About a year ago I did a post about the famous New Orleans bar and ancient landmark Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. The misspelled and misnamed Creole cottage is no less of a must-see for owning a bogus legend. The Laffite brothers may never have even set foot in the place and they certainly did not operate any kind of business out of the building. But NOLA likes to mix her metaphors and remake herself continuously. It’s all part of being a past-her-prime courtesan, you have to imagine.
All that said, it’s time to talk about another place in New Orleans that at some point in the 20th century claimed the Laffite mythology as its own: The Old Absinthe House. It’s one thing for a proprietor of a bar to hang out a sign that includes Laffite’s name – all be it misspelled (again):That's his privilege as the owner. Plus it draws in the tourists; after all this is Rue Bourbon. It is quite another thing for “experts” on the Discovery Channel, with PhDs after their names no less, to tell their viewers that the gimmick may be a fact of history.
I had not experienced “American Treasures” on Discovery so I was thrilled to be on vacation this week and be able to sit down to their New Orleans episode last Tuesday night. The show now follows the most consistent show on Discovery since “Mythbusters”, “Dirty Jobs” with Mike Rowe, so it’s clear that Discovery is trying to give it a boost with the classic coattail routine. “American Treasures” is hosted by two archaeology professors who travel the country examining various artifacts. In New Orleans, a trumpet which allegedly once belonged to Louis Armstrong and the origin of the famous absinthe fountains at The Old Absinthe House were under the microscope. See clips here.
When Dr. Kirk French and Dr. Jason de Leon pulled up in front of the OAH, French in voiceover talks about the legendary Green Fairy that once inhabited the place and how Jean Laffite and Andrew Jackson “got wasted” on absinthe here while they “plotted their victory at the Battle of New Orleans”. Interestingly, there is no “… but that’s just a legend” added to that little gem of information. While I am no “doctor” nor yet an expert on absinthe, I am capable of research and so, Brethren, allow me to elaborate.
According to Stanley Clisby Arthur’s Walking Tours of Old New Orleans (first published in 1936) the building at 238 Bourbon Street which is now the OAH was originally built by a pair of Spanish merchants in 1806. They dealt in “… imported foodstuffs, wines and other goods” from their native Spain. The merchants, who were related by marriage, willed the business to their children but it was ultimately taken up by one of their wives’ nephews in the 1820s. The property, which was also a home, became a shoe shop in 1838 while the proprietors continued to run an epicerie, or grocery, across the street at 301 Bourbon. In 1861 the place, still run by the original owners’ extended family, was made into a coffee shop. After the Civil War, in 1870, pure luck saw the hiring of a famous bartender, Cayetano Ferrer, who brought his secret recipe for absinthe frappe with him and by 1874 the place was called the “Absinthe Room” around town. The fountains featured on “American Treasures” came over from France to dispense cold water for the frappes and they, like the morphed name Old Absinthe House, stayed even after absinthe was outlawed in the early 20th century.
The place is now listed in city guides like Frommer’s and Lonely Planet as “Jean Lafitte’s Old Absinthe House” but there is no reasonable connection between Triple P’s favorite racketeer and the old Juncadella mansion. Even “American Treasures” tripped on their own spurious claims when the absinthe expert being interviewed for the show pointed out that absinthe did not come to NOLA until the 1830s. In fact, it did not become widely popular in the city – which was really its only place of widespread use in the U.S. – until the 1870s. No matter how you slice it, Jean Laffite would have been incapable of “getting wasted” on absinthe, either at the OAH or anywhere else in the New Orleans he called home.
While the doctor’s off-handed comment may have seemed jocular, I think a bit more caution should be taken by “media experts” in all things historical. There are enough misunderstandings and misrepresentations about the Laffites and the Baratarians as it is. Unless, of course, you’re planning on opening up a bar on Bourbon; then the gloves – and possibly at some point other pieces of clothing – are definitely off.
Pictured: 1950s postcard featuring The Old Absinthe House via Card Cow and the OAH sign today