….a still popular mystery
Recently, I received two communications that offered information about the Pirate House in Waveland, Ms. They came independent of each other, one by phone, the other by email. In each case they were responses to articles that had been read on this site.
Because the Pirate House remains a mystery, still prompting many questions, I am always eager to hear of more memories of it.
In my other writings about this subject, I had attempted to get as much input as possible from eye-witnesses. It must be remembered that the house was destroyed by Hurricane Camille in 1969.While recognizing the importance of legend, information from those who had close experience certainly helps to convey an accurate picture, even after many years.
The first response came by email from a Mr. John Cuevas in Atlanta. Though he no longer lives in Mississippi, he was born and raised here, and is from a long line of folks by the name of Cuevas. In fact, he has written a book, soon to be published, about Cat Island and the three or more generations of Cuevas who once lived there. I look forward to reading it.
John Cuevas is now a retired businessman, but many years ago, he was given a personal tour of the Pirate House by the owner, Mr. Lister. What Mr. Cuevas recalls was emailed to me and is reproduced below with his permission.
My Recollection of the Pirate House
By John Cuevas
In 1962, Mr. and Mrs. Borjn Lister invited me to tour their home at 649 North Beach Boulevard in Waveland, Mississippi, known on the Coast as the Pirate House. Mr. Lister knew of my interest in Coast history, and took great delight in pointing to the evidence that the infamous pirate, Jean Lafitte and his men once resided there. I could feel the spirit of those old privateers as we made our way through every room. The special nooks and crannies seemed to suggest the possibility of once secret closets and hiding places, and while these architectural features had long been dismantled, I was assured they did at one time exist.
A door near the center of the house led to the infamous basement. The stairs were narrow with a very steep rise, and although there were electric lights in the ceiling, the darkness of the walls in this windowless room seemed to absorb almost all of the artificial light. Constructed of heavy cypress timbers, the walls were almost black not from paint, but from age. The room had the appearance more of a sub-basement than of a dungeon, but there were details that one would not find in a normal home. Iron spikes were driven into the thick cypress walls approximately 2 or 3 feet apart at a height suggesting that shackles could have at one time been attached. The spikes were not like railroad nails, but rather had an open ring on the head where ropes or chains could possibly have been threaded.
The ceiling of the room was low, hardly measuring 7 feet in height, and accentuated by heavy crossbeams. I had the uncomfortable feeling of having to bend over to accommodate my six-foot one-inch frame. On the wall that was facing the water, Mr. Lister opened a small door that was about three quarters the size of a standard entrance, more like for a closet than for a normal sized room. Inside was a long narrow space that gave the appearance of a darkened hallway. There were no lights in the space, or at least they had not been turned on, and Mr. Lister cautioned me not to enter. I could see that he had been using this area for storage, as there were objects hanging on the walls. He was concerned that I might trip over something in the dim light. I have since learned that he had ponies and these could have been bridles, and such. I was told this narrow enclosure was the remnant of the once fabled tunnel leading to the Gulf. Mr. Lister explained that this passageway had long since been closed off. It was obvious that it now ended not far past the front of the house, probably just under the front porch. Whether it ever actually extended to the waterfront we will never know for sure. Although the house sat on a small hill, it did not seem possible that a tunnel could have ever been dug to the water’s edge. I have to conclude the tunnel was only fable, but it was very clear that the dark room underneath the main house had once been used for more than storage.
The other response came in a call from a Mrs. Isabel Kaiser from Delaware to ask if I were the writer of the story on the website. When I answered that I am, she put Mr. Kaiser on the phone, and he happily recounted memories given to him by his mother, who had lived in the house as a child, before the 1930’s.
His mother’s maiden name had been Griffith. Her great grandfather by the same name had been a banker in Vicksburg, and had bought the Pirate House in the early part of the 1900’s. Her grandfather sold it during the Great Depression, for $3,000.
Her memories may have been from many years ago, and were imparted to her son over time, but it must be contemplated that they were recollections not just from a tour, but from what must have been many hours of playing under the house, searching out its secrets, examining all the “nooks and crannies,” wearing the handcuffs on the ends of chains, putting them on playmates as they pretended to be pirates. I think these would have been clear memories, indelible and preserved for the retelling to her son.
What she remembered included the “tunnel,” which was said to have had bricked walls and ceiling. Water was present on the floor. One fascinating bit of information is what she recalled about the ceiling: it was arched!
Her recollections also included cells in the ground floor under the house; they were made of both wood and steel. Chains found inside were fitted with handcuffs at the ends.
As a result of the new input, I was caused to dig through my previous files, testing some of what I thought I knew at the time of last writing. The search was fruitful. I think I now have a better understanding of some factors, including the physical layout of the house.
Initially, I had been under the impression that much of what had been told about cells was understood to describe the so-called “tunnel,” whereas it really applied to structures under the house. I remain a believer in the one-time presence of a below-ground dungeon (the tunnel), but now am able to separate out information that pertained to the cells. In simple form, there were, I now know, two distinct places of slave incarceration: one in a sub-cellar under the house, and the other underground. The latter led an unknown distance toward the beach but was closed during the ownership of Mr. Lister.
There seems to be a “crossing” of some old memories, that is, confusion of locations if not of description. One case in point has to do with the spikes with rings at the ends. From my interview with Mr. Nicaise, I understood that they were found in the “tunnel.” In the submission by Mr. Cuevas, it is clear that he remembers such spikes “…driven into the thick cypress walls approximately 2 or 3 feet apart.” This is from his description of the windowless room in the sub-basement under the house, reached by a narrow stairway from the center of the house.
This serves to refine my understanding of the layout under the house. From old photos it appears that the basement would not have been high enough to accommodate a six-foot person unless it was in fact a “sub-basement.” In addition, one photo taken after Hurricane Camille actually shows something of a recess where the house would have been. (This is very similar to what can be seen even now, where the Cowan house used to be. It is not deep enough to be a full cellar, but must have allowed some space under what otherwise appeared to have a first floor even with the ground.)
Putting various pieces of information together, the cells under the house were clearly places of incarceration. They contained chains with handcuffs at the end and spike in the timbers high up the walls. Cuevas remembers the walls as cypress, almost black from age. Mr. Kaiser says that his mother remembered that the cells were wooden and steel. (My old notes remind me that Millie Usher, long-term president of the Clermont Harbor Civic Association, has the same memory of the chains and handcuffs. She too played with them with her friends when they were children.)
Another revelation new to me is the mention of an “arched” ceiling, this from Mr. Kaiser. This is the first I have heard of the arch, but it is not insignificant. I believe this possibility helps to explain how the structure might have been built. It might have been an excavation that was covered over, rather than a tunnel. The latter, most people agree, would have been near impossible to dig under early circumstances. But with slave labor, what was possible was the digging of a deep trench which was then walled and roofed over by an arch, and then covered, giving the appearance of a tunnel from underground.
An opening at the water’s end being impossible, it could not have been a way to bring contraband slaves in from open water. The many ballast stones nearby attest to the conclusion that they were brought in by small boats through the natural inlet and into the harbor nearby. The enclosure then became a dungeon for those unfortunate beings.
My file contains an 1849 map showing both the inlet and the pond, with a lone house – the Pirate House – alongside.
Another very curious mention by Mr. Cuevas is the suggestion of “secret closets and hiding places.” I am reminded of Mr. Nicaise’s story in a previous posting of the safe that was found after Camille of which Mr. Lister had had no previous knowledge. It had to be assumed to have been hidden somewhere in the house, undiscovered by the residents.
The mysteries continue. The legend is continually enlarged. But what we know is that there was some fascinating underlying truth. Hopefully, additional input will one day give a clearer meaning to the name, “Pirate House.”