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Eerie Coincidences in Jean Laffite Research and Other Spooky Stories as Told by Pam Keyes

October 30, 2013 in American History, general history, History, Louisiana History

PamKeyesPam Keyes is the Research Coordinator of the Laffite Society and a well known expert on the history of Jean Laffite and of the artifacts and written evidence that are available on the life of the famous privateer. In this interview we talked about some strange and eerie happenings surrounding her research. 


Aya Katz: You have been researching Jean Laffite’s history nearly all your life. Have there been coincidences or eerie happenings that involved the research into the Laffite past?

Pam Keyes: There was the time I ran across Laffite’s Bar & Grill restaurant at St. Louis. I found that restaurant during the trip to St. Louis and Alton LaffiteRestauratto find the cemetery at Fosterburg where Jean laffite is said to be buried, so happening across that restaurant was very eerie. But it is just one of the strange things I’ve run across in Laffite studies, and I’m not the only one who has had such experiences. Jack Davis said before he started writing the Pirates Laffite book, when he was living in London for a year, he ran across a US Civil War themed restaurant that had a wall-size painting of Jean Laffite, along with paintings of Generals Butler and Sherman. Why the had placed Laffite in there was a total mystery. But one of the spookiest stories is the one about the attic windows in the convent of the Ursuline nuns.

Aya: Tell me the story of the attic windows.

Pam Keyes: This actually happened to me on a visit to New Orleans in November 2001. There was a legend I had heard about the casket girls, the young ladies who were brought over in the early 1700s to become brides of the plantation owners. When they first arrived in New Orleans, they stayed in the attic rooms, and some of these girls became sick and died before they ever got married. The legend is that a few of these girls haunted the Ursuline Convent and that they became vampires, preying at night on the tourists in the French Quarter. The legend was you could tell when the vampires were loose because the shutters of the attic windows of the Ursuline Convent would be open. On my visit to New Orleans, I went out alone one night around 9 p.m. when it was dark, with a full moon. My hotel was on Chartres, a couple of blocks away from the Ursuline Convent, which I had to walk by on my way to the St. Louis Cathedral as I planned to sit in the square and people watch. As I walked by the big convent building, I remembered the story about the casket girls/vampires, and checked out the dormer windows of the attic: the shutters weretightly together, as theyhad been earlier that day. I laughed to myself about the silly story and proceeded on to Jackson Square as planned. I sat down on a bench and watched the people walking by for about an hour, then decided I had better walk back to my hotel before it got too late and dangerous to be alone. At the corner of the Ursuline Convent, I stopped and looked up at the full moon, then over to the convent attic: the dormer shutters were all wide open! I made it back to the hotel in record time, and did not venture out in the dark again for the rest of the trip.

Aya Katz:What was the earliest eerie event that happened when you were researching the Laffite history?

Pam Keyes: Hmn, earliest eerie event would be a hard one to pick from. There was the time in the 1980s when I almost got killed by a lightning bolt in the French Quarter, that was pretty dramatic; but my favorite strange event was the time the Jean Laffite signed statement plopped into my lap at the New Orleans Public Library in 2003. But since you asked for earliest, it’s got to be the lightning story from the 1980s.

Aya Katz: What happened?

 Pam Keyes:My then-husband and I were walking around looking at various shops in the French Quarter in one of those light misty rains that usually happens at least once a day in New Orleans because it is so close to the Gulf. I had brought my umbrella for both of us to use, and we were both under it as we walked down Chartres from Jackson Square (yes, Chartres again). We had just been to the Cabildo to look around and I was most vexed to not find anything whatsoever there on display regarding Laffite (the little portrait by Jarvis was in archival storage). There was a bookstore, the Librarie, in one of the old buildings that looked enticing, and my husband went inside the open door but I had to wait outside for a minute to take down my umbrella, had just done so, and barely had stepped onto the stoop when all at once there was a BOOM! as a bolt of lightning hit the cast iron lightpost about four feet from the door. My hair was all electrified, and there was a strong smell of ozone, but I wasn’t hurt. The shopkeeper and my husband were quite amazed, and the shopkeeper said in all his years of having that French Quarter bookstore, he’d never seen lightning hit a street light. Wish I could say I found a really rare book cheap there, to make the story neater, but alas I did not.

Aya Katz: That was a close call! Tell me about the Jean Laffite signature that just fell in your lap.

Pam Keyes: I had looked for some 35 years to no avail for a Jean Laffite signature for sale in autograph collections, etc., and had pretty much given up hope of ever finding one. All the known ones were in collections at federal archives and universities. The first one I actually got to touch had already been found by William C. Davis in the Notarial Archives, so when I went to New Orleans on a visit in late 2001, I looked at that one, and I realized there had to be a lot more around New Orleans somewhere. Since Davis already had combed the New Orleans area archives for Laffite items that were cataloged as such, I decided to strike out and look at some of the materials relating to the Laffite associates, like Vincent Gambie aka Jean Roux. I found a listing for two court cases involving him in the archives at the New Orleans Public Library, and requested the originals to view. Unlike the Notarial Archives, there was no close supervision at the city library special collections department, and I didn’t even have to wear gloves to handle the original documents, which were in plain manila folders. The librarian handed me the folder, then turned his back to me and went back to a different area of the stacks. I opened up the folder, and a folded slip of old paper fell out, into my lap. I retrieved it and opened it up, and got a shock as there before me was an authentic Jean Laffite signature on a July 1815 document. Jean had attested that some runaway slave had been working for Gambie on his ship at Barataria. I looked at the front of the folder, where the contents were listed: the statement signed by Laffite was not there. I looked back at the librarian, he was out of sight. I had found a previously unknown Laffite signature, and the way it was not archived, it could have easily been stolen. I took the paper over to the librarian in the back, and showed it to him, saying it hadn’t been noted on the folder and needed to be, because it was vulnerable to theft. The librarian to my disgust acted like it was no big deal. I had to wonder what else wasn’t properly archived there. Hurricane Katrina destroyed a lot of these documents in 2005, so it probably was lost then, but I still have a copy of the whole court case, including the signature.

Aya Katz: Do you have any other spooky stories?

Pam Keyes:I do have another spooky story, but it’s more about Andrew Jackson than Laffite. My ex-husband was from Mississippi, and we often went there to visit on vacation. One of my favorite places was Natchez. On one visit, we went on a trip to see the plantation houses up and down the Mississippi from Natchez, and because I was especially interested in one sort of off the regular tourist trail, we went to see Springfield Plantation, where Andrew Jackson and Rachel Donelson got married and spent their honeymoon. Back in the early 1980s, the plantation was owned by a railroad company, and one of their employees was living there and serving as caretaker of the home, giving occasional tours of the house. The layout was the typical early plantation style first floor, with big main foyer and hall, and rooms off to each side of the hall. Many of the original furnishings remained, according to the caretaker, as he led us down the hall. He proceeded into one room that was painted a sunny yellow and boasted a big fireplace with a large mirror to one side, and I noted a pianoforte to my right as I walked into the room. The tour guide continued his spiel about the house, said the room we were in had served as the music room at the time the Jacksons were married there, and in the early 1800s, but no more, as there was no piano anymore. What! I thought, and quickly looked back to where I had seen the pianoforte. It was gone, and as the saying goes, the hair stood up on the back of my neck.

Was the Journal of Jean Laffite an Original, a Copy or a Forgery?

October 19, 2013 in American History, Ancient History, Caribbean History, general history, History, Louisiana History, Texas History


This photo of the Laffite family copybook on the left and the Journal of Jean Laffite n the right was contributed by Pam Keyes. Both documents were acquired by the Sam Houston Regional Library from John A. Laffite.

What is the difference between a forgery and a copy? How can you tell something is a good copy of an original document and has not been altered? And if it is, indeed, a copy, how do you go about recognizing alterations in the copied document? What is the distinction between a facsimile and just a copy, and is every good forgery a facsimile?

These are questions that come up over and over again in life. Sometimes people rely on physical evidence to determine the age of a document, based on the age of the papyrus it is written on or the ink it is written in. If it’s a clay tablet, carbon dating can help establish its age.

But the age of a copy is not conclusive when it comes to the question of when the original might have been written. Here is one example: we have many, many copies of the Old Testament. But we have no original. That does not mean that there was no original; it may have been written so long ago that it would have been destroyed by now, and the only reason we know about it is because of the copies. It is also possible that the original of some or all of the books was not written down but passed orally from one generation to the next, so that the scribe or scribes who first wrote it down were not the authors of the text. The original might have been a sequence of memorized words that passed from one living brain to the next until someone transcibed it. Once transcribed, this text was copied extensively. The copies were not forgeries. They were not meant to pass for originals. They were merely meant to transmit and preserve the text. Copies are all we have.

The copies were made by scribes, and their job was to write down word for word, letter by letter the same things as the scribe who came before them did. But sometimes a scribe made an error. Sometimes the error is so obvious that any modern reader of Hebrew could point it out and correct it, as if it were a typo. But because the scribes were sworn to copy exactly what was written and not add or subtract a jot, when they spotted an error, they just kept copying it word for word, letter for letter. Over the generations, quite a few errors accumulated.

In addition to all this, since the Old Testament is composed of more than one book, written at more than one time, by more than one author, there are arguments about which books are more authentic or which are just something that got inserted much later and really does not belong there. And also, some things have been intentionally altered by later scribes to go along with changing social mores and religion. Biblical scholars often have to use document-internal evidence to try to ferret out what is what. And the discovery of an older copy, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Kaifeng Scrolls, which may have been less open to more modern tampering, can shed some light on what the original is more likely to have been like.

Having established that authorship and scribeship are separate issues, we should also take into account the difference between the copy of a document’s textual content and a facsimile copy which is meant to represent exactly how the original document looked, even though it is not the original.

In the case of the Old Testament, scholars now understand that when the text was first set down in writing, it could not have been in the Assyrian script in which Hebrew is currently written, which was borrowed from Aramaic and imported into use for Hebrew after the Babylonian exile. Instead, early Hebrew was written in letters more nearly resembling the ancient Phoenician alphabet. But as much as the letters were different in appearance, it was still the same alphabet with a one to one correspondence of symbols to symbols. Hence the text has come down to us letter by letter transcribed, though the letters look entirely different from those in the original. The text matters. What it looks like, considering that there is no original, does not matter. Nobody claims that any of the scrolls that we currently have access to, however ancient, is a facsimile copy of an original.

In all these cases, none of the copies are deemed to be forgeries, just because they are not original. Forgery, for the purposes of this discussion, would only occur if a modern person tried to create an older looking scroll and pass it off as something that it is not. But even in the event of such an attempt, most of the text would still be an accurate copy of another copy. The thing that would make it a forgery would be trying to pass a new copy off as an old copy. It would not change the document’s validity as some sort of copy of a very old document that no one currently living has ever seen the original of.

The Old Testament is not the only book to be subject to this kind of scrutiny or to require this type of analysis. Many a copied document can be found which has no original extant, and all can be subjected to the same type of analysis.

Take what is commonly known as “The Journal of Jean Laffite.” Ostensibly this was an original document presented by John A. Laffite, aka John Andrechyne Laflin, aka John Nafsiger or John Matejka, as the original, unaltered one and only journal of the famed privateer. Some have claimed it to be a forgery, created by the man who presented the document to the public. But even if it is a forgery, what exactly would that mean to those who are interested in the text rather than in the artifact in which the text is embedded?

The Journal as an artifact is a kind of notebook written upon by an ink pen, with a number of old newspaper clippings inserted within, and with some drawings and other extraneous matters. To determine its age would allow us to know if it was written at the same time as the text purports to have been written, but it does not tell us who is the author of the text, nor when the text was composed.

Composing a text and writing it down are two very different things. In some cultures, oral texts are passed on from one generation to another until one day someone writes them down. The person who transcribes these oral texts is not the author. That person is merely a scribe. Authentication of the text, in the event the scribe is suspected of having invented it, involves finding other versions of the same text elsewhere, circumstantial evidence of the existence of the text that long predates the writing and also text internal evidence that indicates through linguistic cues just how old the text really is.

In determining whether the Journal of Jean Laffite text is a hoax devised in the twentieth century or a genuine text from the period and by the person it is ascribed to, here are some of the issues that must be addressed:

  •  The language in which it is written: in this case, a Creole French patois common to the Cuba-Haiti islands sprinkled with some hispanicisms. According to linguist Gene Marshall, who studied and translated it, the writing is in a style common before 1850.
  • The spelling and other idiosyncracies not common to all writers of the dialect.
  • The story it tells in terms of its detail and accuracy.
  • Whether it is similar to other such documents, if any are available
  • The voice of the author or narrator, and whether it conforms to the voice of other available documents known or believed to be written by Jean Laffite in the latter part of his career.
  • The handwriting, but not necessarily as proof of scribeship or authorship, but as possibly pointing to the author or the scribe of the original document, in the event that it is a forgery.

If the text is genuine, but the particular copy which we have available at the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center is not the original or not of concurrent age with the text, then it may well be a financial loss to the institution that purchased it, as its market value would be greatly reduced. But its value as a historical text would in no wise be diminished, if the sequence of words that it enshrines is a genuine and authentic transcription of a text whose author was the privateer Jean Laffite. That is the difference between the value of a forgery and the value of an accurate copy of a text.

It is said that John Andrechyne Laflin, aka John A. Laffite, aka John Nafsiger, did not speak French at all. It is said that those French speakers he had access to were not speakers of that dialect of French used in the Journal. It is known that there was not just one copy of the journal but at least two, as another copy was lent to Madeleine Fabiola Kent, who used it as background information when writing her novel The Corsair. If all these facts are true, and if indeed it were to turn out that John A. Laflin/Laffite/Nafsiger did copy the text of the Journal of Jean Laffite in a hand that looks very much like that of the famous privateer’s, then he could not have been its author, though he may have been a forger. If he was a forger, what did he forge? A copy of an original. But the very existence of the copy tends to corroborate the existence of an original.

How could a man who did not read or write French forge a document in a French Creole? One way is if he was indeed an expert artist, by looking at the original not as a text at all, but as a picture that must be copied line by line, angle by angle, correctly, much in the way a photocopier duplicates a text or a photo without understanding what it is copying. To do this, a forger has to be a great savant or a great artist. There is no evidence that John Andrechyne Laflin/Laffite/Nafsiger had that kind of skill or talent. Even if he did, the Journal of Jean Laffite is probably not a facsimile copy of the original journal, because it incorporates genuine newspaper clippings into the notebook in which the journal is copied.

Even if there was no forgery, and the document known as the Journal of Jean Laffite was actually written by the hand of Jean Laffite himself, it is still a copy. There is nothing blotted out. The text flows without interruption. Clearly this is a composed text whose composition took place elsewhere than in this notebook. The copy we have is just a copy. And there were other copies, for it was Jean Laffite’s stated intention to leave a copy for each of his grandchildren, of whom there were several.

When examining the Journal of Jean Laffite for purposes of proving its authenticity or lack of same, it is also good to keep in mind the following basic rules of thumb:

  • Though Jean Laffite may be the author, this does not mean that everything he wrote was true – or for that matter, that anything he wrote was true. People have been known to prevaricate when telling the story of their lives. They have even been known to misremember. Therefore, finding an inaccuracy or historical untruth does not necessarily cast doubt on the authenticity of the text.
  • If the language of the text is very different in one or more sections than in the body of the work, it is more likely that those parts are not part of the original document but were added or embellished upon later.
  • Suspected alterations should be judged by the four corners rule for document interpretation: the internal consistency of the document will determine what parts must be errors or extraneous.

A forgery is an attempt to create a facsimile copy that passes for an original. A forged signature, for instance, to be effective, needs to duplicate an original signature almost identically. A copy that is not a forgery is merely the transmission of a text through duplication. It need not look the same in its typography or handwriting. Sometimes a copy is also a forgery. But being a forgery does not necessarily prove that a copy is a bad copy. In fact, the better the forgery, the more a copy resembles the original.

REFERENCES (For background on Jean Laffite scholarship.) (About Forgery and the artistry it involves) (Gene Marshall Translation and commentary) (For what the Hebrew letters used to look like during the period when the Hebrew Bible was first written down.)

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