Jean Laffite Revealed: A Conversation with Ashley Oliphant and Beth Yarbrough
The mother-daughter team behind Jean Laffite Revealed left no stone unturned while researching the infamous pirate, a man who deliberately made himself an enigma and left a wake of myths and legends about his life. Despite being faced with such a difficult research subject, Ashley Oliphant and Beth Yarbrough uncovered new evidence about Jean Laffite’s connection to a North Carolina man named Lorenzo Ferrer. Could Laffite have faked his death and settled in a new town under a new name? With such a mysterious and dynamic research subject, Jean Laffite Revealed is never dry—and certainly not your typical history book. Read the interview below to learn more about the authors and their investigative process.
What first inspired you to study Laffite? Did either of you have an interest in pirates before you got the idea to write this book?
Ashley: I have been interested in pirates since I was a child. I have read every pirate book I could get my hands on since kindergarten. I was always fascinated with Laffite because he was essentially the last pirate. The Golden Age of Piracy was long over when he started his business, so it was compelling to me that he managed to build the empire that he did. I was in the process of planning a Laffite biography when I decided that the local legend here in North Carolina about Lorenzo Ferrer might at least be worth passing mention. I enlisted the help of my mother in researching that angle for what was going to be a small chapter, and once new evidence began to emerge, seemingly everywhere we looked, we realized that this was the book.
What were the biggest challenges in your research?
We were faced with finding missing pieces of a puzzle that was centuries old. Additionally, the story involved a man who had gone into hiding and did not want to be found. He spent the bulk of his later life working very hard at making sure he didn’t leave a trail. What is more, the documents that were our sources of proof had survived wars, fires, floods, and careless treatment. A good portion of those documents also featured illegible handwriting and the natural effects of age on paper and ink. Most of these sources were also undigitized, and many of them were uncatalogued. That meant that even finding the right library or collection to search was sometimes an obstacle. Once we knew we were in a place where answers might reside, we were faced with hours of scanning and hunting. These libraries were also scattered all across the country, so we had to map out multiple research trips in a very strategic way.
What was it like writing this book as a mother-daughter team? Was this your first time working together on a project like this?
Beth: Yes, this was our first time working together as a team, but we quickly fell into a good routine. Ashley wrote some of the chapters in their entirety, while others were completely mine, and still others were collaborations, sometimes from one sentence to the next. We also edited and proofed each other’s drafts, which was a great help. It also didn’t hurt that our writing styles are very similar. The resulting book reads as if one person wrote it, and we are delighted with that.
What do you think about Laffite’s claim that he was not a pirate, but a privateer?
From what we can determine, Jean Laffite had a sizable ego. He did not take kindly to slights—whether perceived or overt. For instance, the wanted posters with his name on them that were distributed around New Orleans by Louisiana Governor Claiborne were answered in short order by wanted posters with Claiborne’s name on them, featuring the offer of a larger reward than the reward on the Laffite posters—ordered by Laffite himself and distributed under cover of night by his men. Understandably, a man with such an ego would have bristled at the suggestion that he was any kind of a crook. “Privateer,” to his mind, had a much nicer ring to it. He said as much in a now-famous letter to President James Madison, seeking restoration of his seized assets.
Why do you think people are so fascinated by Laffite and pirates in general? Were you surprised by how many things in Louisiana are named after Laffite?
Pirates in general hold fascination for a lot of people simply because of the glamour and mystery surrounding the various legends about their lives and pursuits and the notion of any hidden treasure they may have left behind. In more recent times, the entertainment industry has given an extra boost to the subject. Laffite, for instance, was glamorized in the 1958 film The Buccaneer. Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean also did not hurt the cause, introducing an entire new generation to the subject—casting them in an undeserved but very entertaining light. For Laffite’s part, we give him credit for the role that he played in the Battle of New Orleans—though the extent of that role is up for debate. Still, it was enough for Andrew Jackson to acknowledge, and that in itself is noteworthy. We are not surprised at the number of things named after Laffite in Louisiana. If anything, we were a bit surprised that there are not more.
What was the most interesting place you visited while traveling for your research?
There is no clear winner in that category, because each town and city holds its own unique charm. In terms of memorable encounters, we can name a few. Top of the list was a very prestigious university research library (not in Louisiana) that was ultra fastidious about visitors—issuing strict rules of behavior that bordered on the ridiculous. And as luck would have it, that was the very location that produced one of our most pivotal discoveries of evidence. When we found it, all rules went out the window. We literally jumped up in the middle of their hushed chamber and began shouting. They were not amused, and we didn’t much care. And then there was the herd of half a dozen wild pigs on a back road in rural Texas that surprised us as we rounded a curve one rainy afternoon. We were lucky that our car startled them and they scattered, although we still shudder to think who would have won had they decided to stand their ground. We’re guessing it would not have been us in our Prius. We were also very fortunate to be invited into the archives of our local Freemason lodge. Having a rare glimpse into that world was utterly amazing. We are very grateful that they approved our access by vote.
Ashley and Beth with their book and Jean Laffite's sword found at Lincoln Lodge 137
How do you feel like your background as an artist contributed to your work on this book?
Beth: This was my first research project, and while I had everything to learn about that process, I was also able to approach it with an added perspective. Artists by nature are creative thinkers. We eat, sleep, and breathe the notion “what if?” Time and again in our search for answers, my natural curiosity as an artist would allow me to think outside the box in terms of where we might look or why a certain thing might have happened in a certain way. And more than once, taking the “what if” as our starting point, we were able to apply tested research methods, aimed in unexpected directions, and come up with solidly documented answers. Creative writing has also been a lifelong pursuit of mine, even though this is my first published work. For instance, since 2013 I have published daily on my website “Southern Voice,” which highlights scenes and stories from around the South. Shouldering the responsibility of daily fresh content, all of it creative writing, was very good training in self-editing and task management, both of which served me well when we set out to write this book.
How do you feel like your work as an English professor contributed to your work on this book?
Ashley: The experience I gained in writing and publishing my previous four books definitely helped prepare me for the level of research that was required for this project. As well, the training I received from nearly twenty years of teaching in the college classroom was a tremendous asset. As a result, I came to this project with the set of necessary research skills to do it well. I knew how to push through and not let frustration overcome me when I hit an obstacle. I knew the value of undigitized and uncatalogued sources, as well as where to find them. I knew how to navigate academic research libraries and how to handle and examine fragile historical documents. Most importantly, I knew how to use the writing process that I had spent so many years teaching my students. This book is the result of a lot of prewriting, drafting, revising and editing. It was also a great joy to share this research experience with my students along the way. I want them to know what a thrill research is. There is so much yet to be discovered, and even when it comes to very old historical figures, there are new things to be said about them. This kind of work is an adventure, and I had a lot of fun sharing that passion with my students. I want them to follow their own passions and feel confident in launching into a full-scale research project if their curiosity is propelling them to do it. My motto has always been that you have to make your own fun because life will not do it for you.
Was there anything you really wanted to include in this book that you had to cut?
The entire period of Gulf history from 1810 through 1830 as it related to Laffite could have produced several more chapters as well as a more in-depth look at the forged journal. That journal deserves a book-length critical examination. Also, a lot of the genealogical details and timelines were fascinating and very useful for context, but we decided to pull them into appendices at the end of the book instead of including them in the body of the text. We also have plans for a sequel to this book because we know there is a lot more information yet to be uncovered. We came to a point where we had to stop and get the book published.
Jean Lafitte, by Alyce Martin, oil on devoe composition board, Courtesty of the Permanent Collection, Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas
What do we still not know about Jean Laffite? What makes him such a difficult research subject?
We still don’t know for sure where he was born or if Laffite was even his real name. There is a great deal to learn in Cuba where he went into hiding for a good number of years. We also have every reason to believe he was a Freemason. While we know he helped found a Masonic lodge later in life, we have yet to uncover the origins of his entry into that organization. Not only that, we believe there is much more to the story of how the Freemasons were involved in this tale from the beginning. As for the difficulty in researching any of this—the passage of time itself is our biggest obstacle and ongoing enemy. Researching a historical figure who lived so long ago is continually hampered by this—but even more so in the case of Laffite, who, after assuming his final alias, went to great pains not to leave a trail.
Do you have any plans for future books?
Yes. We already have enough material to form the bare bones of a sequel to this book. Additionally, we are working on a book about Key West—another location rich in seafaring history. Individually, Ashley has a novel in the works, and Beth is at work on a book featuring scenes and stories from around the South.