Old Absinthe House

Old Absinthe House
Trooping the Colour 2017
Image by www78
The Old Absinthe House on the right was originally built in 1807 as an importing firm, taking advantage of New Orlean’s dominance of trade between the Mississippi River and the Caribbean. This apparently included French absinthe, and the building quickly doubled as a bar as well. As all things related to trade during this area, the firm likely also had links to the famed pirate/smugglers Jean and Pierre Lafitte, the former of whom hid out with his large band of pirates in the small island of Barataria deep in the bayous while the latter acted as the cover in New Orleans. For four years the pirates variously engaged in smuggling around Jefferson’s 1807 Embargo and seizing passing ships and selling the goods in them, including slaves (the importation of which had just been banned by the United States). A flood of imports arrived in the city from the Lafitte’s efforts in evading customs dues and embargoes, and receiving many of the fruits of the brothers’ operations, most of New Orleans soon learned to turn a blind eye to the brothers’ actions.

However, by the War of 1812, the United States government, mired in a deep and expensive war with the British Empire, had enough. Territorial Governor William Claiborne declared the brothers bandits, and after several confrontations (when Claiborne offered a 0 reward for the capture of Jean Lafitte, similar handbills offering the same amount for the capture of Gov Claiborne showed up on city streets), Pierre Lafitte was arrested for piracy. On September 13, 1814, an American squadron attacked Barataria, driving off Lafitte’s pirates, taking 8 ships and 80 prisoners, along with 20 cannon and 0000 worth of goods. Only ten days before, a British ship had appeared before Barataria, offering Lafitte’s Baratarians British citizenship and grants in the British colonies if they would join in the effort to seize New Orleans.

The offer must have been tempting. However, Jean Lafitte turned the British down. Perhaps it was a traditional French hatred of the British, or (more likely) it was the more mundane fact that Lafitte thought the United States would win the War of 1812 and that the US Navy would remain too weak to effectively confront his pirates, as opposed to the might of the British Navy. Regardless, Jean quickly sent a letter to Gov Claiborne, telling of the British offer and calling for the release of Pierre in exchange for the Baratarians supporting the American war effort. Accepting the offer Gov Claiborne quickly allowed Pierre Lafitte to "escape", much to the fury of newly arriving American Maj Gen Andrew Jackson, who criticized the population in general: "I ask you, Louisianans, can we place any confidence in the honor of men who have courted an alliance with pirates and robbers?"

This anger was soon tempered by the knowledge that New Orleans was woefully unprepared for a British attack, including only 1000 regulars against a massive British force of 14500. Jackson quickly began assembling whatever troops he could find, ranging from his old veteran Kentucky and Tennessee militia to the newer Mississippi and Louisiana militia, Free Men of Color and Creoles from New Orleans, and Choctaw scouts. According to legend, he also finally agreed to meet Jean Lafitte here at the Old Absinthe House.

Here, Jean Lafitte told Jackson about his proposal: to offer his 400-odd Baratarian gunners to fight with Jackson’s force, in exchange for full pardons. Over several rounds of drinks, Jackson agreed. The Battle of New Orleans, climaxing on January 18, 1815 was a shocking and decisive American victory where Jackson’s assembled 4700 troops humiliated one of the strongest forces the United Kingdom had ever sent to North America. Instrumental among them were Lafitte’s Baratarian artillerymen, who trained by years of experience in piracy, outclassed the British artillery forces and inflicted grievous loses on the assaulting infantry. The victory reignited American patriotism after years of humiliation, and Andrew Jackson became a national hero. So did Jean Lafitte (who in all likelyhood was not at the battle) and the Baratarians, who gained their pardon. They would soon move west to Galveston and engage in further acts of piracy in a complex, multifaceted relationship against Spain, the United States, and Gran Colombia. Jean Lafitte is believed to have died in 1823 fighting the Spanish, though his story has passed on into legend.

The Old Absinthe House has functioned as a bar more or less since, minus a period during Prohibition when the entire bar was secretly shipped out to evade destruction from the hands of temperance folk. The spot has been popular with writers, including Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. Aleister Crowley was said to have remarked “Art is the soul of life and the Old Absinthe House is heart and soul of the old quarter of New Orleans.”
French Quarter, New Orleans, Louisiana

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