December 30, 2019

Ghosts, Treasure and A Scam in Exeter, New Hampshire

Rainsford Rogers arrived in Exeter, New Hampshire in 1798. Exeter was a sleepy rural town back then and Rogers made a big impression when he arrived. Not only was he an outsider, which was exciting in itself, but he also claimed he could command spirits and ghosts. 

This was a big deal in Exeter. According to Charles Henry Bell's History of the Town of Exeter, New Hampshire (1888), Exeter's citizens hadn't had many encounters with the supernatural. There weren't any witchcraft accusations in the town's past, and there weren't even any haunted houses. Well, Bell notes that one house did for a time experience some poltergeist activity ("strange and inexplicable freaks of self-propelling furniture and the like") but "it never received a bad name on that account." Exeter was just a practical-minded place full of hard-working people. So it was quite exciting to hear Rainsford Rogers say he could invoke spirits.

Rogers became an Exeter celebrity and was soon befriended by twelve of the town's wealthiest citizens. Rogers confided to these men a great secret: there was buried treasure hidden somewhere nearby. The spirits would guide Rogers to it but he needed men he could trust to help dig it up. Anyone who helped him would get a share of the treasure. He asked the twelve if they were trustworthy. With visions of treasure in their eyes they said yes.

A woodcut of a ghost from this blog!
Rogers and his followers fell into a pattern. Rogers would consult with the spirits to determine where the treasure was, and then the twelve men would try to unearth it. The digging always took place late at night, usually in desolate locations like swamps or in the woods. Rogers also told the men they needed to wear white caps while digging, and the people in Exeter named the group the White Caps. 

They made frequent night-time trips in search of treasure. One night while they were out digging a ghost appeared to the White Caps. 
On one of the nocturnal excursions there appeared before the eyes of the awe-stricken diggers a figure all in white, representing a spirit, which uttered some words which were not well understood. One of the "white caps" anxious to lose nothing of the weighty communication, responded - "a little louder, Mr. Ghost; I'm rather hard of hearing." (Bell, History of the Town of Exeter, New Hampshire, 1888, p. 413).
But despite many nights spent excavating the White Caps never found any treasure. The spirits finally told Rainsford Rogers why. He needed a special divining rod (or dowsing rod) made from expensive materials. Such an artifact could only be produced in Philadelphia. Rogers asked the White Caps if they could contribute money towards the cost of the divining rod. They agreed, giving him several hundred dollars and a new saddle for his horse. 

A diving rod or dowsing rod.
Rogers rode out of Exeter with the money. The White Caps waited eagerly for his return. And waited. And waited. After several weeks they finally realized they had been duped, something their neighbors had suspected all along. Rogers was in fact a serial con-man, and had tricked people in many states out of their money. Born in Connecticut and originally employed as a schoolteacher there, Rogers changed careers when he learned that fooling gullible people with spiritual hocus-pocus was more profitable than educating children. (Sadly I think that may still be the case.)

He pulled his most notorious scam in Morristown, New Jersey, where he fooled 50 wealthy men into believing ghostly entities would reveal buried gold left behind by the British troops in the Revolutionary War. His antics in Morristown were far more elaborate than those in Exeter. He made his followers stand in magic circles inscribed on the ground in the woods, exploded pyrotechnics hidden under the soil, told people to carry bags containing bone dust for protection, and dressed up like a ghost to lurk outside houses. He also told his wealthy followers to give him large amounts of money. He was eventually arrested, but when a still-faithful follower paid his bail he fled town. 

A book detailing Rogers's criminal exploits (called The Morristown Ghost) was published in 1792.  Some historians speculate that Rogers wrote the book himself, both as a money-making venture and to vengefully humiliate the people in Morristown by revealing their gullibility. Unfortunately no one in Exeter ever read The Morristown Ghost so they were vulnerable to Rogers's scheme.

It's easy for a 21st century person to look back and laugh at how foolish people were, but at the time it was widely believed that America was littered with buried treasure. Legends like this were found across the country, and the treasures were usually thought to be guarded by fearsome spirits that could only be tricked through magical means. Here in Massachusetts several examples immediately come to mind: the alleged pirate treasure at Dungeon Rock in Lynn, the terrifying treasure cats of Ipswich, and the legend of Hannah Screecham of Cape Cod. There are dozens of other examples from across New England alone. Washington Irving wrote several stories on this theme, and some historians even say that treasure hunting (or money-digging as it was known) might have influenced Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion. 

Although we don't believe in buried treasure these days, sadly there are still unscrupulous people out there who will take advantage of vulnerable people. Our beliefs have changed but human nature hasn't.


Robert Mathiesen said...

You can download a reprint of "The Morristown Ghost" from the Internet Archive:

Peter Muise said...

Thanks for that Robert! Although Rogers was a scam artist, I feel like his career gives insight into what 18th century Americans believed about magic. They thought what he said was plausible. The bags full of powdered bones is an interesting detail.

Anonymous said...

I always enjoy your writing, but this one is extra good!

Robert Mathiesen said...

The powdered bones caught my eye, too, Peter. I hadn't run into that detail before.

I'm certain you're right that a very successful scam artist like Ransford Rogers will perforce have had a very good idea of what his contemporaries believed about magic and what they expeccted to find in magic rituals to dig up buried treasure.

Do you know about John Dillinger's recent book: "Magical Treasure Hunting in Europe and North America: A History" (2017)? IIRC, it has more on Europe than North America.

Alan Taylor's ""The Early Republic's Supernatural Economy: Treasure Seeking in the American Northeast, 1780-1830," in the journal, American Quarterly, 38(1986), 6-34, is very rich in details, and is more focused on old New England. There's also a good article by W. R. Jones, " 'Hill-Diggers' and 'Hell-Raisers': Treasure Hunting and the Supernatural in Old and New England," in the 1992 Annual Proceedings of the Dublin Seminar on New England Folklife. This volume is titled "Wonders of the Invisible World, 1600-1900," and Jones's article is on pp. 97-106.

And then there's the considerable scholarly literature about Joseph Smith Jr. and his apparent use of a seer-stone to find buried treasure, especially D. Michael Quinn's "Early Mormonism and the Magical World View" (1987, 2nd ed., 1998) and John L. Brooke's "The Refiner's Fire" (1994). Brooke pays some attention to Ransford Rogers, IIRC.

Peter Muise said...

Thank you Anonymous! This one was particularly fun to write.

Peter Muise said...

Hi Robert! Thank you for all those references. I own Quinn's books and actually just borrowed "Wonders of the Invisible World, 1600 - 1900" from the Boston Athenaeum last week! That's where I got the initial info about Rogers. The Dillinger book and the Taylor article both sound good. It's kind of fascinating that money-digging was such a widespread activity but is now mostly forgotten.

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Rich Clabaugh said...

Who doesn't love a good buried treasure story? Thanks Peter!