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Fangoria/Murderpedia
Fangoria/Murderpedia

The Real-Life Murderess Behind American Horror Story: Coven

Fangoria/Murderpedia
Fangoria/Murderpedia

I think we can all agree that Kathy Bates is terrifying when she puts her mind to it.

If you watched American Horror Story: Coven, she was undoubtedly the cause of a few chills down your spine. In case you didn’t see it, she plays Delphine LaLaurie, a character Bates has called “five times worse” than Annie Wilkes from Misery.

And here’s the true spine-tingling part: Bates’ torture-happy mistress was based on a real person.

Marie Delphine LaLaurie was a thrice-married New Orleans socialite in the early 1800s. Like many wealthy southerners of the time, the LaLauries had household slaves. Though it had been long-rumored that the slaves were treated cruelly, even for the era, the final straw came in 1833, when a young slave girl named Lia (or Leah) was brushing Mme. LaLaurie’s hair and accidentally hit a tangle. Outraged at the abuse of her tender head, Delphine chased the poor girl around the house with a whip. The chase ended on the roof of the mansion, where Lia was driven to the edge by the whip-wielding lady of the house. Forced to choose between a flogging or a leap, Lia chose the latter and died when she smashed into the stone courtyard three stories below. It’s said that her body narrowly missed hitting a man who was entering the house; the man reported LaLaurie to the police. After the girl’s body was found in a well on the property, the household was fined $300 and had to sell their slaves.

The poor slaves who thought the nightmare was over were wrong. Madame LaLaurie simply gave an associate the funds to purchase her slaves at auction, then had them promptly returned to the house.

In 1834, one of the kitchen staff purposely set the building on fire, hoping that outside help would arrive. She wasn't disappointed. When firemen showed up, they found a 70-year-old kitchen slave chained to the stove—she had obviously decided that risking death by fire was preferable to remaining in the “employ” of her sadistic mistress any longer. The woman pleaded with the firemen to rescue slaves from a room in the attic. When the men got upstairs, they had to knock the attic door down with a battering ram—and what they found inside actually made some of them vomit.

Legend has it (and it is very likely that the stories were embellished over time) that there were slaves with their eyes gouged out. Slaves with their limbs amputated. At least one had her skin peeled off. Many of their mouths had been sewn shut, sometimes with animal feces inside. One woman’s limbs had been broken, then reset so that she resembled a “human crab.” And the worst part—most of them were still alive. While it’s hard to say how many men, women, and children suffered at the hands of the LaLauries over the years, some accounts put it at 100 or more.

When word got out, an angry mob—some reports put the number at 4000—congregated outside of the LaLaurie residence and over the course of the night and the next morning systematically destroyed most of it. Sadly, Madame LaLaurie and her husband managed to escape by coach before anyone could bring them to justice. No one really knows what happened to them after that. Most accounts say the couple made their way to Paris, where they lived for the rest of their lives. But others say they simply moved to a different part of the state and acquired more slaves, or even stayed in New Orleans under assumed names.

So, while Kathy Bates was quite terrifying even just one episode into American Horror Story: Coven, the true horror is that those Mengeleian experiments might have been real.

Oh, and if you took note of the little Nicolas Cage reference in the show and wondered what that was all about, that’s also based in reality. Cage purchased the house of horrors in 2007 for almost $3.5 million. It was foreclosed in 2009.

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A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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