Many of today’s Halloween costumes and the tales of buried pirate treasure we all know can be traced back to the life and times of Captain William Kidd. Born in Scotland around 1645, the sailor traveled the seas, often as a “privateer” — essentially a government-sanctioned pirate. Still, the legends of his buccaneer days and all kinds of “lost” treasure prevail to this day, despite acknowledgement that his execution for piracy in 1701 was most likely unjust. Just or not, his punishment was cruel: He was hanged, and then Kidd’s corpse was left to hang in an metal cage (gibbeted) over the River Thames in London for three years as a warning against to others.
Exploding the myths of Captain Kidd
Actual facts in the legendary career of the Scotchman who was accused of piracy and for whose fabulous buried treasure adventurers are still seeking
The buried treasure of Captain Kidd is one of the greatest myths of modern times. Kidd’s gold has been sought for 200 years. The waters of bays, rivers, and lagoons have been swept for the hulk of his sunken ship
Quest of the treasure of Capt. Kidd must always be in vain, for Kidd buried no treasure, says the Philadelphia Ledger. Neither of the two vessels in which he cruised during his years of free roving was sunk, so there can be no sunken hulk of Capt. Kidd’s — laden with gold or otherwise.
Fanciful stories of buried treasure
The Adventure Galley, in which he began his cruises, was condemned as unseaworthy and burned at Madagascar. His other ship, the Quedah Merchant, was burned at Hispaniola (San Domingo) after Kidd’s arrest in Boston. The sloop San Antonio, in which Kidd came north, was seized in Boston.
Fanciful stories have been told of Kidd’s visit to Gardiner’s Island and his burial of treasure there. The only authentic account of his visit there is in the testimony of John Gardiner, given under oath at Boston about three weeks after Kidd’s visit. It makes no mention of the treasure having been buried. An official abstract of Mr Gardiner’s testimony was as follows:
About 20 days ago Mr Emott, of New York, came to his (Gardiner’s) house and desired a boat to go to New York; furnished him one; that evening he (Gardiner) saw a sloop (the San Antonio, with six guns riding off Gardiner’s Island); two days afterward in the evening Gardiner went on board the sloop to inquire what she was.
When he came on board, Capt. Kidd — till then unknown to him — asked him how himself and family did; said he was going to Lord Bellomont at Boston, and desired him to carry two negro boys and one negro girl ashore and keep them until he returned or his order called for them. About ten hours after he had taken the negroes, Kidd sent his boat ashore with two bales of goods and a negro boy.
Next morning, Kidd desired Gardiner to come on board immediately and bring six sheep with him for his voyage to Boston, which he did; then Kidd desired him to spare a barrel of cider, which he consented to do. Gardiner sent two of his men for it, and while they were gone, Kidd offered Gardiner several pieces of damaged muslin and gengal as a present to his wife, which Kidd put in a bag and handed to him. About a quarter of an hour after, Kidd gave Gardiner two or three pieces of damaged muslin for his own use.
The piracy charge
An outline of the events that led to Kidd’s being charged with piracy is necessary to an understanding of the situation in which he now found himself. For some years, Kidd had been a shipmaster sailing out of New York, and for a time had commanded a privateer, cruising against the French in the West Indies. He was prosperous, and tradition places in his house in Liberty Street the first Turkish carpet seen in New York.
In 1695, fate ordained a change in the life of Captain Kidd. In that year, he was in London, commanding the brigantine Antigoa, of New York, when the King appointed Richard Coote, Earl of Bellomont, Governor of New England and New York. Bellomont was ambitious, and saw in the suppression of piracy, at which the Colonial Governors had been winking, a field for personal advancement and gain. Before leaving England, he asked that an English frigate be sent to suppress the pirates, and, not getting, it he decided to fit out a privately-owned ship.
He cast about for a captain, and Robert Livingston, founder of the New York family by that name, who was then in London, recommended Capt. Kidd as the proper man. Kidd was disinclined to take the position, but Bellomont intimated that Kidd’s own vessel would be detained in the Thames if he did not, and he yielded.
For two years, little was heard from the Adventure Galley, either in New York or London, but that little was bad. Ships brought stories that Kidd had turned pirate. One report was that he had taken a great ship, the Quedah Merchant, and had left his own ship to cruise as a pirate in her.
This was hard news for Capt. Kidd’s wife, faithful and anxious in their New York home, waiting, with their two children, for his return. It disturbed Kidd’s noble partners also, though for a different reason. Kidd was compromising them. He was not careful enough. He must be dropped. So they sent warships to hunt him as a pirate. While his backers were anxiously waiting to hear of his capture Kidd appeared unexpectedly in the West Indies, where he touched at Anguilla April 1, 1699, heard that he was wanted as a pirate, and now decided to find Bellomont and set himself straight if he could.
Capt. Kidd was prepared to swear to Bellomont that he was innocent of piracy; that he had taken only ships which sailed under French papers, and that whatever acts of a piratical nature he had committed were by his crew, who had mutinied, and locked him in his cabin until the piracies were accomplished.
Kidd approached the land first in Delaware Bay, near Lewes, and sent ashore for supplies. He did not go ashore here, nor did he land any goods. A chest owned by James Gillam, a pirate, who was a passenger on Kidd’s vessel from Madagascar, was landed here by its owner and placed in safe hands. Several people who sold Kidd supplies were on his vessel. They were later arrested and swore Kidd landed no goods.
Back on the map
Kidd’s movements from this point on can be traced. He was anxious to communicate with his wife and friends in New York, and to that end he steered for Long Island Sound, entering it at the east end and proceeding as far as Oyster Bay.
Here, he went ashore and sent a messenger to New York with a letter to James Emott, a lawyer, and a message to his wife. Emott, whose practice embraced the defense of pirates, hurried to Oyster Bay and went on board Kidd’s sloop, which sailed at once for Rhode Island. Here Emott was landed in Narragansett Bay, probably near Point Judith, to proceed to Boston, Lord Bellomont being there. Capt. Kidd’s advocate arrived in Boston on June 13, 1699, and went at once to Bellomont’s lodgings. Bellomont promised Kidd security “if he would prove himself as innocent as Emott said he was.”
About June 25, Kidd headed for Boston, after taking on a pilot from Rhode Island — one Benjamin Bevins. This pilot naturally had charge of the sloop, and no treasure could have been landed without his knowledge. He was later a witness for the government. The San Antonio put in at Tarpaulin Cove, a convenient harbor on Vineyard Sound, and there Kidd landed “a bale and two barrels of goods” which were “left with the man there,” to be called for on his return.
The bale and barrels were duly recovered, like all the rest of Kidd’s property. The value of the goods and treasure recovered from Kidd tallies fairly clearly with his probable share of the total booty of his voyage, less the goods left on the Quedah Merchant, which were sold by Bolton at St Thomas. The exact nature of the treasure Kidd turned over to Mr Gardiner is known from an inventory made by five commissioners sent by Massachusetts to collect Kidd’s property.
The original of this inventory still exists. The treasure left at Gardiner’s Island was listed in it as follows:
No. 1 – One bag gold dust – 69-3/4 ounces
No. 2 – One bag coined gold – 11 ounces; And in it silver – 124 ounces
No. 3 – One bag dust gold – 24-3/4 ounces
No. 4 – One bag, three silver rings and sundry precious stones – 4-7/8 ounces; one bag unpolished stones – 4-7/8 ounces; one pure crystal and brazer stones, two Cornelson rings, two small agates, two amethysts, all in the same bag.
No. 5 – One bag silver buttons and a lamp – 20 ounces
No. 6 – One bag broken silver – 173-1/2 ounces
No. 7 – One bag gold bars – 353-1/4 ounces
No. 8 – One bag gold bars – 238-1/2 ounces
No. 9 – One bag dust gold – 59-1/2 ounces
No. 10 – One bag silver bars – 212 ounces
No. 11 – One bag silver bars – 309 ounces
Besides this treasure, the commissioners seized on the San Antonio, and at Mrs Kidd’s lodgings, about as much more.
Top illustration: Captain Kidd in New York Harbor welcoming a young woman onboard his ship by J L G Ferris (c1932). Illustration 2: From the original newspaper story; Image 3: Portrait of William Kidd, date unknown