Only 6 more days until the season finale of American Horror Story: Coven and Carolyn Long is back to tide you over with a look at where history parallels or completely contradicts the storyline! If you’re just getting started, see the first post in our Coven series to get an overview of the cast and characters!
In episodes 2-5, the Coven storyline favors an emphasis on drama and theatrical improbability. Abundant gore dominates the screen: a bus accident, an alligator attack, throat slitting, burning at the stake, beheading, shooting, lynching, eyes being gouged out, and bodies dismembered and boiled. Many of the characters who die are magically resurrected by witches who have the “power of resurgence.” There are several spectacular Voudou ceremonies, as well as attacks by zombies and professional witch hunters. Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett), in life a much-loved Voudou priestess and matriarchal figure, is portrayed as consumed with vengeful anger. Madame Lalaurie (Kathy Bates), in life an actual sociopathic slave torturer, begins to elicit our sympathy and emerges as a marvelously comic character.
Fact Check: Not all of the violence is superfluous, at least not thematically. There is ample evidence from newspaper reports of the day, family letters, and from numerous archival sources that Madame Lalaurie indeed tortured and killed her slaves and that on at least one occasion she faced criminal charges. Altogether she owned fifty-four men, women, and children. She sold some, freed a few, and St. Louis Cathedral funeral records show that at least twenty of them died before 1834. Her son-in-law sold eleven more slaves after the Lalauries fled New Orleans, but nineteen people, perhaps her victims, remain unaccounted for.
After drugging Madame Lalaurie with her “love potion,” Marie Laveau has the three daughters and Dr. Lalaurie hanged from the balcony of the family mansion. She has Delphine buried beneath the stones of her courtyard: “I gave you life everlasting. You are damned to live forever, alone, sealed up in your unmarked grave while the world goes on around you.” Nan, through her power of clairvoyance, discovers the burial place, and that night workmen carry the coffin into the garden at Miss Robichaux’s. Fiona extracts Delphine and puts her to work as the maid at the academy. Her particular job is to serve Queenie, the only African American resident, and they develop a grudging friendship even while they trade racial insults.
Delphine sees President Obama speaking on television. She wails, weeping: “Oh Lord my God, have you forsaken this once proud country? They just says that negro is the president of the United States.”
Fact Check: Delphine would never have identified herself as a citizen of the United States. She was born in 1787, came of age while Louisiana was still a Spanish colony, and married a Spanish government official. After some years in Spain, she returned to New Orleans in 1805 when her husband died in a shipwreck off the coast of Cuba. Louisiana had by then been acquired by the United States, and the original French-descended inhabitants deeply resented the American newcomers who were intent on taking over.
Fiona visits Marie Laveau’s hairdressing salon, Cornrow City, ostensibly to have her hair styled, but really to learn Marie’s secret of eternal youth and beauty. They recognize each other as ancient adversaries, and each endeavors to disparage the other.
Fact Check: In popular accounts, Marie Laveau is depicted as a hairdresser employed in the homes of wealthy white women to arrange their coiffures. It is said that family secrets learned from these patrons proved useful in her Voudou practice. Although Marie was never designated in city directories or the census as a hairdresser, many free woman of color did follow this profession. In Coven, her salon, Cornrow City, is represented as being in the Ninth Ward, but it’s actually a historic house at the corner of Dumaine and North Prieur Streets in the Faubourg Tremé.
Fiona tells Marie sarcastically that she’s “been to St. Louis Cemetery no. 1, seen the tomb of Laveau, seen the fat tourists drawing crosses on the bricks, making wishes to the great Voudou Queen.”
Fact Check: The practice of marking the Marie Laveau tomb is real, and it engenders a great deal of consternation among New Orleans preservationists. Tourists often draw Xs with felt-tipped pens and lipstick, which is damaging the tomb, especially the fragile marble tablet on which the inscriptions are carved. On December 17, 2013, a person whose identity has not been revealed coated the tomb with pink latex paint and painted the marble tablets white in an effort to “clean up” the X marks. The cemetery preservation group Save Our Cemeteries contracted with an expert to remove the pink paint, but before work could begin, the Archdiocese of New Orleans, which owns the cemetery, power washed the tomb. According to newspaper reports, this overly harsh treatment has dislodged plaster and pieces of the soft brick from which the tomb was constructed.
Episode 2 “Boy Parts,” aired October 16, 2013
Episode 3 “The Replacements,” aired October 23, 2013
Episode 4 “Fearful Pranks Ensue” aired October 30, 2013
Episode 5, “Burn Witch Burn,” aired November 6, 2013
To learn more about the real Madame Lalaurie and Marie Laveau, check out Carolyn Long’s bios of both women:
Carolyn Long retired from the National Museum of American History in 2001. She lives in Washington, D.C., and New Orleans.