In the late 1680s, England was at war with Spain and France and wanted to intercept and steal whatever goods were being transported at sea by either of those nations.
In 1689, a 45-year-old Scotsman named William Kidd was captain of a pirate ship in the Caribbean named Blessed William in honor of the British King, William III. Sailing into the harbor of the English-held island of Nevis, Kidd and his crew were hired by the governor there to be part of a fleet defending that island from the French. Kidd and Blessed William did that job well, but then got told by their English paymasters that they wouldn’t pay what was owed, so go get it from the French. With that, he attacked the French-held island of Marie-Galante and destroyed and looted its only town, getting away with about 2,000 pounds sterling.
Back in the Atlantic, he captured a French privateer sailing around off New York and Massachusetts, then was awarded 150 pounds for his work. Kidd then settled in New York City and married one of its wealthiest women, Sarah Bradley Cox Oort, an English woman in her mid-20s. He was 46.
A few years later, a new governor of New York, Lord Bellomont, asked Kidd if he would return to privateering by going out to sea to attack French ships and round up several Englishmen who had turned to piracy. Kidd’s expedition was bankrolled by several English lords and even, it was said, perhaps the king. It was asked of him in a way where he could not say no. Kidd got a new charter for this effort from the king and in 1695 he went to England to pick up his new ship at the yard where it was being built. This was the 284 ton Adventure Galley, a ship with 34 cannons, a crew of 150 and oars—so even if an enemy were becalmed Kidd could still maneuver to take advantage of him.
Boarding his new ship, Kidd and his crew sailed it down the Thames where it encountered a naval yacht that they were obliged to salute as they went by. They didn’t. As a result, the yacht fired a single shell across its bow to remind them. In return, the crew pulled down their knickers and mooned the yacht. With that, the captain of the navy yacht boarded Adventure Galley and, over Kidd’s objection, ordered most of the crew impressed into the naval service. Thus, Kidd sailed Adventure Galley back to New York with a skeleton crew and, arriving here, hired on a new crew, nearly all of whom were either hardened criminals or former pirates. With that, off they went, privateers in the service of the king.
Off the coast of Madagascar, Kidd failed to find any French or Spanish ships. At the southern entrance to the Red Sea he failed again. Because Kidd could no longer pay his crew, there was the threat of mutiny, and during that episode, Kidd threw an iron bucket at a member of his crew, killing him. Captains could have their way with their crew at that time. Murder was not one of those ways, however. The Crown ordered Kidd home to stand trial.
With that, Kidd became a full-blown pirate. In January of 1698, flying a French flag in the Indian Ocean, he boarded a 400-ton Armenian ship, the Quedagh Merchant, and found gold, silver, muslins, satins and silks. The captain of this ship, an Englishman, had letters of passage from the French East India Company. Kidd, realizing all was in order and he was talking to an Englishman, ordered all the booty returned. The crew refused. They said if he had French letters, he was French. After that, Kidd and his crew seized more booty, sank ships and dispatched crews. The Crown now sent out several man-o-war ships to find Kidd and bring him in. Back in the Caribbean, Kidd put his crew ashore and said their adventure was done. He burned his ship and sank it, but saved some of the treasure on-board and brought it over to a small sloop in which he sailed away, out of reach of both his own crew and the Crown.
In June of 1699, Kidd’s sloop appeared off Gardiner’s Island, a privately owned island between Montauk and Amagansett. Coming ashore, Kidd encountered the owner of the island, John Gardiner, together with his wife, kids and servants. Kidd gave a piece of gold cloth to Mrs. Gardiner as a gift. Then Kidd took Gardiner aside to a beach and let him watch as he buried the boxes of treasure he had brought ashore, after which he said he would soon return and, if the treasure was gone, he’d kill all the Gardiners.
Kidd now knew if he returned to New York empty-handed, either his crew—returned from the Carribean and angrily waiting for him—would kill him, or the Crown would arrest him and take him to London to hang him for murder. He also knew he could have been seen at Gardiner’s Island. As a result of this, he appeared in several other ports, starting at Oyster Bay, Long Island, then heading down the north shore of Long Island to as far away as Block Island, then coming around to the south shore, then turning around and going back the way he came, making a stop at Gull Island, Block Island and Plum Island, then winding up back in Oyster Bay. He was especially concerned that he should be able to fool his crew not only about his whereabouts but also about the treasure.
He did have a plan. It was to find Lord Governor Bellomont, agree to tell the Lord where he buried the treasure, go get it and bring it to him with a little treasure box on the side for the Governor himself, all in exchange for a pardon so he could go free. He still had in his possession, by the way, the Orders of Passage he had gotten from the French, for whatever good that might do.
Lord Bellomont was in Boston when he learned that Kidd wanted to see him, and he thought he knew why. Afraid if he met with him he could be charged with trafficking with a pirate, Bellomont instead set a trap. Letting Kidd know he was in Boston, he met Kidd when he arrived in Boston Harbor, immediately arrested him, put him in chains and locked him in solitary confinement in Boston’s Stone Prison. Lord Bellomont then wrote to his English peers about Captain Kidd and Long Island. “[The inhabitants of Long Island were] a ruthless and unruly people [protecting the pirates] who had settled among them.”
Lord Bellomont also had Captain Kidd’s wife arrested and put in prison. Captain Kidd was eventually sent to London, and in a prison there he awaited his trial for nearly a year, until, finally, he was tried, convicted and, on May 23, 1701, hung at the Execution Dock in Wapping, London. His body was then displayed over the River Thames at Tilbury Point for three years, a warning to those who might consider becoming pirates.
Meanwhile, back in America, John Gardiner read in a newspaper that Kidd was no more. After giving it some thought, he contacted Lord Bellomont and told him the treasure had been buried on his island. Soldiers were dispatched from Boston to come down and dig it up. When it was dug up, the soldiers and Gardiner made up two lists of what had been found. The treasure included a chest and box of gold, two boxes of silver, bars of silver, gold dust, Spanish dollars, rubies, diamonds, candlesticks and porringers (see receipt below). One list was taken back to Boston with the treasure. The other was left with John Gardiner as a receipt. Soon, the treasure arrived in London to become the property of the Crown.
Robert David Lion Gardiner was the 16th proprietor of the island from 1950 to about 1990 and a friend of mine. He lived in an apartment in Manhattan, in a mansion on Main Street in East Hampton where one of his ancestors raised a daughter who went on to marry President Tyler, and at an estate house on the island. One day, he told me this story.
In 1953, he and his wife went to London to attend the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. While dancing with the new queen, he raised the issue of Captain Kidd’s treasure and told her he had in his possession the receipt list that his ancestor John Gardiner had been given when the treasure had been dug up on the island and taken to Boston.
“The treasure passed through a few hands before it got to Buckingham Palace,” he said to her. “I wonder if you have a list of what actually arrived. And I wonder, if you do, if the two lists would match up.”
The Queen ordered one of her chamberlains to see if they had the list, which they did, and before Gardiner returned to America, she sat with him and they held the lists together side by side to see if they matched. They didn’t.
“A long ago theft,” Gardiner told me. “Things purloined. But the statute of limitations had expired.”
As a result of Captain Kidd’s dramatic life and bad end, many books have been written, movies made and even songs composed and sung about that man. The movie Captain Kidd was made in 1945 and starred Charles Laughton as Kidd, John Carradine, Barbara Britton and Randolph Scott. The plot said Kidd killed a man, after which the man’s son set out to seek revenge on Kidd and ultimately gets him hung.
There also have been many treasure hunters who have searched the shores of Long Island, Block Island and even the shorelines of Connecticut in search of more of Kidd’s buried treasure. One of these places is a small pond just a five-minute walk from the Montauk Lighthouse that came to be known, originally, as Captain Kidd’s Money Pond. Treasure hunters have found nothing there. In recent years, the pond seems to have been renamed to just “Money Pond,” in the hope, I think, of throwing the treasure hunters and diggers off the track. No treasure has been found. But there have been a few people who have thrown pennies into the pond, thinking it gives them luck.
Perhaps it does.