August 17, 2014

Hannah Screecham and the Pirates' Treasure: She Was Evil But Loved Her Job

We still have a couple weeks until Labor Day, so I'm still in a Cape Cod state of mind. Here's a weird story about one of the more colorful characters in the Cape's history, Hannah Screecham.

Hannah lived on Grand Island off the coast of Barnstable back in the 1600s. Grand Island (aka Oyster Harbors) is now a very posh neighborhood, but three centuries ago it was desolate and windswept. Hannah Screecham lived there nearly alone - except for occasional visitors who came at night from the ocean.

You see, Hannah was in league with every pirate captain who traveled the New England coast. Smuggling, privateering and piracy were all huge parts of the local economy, and Hannah played a vital yet unsavory role in it. She helped the pirate captains bury their treasure. That might sound like honest hard work, but you've heard the saying "Dead men tell no tales?" That was Hannah's job. She was quite good at it, and was hired by many notorious pirates, including Captain Kidd.

It worked like this. Late at night, a pirate captain would row ashore to Grand Island with a chest of gold and only one other member of his crew. The crew member was always a very recent recruit. Hannah would meet the two men on shore, and lead them to a secluded spot on the island where they could bury their treasure. She would stand watch as the captain and his man dug a pit and lowered in the chest.

Then, once the treasure was put into the deep pit, she would push the unsuspecting crew member down into it as well. The sandy soil would collapse onto the injured (but still living) pirate and bury him alive. When the deed was done Hannah would issue forth a terrifying, shrill cry, which signaled to the waiting pirate ship that its captain was ready to come back aboard.

The pirate captains would pay Hannah with a small pouch of silver, or a pillaged ring, or even a token of their love. But secretly they feared her. She seemed to like her work a little too much. She relished pushing unsuspecting men to their deaths, and her shrill cry had a note of deep pleasure in it.

Eventually Hannah was done in by greed. She lived comfortably off the small payments the captains gave her, but wanted more. She knew where every treasure was buried, so why not take some gold for herself? One moonlit night she took her shovel and unearthed a particularly rich trove of gold. But as she opened the chest she saw pale figures gather above her around the mouth of the pit. They were the ghosts of the men she had killed! As she opened her mouth to plead for mercy a ghostly figure appeared inside the pit with her and wrapped its cold fingers around her neck. As Hannah gasped for breath the pit collapsed around her, burying her forever.

Hannah was just too evil to rest in peace, though. Her own ghost is still supposed to haunt Grand Island, and her trademark shriek can sometimes be heard echoing over the dunes. The treasures she helped hide still remain undiscovered.

That version of Hannah Screecham's story can be found in Elizabeth Reynard's 1934 book The Narrow Land. Another story about Hannah, which appears in a few other sources like Cheri Revai's Haunted Massachusetts, claims that she was not evil, but just an outcast old woman feared by her neighbors. When an outbreak of smallpox struck Barnstable they accused her of causing it through witchcraft and hanged her without a trial.

A group of pirates came ashore by night and cut down her body, burying it in an undisclosed location. When confronted by the townspeople the lead pirate, who was Captain Kidd himself, said that Hannah had been his mother. He had buried her body with his treasure so her spirit could guard it. The people of Barnstable searched many years for Kidd's gold but never were able to find it. Hannah's ghost haunts the dunes near Barnstable, shrieking like a gull.

Hannah was not the only notorious person named Screecham. She had a sister named Sarah, who was a witch. More about her next week!

No comments: