With an over-the-top season finale that drew 4.2 million viewers, American Horror Story: Coven left many fans disappointed. Carolyn Long considers the elements that stayed (at least a little bit) true to history and points out several of the bigger divergences. “These were great characters in a great setting—if only we’d gotten to know them better,” commented The Atlantic, which went on to label the finale a “supreme disappointment.” Throughout her fact v. fiction posts, Long has provided us with ample instances where the real lives of Marie Laveau and Madame Lalaurie have their own black magic, proving that truth can be more compelling than ample special effects!
Previously on Coven, Madame Lalaurie tried, unsuccessfully, to murder Marie Laveau. In Episode 12, Papa Legba shows Queenie a vision of Marie, tied to a table in the greenhouse at Miss Robichaux’s, where Delphine cuts off her head with a kitchen knife.
The scene shifts to the Lalaurie Mansion, where Delphine, disguised in in a scarf and dark glasses, is among those taking the house tour. The guide conducts the visitors to the attic, explaining that “the inhuman Madame Lalaurie is said to have murdered as many as 150 slaves right here. The sounds of revelry and music below drowned out the screams.” Delphine mutters angrily that ”Nobody’s going to waste their time with some uppity negro and miss a fabulous party.” Afterwards, Delphine tells the tour guide she left her purse in the attic and they go up to look for it. Delphine takes the opportunity to correct the guide’s story: “It wasn’t any 150 slaves that died up here, it was 62.” She reaches for the ledger in which she kept a tally, and the guide admonishes her not to touch the display items. Delphine slashes the tour guide with the knife she had used on the slaves. Blood spatters on her face and she licks it.
Fact Check: Madame Lalaurie owned 54 enslaved people during her lifetime. The funeral records of St. Louis Cathedral show that 20 of them died before 1834. In 1834, she owned 30. Her son-in-law sold 11 slaves after the Lalauries fled New Orleans, meaning that 19 were still unaccounted for. She therefore might have killed as many as 39 of her bondspeople.
Having done away with the tour guide, Delphine, now dressed in modern clothes and a short haircut, is telling a group of visitors that “Madame Delphine Lalaurie was not only known for her elegant soirees, but also for her tireless charitable works.” The tourists are skeptical, protesting that they’d heard she was “a serial killer.” Delphine replies that “these wild tales you’ve heard are nothing more than lies created by her many enemies…. She was a woman ahead of her time, misunderstood and hated for it.”
Fact Check: During the 1920s-1940s a movement to rehabilitate Delphine’s reputation was launched by her descendants and their friends, all members of New Orleans’ elite society. They convinced writers to portray Madame Lalaurie as the innocent target of jealousy and gossip. The popular historian Stanley C. Arthur argued in his 1936 book Old New Orleans that Delphine was a “victim of yellow journalism.” A widely circulated 1934 Times-Picayune article by Meigs Frost blamed the “smear campaign” against Delphine on a relative whom she had deprived of his inheritance.
The tourists leave and Queenie appears, stating that she’s come to give Delphine a second chance: “I’m going to walk you to the nearest Urban League, you can volunteer your services to the people you brutalized.” Delphine rebuffs her: “I won’t profess to be sorry cause I’m not… You made me weep, but not for my supposed sins. I wept for the state of this world, the world of lies, the world that makes promises it cannot keep. To tell a colored man that he’s equal to a white man, there’s the real cruelty.” Queenie stabs her.
Recall that Madame Lalaurie cannot die because Marie Laveau cursed her with immortality, and Marie Laveau purchased immortality from Papa Legba with the yearly delivery of an innocent soul. The script writers therefore have no problem resurrecting these historic characters. Even though Queenie appears to have struck Delphine a mortal blow, we now see her in the attic, where ghostly slaves have put her and her daughter Borquita in a cage as Papa Legba looks on. Marie is also in the attic, having recovered from her beheading by Delphine. Papa Legba directs her to torture Borquita with a heated poker as part of her “service” to him. Addressing Delphine, Legba announces that because of her many evil deeds, “you will spend all of eternity here in my home. Welcome to Hell.” Legba explains to Marie that this time she has not fulfilled her contract with him, and that she is now also in Hell.
Fact Check: Far be it from me to conjecture about whether Delphine and Marie went to heaven or hell, but archival records do show how, when, and where they expired. Delphine died at her Paris flat on December 7, 1849. According to letters from her adult children, she had been in declining health for several years, and it was probably this illness that killed her. Her funeral was held at her neighborhood church, Saint Louis d’Antin, and she was interred in the Cimetière de Montmartre. Her body was exhumed on January 7, 1851, to be transported to New Orleans. According to her descendants, she is interred in St. Louis Cemetery no. 1 in a tomb purchased by her son, Paulin Blanque.
Marie Laveau died on June 15, 1881, at her home on St. Ann Street. Her death certificate indicates that she succumbed to weakness and dehydration, exacerbated by old age and the intense heat, from one of the intestinal maladies that constantly plagued New Orleanians. Her funeral was conducted by a priest of St. Louis Cathedral, and the Daily Picayune reported that “Her remains were followed to the grave by a large concourse of people, the most prominent and the most humble joining in paying their last respects to the dead.” She was interred in St. Louis Cemetery no. 1.
The Axeman, having learned that Fiona plans to leave New Orleans without him, hacks her with his axe and feeds her body to the alligators. When he walks into Miss Robichaux’s covered with blood, the girls realize what he’s done and stab him in a repeat of the earlier scene of his death in 1919.
Delphine and Marie, situated for all eternity in the hell of the Lalaurie attic, do not appear in Episode 12. Fiona and the Axeman, however, play out a final scene at the Axeman’s simple country farmhouse on the river. It has been the Axeman’s dream to take her there, leaving behind their evil deeds in New Orleans to spend their old age in this peaceful setting. The Axeman comes in wearing rumpled clothes, knee-high boots, and a broad-brimmed hat, carrying a string of catfish he’s caught for their breakfast. “I’m in heaven,” he says contentedly. Fiona, in her usual sleek black dress and high heels, is appalled: “I can’t spend eternity here.” She’s in hell. Papa Legba laughs.
The coven at Miss Robichaux’s performs the contest of the “Seven Wonders” to determine who will become the next Supreme. Nan has already gone to “the other side” with Papa Legba, Misty fails to return from the required journey to the nether world, and Zoe’s boyfriend Kyle strangles Madison to death. In the end, Fiona’s daughter Cordelia is chosen as the Supreme, with Queenie and Zoe as her deputies. After a press conference, hundreds of young would-be witches show up seeking admittance to Miss Robichaux’s.
Episode 12, “Go to Hell,” aired January 22, 2014; Episode 13, “The Seven Wonders,” aired January 29, 2014
Carolyn Long retired from the National Museum of American History in 2001. She is the author of A New Orleans Voudou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau and Madame Lalaurie, Mistress of the Haunted House. She lives in Washington, D.C., and New Orleans.