Written by Suzanne Johnson
In Pirate’s Alley, the new book in the Sentinels of New Orleans series, the pirate in the title refers to the undead historical pirate Jean Lafitte. The charismatic French smuggler led a kingdom of a thousand ruffians south of New Orleans in the early 1800s and played a pivotal role in defeating the British at the Battle of New Orleans exactly 200 years ago this past January.
What Jean Lafitte likely did NOT do, however, was lollygag in that narrow passageway in New Orleans’ French Quarter we know today as Pirates Alley. (The real alley has no apostrophe in its name, New Orleans never having been a place to dwell on such frivolities as punctuation.)
When the city was laid out and the original St. Louis Cathedral built in 1720, an alleyway was left open to provide a shortcut from the Place d’Armes at the front of the cathedral to Royal Street, behind it. Today’s Pirates Alley is still about 600 feet long, 16 feet wide, and covered with cobblestones installed in 1831.
One New Orleans legend insists this alley was a popular spot for pirates to hang out, which is how it got its name. Another insists that Jean Lafitte, who controlled black market goods flowing into New Orleans with which he’d undercut the local merchants, would conduct business in the alley, right under the merchants’ noses.
A third legend says it was in this alley that Jean Lafitte met with General Andrew Jackson in late 1814 to make the deal that placed pirates fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with the outnumbered American soldiers to fend off the British.
The first two stories are unlikely.
For one thing, the alley is mere yards from the Cabildo (now the Louisiana State Museum), built in the 1700s to house state government. Here, the Louisiana Purchase took place and, in the Place D’Armes (now Jackson Square) in front of it, criminals such as pirates were hanged.
Pirates Alley is also next to the site of the “Calaboose,” an infamous prison where—you guessed it—pirates got locked up and held in squalid conditions, often only emerging when it was time to swing from the hangman’s noose.
So the legends that the alley, which would have been an unpaved strip of mud in Jean Lafitte’s day, was a pirate hangout? I don’t think so.
Pirates Alley does have significance to our favorite French pirate, however. Jean Lafitte’s older brother Pierre, his partner in the family business, was arrested and imprisoned there in 1814 for smuggling and piracy. Pierre, quite a few years older than Jean, suffered greatly in the harsh conditions of the Calaboose for months while Jean tried to secure his release; he’s believed to have suffered a stroke while chained to the wall of his cell.
Did Jean Lafitte and Andrew Jackson strike a deal in the dark alley? Probably not. Jackson was outraged at being forced to make a deal with the “hellish banditti” he thought Lafitte to be, and Lafitte thought Jackson was a pompous blowhard. Sources seem to indicate that most of their negotiations were conducted in writing.
Still, shortly after Jean agreed to provide the general with intelligence on the British (who were also trying to make a deal with him), Pierre Lafitte made a sudden “escape” from the Calaboose.
To get from the prison to the Mississippi River, on which he likely fled the city, Pierre and his brother would have passed through—where else?—Pirates Alley.