The humid, cobbled streets of New Orleans’ French Quarter have their fair share of shadowy stories, but none are as notorious as that of Micaela Almonester, the beautiful Baroness de Pontalba. This Creole blueblood’s life was filled with decadent balls, palatial estates…and one infamous crime. Read on, but take care: It doesn’t get more Southern Gothic than this.
1. She Had a Gothic Upbringing
In 1795, Micaela Almonester was born to Don Andres Almonester and his wife Louise in the hot, decadent heart of New Orleans, Louisiana. At the time, the city was just beginning to be a sensual destination for European aristocrats—and like her native city, Almonester soon gained a reputation for dark charm and even darker secrets.
2. She Was Spoiled Rotten
Almonester’s blood might as well have been flecked with gold. Her father Andres was a Spanish nobleman, while her mother Louise was a famously beautiful, notoriously intelligent French Creole half his age and with a mega-watt pedigree herself. The pair married for financial gain…and they placed immense expectations on their daughter.
3. She Had an Unusual Beauty
Though Micaela didn’t exactly inherit her mother’s famed beauty, she did snag Louise’s mysterious allure. The young Almonester heiress had jet-black hair and dark, hypnotic eyes. Even better, she inherited all her mother’s intelligence and cunning—and as we’ll see, she needed to put it to very, very good use.
4. Her Family Was Cursed
Despite their great wealth, the Almonester family dragged a dark curse behind them. Micaela was an only child, but not for lack of trying. Her father’s first wife had perished in childbirth, taking the baby with her. Micaela had also briefly had a younger sister, who then succumbed to illness at age four. But this was just the beginning of the nightmare.
5. She Never Knew Her Father
In 1798, when Micaela was just a toddler, her illustrious family experienced their biggest tragedy yet. Her father passed that year, leaving behind his immense fortune and power to her young mother Louise. Mother and daughter soon found out that 18th-century New Orleans wasn’t exactly a good time for two bereft single women.
6. She Was an It Girl
Some girls have it all, but Almonester somehow got a second helping on top of that. As the only child of a deceased Daddy Warbucks, she was literally the richest girl in town. Accordingly, she received the best education money could buy, and was fluent in French, Spanish, and later English. But as everybody knows, everything has a price…
7. Her Mother Caused a Scandal
Shortly after her father’s passing, Micaela’s mother Louise did a “Real Housewives of New Orleans” move and took on a hunky second husband seven years her junior. Almonester’s new stepdad, 25-year-old Jean-Baptiste Castillion, was a very respectable French Consul. Yet when the public found out, scandal erupted.
8. The City Turned Against Her Family
The public wasn’t going to sit by as a beautiful woman married a hot young man after years of slumming it with an old loser. Naturally, they protested the union for three riotous days, displaying effigies of Louise, her new groom, and her deceased husband in his coffin. Oh, but don’t go thinking the Almonester Curse was over.
9. She Had a Secret Affair
In 1811, Micaela’s mother Louise started sniffing around to find her 15-year-old daughter a suitable groom for her own marriage. Only Micaela was hiding a dark secret. The beautiful heiress-in-training was actually in love with a penniless man from town, and this teenaged romance was doomed to a heartbreaking end.
10. Her Cousin Romanced Her
Almonester’s innocent love didn’t stand a chance against her mother’s aristocratic expectations. Louise quickly shut the dalliance down and instead set her daughter up with her older cousin, the 20-year-old Celestin de Pontalba, who went by the embarrassing nickname of “Tin Tin.” Yeah, this guy wasn’t the best catch.
11. She Received an Indecent Proposal
“Tin Tin” actually suggested the marriage himself—but this was far from a romantic move. Having never even met the sweet, naïve Micaela, Celestin first wrote to the Almonester matriarch and suggested a “business merger that would transfer the Almonester wealth into their hands.” Do I smell…another cursed marriage?
12. She Had a Quickie Marriage
Celestin’s wooing was somehow more pathetic than his proposition. The groom came over from France to Louisiana, took notes on the child bride for a mere three weeks, then wrapped it up with a lavish wedding in October 1811. The de Pontalba family may have thought they were getting away with something, but the Almonesters got them good.
13. She Conspired Against Her Husband
Micaela and her mother hadn’t survived the single life without learning a few lessons, and the marriage was a cunning ploy. Though Celestin wed Micaela for her money, Mama Louise made sure their marriage contract was ironclad, and gave Micaela total control of her funds. Sadly, this astounding triumph—almost unheard of at the time—had dark consequences.
14. She Lived a Fairy Tale…At First
After her wedding, Micaela whisked herself away to Celestin’s palatial estate in Mont L’Eveque, France. When I say “palatial,” I mean this thing was a literal castle with an actual moat. The new bride even had the space to make an entire personal theatre for herself to put on plays. Too bad the good times didn’t last…
15. Her Father-in-Law Was a Monster
It wasn’t long before Almonester realized she’d made a huge mistake, and that her husband’s family hid a chilling dark side. Her new father-in-law, Baron Joseph de Pontalba, was, to put it mildly, an unhinged basket-case who controlled his weak-willed son Celestin. So when the baron discovered Micaela wasn’t blessing the family with her fortune, his response was utterly disturbing.
16. She Gave up Everything
Shortly after the nuptials, Joseph forced Micaela into an action she would live to regret: He made her sign over Power of Attorney, giving all her assets to her husband Celestin and undoing all the protection her mother had offered. Of course, this also meant that all control really went to Joseph, who ruled the family with an iron fist. Sadly, the worst was yet to come.
17. She Stayed in Her Marriage for a Heartbreaking Reason
At this point, it’d be reasonable to wonder why Almonester didn’t get the heck out of there while she still could. Well, she couldn’t. She became pregnant soon after her wedding, eventually having a whopping five children with Celestin. It was very much a “stay together for the kids” situation…at least at first.
18. Her Husband Betrayed Her
The naïve Almonester might have been hoping she could work it out with her in-laws, but it quickly blew up in her face, big time. Almost immediately after he got Power of Attorney, her husband committed the ultimate betrayal. He all but left her, leaving her in a small Paris flat with a pitiable $600/month allowance of her money and multiple children to feed. Is it any wonder she rebelled?
19. She Tried to Reclaim Her Power
Once she had enough, the whip-smart Almonester hatched an ingenious plot to get her money back from her in-laws. She went back to New Orleans to reclaim her own property stateside, assert her land rights, and claw back some of the power she once had. A woman trying to own land? Well, this isn’t going to end well.
20. She Became a Prisoner Bride
When Almonester returned to Europe, she probably wasn’t expecting her husband or her family to receive her with open arms…but their response was darker than she could have imagined. She became a virtual prisoner in her own home. The de Pontalbas sequestered her in just one room of the house and refused to let her see anyone. But they didn’t stop there.
21. She Was Forced Into Isolation
Experts believe that at this point, the de Pontalbas were trying to literally drive Almonester insane. They apparently banned any of the servants of the house from even looking at or speaking to her, and guests were strictly forbidden to treat her with any kind of consideration at all, even though she was the lady of the house.
22. Her Family Played Cruel Games With Her
Obviously, this would be a breaking point for anyone, and Almonester let go of any hopes of saving her marriage. She officially filed for separation from Celestin…only to receive a rude awakening. The courts denied her. When she tried again, she was still denied. Why? Ugh, get a load of this….
23. She Paid for Her “Wrongs”—Literally
The de Pontalbas may have hated Micaela, but they needed to keep her around for her fortune, and they successfully sued her in court every time she tried to legally leave Celestin. In fact, French divorce laws were so strict, Almonester didn’t just lose her cases, she also had to pay the de Pontalbas’ lawyer fees.
24. She Had an Ingenious Plan
Almonester had her own cunning ways to revolt even as her “family” was trying to push her to the brink of insanity. Reportedly, she used to insist on sitting at the head of the table during dinners, daring anyone to tell her to move. See, if they did, this would prove she wasn’t the female head of household and give her more grounds for separation. Tricky, tricky Micaela.
25. Her Father-in-Law Committed an Unforgivable Act
This almost unliveable existence went on for four long years—until it came to an utterly disturbing climax. After Almonester’s latest attempt to separate from her husband, Baron Joseph became even more unhinged than usual. Furious, he strode into her bedroom with two dueling pistols…intent on ending her.
26. She Begged for Her Life
Upon seeing her father-in-law aiming for her, Almonester’s abundant courage apparently failed her, and she cried out “Don’t! I’ll give you everything!” Joseph’s response was beyond chilling. The de Pontalba patriarch looked his stubborn heiress coldly in the eye and replied, “No, you are going to die.” And then he took aim and fired.
27. She Fought for Her Life
Joseph de Pontalba shot Micaela Almonester four times in the chest that day, with one of the bullets passing through her left hand as she held it up to block the gunfire. When she tried to escape, falling into the arms of a maid, he pursued her down to the drawing room and watched as she bled out on the chateau’s luxurious décor. Then he made his darkest move of all.
28. Her Attacker Met a Dark Fate
Later that evening, some hours after shooting his daughter-in-law and leaving her on the floor, Baron Joseph de Pontalba went into his study and shut the door tight. He then took the very same dueling pistols he’d used earlier that day, and fatally shot himself. It was his final unhinged act…but Micaela’s fate was much different.
29. She Was Permanently Disfigured
Miraculously, Micaela Almonester survived her father-in-law’s vicious attack—though not unscathed. Two of the fingers on her left hand were ruined, and her left breast was mutilated where the bullets hit her. One of her lungs was so damaged, she could never climb a flight of stairs again without getting winded. And that wasn’t the worst part.
30. Her Road to Recovery Was Harrowing
Almonester’s long road to recovery was nightmarish. For three weeks, she suffered through almost daily seizures and couldn’t sleep through the night. To make matters even crueler, her mother-in-law, grieving her own husband, refused to speak to her throughout the entire convalescence. As for Almonester’s husband? Well…
31. Her Husband Tried to Beg for Forgiveness
For once in his life, Almonester’s spineless husband Celestin actually grew a pair and took care of her while she, uh, recovered from his own father’s attempt on her life. Huh, when you put it that way, it doesn’t sound so heroic. Almonester didn’t think so either: As she later she said, he only “behaved towards me as he should.” So Celestin probably should have seen her next move coming.
32. She Became a Villain
Unsurprisingly, Baron Joseph’s attack caused a huge society scandal at the time, but not for the reasons you might be thinking. Disgustingly enough, it was Almonester who lost friends rather than the de Pontalba family, and once word got around, most of her high society buddies shunned her. Um, the door’s to the left, fake friends.
33. She Made One Last Bid for Freedom
Celestin’s transformation into sick-nurse didn’t change Almonester’s feelings one whit, and as soon as she was well enough, she renewed her bid for separation again. The results were chilling. Apparently your father-in-law trying to kill you still isn’t grounds for separation, and the judge said “non.” But then Celestin had to go and do himself in.
34. Her Husband Was Unbelievably Cruel
Once he heard about his latest court victory, Celestin decided to celebrate in an utterly cruel way. For literally no reason, he printed out the court transcripts, highlighting the parts that degraded his wife, and then handed them out to passerby. Wow Celestin, once a loser, always a loser, huh? Thank God he got what was coming to him.
35. Her Husband Made a Fatal Error
See, this petty revenge was exactly what the cunning Micaela had been waiting for. In handing out the pamphlets, Celestin was in violation of the first rule of husband-hood: Protect your wife. So sometime around 1835, Almonester took another swing at separation—and this time, at the age of 40, she freaking won. But she still had another kind of revenge in store for her husband.
36. She Made a Triumphant Homecoming
After surviving Baron Joseph’s brutal attack, Almonester had a second lease on life—and she intended to use it. She traveled back to her native New Orleans in 1848 with her three surviving sons in tow and immediately established herself once more as the woman to know about town. And then she turned her eyes on New Orleans itself…
37. She Used People for Her Own Ends
Almonester was an incredibly shrewd businesswoman, and when famed Swedish singer Jenny Lind asked to stay in her plush New Orleans apartments, she knew just what to do. Almonester graciously hosted the “Swedish Nightingale”…and then, once Lind left, she sold off all the furniture the celebrity had used at a great profit.
38. She Helped Make New Orleans
Almonester practically created New Orleans’ French Quarter. When she returned from France, the sassy matriarch was appalled to see that the once-vibrant neighborhood had fallen into disrepair, and she set about returning it to its former glory. In particular, she erected what are now called the “Pontalba Buildings,” the two iconic red-brick beauties. But, like everything she did, this soon led to infamy.
39. She Was Stubborn
Almonester knew exactly what she wanted when it came to rebuilding her beloved New Orleans, and she wasn’t going to let anything get in her way—and I do mean anything. Reportedly, one day when she was trying to landscape her latest project, the mayor tried to stop her from tearing down trees. Her response was utterly disturbing.
40. She Threatened a Powerful Man
When the mayor came up and tried to prevent her garden work, the Baroness de Pontalba apparently waved a shotgun in his face and told him to back the heck off. Given that this was a woman who had been shot four times herself and lived to tell the tale, I’m going to assume the mayor took her “advice” and let her go about her business.
41. Her Wedding Was Star-Studded
Micaela’s wedding might have been a passionless affair, but it definitely wasn’t penniless. No less that Bernard de Marigny—a high-ranking representative of Napoleon Bonaparte—gave her away at the ceremony. If you need more proof this was a big deal, get this: Far from rioting and making effigies, the people of New Orleans actually approved of the union.
42. She Suffered a Mother’s Worst Nightmare
Tragedy actually hit Almonester early into her seemingly charmed marriage. Her firstborn child, a boy named Joseph, and her only daughter, a bouncing girl named Mathilde, both perished in infancy.
43. She Had Friends in High Places
Just in case you need reminding that Almonester was one boss lady, know this: While she was visiting stateside and gathering support against her lame-o family, President Andrew Jackson sent a private carriage to pick her up and bring her to the White House for a tete-a-tete. Her escort? Secretary of State Martin Van Buren. Darn, girl.
44. She Had a Surprising Talent
Like almost everything else she did, Almonester was frighteningly good when it came to architectural endeavors and planning. One historian called her a “lay genius in architecture,” and the Baroness often supervised her construction sites personally, riding her horse around the grounds and looking for anything less than perfect.
45. She Made Her Own Coat of Arms
Like a true boss lady, Almonester made herself her own logo, a crest with an intertwined “A” and “P” for Almonester and Pontalba. She put the brand on many of the buildings she constructed around New Orleans.
46. She Went Through Purgatory
The long-suffering Almonester did not mince words when it came to her emancipation from her horrible, no good family. Once she had processed the blessed verdict, she wrote, “I can now say that I have gone through my purgatory while still on this earth.” If Micaela Almonester can make it through 1834, guys, you can make it through this day. Thing is? She was just getting started.
47. She Learned a Brutal Lesson
Almonester became famous for her financial smarts, just like her own mother. In a super unusual move for a woman of the time, she would even go through her children’s marriage contracts with a fine-tooth comb, making sure they were never, ever getting the raw end of the deal. It was a kind of payback for her husband Celestin’s behavior, but she had more in store…
48. Karma Caught up With Her Husband
At the end of his life, Almonester dealt her no-good husband Celestin an entirely different kind of revenge. As he grew old, Celestin became senile, and although Almonester could have simply laughed at the karma, she did something else entirely. She took care of him—and took control. She organized his house, ordered around his servants, and nursed him. How’s that for some table-turning.
49. She Never Escaped Her Horrific Marriage
Ironically enough, Almonester never did fully escape Celestin. Aside from nursing him in their old age, the pair never divorced. Perhaps even more surprisingly, when he passed in 1878, Celestin was buried alongside his wife, dysfunctional relationship and all.
50. She Was a Survivor
Against all odds, Almonester ended life alongside her husband. She returned to France eventually, and when she passed on April 20, 1874, it was in their home of Hotel Pontalba. Somehow, she’d made it to the ripe old age of 78. Upon hearing of her passing, New Orleans mourned one of their most legendary citizens, and they still remember her today.