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Thursday, June 02, 2005

Jewish Pirate Update

When I first blogged about Jean Laffite, Jewish pirate of New Orleans, I had read an account of him in "Jews on the Frontier" and done a bit of poking around online.

I wondered why so many said "his origins are shrouded in mystery" if he in fact stated in his diary that he was the grandson of Spanish Jews Abhorad and Zora Ladrimal - Zora and her daughter having fled Spain for France after Abhorad was tortured and murdered by the Inquisition.

So I looked him up in the UNC library. I'm going to share what I learned, but you have to promise to let Melina, my daughter, write the next Laffite book - she's working on it already. She has first dibs!

So first, for those who were disbelieving of the claim that Laffite was a Jew, see this inscription from his bible.

Laffite talks at length about his childhood in his memoir. The problem is, the memoir may be a fake.

The spotted history of the Laffite journal, which surfaced a century after Jean's death in the hands of a descendant, is laid out in the introduction to Gene Marshall's translation entitled "The Memoirs of Jean Laffite."
"In the 1940s a man by the name of John Andrechyne Lafitte began his inquiries about his ancestor, his great-grandfather Jean Laffitte. ... after retiring from the Missouri Pacific Railroad, John A. opened several trunks left to him by his grandfather Jules, who had died in 1924... Unfortunately, the bulk of the documents and books were in French. John A. was not certain what he had inherited from his family ... John A. dreamed of fame and fortune based upon this fortunate heritage."
John Andrechyne seemed sleazy to the people he contacted seeking information about his documents and the best means to profit by them. His reluctance to let anybody review the papers didn't help.
"The owner is a freak who will not allow anyone to know where he lives ... He has hidden the original Book and will not again produce it..."
John A. was so disliked by those he tried to do business with that their feelings about his documents' authenticity were colored by mistrust of the owner.

John A. gave Stanley Clisby Arthur fairly free access to his collection; Arthur wrote "Jean Laffite, Gentleman Rover" in 1952. The book, now long out of print, contains facsimiles of some of the collection's documents - especially letters with signatures - which seem very convincing to me.

For instance, many of the people who think the Laffite memoir is a fake point to his supposed death in the mid 1820s. The many accounts are garbled and contradictory, and there is no grave, but the most convincing proof of the exaggeration of his demise are his many letters to his wife, etc., some reproduced in the Arthur book. For instance, this letter from 1848:

These letters may now be gone. Schaadt writes:
"During the 1960s, John A. traveled ... making public appearances ... he was thought to be very peculiar in personality ... He alienated many people which led to the discounting of his claims about the family papers. Two fires, one at his house ... and one at a Spartanburg television station ... damaged or destroyed the majority of his collection. .. According to his wife, the house fire destroyed the majority of the family documents."
So the documents Stanley Arthur worked with no longer exist. Had Arthur known fire would soon destroy them, perhaps he would have been less cavalier, perhaps he would have footnoted and annotated his work. Scholars have a hard time taking a book seriously when it is pitched this way (see cover, right). Still, his casual book offers tantalizing glimpses of now unverifiable resources. His steps cannot be retraced.

The 257 page Laffite journal, itself somewhat burned and effaced, is in academic limbo. Because of the weird John Andrechyne Laffite, and the lack of corroborating evidence, the journal has coodies. Scholars eschew it. "Experts" alternately impugn and endorse it.

Former Governor of Texas Price Daniel purchased the Journal along with family bibles, albums, etc. for $12,500 and the 4-cubic-feet collection is housed at the Sam Houston Center. Robert L. Schaadt, who was curator of the museum for decades and who wrote this interesting who-dun-it of an introduction to Marshall's translation, concludes:
There is no doubt that the paper and ink of the journal should be tested utilizing the most modern methods by a totally independent party ... the results of such a test could end the debate. Unfortunately, this does require funds, estimated at $15,000 several years ago, which is more than the collection was purchased for in 1975."
If the memoir is in fact genuine, it is a fantastic trove of first-hand history. Maybe somebody will cough up the money to have it tested someday.

UPDATE: A new book is coming out on Sephardic Jewish Pirates including Laffite.

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At 5:55 AM, Blogger RP said...

Fascinating! Thanks for putting up such an interesting post!

At 10:54 AM, Blogger Marc said...

Just informing you that one of your blog posts has been included in History Carnival #10.

Thanks for writing about history!

At 4:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the best and most concise examination of Laffite's Jewish roots (genuine or not) that I have seen. Thanks!
There is a new exhaustively researched book out, "The Pirates Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf," by William C. Davis, director of programs at the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies and a teacher of history at Virginia Tech.
I've not read it yet but it won many positive reviews. None mention Laffite's Jewish heritage.
But the book does stress the brothers' evil practice of smuggling slaves after importation to the US was banned.

At 2:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The "Diary" has long been exposed as a forgery, although a relatively old (19th century) one. The bottom line: There is no authentic documentation that Jean and Pierre Laffite were of Jewish descent. End of story.

At 3:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

so i've been reading the aforementioned "The Pirates Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf," by William C. Davis.
He dug up all the genuine documents on the laffites in new orleans, signed by the 2 bros., which put their birthplaces in france. no jewish heritage. lots of references to baptism records of the laffites in france and of their kids in new orleans. descriptions of their mulatto (not jewish) wives/mistresses.
there is also an account of jean's death during a sea battle near honduras, as described contemporaneously in the "Gaceta de Colombia" dated April 20, 1823.
the book also describes how they first entered the slave trade when pierre bought a free black woman and her child who were kidnapped by another privateer off a boat docked in new orleans. the woman sued and, amazingly, she won her case and freedom in court. but pierre had learned the value of trading slaves and soon had sold two men for more than $4000, more than enough to settle debts that had driven him to baton rouge.

At 7:27 AM, Blogger melinama said...

I have not seen any published report of the diary being exposed as a forgery. I would be interested in any hard facts. I believe there is a lot of bogus information about Lafitte and his brothers, some put out there by the Lafittes themselves. There has been a lot of opinionating and very little hard fact.

At 12:39 PM, Blogger Cindy said...

William C. Davis offers convincing proof in "The Journal of Laffite" (The Laffite Society Chronicles, October 2005, vol. XI, no. 2, pages 2-16) that the journal is a forgery. One key piece of evidence is that none of Jean Laffite's signatures in the journal match the known signatures on documents he signed. -- Cindy Vallar, Editor of Pirates and Privateers (

At 4:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm about to attend a conference in Florida where one evening's diversion will be a 'pirate party'. I expect to be one of the few to accept the invitation to dress up as a pirate, and if I'm going to embarrass myself that far, I decided to prepare a comic (I hope) monologue on the subject. With the thought that I'd better look into it before pretending to be the only Jewish pirate in history, my research led here. The Lafitte family and I --- wow!!

If the diary/memoir is a forgery, the question arises: who was motivated to create such a work back in the 1800's, and why? And why include such an unlikely and doubt-inspiring concept as a Jewish background? Being a Jew may be an advantage for a Borsct Belt comedian, an Israeli polititian, and maybe a doctor in New York, but for a pirate? In Louisiana?

The veracity of every ancient document has been questioned, including the Bible, and the reason for the existence of forged works seems to me to be an interesting element in the whole issue.

Any thoughts?

At 9:53 PM, Blogger Ozarklorian said...

The Laffite Journal remains an enigma. I have been studying it for some 30 years, and have had the opportunity to handle and study the Laffite Journal and associated materials firsthand at Sam Houston library. Despite all the naysaying by historians, I still think there's something compelling about the Laffite Journal. It's not a simple forgery and in fact, I don't think it's a purposeful forgery at all, but perhaps something done by a 19th century Laffite family member. There are many things about it which can not be easily explained away. It remains in a gray area, neither effectively proven or effectively disproven. That said, I do not believe Jean Laffite died in 1823 off the coast of Honduras. His friend Arsene Latour was writing about him in 1829 as if he had had recent contact with him. I don't think Arsene was a spiritualist....Pam Keyes

At 11:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was hired in the late 70's as a handwriting expert to analyse the Journal of Jean Lafitte and after a year and a half of intense scrunity of the work found it to be a forgery. The writing is freestyle, but there are too many pen pauses, where the writer stopped to check, and the writing seemed shakey with not enough variance in pressure, like normal writing. I used blow ups of many sections and a microscope. Also the signatures seemed too perfect, like copied. It is almost impossible to write your name exactly the same a second time. Besides, the artwork that went with the journal in the form of tintypes showed that the same artist did all of the alleged photos of Lafitte, even though the dates and signatures were different,indicating other separate artists or photographers had done them. The journal is a great joke though done well enough to demand a high price. Mirian Bethancourt

At 1:09 AM, Blogger -J. said...

ok. your daughter can write the next one haha. my own relation to the famous privateer has been whispered down through the generations & I like you, have done my fair share of digging. also our jewish heritage has been a quietly passed down truth; "shrouded in mystery" is exactly what my bloodline has proven to be. feel free to contact me if you wish.


At 1:12 AM, Blogger -J. said...

oh, and don't give too much credit to the skeptics.

At 6:29 AM, Blogger les touche said...

I am an 8th generation of grand-daughters to Jean Lafitte...My Granny sold her land rights back in the 1940's or 50's...Does anyone remember their family recieving a share?...if so can you post your last name so I can link it to my family tree...thanks if you can help


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