As much fog and mystery surround this building as surrounds the life of one of New Orleans’ favorite sons, Jean Lafitte. The former (perhaps) blacksmith shop that bears the Lafitte name is now a famous bar located in the city’s French Quarter. It was built sometime between 1722 and 1732 making it one of the older buildings within the city. It is rumored the Lafitte brothers used the building to plan their privateering operations and as a front to sell goods smuggled into the city. Despite its unknown past, it was designated as a National Historic Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.
Jean Lafitte and his older brother Pierre were notorious 19th-century privateers/pirates who operated out of New Orleans and Barataria Bay. Details of Jean’s first twenty years are hard to come by, but by 1806 there were several men named Captain Lafitte who sailed from the ports of New Orleans. The brothers moved their smuggling operation from New Orleans to Barataria Bay as a result of the 1807 Embargo Act that prevented trade with foreign powers. By 1810, the port was a thriving headquarters for Caribbean smuggling activities that preyed largely upon Spanish ships hauling silver, merchandise, and slaves to and from the Caribbean and Central and South America.
Their operations caught the attention of the authorities, and both were arrested in 1812. However, they were released to await their trial, for which, not surprisingly, they failed to appear. Their island compound was again raided by the authorities in 1814, and many of Lafitte’s compatriots were arrested. During the War of 1812, however, Lafitte and his captains were given authority to raid British ships on the condition that they turn over the goods to the U.S. government.
After once again running afoul of the law, Jean negotiated full pardons for himself, his brother and his fellow privateers by working with future President Andrew Jackson. Jackson utilized the services of the pirates against the British during the Battle of New Orleans and, by all accounts, these men served Jackson well. Jean is then thought to have died in 1823 off the coast if Honduras after an encounter with the Spanish.
As for their namesake bar, there is some evidence that Pierre was a blacksmith and that their associate, René Beluche, owned the building at one time. The building seems to have later served as an oyster and cobbler’s shop, that was owned by C. Mongo, sometime around the turn of the 20th century. It also had an outbuilding, that housed the oyster shop, which was demolished around 1910. Records also reveal the building served as a grocers and dentist office. Its first recorded use as a bar dates from 1933.
During the 1940s, the abandoned building was used by Roger “Tom” Caplinger as the Café Lafitte, a bohemian nightspot that catered to the likes of playwrights Tennessee Williams and Noël Coward. However, since Caplinger did not own the building, it was sold at auction in 1953. Caplinger then opened Café Lafitte in Exile at the other end of the block which is still in operation. Lafitte’s is a wonderful example of the branch of French Colonial architecture known as briquette-entre-poteaux (brick between post) that feature double louvered doors, a flared hip roof, dormers, and shutters.