In Search of Blackbeard's Treasure
All her life, Prudy Randall
Ghosts, pirates, buried treasure on an exotic island -- just another dull week of history writing here in New Hampshire. I didn't expect to get back on the Isles of Shoals this season, what with fall full upon us, and the ferry halted. Mindy Pomper from Digital Ranch in Los Angeles had other ideas. She called out of the blue recently with an invitation to join her TV film crew in search of Blackbeard's treasure on Lunging Island.
I've heard it all before. Legends of pirates abound in these parts, although no documentation exists. In fact, all the legends I've heard talk about pirate treasure buried at Star, Appledore and Smuttynose, never at Lunging. The best documented story says old "King Haley" found three or four bars of silver on Smuttynose in the early 1800s and used the income to build the breakwater between his island and nearby Malaga. Everybody knows the tale, but nobody I know has seen any proof.
The source of the Lunging claim comes from Prudy Crandall Randall who owns the only summer home on the island. She's been inviting friends and me out for years to visit her famous "Honeymoon Cottage" on Lunging, but it's impossible to reach her isolated cove without a boat and a good tide. Now in her 80s, Prudy told her tale to local producer Richard Baron, who pitched it to Mindy, who got the green light to include an episode in an upcoming show on the History Channel called "History's Mysteries."
"I want to find out the truth once and for all," she told me. Prudy grew up hearing the Blackbeard story from her father who bought the island in the late 1920s. "If there's no silver bars buried here, I can stop thinking about it."
The History Channel apparently doesn't spare the horses; this was a full-fledged expedition. By 6 am a team of geologists with high-tech equipment in silver cases were already on board the rented fishing boat in Rye Harbor. A Boston-based camera crew arrived and, as if on cue, the orange sun appeared on the horizon. The geologists pretended to get back on the boat for the benefit of the cameras. Then Cap'n Pete Reynolds steered the MV Uncle Oscar expertly through the six miles of hefty rolling waves to the tiny private island.
Lunging, once called Londoner's Island, is dumbbell-shaped with a narrow rocky neck connecting two small clumps of land. The natural cove was a godsend for fisherman of the London Company (thus the name) who reportedly used the island as a base camp for their fishing operations as early as 1615. With nothing but a teeny floating dock, the cove was less than welcoming as fierce white breakers exploded on the rocks to our right and left. It took five trips in a gray flat-bottomed skiff to get all the bodies, paraphernalia and snacks ashore. As the day wore on, the great pile of canned soda, chips, fruit bars, mixed nuts, peanut butter sandwiches and bottled water became the center of activity.
During high tides the two halves of Lunging are separated by a foot or two of seawater that rises over the exact spot where Prudy Randall says Blackbeard left his treasure and his thirteenth wife - never to return. There was a cave there, she believes, that has since collapsed or been covered somehow by nearly 300 years of storm and tide. After the Great War, she explains, the US Government was looking for buried treasure and spotted the hidden cave by air using some sort of sonar device. Later in the 1950s perhaps, a man from a quarrying company did some tests and indicated that a cave or buried ingots were possibly hidden there. Exact details are hard to pin down.
Anticipating the encroaching flood, the team from Hager-Richter Geoscience quickly cordons off the treasure search zone with little red flags. One member wearing a back-pack-like device wheels a cart over the area in measured rows, while others watch for signs of hidden silver bars beneath the rock and sand. No matter what they find, a barge with a drill rig is due in from Rockland, Maine the next day to make a small test hole through what appears to my untrained eye like a whole lot of rock that hasn't moved since long before human beings were pond scum. But no one is complaining. The geophysicists are happy as clams to be on the most beautiful island on the Shoals. It's a far cry from the hazardous waste dumps, landfills, highways and airports where they usually work.
The film crew isn't missing any of the action. The camera pans right to take in the Randall's historic shingled summer home that has grown around a 150 year old fishing hut. "Uncle" Oscar Laighton, poet Celia Thaxter's brother, actually owned the island for a time. Oscar died just shy of his 100th birthday and Prudy remembers him well. The camera pans left over Square Rock to the little hut and the old outhouse on the far side of Lunging toward the lighthouse on White. The camera continues around catching the side of the Oceanic Hotel on Star, the two buildings on Smuttynose, then over to Appledore. The Laightons owned all of it at one time, and any legend that attracted more summer tourists to their summer island retreats was a good legend indeed.
"What do you think about the Blackbeard story?" one of the scientists asks me as the camera crew migrates toward the distant rocks for some heavy surf shots. Prudy isn't due in until the 11 am boat. As the ranking amateur historian on the island, I feel I should know more.
"It's a good story all right," I say shrugging.
After days of research, I hadn't found an authorized account of Blackbeard at the Isles of Shoals. In the window of the New England Pirate Museum in Salem, MA I once saw a diorama of Blackbeard burying treasure at the Shoals. The model looks a lot like Smuttynose. Students who visit the museum are told decisively that the treasure is at Lunging. I called museum owner Nancy Hurrell recently and asked where that story came from. She referred me to a book by Robert Ellis Cahill called "Pirates and Lost Treasure."
Cahill, a former owner of the pirate museum and author of 27 small self-published books on New England lore gets very specific. According to his book: "Blackbeard's treasure is buried at the landing side of the beach facing the Star Island Hotel, halfway across the halfmoon stretch of beach." That's precisely where the crew was digging, all right, exactly the same spot pointed out by Prudy Randall. After leaving his 13th wife to guard the spot, Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard, sailed off to the Carolinas. There he blockaded Charleston with several ships and 700 men, was pardoned by the king, then settled down in Bath, North Carolina with Mary Ormond, the 14th Mrs. Blackbeard. Teach was betrayed by a southern governor who had been sharing in his booty and died with 20 knife and five gunshot wounds soon after. Asked where he buried his treasure Blackbeard reportedly said that only he and the devil knew. Cahill's book is full of great pirate details, but does not mention where he got his Lunging Island data. In all my preparation, I couldn't find any corroborating data. With the History Channel cameras pointed in my direction, I said exactly that.
By noon with the water rising half the scientists are stranded on the cottage side of the island. The rest of us are sitting in the glaring fall sun on the food and outhouse side. The MV Uncle Oscar has returned with Prudy Randall, field producer Richard Baron and four local actors with pirate costumes in drycleaning bags. Captain Peter, like the ferryman on the River Styx, is rowing the population to and from each side of the island. The ghost of Blackbeard's wife, left to guard the treasure, stands next to me in a diaphonous gown.
"She should say - "He will come back! He will come back!'" I tell director Tom Jennings. That's the line summer guests shout at each other each time the ferry leaves the Isles.
"I like it," Tom says. "That's good."
Later I'm chatting with Blackbeard who is sitting on a piece of driftwood eating Doritos, smoking a cigarette and sticking his black beard back on with spirit gum. His dark artificial curls hang down as he reaches into a prop treasure chest and pulls out a plastic pistol which he stuffs into his belt. I'd say this whole scene is getting surreal, but it's much weirder than that.
Tom Jennings says it's time for the pretend Blackbeard to pretend to abandon his bride on Lunging. The pretend wife is actually over at Honeymoon Cottage talking to Prudy. That's okay, the director says; she won't be needed until sunset for some spooky ghost shots. Blackbeard's pirate lackeys look less like they've been living at sea for years, and more like they're about to break into a song from Pirates of Penzance. The sound man hides under a blanket and the cameraman barks orders from the shore via radio phone as Cap'n Pete tows and the pirates pretend to row. Meanwhile, the falling tide has made it possible for the geophysicists to resume their sonic treasure hunt.
In exchange for lunch and a free ride to Lunging, I promised Mindy not to reveal what the treasure hunters did or didn't find. You'll have to watch the History Channel - and a little history TV isn't going to hurt any of you. The question for me is less about the treasure, than where the story of the treasure comes from. None of the stories I've found since seem to fit together, so I manage to get the phone number of author Robert Cahill who has just moved from Salem, MA at age 69 to a new retirement home in Florida.
"There's certainly evidence, though circumstantial, that Blackbeard went to the Isles of Shoals and spent some time there. You can count on that, Cahil tells me from Florida. He says he brought enough books from New England to fill three libraries, but he's retired now from the story-telling business.
Cahill is convinced that the Shoals was a "pirate bank", a safe location where ships could be hidden, offload their booty and entrust the locals to guard it in exchange for a cut of the action. The Shoals, he admits, is an unlikely treasure spot. There is hardly a tree or soil to hide things under. Pirate Captain Jack Quelch, Cahill says, was captured while hiding gold nuggets on Smuttynose. That, he says, is documented.
But what's his source for the Blackbeard story? It's a "very very fuzzy legend," Cahill admits.
"I got that from Prudy Randall," Cahiill explains at last. "She had told me the story because we both lived near each other in Massachusetts. I didn't bump into her again until 'Unsolved Mysteries" came along a few years ago . I came rowing into her island one day and she recognized me and said - 'Bob Cahill, what are you doing here?"
What goes around comes around. Bob Cahill's source is Prudy and her source is a childhood memory and a deep 80-year faith that her private island is home to buried treasure. Now that I've been to Lunging, I can report with authority, that even without Blackbeard or his silver, Prudy's fantasy island is a treasure indeed.
Copyright © 2000 SeacoastNH.com
BLACKBEARD WEB LINKS
Blackbeard's Flagship Queen Ann's Revenge Discovered (with video)
New England Pirate Museum in Salem MA
Copyright © 2000 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.
Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.
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