The Ubiquitous Captain Kidd
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
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
Oceanin 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 lawfulthey 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 lootlegal or otherwisewas 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
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 silenceelse 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
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.
nightFather told me it was a still, calm, beautiful eveningup came
an unexpected gust of wind and blew out the lantern. Everybody ran. Old Lame
Dave Willigar was leaning on a cane as he watchedhe'd been a cripple all
his lifebut he ran right past the rest of them. He just sailedit
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 recoiledfor 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 centurywhether
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
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.
somewherestartlinglythe 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
(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
"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 somethinga hollow sound.
A quick exchange of
glances, and the digging began again frantically. Several feet farther down,
their hopes fellsolid 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 rodit
calmly pointed skyward.
"Yes; we'll get the
attraction again in a little while, but for heaven's sake remember: keep
Within half an hour the
rod began to twitch violentlythe attraction was only half a dozen yards
"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 backwardsand 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 saidone 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
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
pot broke away and vanished downward, leaving the stunned man holding the
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
"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 powersfor instance, you couldn't fool him on the
denomination of dollar bills. He'd just feel the bill and give you the right
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 itselfhalf a dozen men were scrambling up from the beach toward
"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 instantnot 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 menand, 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
goespresumably 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
But the surprise is yet to
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
Speaking of strangers
interrupting a treasure quest, here's another in which the ghosts were
apparently not ghostsyet 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
The craft beached itself
near the brothers, and the six men aboardforeigners speaking a language
definitely not Frenchindicated 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:
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
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
riverand beheld a ghostly boatful of ugly-looking bloodthirsty pirates
rowing in to kill them.