, who lived from 1787 to 1849. The editors of History would note that LaLaurie had a mansion in the French Quarters of New Orleans, where she had a torture chamber for her slaves. One of the slaves found was a 70-year-old Black woman trapped in the kitchen during a fire — LaLaurie herself was busy saving her furniture.
That woman would tell authorities that she set the fire herself to bring attention to LaLaurie’s mistreatment of her slaves. She then led them to the attic, where they found seven slaves tied with iron chains.
Author Harriet Martineau would recount, in 1838, a neighbor’s perspective in Retrospect of Western Travel that in one particularly grotesque situation in 1833, LaLaurie would chase one of her slaves, a girl estimated to be eight-years-old, around the house. The girl would fall to her death from the mansion while avoiding LaLaurie, who was holding a whip. In the mansion, LaLaurie buried the girl.
Another account, from author Jeanne DeLavigne, would differ on the details in 1945— the girl was 12 years old and her name was Lia. Lia had been chased by LaLaurie after she was brushing LaLaurie’s hair and hit a snag. LaLaurie grabbed the whip, and chased Lia until Lia fell to her death.
It was the 1834 fire that would lead to her reckoning. Without a doubt, Madame LaLaurie, as a privileged socialite, would have probably been held accountable sooner had she not been torturing and killing her disenfranchised Black slaves. She probably would have gotten away with it had something as dramatic as a fire not stirred local outrage, as well.