Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Authenticating the Journal of Jean Laffite

Today, on Historia Obscura, there is a groundbeaking new article about the authenticity of the Journal of Jean Laffite.


In this article, the Gros portrait which was part of the Laffite collection is authenticated as being by the famous Napoleonic artist, Antoine-Jean Gros. What this means, among other things, is that John A. Laffite, whatever his demerits, could not have forged that painting.

Of course he could not have forged the Journal, either.


For one thing, John A. Laffite did not speak French. For another, the particular dialect of French used would be unavailable even to a literate American forger, as it was a creole with a peculiar mixture of Spanish and Haitian influences. But there are other ways we can tell that the document is not a forgery.

The Journal of Jean Laffite  surfaced in 1948, when a man calling himself John Andrechyne Laflin presented it to the Missouri Historical Society. At first it was believed to be genuine, but later doubts began to surface. Laflin's own past was shady, he was accused of being a forger, and people began to doubt that this was the true journal of the famous privateer whose actions in the Battle of New Orleans turned the tide in the War of 1812.

An examination of the paper and ink confirmed that they were the 19th century and belonged to the same time period which it purported to have come from. The journal is not a day by day diary. It is more like the reminiscing of an older man about his past life. It is written in French and contains many newspaper clippings, rather like a scrapbook.

You would think, however, that an examination of the handwriting, and especially the signature of Jean Laffite, might be dispositive of the issue. If the manuscript was genuine, then surely the signature would match the signature in other documents from reputable sources.

As it happens, the national archives contain a letter written by Jean Laffite to President James Madison. The signature on that letter looks like this:

I have copied this signature from the letter written by Jean Laffite to James Madison which is found in the Library of Congress in the James Madison Collection. (It is not protected by copyright).

We can take a very good looks at this signature and get some idea if the signature in the Journal of Jean Laffite is the same or different.

I have a copy of the journal which was sent to me from the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Centter. It, too, is not protected by copyright, and the librarian was happy to make me this copy. The signature in the Journal of Jean Laffite looks like this:

The signatures do look quite different. You would think this would be dispositive of the issue. The letter to President Madison is genuine and is kept by the government. The journal must be a hoax.

But when I consulted with a genuine Jean Laffite researcher, here is what I found out: the experts all agree that the signature in the letter by Jean Laffite is not in the privateer's hand, whereas the signature in the Journal is very much the privateer's signature on his ship's manifest.

Picture provided by Pam Keyes

Now what do you make of that?


  1. This is some interesting new info to add to the narrative about Jean Lafitte.

    1. Thanks, Julia. Yes, I think so. Let's hope that professional historians as well as lay people pay attention.