Only two days left until the season finale of American Horror Story: Coven! Recapping episodes 6-9 with a look at where history influenced the plot of Coven, Carolyn Long gives fans a lot to think about. As far-fetched and fantastical as much of Coven may seem, it’s easy to forget that true events in the past influenced the entire series.
The fourth Coven character based on a historical figure, the New Orleans Axeman (Danny Huston), is introduced in episode 6. It is March 1919, and the Axeman is typing a letter to the press. He declares that he is a spirit, a fell demon, that he is very fond of jazz , and that he will pass over New Orleans on Tuesday night, March 19, and spare any house where jazz is playing. The young women at Miss Robicheaux’s discuss their strategy. Their Supreme refuses to play jazz, saying that they are not only Salem descendants, they are also Suffragettes. They will not be intimidated. The handsome, impeccably dressed Axeman walks through the city, smiling when he hears jazz playing everywhere. He stops short when he discovers opera emanating from Miss Robichaux’s. He enters the gate and walks up the stairs into the bedroom, where a lone girl is reading the Tarot. As he raises his axe, the others appear and stab him to death with multiple wounds. Back in the present, Zoe, Nan, and Queenie experiment with a Ouija Board and make contact with the spirit of the Axeman, who has been trapped at Miss Robichaux’s since 1919. He persuades Zoe to release him with a magic spell and leaves the house, whistling.
Fact Check: The Axeman was a real person who terrorized New Orleans from May 1918 through October 1919. The story is told in Gumbo Ya-Ya, a 1945 production of the WPA Louisiana Writers’ Project, and can be verified by newspaper articles from the New Orleans States and Times-Picayune. During this period an unknown assailant broke into homes and attacked people with an axe while they slept. Some, but not all, died of their injuries. Many of the victims were Italian grocers, leading to the suspicion that the Mafia was involved. Finally, on March 16, 1919, the Times-Picayune published the letter that was quoted verbatim in Coven. The Axeman announced that “at 12:15 (earthly time) on next Tuesday night” he would “pass over New Orleans…and I swear by all the devils in the nether regions that every person shall be spared in whose house a jazz band is in full swing…. Those persons who do not jazz it…will get the axe.” Although this letter has the appearance of a prank, New Orleanians took it seriously. Many households indeed played jazz, but some refused; there were no incidents that night. One more attack occurred in October.
Queenie visits Marie’s Cornrow City beauty salon, and Marie convinces her that she doesn’t belong with the white coven at Miss Robichaux’s: “You want to come live with us, with your own people? Bring Delphine to me.” Back at Miss Robichaux’s, Queenie ask Delphine “What was the worst thing you ever did?” Delphine recalls a scene with her cook Sally, who is serving breakfast to the Lalauries. Knowing of her husband’s penchant for attractive enslaved woman, she observes that Sally has just given birth to a light-skinned baby boy. She asks Sally to come to her boudoir and help with her beauty treatment. That night, Delphine is painting her face with blood. “I know who’s been between your legs, whore,” she screams at Sally, who realizes that the blood is that of her own baby. Delphine tells Queenie that Sally threw herself off the balcony the next morning. Queenie is horrified. “You have to understand,” Delphine explains, it wasn’t only a different time, it was a different world.”
Fact Check: The “Sally”incident is roughly based on the often-repeated story that Madame Lalaurie chased a young enslaved girl up the stairs and out onto the roof of the house, brandishing her cowhide whip. The panicked girl fell to her death on the stones of the courtyard. The account first appeared in Harriet Martineau’s 1838 memoir, Retrospect of Western Travel. Martineau, an English social reformer who visited New Orleans in 1836, claimed to have heard it from reliable witnesses. Delphine did own two young sisters, Florence and Juliette. The funeral records of St. Louis Cathedral show that not only these girls, but also their mother and younger brother and sister, died in the early 1830s.
Disgusted by Delphine’s confession that she killed Sally’s baby, Queenie decides to deliver her to Marie’s Cornrow City on the pretense of having her hair styled. Marie locks Delphine in a cage, and directs Queenie to “make the first cut.” Marie paints her face with Delphine’s blood. Truly confused, Delphine asks Queenie “Whatever did I do to deserve this betrayal? Didn’t you like my pot pie and my peach crumble?” Marie arrives and berates Delphine. Delphine laughs: “Put me back in the coffin and bury me. I want no part of a country that has a darky in the White House.” A familiar cardboard box, this time containing Delphine’s head, is delivered to the door at Miss Robichaux’s. Fiona sends it back to Marie, who orders Queenie to “take this filthy thing outside and burn it.”
This is when Queenie decides to teach Delphine a civil rights history lesson before Marie does away with her completely. The resulting scenes are some of the best in the series. Queenie installs Delphine’s head in her own room and forces her to watch the video of Roots: One Family’s Epic Story from Slavery to Freedom. “You aren’t leaving this earth until I educate you about those people you tortured–my people.” Delphine is singing “Dixie” as Queenie leaves. When Queenie returns, Delphine says, laughing, that she ”kept my eyes shut tight the entire time,” and calls Queenie a “foul negress.” Queenie plays another video of civil rights demonstrators being attacked by white supremacists with dogs and fire hoses with the soundtrack of a gospel choir singing “Oh Freedom.” The final scene shows Delphine moved to tears.
Fact Check: In reality, Delphine never repented of her evil deeds or even understood what all the fuss was about. A few years after their hasty flight from New Orleans, Dr. Lalaurie abandoned Delphine, and she and her adult children settled in a luxurious flat in a fashionable Paris neighborhood. In 1842, when Delphine expressed her intention to return to New Orleans to put her financial affairs in order, her son Paulin Blanque sent a very revealing letter to his brother-in-law. Referring to “the sad memories of the catastrophe of 1834,” Paulin wrote that “time hasn’t changed anything in that indomitable nature…. I bemoan…the fate that awaits us if ever again she sets foot in that place, where her conduct elicited general disapproval…. I truly believe that my mother never had any idea concerning the cause of her departure from New Orleans.” Delphine never made this trip, and she died in Paris on December 7, 1849.
Episode 6, “The Axeman Cometh,” aired November 13, 2013
Episode 7, “The Dead,” aired November 20, 2013
Episode 8, “The Sacred Taking,” aired December 4, 2013
Episode 9, “Head,” aired December 11, 2013
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.