Could There Be Pirates' Gold Right Under Our Feet?
Aargh and a yo-ho-ho! As the second installment in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie franchise revives interest in the evil buccaneers of the high seas, the focus can quite easily shift to Jamaica Bay and lore of smugglers and treasure buried at our shoreline.
Pirates in Canarsie and treasure buried under our feet?
Well, there used to be pirates in Canarsie. Real honest-to-goodness, swashbuckling pirates! And they had to bury their treasure somewhere!
For hundreds of years, stories and legends of smugglers and pirates hiding their ill-gotten booty around the Jamaica Bay shoreline have stubbornly - and compellingly - persisted, anecdotally and in the fantasies of would-be millionaires. The time has come to reveal some of the facts of these tantalizing tales.
Captain William Kidd, along with Blackbeard, perhaps the most legendary pirates, was said to have buried his plundered treasure in Canarsie. Supposedly, Kidd owned quite a bit of land in New York, including several plots in Canarsie. Unfortunately, he was caught and subsequently hanged in England in 1701 and, like a true pirate, died before he revealed where his treasure was buried. Many who knew Kidd suspected he buried his loot in - at the time - a sparsely populated Canarsie.
Though he may have been the most famous pirate associated with Canarsie, Captain Kidd was not the most interesting. He was a true gentleman when compared to Charles Gibbs and Thomas Wansley, two of the most notorious and brutal sea-faring criminals of their time. Gibbs seems to have been the stereotypical, dastardly pirate. His cruelty was so well known that Edgar Allan Poe allegedly used him as the basis of the title character in his only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.
In November 1830, the 36-year-old Gibbs, with a long history of treachery, worked as a crew member aboard the brig Vineyard, when he plotted a mutiny against the ship's captain, William Thornby. Once Gibbs heard that along with bales of cotton and casks of molasses the Vineyard held $54,000 in "species" (coins made of precious metal), the fate of the ship and its crew was sealed.
After throwing Thornby overboard, Gibbs persuaded most of the ship's crew to go along with the mutiny by breaking open barrels of rum and offering to share the bounty with them. The crew members who did not participate were murdered or thrown overboard and left to drown on the high seas. One story that exemplifies Gibbs' cruelty recounts an incident where one of the crew members tried to climb back aboard the ship only to have Gibbs chop his hands off with an ax.
After Gibbs took command of the Vineyard, he ordered the vessel, with the remainder of her crew, sail toward Long Island. On the morning of November 23, 1830, the Vineyard, with Gibbs, his cohort Thomas Wansley and the stolen treasure aboard, was anchored in Jamaica Bay.
Gibbs, Wansley and the crew members all disembarked in several boats taking the captain's clothes, a keg of Mexican gold coins and many bags of spices. The Vineyard was then set ablaze. In case they were caught and questioned, the crew prepared a cover story about being shipwrecked.
From this point on, what really happened is unclear. As with all tales of treasure, there are several dead ends.
Several sources have Gibbs and Wansley staying overnight in the Canarsie home of 21-year-old William Johnson (Johnson was said to have lived in Canarsie until 1907). Allegedly, Johnson's suspicions were aroused the next day when Gibbs and Wansley paid him with a bag of Mexican coins for his help. In fact, Johnson had already become suspicious the night before when the pirates asked him to lend them a horse and wagon. They said they wanted to move something "heavy" from a small boat onto land. Johnson obliged, not knowing he was dealing with pirates. When Gibbs and Wansley brought the wagon back, it was empty. The loot was apparently hidden somewhere between the Canarsie shore and Johnson's house.
Johnson eventually turned Gibbs and Wansley over to authorities in Gravesend (now known as Sheepshead Bay). They paid for their heinous deeds on April 22, 1831, on the gallows at Bedloe's Island. Part of their sentence stated that their bodies were to be cut down and given to the College of Physicians and Surgeons for dissection. Gibbs and Wansley were the last pirates ever hanged in New York. According to the surgeon who dissected the bodies, Gibbs was "rather below middle stature, thick-set and powerful. Wansley was a perfect model of manly beauty."
Many people might be surprised that Wansley was a black man. In fact, about one-quarter of all pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries was black. Some were runaway slaves and some were free men. But, according to pirate historian Kenneth Kinkor, the black pirates found that their treatment on a pirate ship was better than their treatment on land. "A black man who knew the ropes was more likely to win respect than a landsman who didn't."
Gibbs and Wansley never revealed the whereabouts of the stolen treasure during their trial, but there has been speculation about where the money was hidden. Some accounts say it was buried on Barron Island (sic), off Long Island. Others say it was dug up from there and reburied in Canarsie. Other stories recount that it was buried on Great Barn Island, also known as Barrens Island, which is now Floyd Bennett Field. There is also a tale that names Pelican Island, which is now Coney Island. There is even one account where the residents of what is now Manhattan Beach, found the treasure washed up on the beach after a winter storm in 1839.
This same tale continues that the rest of the loot was moved eastward, divided up and reburied in two separate places by William Johnson and his brother, John. It was said that one of the brothers returned and dug up one of the parcels but never found the rest of the treasure. Another version has the local sheriff along with William Johnson, searching the sandy beach for the buried treasure. Supposedly, they found nothing and most of the treasure is still out there somewhere waiting to be discovered by some clever Canarsien.
And speaking of clever Canarsiens, what became of William Johnson? According to Ira Kluger, co-president of the Canarsie Historical Society, he was a founding member of Grace Church, located on East 92nd Street, and is buried in Canarsie Cemetery.
His great-great-granddaughter, Randy Lawson, currently living in Long Island, revealed that a distant cousin told Lawson that another relative possessed a Mexican coin that was passed down in the family. This coin might have come from the buried pirate treasure or it might have been one of the coins the pirates paid the Johnson brothers for letting them stay in their home.
The general consensus of these accounts seems to indicate that not all of the treasure was found and that some of it is still buried here. Intriguingly, there is an existing map dating back to 1873. According to Ramone Martinez, of the Canarsie History Museum, this map lists a Johnson residence on Conklin Avenue near East 92nd Street.
In his final years, William Johnson lived with his granddaughter on Flatlands Avenue. It is alleged that he searched the surrounding neighborhoods as he continued to look for the lost treasure for the rest of his life.
The chances are that the treasure is still somewhere out there, buried in the sandy soil of Canarsie or...could it be just in the fertile imaginations of treasure hunters everywhere?
Editor's note: Most of the information contained in this article was obtained with the assistance of the Canarsie Library and historical articles, including "Pirates & Privateers: The History of Maritime Piracy"- Cindy Valleer; A transcript of the trial of Gibbs & Wansley; a compilation of articles from the North American Integration and Development Center at UCLA; "The Real Story of the Pirate" by A. Hyatt Verrill (D. Appleton & Co., 1923); "The History of Pirates" by Daniel Defoe, R. Hubbard, publishers; and personal interviews with Randy Lawson, great, great granddaughter of William Johnson; Marion (Ryder) Krieger - great granddaughter of Johnson; Sharon Ladigoski - great, great granddaughter of Johnson; Grace Brust - another great granddaughter of Johnson; Dan Jordan, historian on pirate lore; Ira Kluger, co-president of the Canarsie Historical Society; Ramon Martinez, president of the Canarsie History Museum.