Avast ye! I’m going to talk about a pirate. I’ve never written about one before. The subject hasn’t been one that charmed me … until now.
My disinterest with those daring rogues of the sea has changed thanks to two Lincolnton authors, Ashley Oliphant and her mother Beth Yarbrough, who wrote “Jean Laffite Revealed: Unraveling One of America’s Longest-Running Mysteries” (University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2021). They’ve been on a national speaking tour since March 2021.
Also thanks to Richard Haunton, manager of the Claremont Branch Library. Richard let me know that the writing duo will appear at the Claremont library at 7 p.m. on June 30 to give what Ashley described as a “presentation about our research journey and our findings and their impact on the Piedmont of North Carolina.”
“I’m excited for this topic …,” said Richard. “Beyond Laffite’s many run-ins with both the American and British navies, he joined Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans to fight for the U.S. side in the War of 1812.”
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Ashley added, “The argument can be made that had Laffite not offered his men — a thousand under his control at the time, their weapons and their flints, the U.S. would have lost the war. The Battle of New Orleans was decisive.”
Let me be blunt. There’s no applause for the pirate in this column. He had no soul as far as I’m concerned. He was a 19th-century human trafficker among other vile activities. In the Gulf of Mexico, Laffite snatched African-Americans from ships transporting them to the United States to be sold into slavery. Once in the pirate’s possession, the women, men, and children were peddled in Barataria, Louisiana, along with stolen goods.
Said Ashley, “While pirates are glorified by American society they were pretty rotten people. They were thieves, and in Laffite’s case, he was a slave trader on a very large scale.”
That being said, the excitement Richard expressed and the curiosity Ashley and Beth’s extensive research has stirred are related to the writers’ accumulation of evidence supporting the longstanding rumor that Jean Laffite lived out his days in Lincolnton. Yes, an 1800s French-born pirate who hung out mostly in the Gulf of Mexico and some of the states it borders chose to retire in a city less than 30 miles from my Conover home.
“In 1839, a strange Frenchman arrived in Lincolnton,” said Beth. “He was rich and French and stood out in lots of ways. Lincolnton at the time was rural and slow paced. [The newcomer] was a person of intrigue.” He went by the name of Lorenzo Ferrer, and he had no job but great wealth, chests of gold even, according to stories. “He’s said to have told seafaring stories to kids on the court square, and he didn’t have a very good answer for where he came from and where he got his money.”
I’m going to pause here and tell you about Ashley and Beth.
Ashley is a full professor of English, who retired from Pfeiffer University in May 2021 and the author of six books including “Jean Laffite Revealed.” She is also an instructor at Coastal Carolina University, teaching shark tooth hunting in connection with her popular book “Shark Tooth Hunting on the Carolina Coast” (Pineapple Press, 2015).
On her mother’s website, Southern Voice, Ashley listed a number of lofty goals — an unfettered dreamer’s bucket list, if you will — and included, “Becoming the captain of a sea-going vessel.” Ashley said all her books (and I’d say her aspirations as well) are in one way or the other related to the sea.
Beth is an author, artist, and photographer, whose nationally recognized art — calendars and fine art prints in particular — has provided her a long and successful career in the gift and home décor industry. She’s a writer whose Southern Voice commentary and accompanying photographs take readers on guided tours of the South’s backroads. Beth finds the elegant, the hilarious, and the unexpected.
What she found while working with Ashley to solve the mystery of Jean Laffite’s whereabouts during the last 40 or so years of his life definitely falls into the “unexpected” category.
Let’s start with why the mother-daughter team set sail on this quest. Ashley said she was between books and working on a biography of Laffite. “I’ve always been fascinated with him and with pirates in general,” said Ashley. “Mom suggested I do a chapter about the potential Ferrer connection and finally settle the Lincolnton mystery.”
Ashley and Beth began working together to uncover the truth. “We quickly realized that’s what the whole book needed to be about,” Beth shared.
Their research took them to seven states. “We were on the road two years almost full-time,” said Beth. Libraries, historical societies, courthouses, register of deeds offices, private collectors, and so on.
“We found [Laffite] in Mississippi pretty quickly,” Beth continued. “Nobody had found him there before.” Several documents provided proof that he’d lived in Mississippi in the 1830s. “He’d been there for the cotton boom and met a family from Lincolnton. They brought him here when the cotton boom went belly up.”
“He got to Lincolnton in 1839,” Beth stated. “He was older then. He found cover up here. He surrounded himself with powerful people and knew he could hide here for the rest of his life.” I’m guessing there were people who’d have liked seeing Laffite fed to the sharks.
Here’s my favorite report from Beth: “[Laffite] was a Freemason in Lincolnton. He was a founding member (of Lincoln Lodge 137). We were granted access to the records and discovered a sword in that lodge that had Jean Laffite’s hand-etched signature on it, ‘J.N. Laffite.’”
“The lodge did not know what they had,” Beth pointed out, “because the signature was nearly impossible to see without a black light or microscope.” An expert verified the autograph.
Prior to Ashley and Beth’s investigation, no one knew what happened to Jean Laffite after the 1820s. Said Beth, “There are multiple death theories, but no body and no grave.”
There’s a grave in Lincolnton: a tombstone in the cemetery of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. It’s engraved with “Lorendzo Ferrer,” a different spelling of the first name; Lyons, France as his birthplace; date of birth as 1780, death 1875. Next to Laffite’s grave is that of his mistress Louisa, a woman he referred to as his housekeeper. “Almost every story about him in Lincolnton includes her,” Ashley reported. In university archives in Nacogdoches, Texas, she and Beth found a document related to Louisa, one that helped them prove Laffite was in Mississippi before Lincolnton.
Prior to stopping in Claremont, Ashley and Beth will present at the Rosenberg Library in Galveston, Texas. “Laffite spent a few years in Galveston,” Beth said. When I asked what he was doing there, she responded, “Pirating.” She also said that because he embarked on a life of piracy in New Orleans, she and her mother get requests to speak there.
Concluding, Beth stated, “Everything is based on primary archival documentation and artifacts. Our theory holds water, and no evidence has come forward to the contrary. It was him. No question.”
“Jean Laffite Revealed: Unraveling One of America’s Longest-Running Mysteries” is available at www.jeanlaffiterevealed.com and on Amazon.
The $20 paperback also will be sold at the 7 p.m. June 30 book talk and signing at the Claremont Branch Library (3288 East Main St., Claremont). The event is co-sponsored by the Claremont Friends of the Library.
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