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NOLA History: The Legend of Pirate’s Alley

There are two alleyways that run on either side of St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans’ Jackson Square, connecting Rue Royale and Rue Chartres. The alley on the “Uptown” side of the cathedral (between the church and the Cabildo) was long called “The Pirate’s Alley” before that name was formalized in 1964. But were there really “pirates” in “Pirate’s Alley?”

Pirate's Alley Map in New Orleans Jackson Square

Pirate's Alley, on the left of St. Louis Cathedral, from the 1883 Robinson Street Atlas (New Orleans Notarial Archives)

When the street plan for the French Quarter was laid out, all the streets running lake-to-river (Iberville, Bienville, etc.), did so from Rampart Street to Decatur, with one exception. The street in the center, Rue Orleans, was planned to run from Rampart, but to stop literally at the back door of the cathedral. To avoid the walk back over to Rue St. Peter or Rue St. Ann, two passages were laid out on either side of the church. When the Cathedral chapter decided to build a formal garden behind the church, Rue Orleans was further pushed back to Rue Royale to make way for what now is St. Anthony’s Garden.

Pirate's Alley in New Orleans Jackson Square

Pirates Alley, from a 1920s postcard (Author)

While one can imagine a foggy evening in 1814, when General Andrew Jackson stepped out to the Cabildo as the seat of government for the newly-created State of Louisiana to tryst with Jean Lafitte the “privateer,” there’s just no historical foundation for the legend. Given Lafitte’s business (smuggling and contraband), it doesn’t seem likely that he would hang out in so public a place as next to the largest church (at the time) in the city. It’s possible that Jean’s brother, Pierre, might have used the alley as a meeting place, but that’s also unlikely. Pierre was arrested and imprisoned by the U.S. government in 1814 for smuggling and piracy. Jean negotiated with Jackson to secure Pierre’s “escape” from prison, in exchange for intelligence on the British prior to the Battle of New Orleans. So, why would Pierre have an aversion to that part of town? The prison was in the Cabildo, right across the alleyway.

Former home of William Faulkner in Pirate's Alley

Plaque on 625 Pirate's Alley, one time home of William Faulkner (Wikimedia Commons)

That doesn’t stop the story from being told, of course. Perhaps it’s that checkered (albeit fictional) past that led William Faulkner to the alley in 1925. Renting space at 625 Orleans Alley (the official name of the alley at the time), Faulkner wrote his first novel, Soldier’s Pay, there.

Pirate’s Alley (and its mate on the other side of the cathedral, now known as Pere Antoine Alley) were originally unpaved passageways. Measuring approximately 600 feet long and 16 feet wide, the alleyways were paved with cobblestones in the 1830s. When the streets surrounding Jackson Square were converted into a pedestrian mall in the 1980s, Pirate’s Alley became even more attractive to retail shops, bars, etc. There’s one additional half block-long alley directly behind the Cabildo, linking Rue St. Peter and Pirate’s Alley. This passageway is appropriately named Cabildo Alley.

Wedding at Priate's Alley New Orleans

Pirate's Alley wedding, presided over by Dr. J.K. Schwem (Fig Street Studios)

Of all the stories and legends surrounding Pirate’s Alley, the one near and dear to many New Orleanians is the legend of Morgus the Magnificent. Momus Alexander Morgus (played by the actor Sid Noel) was a “mad scientist” who had his own television show that was essentially a lead-in to various old science fiction and horror movies of dubious quality. The sketches Morgus would do took place in his lab, situated above what was described as the “Old City Ice House.” The fire escape from Morgus’ lab reputedly led down to Pirate’s Alley.

With such a colorful past, you can see why Pirate’s Alley is a literary and romantic focal point in the French Quarter. Many couples choose to be married in the alley, rather than the big church next door. Such a New Orleans thing to do!

Enjoy Pirate’s Alley this weekend at the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society’s Words & Music festival. Masterclasses and workshops given by renowned writers and prominent New Orleans figures such as John Biguenet, Tom Carson and Irvin Mayfield will be held, and of course plenty of celebration surrounding food, drink and music – the cultural touchstones of New Orleans.