The Myth, The Person and the Bridge Rail
Frank DiCesare Photographs
On a chilly morning last January, a group of workmen gathered on the Calcasieu River Bridge along Interstate 10 to begin a day of decorating. Armed with steel-headed mallets, rivet guns and bolts the size of shotgun shells, they removed damaged sections of the bridge’s decorative handrails and replaced them with ones that had been refurbished and glazed with a light gray paint. Orange traffic cones forced cars traveling east to merge into a single lane. The heavy weight of history was apparent, and members of the media were on hand to photograph this special event.
Cast more than 50 years ago during the bridge’s construction, the handrails replaced that morning are far from ordinary. Welded within each of their frames stands a repeating motif, a pair of crossed pirate pistols, adorning the bridge from its eastern point in Lake Charles across the Calcasieu River to Westlake at its western end. In total, more than 5,000 of them flank the bridge, reminding daily commuters of Louisiana’s pirate past and its legends of adventure and conquest on the high seas and tales of buried treasure.
But of all the pirates to pass through Southwest Louisiana in the early years of the 19th century, none has captured the imagination of locals quite like Jean Laffite (scholars favor this spelling of his name). Since the time of his death, which most scholars date from between 1823 to 1826, Laffite’s life has grown into the stuff of legend, a fascinating and enduring gumbo of fact and fiction based in part on the roux that is oral tradition. “He’s a very romantic figure,” says Paul Hoffman, professor of history at Louisiana State University. “There’s both a mythic person and a real person in Laffite, and it’s almost impossible at times to figure out which one is which.”
For some people, Laffite is the pirate who springs from the pages of a Robert Louis Stevenson novel, a dashing and swashbuckling Long John Silver type who raided ships in search of booty, wheeled and dealed with the federal government, charmed Louisiana’s elite and buried treasure in the area known today as Contraband Bayou in present-day Lake Charles. To others, he was a penniless privateer whose spoils disappeared quickly because of bad luck, bad behavior, indictments, jail time and expensive lawyers who demanded their money up front. With Laffite, believers have choices.
In Southwest Louisiana the legends surrounding Laffite’s life are taken so seriously that many believe them to be true. Their beliefs stem solely from the numerous stories of buried treasure unearthed around Calcasieu and Cameron parishes, tales that have been passed down for generations. One account states that about 25 years ago farmers in DeQuincy found gold coins dated to Laffite’s time. “It’s no myth; the treasure is here,” says Eddie Langley of Lake Charles.
Langley recounts an old story he heard some 30 years ago about a man from Starks who would routinely find gold coins in a swamp along his property. “When his kids were ready to go back to school in the fall and needed new shoes, he’d take a walk out into the swamp and come back with his pockets full of gold coins,” he says. “People would follow him out there, and he’d lead them around in circles until he lost them. He never told anyone where he got the coins. He had a heart attack and died and was never able to pass the story on. It’s stories like this that I know are true that actually happened that makes you believe there is something to them.”
A foreman with the Union Pacific Railroad, Langley is a member of the Lake Charles Buccaneers, a group formed by area businessmen nearly 60 years ago. The Buccaneers promote Contraband Days, a two-week pirate festival held each May along the waterfront in downtown Lake Charles to celebrate Laffite’s legend. The Buccaneers participate in the festival’s opening ceremonies, which reach a climax when the man chosen to be the Jean Laffite for Contraband Days sails to the waterfront and forces the mayors from around Calcasieu Parish to “walk the plank” (they actually stand near the stern of the boat) and jump into Lake Charles. Langley served as Jean Laffite for Contraband Days 2012.
Langley is far from alone in his belief that Laffite’s treasure is real and waiting to be found. Attempts to excavate the famed pirate’s treasure have been going on in the Lake Charles area for more than a century. To date, however, no tangible or photographic evidence exists of any doubloon unearthed anywhere in Southwest Louisiana. Still, the stories persist, their murkiness adding to the mystique that is a cornerstone of Louisiana’s pirate history.
But while many of the legends surrounding Laffite’s life are practically impossible to either confirm or refute, scholars remain united in their belief that the famed pirate never buried any treasure anywhere. “Pirates lived pretty much from hand to mouth,” says William C. Davis, professor of history at Virginia Tech and author of The Pirates Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf. “If they had a lot of money, they typically didn’t keep it for very long. They also had no guarantee in their kind of work or in the kind of lives they lived that they would ever get back to pick up the treasure they had buried.”
What is known about Laffite today comes from his letters, arrest records and the various legal documents that still exist in the public domain. We know, for instance, that he worked closely with his older – and many believe smarter – brother, Pierre, raiding ships in the Caribbean and smuggling loot and slaves through Barataria Bay. It was dangerous and illegal work that Laffite researchers believe led more often to indictments and jail time than to any riches worthy of being buried.
Robert Vogel of Spring Grove, Minn., is one of the world’s leading scholars on Jean and Pierre Laffite. He has spent more than 40 years researching their lives and the letters they wrote to each other during their time as privateers. He says nothing is written in the letters between Jean and Pierre to suggest that either of them buried any treasure. In fact, their correspondence paints a much different picture of them than the myths would have many people believe, one that is far less romantic and much more human. “Jean Laffite’s letters to his brother read more like, ‘Hey, Pierre, can you send me another $1,000 for the lawyers?’” Vogel says. “Jean Laffite never buried any money. We know he banked at the Bank of Louisiana, which was on Royal Street in the French Quarter. The whole buried treasure thing with pirates is a 19th-century romantic fad, but it has long legs on it.”
If the Laffites had any money in the bank – or anywhere else – it did not stay there for long. The two men were constantly under indictment throughout their adult lives, and it is believed their fines and legal bills invariably ate up most of the loot they scored in their raids. For legal help, the Laffites often turned to Edward Livingston, a man who would later become President Andrew Jackson’s secretary of state. At the time, Livingston was one of the best trial attorneys in the country and one of the most expensive to hire. “It seems that a consequence of making your living as a gangster is that you’re always paying out money to your lawyers,” Vogel says. “The Laffites had legal bills that were, in the context of that time, phenomenal. When they got into trouble, they got into really big trouble, and it cost a lot to set them free. Lawyers like Livingston took their money up front; they didn’t do anything on spec.”
The Laffites’ connection with Livingston may have soaked them financially, but it also helped lead them into the history books. When Gen. Andrew Jackson was looking for Louisiana locals to aid his army in the Battle of New Orleans, it was Livingston who recommended the Laffite brothers for volunteer duty. Exactly how they aided Jackson’s army remains unclear. Davis believes Pierre was somewhere on the left flank of Jackson’s line and took part in the pursuit of the British troops after the battle. The evidence surrounding Jean’s involvement in the battle, Davis adds, was that he was south of New Orleans in one of the bayous keeping watch on a possible backdoor water invasion that the British might have chosen to use. “There’s no question the Laffites had some involvement in the Battle of New Orleans,” Davis says. “But they did not win the battle for Jackson.”
Vogel also believes the Laffites participated in Jackson’s army during the Battle of New Orleans. He says a unique opportunity was presented to the Laffites in December 1814, just as the British were coming ashore. Public records from the time indicate that the Louisiana Legislature and the governor’s office prevailed on the U.S. attorney and the U.S. District Court in New Orleans to offer amnesty to the Baratarian pirates if they would enlist in the military. Vogel says the Laffites didn’t enlist largely because they believed they would have to become United States citizens in order to do so. At the time, the Laffite brothers had many indictments pending on them in the United States. Like many other foreigners under indictment in the United States at the time, the Laffites feared American citizenship would lead to further prosecution from the federal government. Instead, they chose to become “volunteer gentlemen” in Jackson’s army, delivering messages and providing intelligence. “Jackson didn’t care if you were a criminal or had been indicted on charges,” Vogel says. “As long as you could do something to help Gen. Jackson you were good enough for him.”
After the American army prevailed in New Orleans, Jackson publicly thanked the Laffite brothers for their work, as well as a group of criminals and Mexican revolutionaries who also helped his army to victory. “The Laffites were riding pretty high in public opinion after that,” Vogel says. “They could’ve retired and lived out their lives as war heroes. Unfortunately, they were flat busted broke.”
Strapped for cash, Jean Laffite wrote a letter to President James Madison on behalf of himself and his brother to ask for payment for their service in Jackson’s army. Laffite argued that as foreigners he and his brother did not have to side with the American army but chose to do so, nevertheless. He also argued, rather ironically, that overzealous American naval officers raided their home base in New Orleans and stole their money and supplies. In short, Laffite wanted reparations for the money and goods that were stolen. Madison never responded. Instead, Vogel says, the federal government forgave the Laffites for their years of criminal activity, the legal equivalent of a get-out-of-jail-free card. Neither Jean nor Pierre Laffite received a dime or a doubloon for their work in Jackson’s army.
In the years following the Battle of New Orleans, the Laffites, bankrupt and in search of quick cash, returned to piracy. They spent the rest of their lives running from the United States authorities and looking for their next big score, which never came. They traveled to Galveston, Texas, as part of an unlicensed private military expedition aimed at separating Texas from Mexico. They set up a base of operations on Galveston Island and spent the next four years on foreign soil devising plots to make money that were often foiled. One scheme involved an attempt to join a group of Europeans and Mexicans in a plot to take over Texas. Their plans, however, were dashed when a massive hurricane swept through Galveston in September 1818, destroying most of the homes and structures on the island.
Expelled from the Gulf
By 1820, the United States government was under pressure to expel the Laffites from the Gulf of Mexico. That year, federal officials negotiated a settlement with the two pirates, offering them amnesty from further prosecution if they agreed to leave the area. The Laffites, who were in their 40s at the time, accepted the amnesty and, under the watchful eye of a United States naval warship, vacated Galveston.
After their expulsion from Galveston, the Laffite brothers split up for a period of time. Jean first went to the Yucatan Peninsula and then to Cuba where, despite his recent federal expulsion from the Gulf, he continued to trying to make a living as a privateer. In 1821, however, he was captured by Spanish authorities in eastern Cuba and was jailed in a Cuban prison for piracy. Vogel says Jean was probably ill at the time of his imprisonment in Cuba; his records indicate he was moved from his cell to the prison hospital from which he later escaped. Jean then traveled to Central America where he tried to link himself with one of the emerging Latin American republics, offering his services as a privateer to any of the governments that were interested. Vogel says that although the Laffites were big-time smugglers on Barataria Island, they never netted much money from their pirating largely because their operations often cost more than the value of loot they stole. “The Laffites engaged in practices that were capital-intensive,” he adds. “If you really examine what was going back then, piracy was not a particularly lucrative business unless you very lucky. But they weren’t.”
After Galveston, Pierre returned to New Orleans to shut down the Laffites’ smuggling operations. He then followed his brother into Colombia where he tried to make money as a privateer but had no luck. Broke and fearing more jail time, Pierre traveled to Cancun, which, at the time, was a desolate hiding spot for felons on the run.
As was the case with most privateers of their time, Jean and Pierre Laffite’s lives ended violently. Multiple sources at the time reported that Jean Laffite died in a sea fight in the Gulf of Honduras. More than likely, his dead body was thrown overboard. “Laffite was more notorious than famous at the time,” Vogel says. “They knew who he was, and the people who read the account in the newspapers in the United States recognized him.”
Pierre Laffite was still in the Yucatan Peninsula in the fall of 1821 when he was shot by accident during a gunfight that broke out between rival gangs of Italian and Mexican pirates. At the time of the incident, Pierre was out with his girlfriend, Lucia Allen of Mobile, Ala., and a Canadian pirate from Quebec named George Schumph. In the midst of all the chaos, Mexican authorities, suspicious of all foreigners in their country, apprehended Laffite, Allen and Schumph for being illegal aliens in Mexico. As the three suspects were being driven by horse and carriage to the coast guard station in Dzilam de Bravo, Pierre Laffite died of his wounds.
In 1836, a Maine teacher and sailor named Joseph Holt Ingraham published the book Lafitte: The Pirate of the Gulf, which was a sensationalized account of Jean Laffite’s life as a pirate. The book became a nationwide best seller. Edgar Allan Poe reviewed it for the August 1836 edition of the Southern Literary Messenger. Vogel believes Ingraham’s book, which is still in print, launched the Laffite pirate legend that is celebrated today. “Laffite lived a very exciting kind of life,” Vogel says. “He was there for some really pivotal events in American history, even though he really didn’t influence these events as much as the legend says he did.”
Perhaps Laffite’s true treasure is his own legend. Last May, Contraband Days brought in an estimated 50,000 paying visitors to Lake Charles to enjoy a fortnight of Cajun food; live music; classic cars; pirate costumes; and, to close the festival, a $20,000 fireworks display. “I think Lake Charles has been the leader in promoting Laffite’s name and preserving his legacy,” Langley says. “Even though he was a pirate, it’s the story behind him that we like so much. Nobody has proven yet that the stories are false. They could be true. But the treasure is still out there somewhere. That’s our legend.”