Last week, I wrote about small cavemen on the Connecticut River. This week, more weird shenanigans on the same river!
In the 19th century, residents of Northfield, Massachusetts believed the notorious pirate Captain Kidd had buried his treasure on an island in the Connecticut River. This island, called Clarke's Island, was not particularly large, and no one could explain why Kidd would choose this location to bury his ill-gotten booty.
Abner Field lived in Northfield at the time and was determined to unearth the treasure. He consulted with a "noted conjurer" who told him where to dig, and also told him the precautions he had to take. Because, you see, Captain Kidd had murdered one of his crew and buried his body next to the treasure. The dead man's ghost watched over the treasure and would defend it from anyone who dared disturb it. This was the reason no one in Northfield had tried to find the treasure before.
The conjurer told Abner to take the following precautions:
1. He had to dig at midnight when the full moon was high overhead.
2. Abner couldn't dig alone. He needed two companions, because three is a magic number and three men were needed to find the treasure.
3. The men needed to form a triangle as they dug.
4. Abner and his companions couldn't speak until they opened the treasure chest and had the gold in their hands. Breaking this magical rule of silence would lead to disaster. Disaster!
On the next full moon, Abner and two friends rowed out to Clarke's Island and began to dig. It was hot work, but despite working up a good sweat the three men didn't speak. They were determined to get their hands on Captain Kidd's treasure.
Finally, after digging for what seemed like hours, they heard their shovels hit something solid. They had found the hidden treasure chest.
|John Quidor, The Money Diggers (1832), Brooklyn Museum|
In excitement, one of the men blurted out, "You've hit it!" He had broken the rule of silence, and the treasure chest immediately sank deeper down into the ground. A ghostly pirate suddenly appeared and flew at the men, terrifying them with its hideous undead countenance. Abner and his friends ran back to their rowboat.
This was bad, but things got even worse. They heard a roar from the island, and saw the Devil himself running towards them at tremendous speed, cutting clear though a haystack in his eagerness to attack the interlopers. The Devil splashed into the river but Abner and his friends reached the other shore safely and ran off in fear. They had lost the treasure, but counted themselves lucky to keep their lives and their souls.
For many years after, Abner would tell anyone who'd listen about how close he'd come to finding the buried treasure. Many people in town believed his story, but others said a local man named Oliver Smith and one of his friends had learned about Abner's midnight expedition and disguised themselves as the ghost and the Devil to prank the treasure diggers.
Treasure digging was a very common activity in New England (and the the Northeast in general) in the late 18th and early 19th century. It was generally practiced in small, rural towns where people had few economic prospects. A Maine treasure digger told traveler Edward Augustus Kendall the following:
"We go on toiling like fools; digging the ground for the sake of a few potatoes, and neglecting the treasures that have been left behind by the those that have been before us! For myself, I confess it, to my mortification, that I have have been toiling all my life, to make a paltry living, and neglecting all the while, the means that have been long in my hands of making a sudden and boundless fortune." (Quoted in Alan Taylor, "The Early Republic's Supernatural Economy: Treasure Seeking in the American Northeast, 1780 - 1830," American Quarterly, Spring 1986, Vol. 38, No.1)
Sadly, very few people ever found anything. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, allegedly found golden tablets inscribed with the Book of Mormon, but certainly no one ever found a vast horde of pirate gold.
Treasure digging (also called money digging or treasure seeking) was a common activity, and it was also a magical one. Many people learned where to dig through their dreams, and others used dowsing rods or looked into stones to locate the treasure. Treasure diggers would also consult magical specialists (often called seers or conjurers) who told tell them where to dig and what precautions to take. As historian Alan Taylor notes, the seers were often female, Black, or adolescent. In short, they were the marginalized members of early American society and therefore easily associated with a marginalized occult activity.
Buried treasure was always said to be guarded by a spirit, usually the soul of a murdered pirate, but the guardian could appear in many different forms: a hideous ghost, a giant, soldiers on horseback, black cats. People also believed the buried treasure could move away from anyone trying to unearth it, and they tried to prevent his from happening by drawing magic circles or triangles on the ground around it. In the Northfield story, the three men need to stand in a triangular formation. Magic circles and triangles have deep roots in European ceremonial magic where they are used to contain dangerous spirits.
Treasure diggers were almost always told to remain silent as they dug. The surest way to lose the treasure was to speak. Part of me wonders if people thought the guardian spirits couldn't hear them if they remained silent, but the rule of silence appears other places in New England folklore. For example, a spell cast with a magic bridle could be broken by speaking, and Vermonters remained silent as they gathered bittersweet root as protection against witches.
I think treasure digging sounds like fun. I'd want to hang out in the woods with my friends doing something vaguely spooky at midnight! Unfortunately, I think a lot of people were motivated by bone crushing poverty, not a need for entrainment.
One last thought on this story: it has what I call a "Scooby Doo" ending, where the supernatural occurrence is explained away as being caused by humans. It feels tacked on to me. Almost every treasure digging story ends in the same way: someone speaks, hideous apparitions appear, and everyone runs away. Most of them aren't explained away as a prank because the people who dug for treasure believed that ghosts, demons, and the Devil were quite real. It's easy for you and me to be skeptical, but if we were out on some island silently digging at midnight we might more easily become believers.
Other than the Alan Taylor article, my main source was A History of the Town of Northfield, Massachusetts (1875) by J.H. Temple and George Sheldon. Also, special thanks to Mark E. for emailing me about treasure diggers and inspiring me to write this post.
Special bonus fun fact: there is an area in Northfield called Satan's Kingdom. Extra bonus fun fact: there's also a park in Westwood with the same name. Massachusetts is great!