Pirates Alley evolved in the 1800s, while New Orleans was home to the notorious Pirates & Privateers, Jean & Pierre Laffite. While Jean managed the ships and tended to stay down the bayou in Barataria, Pierre ran the “business” from his home in the French Quarter. Subject of much legend and lore, the alley is known to have been a meeting place for these rogues; as well as for men of means who sought out their services.
Locals (including the Priests from the nearby Cathedral) were eager to purchase exotic merchandise – tax free, of course – from the brigands whenever it was made available. The tale is told that this “market” became so popular it interfered with the penitent making their way to the Cathedral for Mass or Confession. The Monseigneur made a deal with the Pirates, allowing them to setup inside the Church’s property (for appropriate ‘alms’ to the Church), displaying their goods along the Church fence…giving rise to the expression “fencing stolen goods”.
Pirates Alley Café stands today on the site of the former Spanish Colonial Prison of 1769. Called the Calabozo (the root of the term “Calaboose”) it was demolished in 1837 and the land sold to make way for the Creole house which now stands in it’s place (though converted to apartments many decades later). In this very prison, Jean Laffite and his men were jailed by governor Claiborne of New Orleans. Jean’s brother Pierre Laffite also served several months sentence here but eventually escaped!
Pirates Alley was also home to Nobel Laureate author, William Faulkner – in 1925 he wrote his first novel here, entitled Soldiers Pay. His home is now the quaint Faulkner House Books and the headquarters of the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society.
Pirates Alley was originally an open walkway by which you could cut from Place d’Armes (now Jackson Square) to Rue Royale (aka Royal Street). By 1831, it had been named “Orleans Alley South” and covered with the cobblestones you see today – but to the locals, its nickname was the one always used, until at last, it was officially changed in 1964. The alley is one of the most painted and photographed tourist destinations in the city , yet, despite its popularity and its size (about 600 ft long, and 16 ft wide), it still does not appear on many a map!
The famous lamp post at the intersection with Cabildo Alley, marks another historically significant spot. Standing beneath this lamp post you are in the closest proximity of Church, State and Bar anywhere in the world…and perhaps, at just the right time, among more Pirate spirits than ye will ever find!