The Ubiquitous Captain Kidd

by Stuart Trueman

Captain Kidd    If Captain Kidd really buried as much treasure around New Brunswick as they say, he would have spent all his life digging holes and had no time to sail the seven seas.

    Practically every coastal cove and river has its Captain Kidd legends. Some stream banks are today still scarred with pits that are inverse monuments to man's eternal hopefulness.

   The anomaly of it is that controversy still swirls over whether William Kidd was a pirate at all. The Scottish-born seadog was commissioned by the Governor of New York, the Earl of Bellomont, as a privateer to protect English vessels in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean–in short, he was given a license to prey on suspected ships. After his return to New York he was arrested in 1699, sent to London to be tried on five charges of piracy and one of murder. In vain he pleaded his captured booty was lawful–they convicted him on the murder charge and three of piracy, which were more than enough. He was hanged in 1701.

    There are Captain Kidd fans, now as then, who insist that his trial was unfair, that he was railroaded because his swashbuckling career had caused political discomfiture to several lords who earlier supported his expeditions.

    But it's known that a rich hoard of loot–legal or otherwise–was unearthed on Governor's Island, near Long Island, after his return from the Indian Ocean. The resulting waves of avaricious public excitement spread all over North America and the Caribbean.

    Down through the generations, rigid ethics for treasureseeking evolved. Absurd and grotesque they may seem to day, but men abided by them implicitly. The rules, which varied in details, always included observing absolute silence–else the hoard might vanish in an instant and the sentry-ghost of a slain pirate might appear, or the whole pirate crew itself might bear down on them in a spectral ship to wreak vengeance. It was all slightly terrifying, but chillingly fascinating too.

    At Belleisle Bay we asked Harold G. Bond about treasure fever. A spare, lean man, he wears braces over his tan shirt and reminds one of the solemn farmer in the painting "American Gothic." He lives just above Earle's Wharf, which we reached by crossing Belleisle Bay from Long Point on a picturesque cable ferry. The Bonds' substantial white house has multi-windowed verandahs, and they keep everything around the place as pin-neat, as spotlessly polished, as if they were expecting the Governor-General to drop in any moment. Even the stump-ends of the hardwood sticks piled under a shelter on the back lawn make symmetrical mosaic patterns, they're piled with such mathematical neatness.

    "I split all my own wood," Mr. Bond explains, "and I'm well past seventy-five."

    Why yes, he says, he certainly has heard of ghosts guarding buried treasure.

    "Just below Earle's Wharf on the Belleisle shore, a few yards from where you came off the ferry, a group of men dug handy to a creek.

    "The first night–Father told me it was a still, calm, beautiful evening–up came an unexpected gust of wind and blew out the lantern. Everybody ran. Old Lame Dave Willigar was leaning on a cane as he watched–he'd been a cripple all his life–but he ran right past the rest of them. He just sailed–it sure brightened him up."

    But treasure-hunters are never discouraged easily.

    "Somebody told them if they'd only plowed with a rooster and harrowed with a hen, they might have got the money. So they made a little plow and a collar for a rooster, and a harrow and a collar for a hen, and that night they shoved the rooster along while he plowed the sandy beach-but they found nothing."

    Some people found more than they bargained for.

    One night Obijah Willigar had a dream that Mr. Bond's father, George Bond, was helping him dig up money at Brown's Cove Point, across from Erb's Cove. He saw a vision of a heavy iron wagon-tire hanging from an oak tree.

    "Sure enough, when they followed the shore, there was the tree on the widow Phoebe Brown's land on the point, with the tire hanging. Obijah's son held the lantern, and they had quite a hole dug by one a.m.

    "Suddenly a white form floated up out of the hole. They never went back."

   Mr. Bond believes the diggers saw what they claimed they saw. His father, a Kars parish councillor for twenty years, was "a man of conscience who was hardly likely to exaggerate or mislead anybody."

    On the St. John River below Woodstock in the vicinity of the old Pokiok Falls, a scenic attraction since inundated by the Mactaquac Dam project, two men many years ago went through the most grisly night of all, if their story can be credited.

    They were silently digging in the sand for Captain Kidd's treasure at the spot where they were sure their forked witch- hazel twig had divined its whereabouts.

   Abruptly and alarmingly, they found a man was standing between them and placing a bony clammy hand on their arms. He was a gaunt stranger clad in a mildewed red jacket, knickerbockers, a sou'wester hat, and bearing a sheathed sword at his side.

   As he turned to face them, they recoiled–for the countenance was shrunken and shrivelled, the skin a ghastly gray- green, the eyes lifeless, the long hair and beard matted with mould. He seemed to be trying to speak, but couldn't move the long-stiffened lips; no words came out.

    After a moment of shock, the two ran for their canoe, and from far behind heard a shrill cackling laugh.

    For a long time after, it is said, they refused to talk about the encounter.

   To get an idea of the elaborate ritual followed by treasure hunters in the 19th century–whether they were looking for Captain Kidd's plunder or less romantic riches-listen to an Apohaqui man who wrote anonymously in 1894 about a boyhood expedition to the grave of Major Gilfred Studholm.

    One autumn night in the early 1800's, he reminisced, a man who lived some distance away, but never knew where Major Studholm was interred, had a vivid dream. He saw the prominent government official burying his personal for tune on a high eminence flanked by tall evergreens.

   Greatly agitated, he gathered some friends, came to Apohaqui and hired the local boy as a guide.

    The carriage drove around a winding road to the base of the hill. Then the silent group, their way illuminated by a lantern, plodded up a hillside pasture, through a woods path to a clear enclosure.

    The leader produced a mineral rod, or divining rod–"A short hollow rod, wrapped in whalebone. It had two pliable handles attached to one end, by which the operator held it. The contents of the rod were unknown, though quicksilver, I believe, was one ingredient. The closed palms of both hands were turned upwards, with the rod in an erect position between them; anything that attracted the rod caused it to deviate from the perpendicular. If the attraction were in the ground, the rod would twist about in the man's hands and point straight downward."

    This man, a country blacksmith, was the only one who could make the mineral rod perform. It ignored commands from the other young farmers.

    Now the blacksmith strode out into the enclosure, holding forth the rod with great expectations-but its gyrations soon made it clear that the attraction was back down the hill. They retraced their steps until they reached a giant scraggly pine in a buckwheat field. The rod pointed straight down.

    "Eureka!" a farmer shouted, and they prepared for the meticulous ceremonial of treasure-digging.

    From somewhere–startlingly–the blacksmith drew forth a sword, and marched out past the others.

    He began to inscribe a vast circle around them on the ground with the weapon. The tension increased, for all understood that once the fateful circle was completed, not a single word could be uttered, nor could any earth from a spade be permitted to cross the circumference.

    (This was the abridged version of the protocol, the leader explained, he having dispensed with the requirement that the blood of a black hen be sprinkled around the circle).

    "Are you ready?" he asked loudly.

    "Ready," echoed the chorus-and the swordsman closed the circle.

    It was an eerie scene on a bright starless night-three panting men unearthing a hole with spades, pick and iron bar, a chill autumn wind moaning through the pine branches on the lonely hillside, and the swordsman "stalking grimly about, cleaving the air with his naked blade, as if defying the spirits of Earth or Air to pass the boundaries he had set," and motioning by energetic hand- signs that the deeper they dug, the stronger the attraction was getting.

    Three men digging, one brandishing a sword-and one frightened little boy standing by with nerve-tingling folk tales creeping through his mind-the rumours he had heard of previous diggers fleeing in panic before a phantom horseman riding down the wind ... of a spade clanging on a strong box, whereupon an awful clattering of chains was heard and the box disappeared in a twinkling ... of a former digger being bodily tossed out of the hole by a Presence of hideous visage....

    The boy was jolted back into reality when the iron bar hit something–a hollow sound.

    A quick exchange of glances, and the digging began again frantically. Several feet farther down, their hopes fell–solid rock. In dismay one man exclaimed:

    "I don't believe it's there at all."

    "Now you've done it!" shouted the swordsman, almost savagely. He grabbed up the mineral rod–it calmly pointed skyward.

   Dejected silence.

    "It's moved."

    "What–the money?"

    "Yes; we'll get the attraction again in a little while, but for heaven's sake remember: keep absolutely quiet."

    Within half an hour the rod began to twitch violently–the attraction was only half a dozen yards away.

    "We've got it again!" shouted one, swinging his pick and penetrating the soil deeply.

    " There! 'The swordsman yelled. "What made you break ground before I had the circle drawn? You've done it again!"

    The diggers hung their heads. They knew only too well that no self-respecting treasure would tolerate repeated bungling on the part of the seekers.

    As he anticipated, the divining rod now pointed quietly skyward.

    Soon, however, only a few yards farther away, it began to quiver again.

    The silence was taut.

    Then the boy, trying to pluck out a stubborn root, tumbled backwards–and the gnarled fragment flew from his hand and landed beyond the range of the circle!

    Everything was undone.

    It was a weary, half-dozing group of men who kept persevering as dawn approached. They were beginning to worry about the possibility of the owner of the buckwheat field happening along and discovering them. "We'll locate it just once more," the leader said–one more definite fix and they would go for the night.

    But the erratic travelling course of the hoard had now veered almost directly under the roots of a huge tree. A tunnel would be needed.

    At least, there was no doubt now about its exact posi. tion, the party assured themselves with silent nods. As additional proof, it was noticed that the divining rod could be attracted by a piece of silver or coin beyond the zone of the tree; however, at the base of the tree, silver could be placed within a half-inch of the rod and it wouldn't even show a spark of interest.

    But for some inexplicable reason, having successfully located the treasure for the fourth time, the blacksmith and his friends decided to let it rest in peace.

    They never went back.

    Oft-told ghost stories on Indian reservations, like white men's tales, carry the tacit warning that those who forget to obey the strict treasure-digging ceremonial are inviting trouble. The stories are also threaded through with that persistent bogey, the revenging ship.

    Dr. Peter Paul tells of several men who were excavating at the point where the Nackawic stream joins the St. John River. The chief digger was a big strong hulk of a fellow. When suddenly the top of a metal pot came to light, one man shouted, "There it is!'–shattering the basic code of silence.

    Immediately the pot started to descend out of sight. In desperation the huge man grasped the handle in his great hands and dug his heels in.

    His feet gradually sank six inches into the soil as he strained and pulled and sweated, his arm sinews bulging out.

    Then–snap!–the pot broke away and vanished downward, leaving the stunned man holding the broken bail.

   Below Nackawic on the other side of the St. John River, a church still stands on high ground but a nearby road and once- popular digging site have been submerged since the river level was raised by the Mactaquac hydro-electric dam.

    "A golden image was buried by some old French settlers at the time of the exile of the Acadians," recalls Peter Paul. "Many people tried in vain to locate it.

    "One day a man who had gone over to Presque Isle, Maine, for a job hand-digging potatoes, got word that his daughter was very sick back home at Pokiok. So he returned by the first train.

    "The train always stopped at Hartland for ten or fifteen minutes; so this passenger went over to see a blind man who had a little store. The blind man was reputed to be a sort of seer; he had remarkable powers–for instance, you couldn't fool him on the denomination of dollar bills. He'd just feel the bill and give you the right change."

    The passenger asked the seer how his daughter was now. The blind man kept thoughtfully slapping his knee for a few moments, then said, "She is on the mend-much better than when you got the message."

    While he was at it, the traveler asked where the treasure was that he had heard so much about; and the blind man told him.

   Accordingly a party of four or five men set forth for the spot. First, to comply with the neighborhood etiquette of digging, they killed three chickens and formed three circles of blood around the spot. Then, all inside the circles, they started to swing picks and spades.

    "One of the men thought he heard a boat landing on the shore, and harsh voices threatening what they would do to these men who were disturbing the site. Then suddenly he discerned the boat itself–half a dozen men were scrambling up from the beach toward them!

    "He shouted a warning to the others in the circle-just as one of his companions pushing a rod down realized he had struck something solid, and was busy measuring the width and length of the object...

    "With that shout, everything disappeared in an instant–not only the supposed treasure chest, but the strange men and also the boat on shore."

    Ghostly craft ply the waters in many stories recalled by old- timers on the Upper St. John River.

   Near Florenceville a large freight canoe of the type used in pioneer days has occasionally been reported seen gliding by, paddled by white men–and, whenever obstructions were met, passing right through them!

    A few miles above, we were informed, "Old Mr. Giberson used to recall he saw the raft and the men on it before it was upset at the turn of the river just above Bristol, with all hands lost, sixty years or more ago." On one day of the year, the tale goes–presumably the anniversary of the disaster-you can see a ghost raft coming down stream and the men on it poling their way.

    Strangest craft by a wide margin in the Bristol area's legends was the one reported seen where the big Shiktahawk flows into the St. John. It happened in the early years of this century. A party of men were digging for treasure one midnight on a river- bank plateau across from the mouth of the Shiktahawk. Their shovels had just thudded on a wooden object when they heard strange loud sounds across the river.

    Up to this point the story follows a familiar patternimpending disappointment at the very moment of triumph.

    But the surprise is yet to come–

    To the wide-eyed incredulity of the diggers, a Viking ship was sailing down the Shiktahawk toward them, its elevated prow slicing swiftly through the waters and sending out waves on both sides!

    In a split-second, before the men bolted down shore, they saw and heard enough to remember the figurehead dragons rearing up their fearsome visages fore and aft, the round shields fastened to the long boat's sides, the bearded chieftain in winged Norse helmet with long hair streaming behind him, the raucous foreign voices chorusing out a battle song...

    Speaking of strangers interrupting a treasure quest, here's another in which the ghosts were apparently not ghosts–yet it's still a puzzler to this day.

    Up at Jacquet River on the North Shore there's a place traditionally called The Island, though it's now linked with the mainland. Since a century and a half ago, for some unfathomable reason, people have repeatedly dreamed of treasure being dug up on The Island.

    Early in the 19th century two brothers, James and William McMillan, both staunch God-fearing churchmen, went to find out for themselves. They discovered the spot that James had evidently envisioned in his own dream, shovelled down a few feet, found a small aperture or cave, and then–

    A silent boat was cresting toward the shore where they stood! The two uprighteous brothers hurried to fill in the pit, more out of embarrassment than anything else.

    Incredibly, the boat kept coming, though propelled neither by rowers nor by canvas. Even more incredibly, when it reached a sandbar it just sailed across the barrier as if it wasn't there.

    The craft beached itself near the brothers, and the six men aboard–foreigners speaking a language definitely not French–indicated by signs they wanted food and shelter.

    For several days thereafter they stayed at a Jacquet River boarding house and inn. Everyone saw them; but no one ever knew where they came from or why ... or how they crossed the sandbar ... or when or how they left.

   And the brothers, perhaps understandably, never returned to the scene.

    The haunting bugaboo of an avenging ship has become so entrenched in New Brunswick coastal lore that it's easy to understand what happened on the Kennebecasis River during the construction of the European and North American Railway in the mid-1800s.

    A gang of off-duty rail workers rode the supply train to Saint John for a few quick ones at a tavern, but missed the return trip to Rothesay.

    Rather than trudge ten miles, they hired a small boat with an auxiliary sail, and when the night wind died down an hour later they bent to the oars. As the boat rounded a sandy spit jutting out into the river they noticed the twinkle of lanterns ashore, and dark figures moving about, digging.

   Curious, the boatmen headed for the beach.

    Suddenly a vociferous yell rent the air:

   "Run, boys-they're coming after us!"

   Instantly the shore party scattered and fled.

    The lark-loving railway gang gathered up lanterns, coats, picks, spades and dumped them into the partially-dug pit.

    In the days that followed, they relished the fast-spreading stories of how treasure-hunters were on the verge of finding Captain Kidd's gold when they heard a faint sound on the river–and beheld a ghostly boatful of ugly-looking bloodthirsty pirates rowing in to kill them.