A North Carolina mother and daughter claim Jean Laffite faked his death and lived to a ripe old age in the Tar Heel State.
-by John S. Sledge
Re. the spelling of Laffite's name: Writer John Sledge notes, “A contemporary press account of his death spells it ‘Laffitte,’ [Lyle} Saxon spells it ‘Lafitte’ and I use throughout ‘Laffite,’ as did the old pirate himself.” We have retained the spelling “Laffitte” in a quote from an early article.
In its Sunday edition for April 20, 1823, the Gaceta de Colombia reported a desperate “naval combat” in the Gulf of Honduras. The battle had occurred some two months previously when the infamous Jean Laffite, then in his 40s and sailing under a letter of marque from General Simón Bolívar, attacked two unidentified vessels.
Rather than helpless merchant ships, they proved to be well-armed naval vessels or perhaps rival sea dogs, and they battled Laffite late into the night. “After this turnabout,” the paper wrote, “Captain Laffitte was mortally wounded but stimulated the ardor of his crew and turned over command to his second who then suffered the same fate.” Fortunately, Laffite’s men were able to break off the action and limp away unpursued.
“Captain Laffitte died from his wounds the next day,” the article continued. “The loss of this brave naval officer is moving and the boldness with which he confronted the superior forces demonstrates why he is so well regarded after his heroic death.” He was presumably buried at sea, though the article did not so state.
There have always been those who have found this account of Laffite's death unsatisfactory. Given his larger-than-life persona, daring deeds, and slippery nature, they insist that surely the old pirate concocted the whole thing and escaped again, having the last laugh atop his treasure chest in some secluded burg. After all, there was neither body nor grave.
Enter Ashley Oliphant, an associate professor of English at Pfeiffer University and the author of three previous books, including one about Ernest Hemingway, and her mother, Beth Yarbrough, an artist and photographer with an interest in historic homes. In their new book, Jean Laffite Revealed: Unraveling One of America’s Longest-Running Mysteries (University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, paper, $20), the pair claim Laffite did indeed fake his death and then lived out his life in Lincolnton, N.C.
There have long been rumors and whispers about one Lorenzo Ferrer, “a swashbuckling Frenchman,” in the words of a 1970s newspaper reporter, who appeared in town out of the blue in 1839 with a mixed-race mistress and a “trunk of gold.” Was Ferrer actually Jean Laffite?
Oliphant and Yarbrough are committed local historians, and they pursued their quest across the South, climbing up into dim church attics and down into dusty courthouse basements to examine records, brushing aside leaves to read faded gravestones, and haunting the stacks of small libraries seeking obscure titles and references.
They share all of this in their own voices rather than “in straight academic prose,” to mostly charming effect. Their humorous working title, “Two Blondes and a Buccaneer,” will strike most readers as particularly apt. For example, they write that Laffite’s December 1815 Washington trip “was a total belly flop,” that a Laffite rival was, “as we say in the South, batshit crazy,” and that the hurricane of 1818 “scared the bejesus” out of settlers in Texas. At its most entertaining, Jean Laffite Revealed conjures a hazy Southern afternoon with two high-wattage storytellers. “Hang on to your hat,” they declare, “because this is not your mama’s sleepy history book.”
There are aspects of traditional academic publishing that are useful, however, and that any university press should require. Foremost among these is peer review. If this book had it, surely the reviewers would have flagged the inconsistent footnoting.
In chapter two, for example, the authors state that by 1809, the Laffite brothers “had established their now famous blacksmith shop” at Bourbon and St. Philip where they “covertly sold their stolen merchandise.” Available historical records do not support this association. Because the authors do not footnote this paragraph it is impossible to know their source, though I suspect it is Lyle Saxon’s 1930 Lafitte the Pirate, which is cited in the bibliography.
Other missing scholarly signifiers include blurbs by people with subject expertise (an actor, a cookbook author, and a North Carolina state senator are among those offering praise), cover art attribution (a brief internet search reveals that it is “Seaport by Moonlight,” 1771, by Claude-Joseph Vernet, the original of which hangs in the Louvre), and, critically, an index. Jean Laffite Revealed would be a better book with these things.
None of this is necessarily fatal if the authors' key arguments are cogent and well supported. Oliphant and Yarbrough present several pieces of evidence that, while interesting, do not definitively prove their case. They quote, for example, from two 1829 letters between Arsène Latour in Havana and Edward Livingston in Washington, old Laffite associates both, in which a third party called “Maison Rouge” is referenced. Laffite connoisseurs will of course instantly make the connection, since the pirate’s Galveston Island abode was famously painted red and called Maison Rouge.
“Taken at reasonable face value,” the authors write, “we saw this as compelling evidence that Laffite was alive in Havana, Cuba, in April 1829,” six years after his reported death at sea. In other words, “Maison Rouge” was Laffite’s code name.
This is at best a circumstantial claim, weakened when the authors explain that earlier correspondence between Latour and Livingston in 1818 references Marquis de Maison Rouge, who died in 1799. Oliphant and Yarbrough do not believe there is any connection, and they may be right, but there was obviously precedent for the name in Cuba. Were there others who were alive in 1829 to whom Latour and Livingston could be referring? Jean Laffite Revealed is full of such leaps of faith that give the skeptical reader pause.
Oliphant and Yarbrough further posit that after leaving Cuba, Laffite surfaced in Mississippi as Lorenzo Ferrer and worked as a land speculator and slave trader, activities congenial to a former pirate. Ferrer owned several slaves himself, including a mixed-race woman named Louisa.
The authors dedicate the volume in part to Louisa, "who never had a voice," because her presence in the records allowed them to positively link the North Carolina Lorenzo Ferrer they were familiar with to the earlier Mississippi Lorenzo Ferrer. Their sleuthing into Ferrer’s North Carolina life is, by any measure, impressive. He was an active Mason, penned an 1812 war poem referencing Gulf incidents, and owned property and respectable funds.
Near the end of their book Oliphant and Yarbrough list the things Ferrer and Laffite had in common, including birth between 1778-1782, the French language, social polish, cleverness, similar handwriting, Freemasonry, slave trading, a fondness for mixed-race women, an admiration for Andrew Jackson, and a “penchant for beaver-skin/otter skin caps.”
These are interesting commonalities but are hardly limited to Ferrer and Laffite. The 19th-century South was filled with Santo Domingan and Napoleonic refugees, Battle of New Orleans veterans, wandering coastal sailors, land speculators, slave traders, and confidence men, and beaver hats were ubiquitous.
The authors’ pièce de résistance is an old sword hanging in Lincoln Lodge 137. Their research reveals that it is a Nathan Starr Model 1812 Contract Cavalry Sabre. After careful examination, including under a blacklight and by x-ray, they spotted something apparently no one else ever had: a faint engraving on the scabbard which a “metals expert” concluded reads “Jn L…tte.”
If the expert is right, that is close to but not exactly how Laffite always wrote his name—with two f's and only one t. Undeterred, the authors explain “that in most of Laffite’s known signatures, he used a long swipe across the ‘t’ in his last name that extended backwards over the tops of the preceding ‘f’s.’ Unless further enhancement proves definitively one way or the other, it is reasonable that this inscription shows two ‘f’s’ with a swipe across their top, which would be consistent with Laffite’s signatures.”
Another leap of faith. Reasonable? By the authors’ lights, it is proof that the sword was Laffite’s “personal property” and that as Lorenzo Ferrer he gave it to the Masons: “For those who may still be in doubt about Lorenzo Ferrer’s identity, we ask how is it possible to explain that a sword with Laffite’s virtually invisible inscription made it into a Freemason lodge in a tiny little town in North Carolina.” The answer, of course, is that there could be many possible explanations, though a direct Laffite connection could certainly be one of them.
In a historical application of Occam’s Razor, which is more likely—that Jean Laffite perished in a Caribbean fracas for which there is a contemporaneous account or that he faked his death, spent time in Cuba, sneaked into Mississippi and created a new identity, then moved on to North Carolina where he died at 96, his secret safe until, a century-and-a-half later, two authors managed to run him down? Readers will have to draw their own conclusions.
Oliphant and Yarbrough do reveal a great deal about Lorenzo Ferrer, with hopefully more to come as they and future researchers work this soil. But do they prove he was Jean Laffite? Not in this reviewer’s opinion. Providing one remains clear-eyed about this book’s shortcomings, however, it presents an absorbing, if implausible, historical detective story.
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John S. Sledge is senior architectural historian with the Mobile Historic Development Commission and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He is the author of seven books, including “Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Journeys of the Heart,” “The Mobile River,” and “The Gulf of Mexico: A Maritime History,” all from the University of South Carolina press. He and his editor wife, Lynn, live in Fairhope, Ala.
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