Island artist amasses collection of objects and documents related to legendary pirate
Ever since he was a young child, islander Jim Nonus has been fascinated by the legend of Jean Laffite. You might even call it a lifelong obsession, said Nonus, a Galveston resident, freelance artist and antique consultant.
“My mother would drive me past the site of La Maison Rouge on Harborside Drive, which became the Hendrick’s Castle property,” he said. “I was instantly drawn to it.”
Nonus said he developed a sixth sense about Laffite.
“As a young boy, I started having terrible recurring nightmares where I was abducted from my bed and dragged in a sack by two frightening pirates in striped shirts onto a ship. I had this dream constantly till I was about 11.”
The vivid, recurring dreams convinced Nonus that he possessed an inexplicably deep connection to the legend of Laffite and the time period in which he lived. The nightmares have ceased, but Nonus’ intense fascination with Laffite remains.
“I’ve acquired quite a collection of objects that are associated with Laffite over the years,” he said. “One of my prized possessions in my Laffite collection is this document with what is likely his signature.”
The yellowed paper, which has some water damage, has been authenticated to Laffite’s time period, and the signature, “Jean Laffite” is written with a flourish in bold, thick letters with the word “Emperor” beneath it.
Nonus’ extensive research on Laffite led him to discover more than 70 newspaper articles recounting the movements of the French in Texas in the early 1800s, as well as numerous articles focusing on the activities of the famous pirate and privateer.
“News of Laffite was covered all over the country,” Nonus said.
Among the collection is a story published in 1818 by Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser in Philadelphia.
“Laffite brought prizes from the Gulf of Mexico,” it reports, referring to Laffite’s capture of the Spanish ship Campeche. “The ship contained 450 tons of cargo worth $350,000 and was brought to Galveston.”
The articles show how active and newsworthy Laffite was, Nonus said.
Because of their historic value and their firsthand accounts of Laffite and the French in Texas at the time, this part of the Nonus Collection has been acquired by The Bryan Museum, which opened earlier this year in Galveston and is home to world’s largest collection of historical artifacts, documents and artwork relating to the Southwestern United States.
La Maison Rouge, Laffite’s home in Galveston, was located at what’s now 1417 Harborside Drive. Later, a sea captain named William Hendrick, who was said to have been acquainted with some of Laffite’s associates, built a home referred to as Twelve Gables at the site, atop the remains of the Maison Rouge foundation.
“I have this photo of Hendrick’s Castle when it was empty and uninhabitable, taken back around 1948,” Nonus said. “Through the front window is the image of a man — and he sure looks a lot like a pirate.”
The dark haired, mustached man, whose eerie face is visible in the photo, stares out the window.
Pirates have taken their place in history as plunderers and master thieves, and they’ve enjoyed a revival with films such “Pirates of the Caribbean.” For Nonus, Laffite will never go out of style.
“I’ll never stop looking for more about Laffite,” he said. “He was a legend in his own day.”