Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Ghost of Jean Lafitte

Jean Lafitte was a colorful character who lived much of his life outside the law, and a number of details about his life are obscure. He was said to have been born in France. Though well known in history and folklore, both his origins and demise are uncertain. Along with his 'crew of a thousand men', Lafitte is credited for helping defend Louisiana from the British in the War of 1812, with his nautical raids along the Gulf of Mexico. He traveled between New Orleans, South Louisiana and Galveston Island. Lafitte established his own "Kingdom of Barataria" in the swamps and bayous near New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. He claimed to command more than 3,000 men and provided them as troops for the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, greatly assisting Andrew Jackson in repulsing the British attack. Lafitte conducted his operations in the historic New Orleans French Quarter. He used a blacksmith shop as a front for his criminal activities.

The Lafitte Blacksmith Shop in The French Quarter still stands today.

Around 1817, Lafitte was on the island of Galveston, Texas establishing another "kingdom" he named "Campeche". In Galveston, Lafitte either purchased or set his claim to a lavishly furnished mansion used by French pirate Louis-Michel Aury, which he named "Maison Rouge". The building's upper level was converted into a fortress where a cannon commanding Galveston harbor were placed. Galveston pushed Lafitte's presence from the island after one of the pirate's captains attacked an American merchant ship. Lafitte agreed to leave the island without a fight, and in 1821 or 1822 departed on his flagship, the Pride, burning his fortress and settlements and reportedly taking immense amounts of treasure with him. All that remains of Maison Rouge is the foundation, located at 1417 Avenue A near the Galveston wharf. The Remains of Maison Rouge in Galveston.

From there he moved back to Louisiana. This time into the Barataria, with its three islands — Grande Terre, Grande Isle which is know as Grand Isle State Park today and Cheniere Caminada — all occupied by Lafitte's brigands, was literally a fortress; no ship could pass into or out of the Mississippi without having to squeeze past this trio of islands.

Lafitte's operations were centered on Grande Terre, an island almost level with the sea, where he constructed a great brick two-story house facing the open sea. When not in New Orleans, he could be found here among its luxurious decor gathered for himself from the vast quantities of stolen treasures. Often, Lafitte entertained on his veranda, shaded by palms. Barataria Bay — or simply Barataria, as Lafitte called his colony, named after the mythical land sought by Cervantes' Don Quixote — was a Garden of Eden. It soon dawned on Lafitte that if he could contract his seamen to land their ships outside the coast, what could prevent him from smuggling their goods as well as the "black ivory" across the bay in barges and skiffs then inland through the swamps and bayous he knew so well? He remained in the area for years and often moved inland through the rivers and swamps of South Louisiana. Rumors have long circulated that Lafitte died in a hurricane in the Gulf or in the Yucatan around 1826. Lafitte was said to be a master mariner; according to one legend he was once caught in a tropical storm off the coast of North Galveston and steered his ship to safety by riding the storm surge over Galveston island and into the harbor. Lafitte's lost treasure has acquired a lore of its own as it, like his death, was never accounted for. He reportedly maintained several stashes of plundered gold and jewelry in the vast system of marshes, swamps, and bayous located around Barataria Bay. One such legend places the treasure somewhere on the property of Destrehan Plantation, and Lafitte's spirit walks the plantation on nights of full moons to guide anyone away from the treasure's location.

When I was a kid helping my grandfather on his fishing boat we often spent the night on the boat up in the bayous. We fished on Salvador Lake, Barataria Bay and the swamps all the way to the Gulf. It was not unusual to hear the sound of chants and of sails flapping in the wind late at night when we stayed on the boat. There was a tree with a huge metal chain that had grown into the oak that my grandfather said was the place where Lafitte chained his ship when he brought slaves into the swamps to unload. There are many stories of Lafitte's ghost. I heard many from my grandfather and later from others. Many are the tales of close encounters with what some believe to be the phantom fleet of Jean Lafitte; some claim to have seen the pirate himself standing at the helm of the lead vessel.
While flying to and from the oil platforms that dot the Gulf of Mexico I have talked to a lot of men who say they regularly spot a billow of sails on the horizon just before sunset, always heading east into the gloom. Myself and the crews of offshore supply vessels have heard the flapping of sail rigging's and the cry of phantom voices, calling out in the Creole patois (once spoken in Barataria) commands to a ghostly crew. Small boats, according to many oil field workers, have been almost swamped by the passage of the ghostly fleet that is said to produce visible white foam where the bows break the waves and a tremendous wake in the dark waters. These are stories from men who work in the oil fields and who are not given to imaginary ghost.

The strangest story comes from the three man crew of a charter fishing boat who, anchored off Grand Isle in the dead of night, all claim to have seen the apparition of a tall, pale man, clad in black and wearing a wide-brim hat such as Lafitte was known to wear, standing on the aft deck of their sport fisherman. It is said the apparition looked at them forlornly then turned his head in the direction of Louisiana and disappeared before their very eyes. Significantly, the ghostly fleet and the apparition believed to be the Pirate Jean Lafitte were spotted just before the disastrous Hurricane Katrina. Many have come to believe that seeing Lafitte or his ships is a warning that something evil is about to befall his beloved Louisiana coast. But the ghost of Jean Lafitte is not confined to the open Gulf alone. Many legends exist concerning Lafitte’s golden treasure and there are as many hiding places as there are versions of the tale. Most center around the old Barataria area, Grand Terre and Grand Isle and Galveston Island particularly, and it is said that often the ghosts of pirate watchmen can still be seen, sitting on the spot where Lafitte’s gold is hidden, guarding it forever into the afterlife. Archaeological digs in the area have turned up little of significance and no gold, but the legends persist throughout south Louisiana and Texas. Many believe that Lafitte is coming back for his treasure one day.

Written by thevoudou

Friday, November 20, 2009

Fort Pickens Santa Rosa/Pensacola

Fort Pickens was the largest of a group of forts designed to fortify Pensacola Harbor. Constructed between 1829-1834, Pickens supplemented Fort Barrancas, Fort McRee, and Naval Station. Located at the western tip of Santa Rosa Island, just offshore to the mainland, Pickens guarded the island and the entrance to the harbor. By the time of the American Civil War, Fort Pickens had not been occupied since the Mexican-American War. Despite its dilapidated condition, Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer, in charge of United States forces at Fort Barrancas, determined that Pickens was more defensible than any of the other posts in the area. His decision to abandon Barrancas was hastened when, around midnight of January 8, 1861, his guards repelled a group of local men intending to take the fort. Some historians suggest that these were the first shots fired by United States forces in the Civil War. Shortly after this incident, Slemmer destroyed over 20,000 pounds of gunpowder at Fort McRee, spiked the guns at Barrancas, and evacuated about eighty troops to Fort Pickens. Shortly after that the Fort fell to the Union. Despite repeated Confederate military threats to it, Fort Pickens remained in Union hands throughout the Civil War.
During the late 1890's and early 1900's, new gun batteries were constructed at Fort Pickens. These batteries were part of a program initiated by the Endicott Board, a group headed by a mid-1880's Secretary of War, William Endicott. Instead of many guns located in a small area, the image most people have of a fort, the Endicott batteries are spread out over a wide area. This system used disbursement and concealment for protection from naval gunfire, which was more accurate and powerful than in the past. The use of the modern, powerful weapons eliminated the need for the concentration of guns that was common in the Third System fortifications. One such battery, called Battery Pensacola, was constructed physically within the walls of Fort Pickens, while other similar concrete batteries were constructed to the east and west as separate facilities. The ruins of these later facilities are also included in the Fort.
On June 20, 1899, a fire in Fort Pickens' Bastion D reached the bastion's magazine, which contained 8,000 pounds of powder. The resulting explosion killed one soldier and obliterated Bastion D. The force of the explosion was so great that bricks from Bastion D's walls landed across the bay at Fort Barrancas, more than one and one-half miles away.

While the famous Apache Indian chief Geronimo was imprisoned in Fort Pickens from 1886-May 1987. His presence made the Fort an unintentional tourist attraction, receiving an average of 20 visitors a day, and one time as many as 459. Fort Pickens remained a strong military outpost along Pensacola Bay until 1947, when it was decommissioned and became a state park. Fort Pickens has suffered a lot of damage due to its location and vulnerability to hurricanes. Even small storms over wash the area and wash out the road to the Fort.

Fort Pickens like all forts, dark, cool and reeks with age and this one is filled with the sound of footsteps and voices where there are no people. We heard footsteps behind us throughout the Fort. Voices speaking in whispers seem to come from many of the darken rooms. These voices do not stop when you stop to listen. They are faint and the actual words are not clear. Pickens is know for the appearance of soldiers who are mistaken for actors when none are present. Locals report seeing lights in the Fort where they not suppose to be. There is also a large dark mass that many people have seen cross from one doorway to another. While there we saw that shadow three times. It appears to be a natural shadow until it disappears as you are looking at it. But the most famous and most ofter reported ghost is that of Geronimo. That ghost is often seen at dusk moving slowly from one area to another. Even the Park Service employees admit to hearing strange voices and the sounds of people walking when the Fort is totally empty. It is one of the eeriest Forts I have seen, surpassed only by deserted Fort Macomb in Louisiana.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Pensacola Lighthouse

The Pensacola Lighthouse is known locally as a real haunted lighthouse. The TAPS team from the TV show Ghost Hunters will visit there on November 18, 2009. I am interested to see what they find. Both the Lighthouse and the Cottage are supposed to be haunted. We visited both last summer and although we were not investigating there were several odd occurrences. There was the sound of someone going up and down the steps in the lighthouse, as well as muted whispers that echoed. On the tour of the cottage an upstairs door slammed shut with a lot of force. The guide laughed and said that it was the ghost. There were no windows or doors open at the time.

The lightship Aurora Borealis was the first Pensacola Light. A lightship is a permanently moored ship that has a light beacon mounted on it. Due to the persistent occurrence of choppy seas, the lightship had to be anchored inside the bay entrance, behind Santa Rosa Island. Due to the location where the lightship had to be anchored, it was very inefficient and provided little benefit as a lightship and in 1824 was replaced by a permanent lighthouse. This new lighthouse and the keeper's dwelling were constructed for $5,725 and completed in barely two months. This real haunted lighthouse seems to still be inhabited by its first light keeper, Jeremiah Ingraham. Jeremiah moved south from New England in December of 1824 to assume the light keeper duties at the Pensacola Light. The light keeper got married in 1826, and three children soon followed. Even with everyone who was able to do so pitching in to hunt and harvest the crops, there just never seemed to be enough food. This struggle to provide adequate food for everyone caused much stress and became the root cause of frequent heated and violent arguments between Jeremiah and his wife. Jeremiah's wife pressured him constantly, saying he wasn't doing enough, although he seemed to work endlessly.The constant tension and strife festered for the entire time the couple ran the Lighthouse - about 30 years. The children were all grown and on their own after 30 years, which left Jeremiah and his wife alone in the house. One night, the reason unknown to this day, Jeremiah's wife woke up in the middle of the night, went downstairs, and retrieved the sharpest knife she could find. Then she went back upstairs and stabbed her husband in the back. While watching him die, she formulated her alibi to make sure she would get away with it. She got rid of the incriminating evidence and reported her husband's death as a accident. Her plan was successful, and she soon took over tending the lighthouse. Her duties as light keeper we made nearly impossible by one malfunction after another. Countless mechanical problems, setbacks and malfunctions seemed to taunt the guilty wife every day. Was it the spirit of her murdered husband tormenting her? Stories say the murderous wife saw random things fly through the air, heard eerie laughter in empty rooms, saw shadows in the windows of the locked tower at night, frequently smelled the odor of pipe tobacco, and felt freezing cold blasts of air regardless of how hot the fireplace was burning. The Pensacola Lighthouse definitely seems to have the makings of a real haunted house. The bloodstain of Jeremiah's murder shows through the floorboards of the upstairs bedroom of the current keeper's house. It doesn't matter how hard it is scrubbed or what cleanser is used, the stain always comes back. A former light keeper's son said that when he used to pull the chains to keep the lens turning, he would hear breathing behind him. Visitors have their name eerily whispered into their ear by an unseen presence. Doors open and close by themselves, and footsteps are heard heading to the front door, the door would open and close, the footsteps then head out the door towards the gate, where the gate would open and close, then the footsteps would stop. Coast Guard crews can't keep the doors locked. They regularly lock them, double-check them, and come back to find them unlocked again. Many of them have experience the essence of the pipe smoke; one even reported actually seeing the smoke. Nearly everyone reports feeling another presence among them when they're in the tower. Still others are startled by the sudden slamming of the hatch to the lantern room, when they know no one is there. Just about everyone who is asked will say this is a real haunted lighthouse. One of the most convincing reports that this is a real haunted lighthouse happened in the late 1980s. The couple was asked to check the lighthouse to see why the light was out. When they got there, they heard a man pacing and cursing. The husband went upstairs to try to fix the light, while the wife remained downstairs listening to the unseen man ranting, raving, and swearing. At the exact moment the light came back on, the cursing and pacing abruptly stopped. Is it possible that Jeremiah was angry because the light was out and he couldn't fix it? This encounter probably provides the best evidence that this just may be a real haunted lighthouse.The Pensacola Light was fully automated in 1965. In 1971, the Gulf Islands National Seashore was created to help preserve the tower, as well as Forts Pickens and Barrancas which sit on neighboring land. The lighthouse tower and associated buildings were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.