Truth is Stranger than Fiction: How Ghost Tours Trivialize Slavery, Part I


Many times New Orleans “ghost tours” take a serious matter, such as slavery, and embellish a particular moment with graphic and scripted dialogue for spectacle, while going little into the actual histories of those oppressed peoples who largely built and established much of the unique culture of New Orleans. Some haunted history tours go as far as placing these hard, factual histories alongside stories of ghosts, vampires and the paranormal, which seems to categorize slavery with the supernatural.

Among the plethora of haunted history tours in the Vieux Carre, the mansion of Delphine LaLaurie remains one of the most visited sites. The building was made infamous in 1834 when responders to a fire inside the home witnessed the torture of enslaved people. The paper at the time, the New Orleans Bee, reported that after breaking down the locked doors to the slave quarters, responders found “seven slaves, more or less horribly mutilated… suspended by the neck, with their limbs apparently stretched and torn from one extremity to the other.”

Aside from the newspaper articles, the other main account comes from Harriet Martineau, who records stories told to her by residents two years later in 1836. She writes of investigations by lawyers before the fire that turned up no instances of misconduct, but then records a witness account of Ms. LaLaurie chasing a young enslaved girl off of the roof, which ending in the girl falling to her death. She also writes of the cook being chained to the stove, among other stories of emaciation, whippings, enslaved people being bound in restrictive postures and being forced to wear spiked collars. Final reports in newspapers state that two of the seven of the enslaved people rescued after the fire died from injuries and the corpses of two more were unearthed from the property after a search. Delphine LaLaurie fled to Paris from New Orleans as her home was ransacked by an angry mob outraged by the reports of her cruelty.

George Washington Cable, one of New Orleans’ most celebrated native novelists, solidified the tale of Madame LaLaurie in folklore with his writings on the subject. As time went on, more and more retellings of the story surfaced, each seemingly trying to top its predecessor in ghoulishness. In 1998, Kalila Katherina Smith’s book, Journey into Darkness: Ghosts and Vampires of New Orleans, was published and offered the most gruesome version of Delphine LaLaurie yet. Her book’s version of the LaLaurie tale seems ludicrously embellished from the original reports, listing a series of horrific, inventive and extremely specific mad-scientist mutilations not mentioned in any other sources. In the words of the Wikipedia article on Delphine LaLaurie, “the new details in Smith’s book were unsourced, while others were not supported by the sources given.”

Enter Haunted History Tours. According to their website, they are New Orleans’s oldest and largest walking tour company, and according to the Travel channel the #1 attraction in the city. The brainchild of Haunted History Tours is Kalila Katherina Smith, whose tour is based on the aforementioned book that she authored. Where the Haunted History Tour narrative of Delphine LaLaurie’s grotesque treatment of enslaved people falls short is that it makes a particular historical moment exceptional and treats it as an almost anomalous incident.

The real truth is that these instances of mistreatment of enslaved peoples were anything but localized and were a common occurrence; it was not particular to one house, one neighborhood, one city, one country, but was a large scale genocide enacted upon millions of people. If tourists really want this type of haunting history, they need only look to C.L.R. James’ book, The Black Jacobins, in which he gives a highly referenced account of slavery in Haiti, the subsequent Haitian revolution and the rise of Toussaint L’Ouverture. It should be noted that many of the slave owners in Haiti who fled the Haitian revolution ended up in New Orleans, while an embargo was placed on bringing enslaved people from these areas, for fear they would be unruly and upset slavery in North America.

In James’ book, the brutal mistreatment of enslaved people is discussed at length, which this system. From the opening chapter, “The Property”:

The slaves received the whip with more certainty and regularity than they received their food. It was incentive to work and the guardian of discipline. But there was no ingenuity that fear or a depraved imagination could devise which was not employed to break their spirit and satisfy the lusts and resentment of their owners and guardians—irons on the feet, blocks of wood that the slaves had to drag behind them wherever they went, the tin- plate mask designed to prevent the slaves from eating the sugar cane, the iron collar. Whipping was interrupted in order to pass a piece of hot wood on the buttocks of the victim; salt, pepper, citron, cinders, aloes, and hot ashes were poured on the bleeding wounds. Mutilations were common, limbs, ears, and sometimes the private parts, to deprive them of the pleasures which they could indulge in without expense. Their masters poured burning wax on their arms and hands and shoulders, emptied the boiling cane sugar over their heads, burned them alive, roasted them on slow fires, filled them with gunpowder and blew them up with a match; buried them up to the neck and smeared their heads with sugar that the flies might devour them; fastened them near the nests of ants or wasps; made them eat their excrement, drink their urine, and lick the saliva of other slaves….

Slavery is the most disgusting and inhumane practice in human history. Within American slavery families were separated, women and girls were raped by their masters, the children of those unions were sold off, and beatings, mutilations, and murder were constant. Furthermore, after importation of slaves was banned in the US in 1808, those already enslaved were “bred” like livestock to create more field workers. History has riddled us with these tortuous reminders of the viciousness of white supremacy, from postcards of lynching gatherings to photos of King Leopold’s victims in the Congo. So even though Kalila Katherina Smith’s added details are unsubstantiated, they are, as read in James’ account, not improbable.

What is inappropriate is for a tour company to focus solely on the horrific, fictionalized (if not unlikely) imaginings of its author, Kalila Katherina Smith, without giving full honor and respect to those who experienced and suffered through slavery. Instead, Haunted History Tours and other haunted tours place a subject as serious as slavery, based on historical facts and memoirs, in congruence with ghosts and other paranormal imaginings. The treatment of such a tragic, heavy history as a fun family experience stages itself as smut, capitalizing upon the suffering of millions.

For example, some accounts say Madame LaLaurie’s cook started the fire as a suicidal gesture, but this scenario takes away power from a woman who chose to rebel. History may have erased her name, but we can still hold up her legacy: she was not a passive individual resigned to slavery, she was a freedom fighter. These are the stories that need to be normalized.

The focus should not be a singular history of a slave owner who, like many other owners, tortured their prisoners with the most inhumane methods imaginable, but rather should focus, first and foremost, on the lives, experiences and resistance of who were enslaved. By turning the attention to, and giving power to, those millions of humans who suffered and endured the oppression of slavery, including those who resisted it, one can truly learn of the genocide that dissolved families, culture, and a continent. 

In the second part of this essay, we’ll look at some aspects of New Orleans and French Quarter history that teach about enslaved peoples’ fight for freedom and dignity.

 

References

  •  New Orleans Bee (April 11, 1834)
  •  New Orleans Bee (April 12, 1834)
  • Martineau, Harriet (1838). Retrospect of Western Travel. pp 137-139. 2. London: Saunders & Otley.
  • Pittsfield Sun (May 8, 1834)
  • Cable, George Washington (1888). Strange True Stories of Louisiana. pp 200-219. New York: The Century Co.
  • Smith, Kalila Katherina (1998). Haunted History Tours presents… Journey Into Darkness: Ghosts & Vampires of New Orleans. p. 19. New Orleans, LA: De Simonin Pub.
  • hauntedhistorytours.com
  • James, C.L.R. (1963). The Black Jacobins. pp 12-13. New York: Random House Inc.

One thought on “Truth is Stranger than Fiction: How Ghost Tours Trivialize Slavery, Part I

  • August 31, 2019 at 4:51 pm
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    There were records kept of slave sales and such. Would it be possible to find the names of the enslaved people held in the LaLurie house? It would certainly be worth trying to find out.

    Also, while it is not outside the realm of reality that people were tortured, the gratuitous descriptions by Smith – devised to profit (once again) from these people are not just unnecessary, but imply that their treatment was somehow not “glamourously horrible” enough to count as of interest.

    Reply

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