Masonic lodges are generally members-only places. But in June 2019, two women from Lincolnton, N.C. -- Dr. Ashley Oliphant, now an Associate Professor of English at Pfeiffer University, and her mother, Beth Yarbrough -- gained access to that town’s Lincoln Lodge 137.
They were in Lincolnton, near Charlotte, to do research for a book on Jean Laffite, the famed New Orleans pirate. They had reason to think that the Tyler’s sword at Lodge 137 had originated from the cache of stolen weaponry Laffite had in his possession.
They would eventually show that Laffite had inscribed his name on the sword with “Jn. Laffite,” an abbreviated signature he had used on many documents. Then, living in Lincolnton under the alias of Lorenzo Ferrer, he had arranged for the sword to be placed before the door of the lodge, which he helped organize in 1852.
The sword is one of several key pieces of evidence that Oliphant and Yarbrough marshal to illuminate Laffite’s post-piracy life in their recently published Jean Laffite Revealed: Unraveling One of America’s Longest-Running Mysteries (University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press). By the time Laffite arrived in Lincolnton, he was on the run and yearning for a fresh start, having seen what was once a highly successful smuggling business implode a couple of times after authorities seized and dismantled it.
“In our book, we have proven that Laffite faked his death at sea, moved back into America, and lived to be a 96-year-old man in Lincolnton,” Oliphant said. “This is all significant because there has not been any new theory about Jean Laffite in about 80 years, despite the fact that there is an active community of scholars searching for answers in Louisiana and Texas.”
The word proven is likely apt. The mother-daughter research team brought considerable experience to the book as writers with an investigative bent. Oliphant had authored several other books, including Shark Tooth Hunting on the Carolina Coast (2015, Pineapple Press); Hemingway and Bimini: The Birth of Sport Fishing at “The End of the World” (2017, Pineapple Press); and In Search of Jimmy Buffett: A Key West Revival, a novel (2018, Warren Publishing, Inc.). And Yarbrough, an artist and writer, started Southern Voice, which chronicles the history of the South’s older homes and the people who lived in them.
Oliphant and Yarbrough had long wondered about the true origins of Lorenzo Ferrer, as many people in Lincolnton have. The book details how Ferrer aroused speculation about his pirate past, speculation that continues to the present day. The authors did some dogged reporting through seven states and dozens of archival libraries, examining numerous primary documents. They had the sword authenticated by a metals expert at their own (considerable) expense.
They even debunked a popular competing theory about Laffite’s post-piracy days, namely that he faked his death and moved to St. Louis, where he wrote a memoir.
“No English professor had ever analyzed that journal, which is housed at the Sam Houston Library in Liberty, Texas,” Oliphant said. “I was able to use rhetorical analysis and etymological history to prove there was no way Laffite could have written it.”
Jean Laffite Revealed recounts Laffite’s role in some key events of 19th-century American history. For example, Laffite provided Gen. Andrew Jackson invaluable assistance, including his men and weapons, during the Battle of New Orleans, a pivotal skirmish in the War of 1812 in which the Americans stopped the British from gaining access to the Mississippi River. In return, Laffite gained a legal pardon from Jackson, who eventually became the President of the United States.
Whatever one thinks about piracy, there’s little doubt that Laffite and his purported brother Pierre (who died shortly before Jean faked his death) were stellar businessmen. During the 1810s, Laffite was one of the wealthiest men in the United States. He had amassed 100 ships and 1,000 men to do the dirty work of smuggling, despite improved policing of the Gulf of Mexico.
Oliphant and Yarbrough launched Jean Laffite Revealed a few weeks ago in Lincolnton. Its prospects for success look good: For several days in March, the website of University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press has said that due to high demand for the book, copies would ship starting April 1.
The Gulf leg of a tour in support of the book will get underway in May and take the authors to engagements in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Yarbrough’s friend, the Hollywood actor Bronson Pinchot (Beverly Hills Cop and First Wives Club) will make appearances in character as Jean Laffite during select fall tour dates, and he will narrate the audio version of the book.
People who’ve read advanced copies of Jean Laffite Revealed have given it rave reviews. J. Myrick Howard, the President of Preservation North Carolina, called it “a fascinating read.”
“This book offers a deep dive into a lingering mystery in American history,” Howard said. “Hero and villain Jean Laffite deserves -- and gets -- a fresh look, and the authors reveal the last hidden decades of his complicated life. They also give us a history lesson about the times and places surrounding the unfolding drama.”
Ken Keuffel, who authored this article, has served as Pfeiffer’s Assistant Director of Communications since December 2019. He welcomes story ideas from Pfeiffer’s faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends. The form for submitting story ideas is at www.pfeiffer.edu/newsform.