A Pirate Diary and its Inky Mystery

I recently completed a condition report on an extensively fire- and water-damaged book believed to be a diary of the legendary Gulf Coast pirate Jean Lafitte.  There are many layers of complexity to this item, whose authenticity has long been questioned.  Its condition is poor; its maker’s identity is unclear; it has unexplained structural features that could indicate alteration; and its subject was himself a near-mythical figure whose life story is difficult to pin down.  Discussing this item in full is beyond the scope of a single blog entry; it was nearly beyond the scope of a lengthy condition report!  However, I would like to address one intriguing issue that demonstrates how the information in books goes beyond the written word and into the physical artifact.

Lafitte Diary

The Lafitte Diary is a puzzling artifact with extensive physical damage.

First, to dispel the romantic notions that inevitably arise regarding a pirate diary, physical evidence suggests that this volume incurred much of its damage during a 1960s-era house fire, rather than a daring rescue from a sinking ship.  Water damage frequently accompanies fire damage due to efforts to extinguish the flames.  Tidelines and cockling typical of a water event appear throughout the volume.  However, a stranger phenomenon is observed in the writing, as the brownish-black ink shifts to unexpected purple and red colors.

Ink shift to purple

The ink shifts to purple.

Ink shifts to red.

The ink shifts to red.

As would be expected for this time period (1845 – 1850,) chemical tests confirm that the ink in this volume is iron gall.  However, iron gall ink does not typically display these color shifts, which indicate that some kind of water-soluble or pH-sensitive dye was added to the ink mixture.  I began to wonder if this added dye could help us address some of the item’s authenticity issues.

Feasible dyes for the time period might have included traditional, organic materials like brazilwood or cochineal.  But in 1856, a major change occurred in the dye industry: William Perkin invented mauve, the first synthetic chemical dye.  Aniline dyes like mauve were relatively easy to make in bulk, and they became extremely popular in the second half of the 19th century.

Mauve is a lavender color not entirely dissimilar from the color shifts observed in the ink in the Lafitte Diary.  If the Lafitte ink tested positive for aniline dye, then we could safely say that the ink was made after the dates attributed to the diary, which might help settle the authenticity debate once and for all.  But there’s a catch: after research and consultation with colleagues, I can’t identify a test for aniline dye!

Should any readers be familiar with such a test, please do pass it along!  And in the meantime, remember that books, as physical artifacts, carry significant information that goes beyond the written word, and that cannot be captured in a digital transfer.  Perhaps one day we’ll find the physical clue that helps us understand the true nature of the complicated Lafitte Diary.

Lafitte Diary

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7 thoughts on “A Pirate Diary and its Inky Mystery

  1. Fascinating post, Sarah. You make a compelling argument for the kind of information contained in a physical artifact that is necessarily lost in a digital format. If you get any leads on an aniline dye test, I’ll look forward to hearing about it.

  2. Plans are being made to scan the diary, and we hope to make those images available soon. Fire damage has made the pages extremely brittle, so the project will require some training for scanning personnel.

    • Good to hear. As I don’t know how long these endeavors can take, within a year maybe? I can only imagine the undertaking. Thanks for the info.

  3. I thought that Jean Lafitte’s brother wrote the Diary. I purchased a copy of said diary. It was in french and on big pages. That was many years ago (30/35 years). I think I purchased it from the Liberty Library in Beaumont Texas. They had the french and an english copy. (I am French/American).

  4. Sarah: you have an amazing blog (and portfolio), thanks for writing it! I’m learning a lot. I took a look through Material Characterization Tests by Odegaard, Carrol and Zimmt, out of curiousity (sure you queried the same) and came up with nothing. Have you tried Skip Palenik or other folks at McCRone?

    • Katie,thanks, and great to hear from you! I had not considered McCrone as a resource, but that’s a really interesting idea I might have to follow up on. There’s always a lot of interest in this item.

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