The Myth, The Person and the Bridge Rail
(page 4 of 4)
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.”