New Orleans Haunted History- Jean Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop
The notorious Pirate's legend
Over time Jean Lafitte has become so romanticized that no one really knows what's fact or fiction anymore. It seems every port and inlet along the Gulf Coast claims to have some of his booty hidden away, and a surprising number of places claim he's buried there.
I try to stick to facts as much as possible, but when you're talking about a man born (around) 1776 who did his best to remain a mystery, you'll have to forgive me a little extrapolation.
(except for the painting of Jean Lafitte, all images taken/owned by the author)
His shadowy beginnings
Lafitte told various stories about where and when he was born. Claimed birthplaces include France, Saint Domingue (Haiti), Spain and even the suburbs of New York City and birthdates anywhere between 1776 and 1800.
His biographer claims it's most likely he was born in Saint Domingue and moved to the Louisiana bayous as a young boy. That would have given him a lot of time to travel the waterways that would shelter him once he started his life of crime- it was said that he knew the twists and turns of the swamps better than any man alive.
His biographer's assumptions aside, there are no official records of Lafitte until 1805 when his older brother Pierre opened the blacksmith shop.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Pierre ran a legitimate blacksmithy, but the real money began to be made a few years later in 1807 when the 1-2 punch of the Embargo Act and Slave Trade Act made smuggling an attractive alternative:
The young nation had earned independence but not respect. The Europeans had, in fact, developed an unfortunate habit of gleefully attacking US trade ships, stealing cargo and press ganging the crew. The United States had no Navy to protect its waters, so they attempted to fight through economics instead, banning US ships from visiting foreign ports, and not allowing foreign ships to dock.
President Jefferson intended the Embargo Act to hurt the Europeans by depriving them of US trade dollars, but it upset his own citizens more than anyone else. Still a fledgling country, there were many goods that could only come from the Old World, and people resented having to do without.
At the same time England was attacking American ships it was pressuring the US to end the slave trade. Ultimately the US made a strange compromise- the Slave Trade Act disallowed the importation of new slaves, but kept current slaves and their offspring in bondage.
These two decrees created a huge black market- many citizens were willing to pay top dollar for their banned luxury goods & slave labor, so the Lafitte brothers set out to provide it to them...with a slight markup, of course.
We'll never know whether he intended to have an above-board shop or always intended to use the legitimacy as a front for the smuggling.
Cecille B. DeMille had an interesting take on Lafitte...
Things heat up
Pierre continued to be run the shop on Bourbon Street while Jean set up a settlement in the swamps outside of town. There he built and captured a small fleet of ships for himself and built an empire, storing goods and slaves, only bringing them to the shop under cover of darkness to be passed onto the buyers.
But by 1810 the Governor of Louisiana had had enough, and started actively pursuing and harassing the pirates. They managed to put a dent in the Lafitte's business but for two years could never quite catch them in the act, because his ships would melt away into the bayous and be uncatchable.
Finally arrested in 1812, the brothers posted bond and promptly skipped out, vowing not to return for trial. Instead of running their smuggling through the shop, they held open air markets (similar to the above video), which gave them income,but upset New Orleans' merchants who were no longer getting a piece of the action. The shopkeepers started supporting the government's war on the pirates.
Meanwhile the war of 1812 had broken out between England and the United States. Pierre had been caught again and was in jail when the Brits reached out to Jean Lafitte in 1814, with an offer they thought he couldn't refuse. Jean said he needed 15 days to think it over before he'd join with their forces to attack New Orleans.
Instead, he used their offer to his advantage, showing it to the Governor. Jean Lafitte negotiated to help defend the city in exchange for his brother's "accidental" release and a full pardon for him and his men.
Lafitte's second in command actually did "go straight" after the Battle of New Orleans, becoming beloved by the citizens, who eventually paid for his tomb in St. Louis No. 2. The inscription reads:
Fearless warrior on land and on wave
In a hundred fights he showed his worth
And this new Bayard*, righteous and brave
Could watch without trembling the end of the Earth.
* Bayard was a town in the French Alps You claimed to be from. Alludes to You making New Orleans his "true" home.
The pirates become heroes
New Orleans had no defenses, and the English thought it was going to be an easy conquest- their goal being to seize the entire territory gained with the Louisiana Purchase. but General Jackson and Lafitte's men built up earthworks and steadied the men against the much bigger and better prepared invading troops- there were around 4,000 Americans fighting against 11,000 Brits, and the locals were understandably very nervous.
The battle spanned several days, but the British were driven off,having had nearly 400 men killed and 1,500 wounded. The Americans had only 49 killed and 87 wounded.
The pirates were credited with putting country ahead of profit, and the full pardon was upheld.
Interestingly, it turned out that a peace treaty had been signed days before the battle, and the war was actually over when the battle occurred. That didn't make the battle unimportant, however, since there are signs the British might have been considering returning for another try at recovering their old colony. A significant loss such as they faced in New Orleans convinced them that it wouldn't be easily accomplished, and the battle was the last of the war.
The pirate's death
The pirates found that life on the straight and narrow wasn't to their taste and not long after the war they moved west, returning to a life of piracy along the Texas/Mexico coasts before making agreements with Cuba and Columbia.
Where he went from there is open to speculation. Legends abound across the Gulf of Mexico, tales of both treasure and a retired Jean Lafitte, quietly living out his days and being buried under someone else's name or in an unmarked grave.
Personally, I don't think that sounds much like the pirate of legend.
Other stories have him dying a sad, lonely death, driven into poverty by a 1718 hurricane that destroyed his merchandise and left him badly in debt.
It's hard for me to picture him accepting that without giving it another go.
More likely to be true is the tale of his death and burial at sea in 1823, after trying to outrun the Spanish fleet.
Regardless of where he died, it's said that-- in the end-- he returned to his old stomping grounds in the blacksmith shop.
Now a bar, you can visit one of the most infamous places in the south, kicking back for a beer and some atmosphere.
Built in the early 1700s, you can still see the brick-between-posts construction. It's a dark and moody place, regardless of the hour.
People report seeing Lafitte's ghostly figure watching what's going on in the bar from the shadows, primarily on the ground floor, but the most activity is reported around the chimney.
Pirate tradition says when a pirate buried his treasure, he should kill a captive or crew member on the site to watch over and protect it, and that chimney is said to hold some of the pirate's booty. Many people have seen angry red eyes peering out from the base at them, and feeling uneasy when sitting at the tables nearby.
People have also reported seeing a female, sometimes upstairs or by the rafters, and other times in the bar. No one has any idea of who she might be, but Jean Lafitte was quite the lady's man, so perhaps it's one of his women.
Or who knows, maybe a pirate groopie? We do have a pirate fetish in town and for some years have had an annual pirate convention that makes sure to spend time honoring Lafitte, even after 200 years. Given all the attention, is it any wonder he might decide to stick around?