LINCOLNTON, N.C. (WJZY)- In downtown Lincolnton, two blocks from Main Street, in a building that once housed the local Free Masons, a sharp secret was hidden in plain sight.
When Dr. Ashley Oliphant and her mother, Beth Yarbrough, asked to see an old sword that used to hang on a wall, they unlocked a mystery two centuries in the making.
“The iron scabbard of that sword did have an inscription on it,” said Oliphant, a college professor at Pfeiffer University.
“The inscription said ‘Jn. Laffite.’”
The mother-daughter duo believe that sword once belonged to the notorious French pirate, Jean Laffite.
In the early 1800s, Laffite terrorized the Gulf of Mexico. He and his brother, Pierre, ran a criminal empire consisting of a hundred ships and a thousand pirates.
After the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812, Laffite received a pardon from the US government.
So why is a sword that allegedly belong to an infamous pirate in Lincolnton?
Because Laffite, Oliphant and Yarbrough argue, faked his own death and lived a secret life in North Carolina.
“There was a price on his head,” Yarbrough said.
The pair recently wrote a book about Laffite’s secret life, titled Jean Laffite Revealed: Unraveling One of America’s Longest-Running Mysteries.
They believe Laffite used a connection with the Free Masons to arrive in the quiet town.
“In 1839 a mysterious Frenchman arrived in town named Lorenzo Ferrer,” said Oliphant.
Ferrer’s body is buried in the historic cemetery behind St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in historic downtown Lincolnton.
He lived to be 95-years-old, but according to the authors there’s no record of him existing prior to his mysterious arrival.
“He brought with him this great mystery,” Oliphant said. “Even then there were rumors that he was Jean Laffite.”
The pair traveled hundreds of miles during two years of research. At the Princeton Library, they discovered handwritten correspondence between Laffite’s lawyer and friend which led them to believe he was still alive.
“This evidence is compelling enough to convince us that Lorenzo Ferrer was Jean Laffite the pirate,” Oliphant said.
And what about that legend that he may have had a hidden treasure?
That one is still unsolved.