The Diverse Interests of Jean Laffite: Money, Medicine, and Temperance

May 2, 2013 in American History, general history, History

It would probably come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the privateer Jean Laffite that he took a lifelong interest in the money market. He wanted to know how different currencies held up to each other, and how many Spanish Doubloons could be exchanged for a United States Treasury Note on any given day. Hence it should come as no surprise that a clipping about the New Orleans money market from around 1840 is kept in the journal and scrapbook attributed to Jean Laffite.


What might seem more surprising is that Jean Laffite had a keen interest in medicine, medical practices and the efficacy of hypnosis as a way to lessen the pain of a patient undergoing surgery.


The above clipping tells how hypnotism (then called “animal magnetism”) was used to sedate a woman undergoing a mastectomy for breast cancer so that she was entirely unaware of any pain or discomfort during the operation. The operation was a success, and fourteen days later the patient was walking around with no discomfort, but unfortunately she died soon thereafter of an infection.

Why would a privateer take such an interest in an operation on a patient suffering from breast cancer? It seems clear that the focus of the article was on the use of  “animal magnetism” to  sedate patients. In his journal, Jean Laffite expressed an interest in psychology.

Another preoccupation of the scrap-booker was temperance, and how it affected health and longevity. The following clip describes all the usual effects of  long term alcoholism, including both physical degeneration and eventual dementia. It also notes that of people afflicted with small pox during an epidemic in 1823-24, the alcoholics all succumbed, while other people sometimes recovered. The only alcoholics who could survive the small pox epidemic were the ones who had been vaccinated or inoculated. Interestingly, the author of this clipping was not advocating vaccination when he made this observation. Instead, the piece was meant to motivate people to abstain from intemperance.


On the pages of the journal attributed to Jean Laffite, the author  spoke of his own temperance and how he used the drunkenness of others to obtain information from them. He also spoke disparagingly of the drunkards rolling in the streets of St. Louis in the 1840s, and he boasted that in his commune, people did not behave that way.

Anyone past a certain age begins to wonder how long he has to live. It must then be of some comfort to see that the good habits we have cultivated throughout our lives can bear fruit. The following clipping is about a man who was alleged to be 133 years old at the time of his death. He is said to have arrived at that ripe old age on a diet of bread, cheese, and butter, and he drank nothing besides milk and water. However, upon being persuaded to eat meat and drink malt liquor, he soon took ill and died. While the modern reader will probably scoff at this story, doubting both the  alleged  longevity of the subject and the suggestion that his demise was due to this extreme change of diet at such a ripe old age, for whatever reason this clipping was deemed worthy of keeping. It is found toward the end of the journal, and it may well have been the case that scrap-booker was not well at the time and was grasping at straws about how to prolong his life.


Many people read the paper with assiduity. They listen to the latest news and are big believers in what they are told is medical fact. Jean Laffite may have been no different, Not everything we find in the paper is true, and the parts in the health section are full of the latest medical fads, rather than sound advice. However, there are many people who do look for guidance in the papers, and Jean Laffite, toward the end of his life, may have been one of them.

If you want to get to know a person, looking at his reading habits can tell you quite a lot about him. No article, no matter how seemingly trivial, should be entirely ignored when trying to understand the identity and psychology of the person who compiled the scrapbook in the “Journal of Jean Laffite.”

4 responses to The Diverse Interests of Jean Laffite: Money, Medicine, and Temperance

  1. I was quite interested in this analysis of the scrapbook contents of the Laffite Journal. The reading habits of an individual can attest to aspects of the individual’s personality. In Laffite’s case, apart from the journal, there is evidence through a letter to the editor that he followed and avidly read the Aurora newspaper of Philadelphia. This was a Jeffersonian Democratic publication heavy on political analysis. The fact that Jean Laffite could read and understand this in the first place shows the level of his expertise in the English language.

    • That’s really interesting, Pam, about his reading the Aurora newspaper and writing a letter to the editor. What were Jean Laffite’s ties to Philadelphia? Where can we go to read a copy of that letter to the editor? Is it available online?

      I agree that all the evidence suggests that Jean Laffite was fluent in English and could read and even write it quite well, if we discount the issue of spelling. He was just more comfortable writing in French.

      • Hi, yes, the Jean Laffite letter to the editor of the Aurora is online, in my article about it in a 2008 issue of the Laffite Society Chronicles:
        Jean accompanied Arsene Latour to Philadelphia in the fall of 1815 to oversee final editing of Latour’s Historical Memoir of the War in West Florida and Louisiana at the office of the publisher. Jean was staying at Baltimore when he wrote the letter to the editor, as shown by the address on the letter.

        • Thanks, Pam! I went and read the article and even downloaded it for my future reference. That was very interesting! Isn’t it a shame that privateering has been conflated with piracy in the public’s mind? And this change in public perception does seem to date from about that time. Why was Jean Laffite not able to get a letter of marque from the United States government during the War of 1812, by the way? Did they not recognize the common cause?

          As for the Aurora being a staunchly anti-Federalist paper, I find that to be very interesting as well. Jean Laffite was a great admirer of Jefferson, but he may not have realized which way the Jeffersonian politics was blowing, as far as filibustering was concerned. In his 1803 State of the Union address, Jefferson discouraged independent war efforts.

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