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