On a dark corner of Bourbon Street, far from the loud music and drunken revellers the street is famous for, stands a little building called Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. It’s a bar, but unlike most of the others on New Orleans’ party street, it’s more about history than happy hour.
The shop itself is a marvel, one of the few buildings left from the city’s French era in the 1700s — most of the others have long since burned down. It’s also considered the oldest structure in the United States to be used as a bar. But the building’s fame has more to do with the story of its notorious owners: the privateer Jean Lafitte and his brother Pierre.
The Lafittes were the scoundrels of New Orleans, preying on passing ships to steal their cargo, smuggle it into the city and sell it at cut-rate prices. Business was good, and the nerve centre of the brothers’ enterprise was the little blacksmith shop, where they bargained with their local partners and hatched secret plots.
Soon the illicit trade annoyed the new American rulers of Louisiana, who arrested them. But as luck would have it, their arrests coincided with a British attack on New Orleans in the War of 1812. So Jean and Pierre changed their stripes and cut a deal to fight alongside the Americans, bringing many of their crew. They helped secure a glorious victory in the Battle of New Orleans, and won their freedom.
Jean Lafitte went on to ply his trade in Texas, Cuba and Colombia, and reputedly met his end fighting a Spanish ship off Honduras. But according to legend, a little bit of him still resides in New Orleans. Employees of Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop report a pair of fiery eyes stares out from the brick fireplace where he once kept his gold. And the privateer is sometimes seen glowering at the patrons from a dark corner of the bar, or sitting at a table in the back room with a drink in his hand (of course, that could be the result of too many drinks in the patrons’ hands).
It doesn’t do to look too hard at legends. But entering Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, you can feel the presence of history, if not Jean Lafitte. The wooden beams and brick walls look all of their 250-odd years, and the dim candle light gives the place a dark and slightly spooky ambiance. Of course, the TV over the bar and the video juke box system on the wall do spoil the effect a little. I wonder what the spirit of Lafitte makes of them …