So this week Scott Wolter lets viewers think that he has been taken in by a nineteenth century hoax that he doesn’t recognize is a work of fiction. If his blog post from this past week is any indication, he’ll soon be blaming me for pointing out that his show is, by its own admission in Segment 4, hiding the fact that the producers know (or, at very least, had no excuse not to know) the source of the hoax and therefore appear to have purposely omitted it from the program to make the hoax seem more credible. Consequently, they depict the debunking of the hoax as little more than the assertion of one old man rather than the full weight of history and expert opinion. It lets them have their cake and eat it, too: They tell the truth, of sorts, in a weak way should anyone complain, and that lets them play pretend for those who are unaware.
Capt. William Kidd is famous as pirate, though he never claimed to be one, and his execution by hanging in 1701 would soon spark countless rumors that remnants of his treasure had been buried somewhere along the East Coast of North America, especially since only the smallest fraction of it has ever been found—at Gardiners Island, New York, in 1699, and the governor sent it back to England as evidence in Kidd’s trial. Several immortal works of literature grew from speculation over the remaining loot: Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker,” Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold Bug” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and lesser works of more recent vintage. Such stories are more clever than the web of lies masquerading as an investigation of “history” this week. In point of fact, Kidd was among the less successful pirates and owes his posthumous reputation for lucrative expropriation to the pop culture circus that sprang up around his questioning by Parliament. A popular song of 1701, for example, claimed that “two hundred bars of gold, and rix dollars manifold, we seized uncontrolled.”
Despite centuries of attempts to find whatever treasure remains, none has ever been found, though Kidd’s ship, the Quedagh Merchant, was found off the Dominican Republic in 2007.
Captain Kidd’s legend grew around treasure no one could prove he actually had, but the German-English millionaire John Jacob Astor (1763-1848) became legendary for wealth everyone could see. Astor became a very rich man off of a monopoly on the American fur trade, and like every rich man he (in this case posthumously) attracted his share of leeches looking for a payout. In 1928 nearly 1,000 heirs of a man named John N. Emerick (who may not have ever existed), for example, claimed Emerick taught Astor how to work in the fur trade and demanded a $39 million share of the Astor family’s fortune. The lawsuit failed. Such stories give a superficial credence to one of the nineteenth century’s most celebrated hoaxes, and it is not surprising that Scott Wolter is investigating another fraud as though it were serious. The details are confusing, and a little boring, and sadly tied up in the “mystery” of Oak Island, subject of its own History Channel show.
In 1898 the industrialist, lawyer, and banker Franklin Harvey Head, author of the 1887 hoax Shakespeare’s Insomnia, wrote a humorous pamphlet named Studies in Early American History: A Notable Lawsuit describing a fictional lawsuit the architect Frederick Law Olmstead brought against the heirs of John Jacob Astor, seeking more than $5 million dollars. Head said Olmstead claimed that someone had “illegally” removed from his family’s property Kidd’s treasure, which formed the foundation of the Astor millions. Only £14,000 of the treasure Kidd had looted over his career was officially recovered (the loot sent back to England for his trial), and this is the warrant for the whole humorous exercise.
Head allegedly wrote the privately printed pamphlet for the amusement of the owners of Deer Isle, which plays a prominent role in the hoax. Olmstead had built a house on Deer Isle in 1897 for his retirement, and this was the spark for Head’s pamphlet. Sadly, though, Olmstead had become senile and spent a grand total of one summer on Deer Island before being committed to a hospital, where he lived out his days. Head’s pamphlet was accidentally somewhat cruel given Olmstead’s dementia and his hospitalization around the same time the pamphlet came out.
According to the pamphlet, Olmstead claimed that his supposed ancestor Cotton Mather Olmstead was the owner of Deer Isle at the time that Jacques Cartier, an Astor employee, removed Kidd’s treasure and sold the sealed treasure chest to Astor for $5,000. The pamphlet fills in a number of fanciful details about Astor supposedly depositing £40,000 in ancient gold coins. According to the pamphlet, when Captain William Kidd was hanged in 1701, he slipped a card to his wife on which was written the number 44106818. The “lawsuit” alleged that this number referred to the coordinates of Deer Isle, Maine (44° 10’ N by 68° 13’ W—the difference explained as a failure of old timey chronometers), and therefore was evidence that the treasure had been on Deer Isle. Supposedly a photograph of this card was presented at the “trial” Olmstead-Astor that was never held.
Olmstead allegedly asked for $5.1 million, minus $34.80 if paid in cash, or all the Astor real estate in New York City (plus back rent), whichever was more convenient. Head claimed that the trial, which he said was ongoing, would become the biggest event in legal history. Curiously, no newspaper or legal journal or court record thought to mention it.
The attorneys ascribed to the case were all prominent lawyers and diplomats, all of whom would be instantly recognizable to readers as public figures who could not possibly have actually been involved for three years in a suit no one had heard of involving celebrities. One of the Astor family’s lawyers was William M. Evarts, the former Secretary of State. Evarts’s efforts to erect the Statue of Liberty earned the honor of being folded into the Masonic conspiracy many fringe figures like Wolter see in the supposed Isis-Freemason symbolism of the statue. Oh, and the supposed treasure chest? It was “photographed” by historian Marquis F. King, 33° Freemason and manager of the Union Safe Deposit and Trust Company’s vaults. In fact, not a single non-famous person ever came within a mile of the Kidd loot!
As should be obvious, the mentally impaired Olmstead was not in the process of suing the Astor family during his decline, nor was he actively participating in a trial from his hospital room. Even in his illness Olmstead denied that he had ever tried to sue the Astors.
So how did this clear hoax become fringe history fact? As it happens, the hoax is very well written and almost plausible—if you overlook the humorous elements embedded in it. A lot of people took the text for true, both in its day and especially in the twentieth century, when the celebrities named therein had faded from prominence, robbing the hoax of much of its humor. The former machinist Johnny Goodman, a prominent Oak Island investigator, believed Captain Kidd was involved with the Oak Island Money Pit, and he brought in the “lawsuit” as evidence, manipulating the string of numbers of the supposed Kidd card to become coordinates to the Money Pitt. Goodman excavated where he thought the number led him and found nothing. He kept refining his figures, but he never admitted once that the “lawsuit” was a hoax.
We open in Boston in the year 1700 with William Kidd imprisoned. A year later he is visited by his wife and, mad and raving, hands her a slip of paper on which is written Franklin Head’s numerical hoax. She takes the paper and leaves the cell and reads the number. Kidd is then hanged, but the show doesn’t tell you until after the credits that this occurred in England. We then cut to the opening credits.
After the credits, Scott Wolter tells us that Americans are fascinated by pirates, and Wolter says that he loves pirates, too. Wolter gives a potted biography of Capt. Kidd, minus the ambiguity and nuance such biography might require. Wolter is in Boston to meet a man who has a tip on finding Kidd’s lost treasure by searching the life of John Jacob Astor. Bill Scheller, described a travel writer (he’s written 33 books and appeared in dozens of magazines), gives Wolter a bunch of details that complicate Wolter’s story of Kidd, contradicting the host after just two minutes. He tells Wolter that Kidd didn’t consider himself a pirate and gives details about the men who backed him, and discusses the charges of piracy and murder that led to Kidd’s execution.
Scheller tells Wolter about the part of Kidd’s treasure that was recovered and that much of it remains unfound. Wolter then asks Scheller if John Jacob Astor gained his wealth from Kidd’s forgotten treasure. He calls this story a “rumor” and lards his description of the story with the qualifiers like “supposedly” that strongly suggest that the producers understood that the story they are telling is a fraud. Scheller is noncommittal but gives Wolter the 44106818 number. He asks Wolter to investigate the number and tell him what it means. As the author of 33 books, I can only presume he’s intentionally playing dumb for the camera. For some odd reason the reenactment of Astor depicts him as a young man in the garb of the late nineteenth century, even though he was 85 when he died in 1848. The show, apparently doing a quick Google image search, seems to have mistakenly modeled their reenactment on John Jacob Astor IV, whose clothes they aped.
After a text-based recap, Wolter ponders the sequence of numbers. Scheller tells Wolter the story of the numbers but without enough detail for the audience to understand that the “stories that went around” are based on a hoax. Scheller’s description of Kidd’s treasure, incidentally, is taken directly from the popular song I quoted above. Scheller and Wolter pretend that neither of them know what the number refers to, but both of them assume that the numbers are genuine artifacts of Kidd’s time. Wolter pretends that his phone told him that the numbers are the latitude and longitude of Deer Isle, Maine, and this proves that he’s knowingly working from the hoax since, as Head himself described in 1898, the coordinates are (intentionally) wrong. They are not the coordinates of Deer Isle—the minutes of longitude are off by five, which Head did on purpose.
At the old Astor home at Red Hook, New York, Wolter meets with a descendant of the Astor family. Her name is Alexandra Aldrich, and this tenth generation descendant of John Jacob Astor makes a living describing her family’s poverty, writing a memoir about it, and showing the front rooms of her (actually her father’s) house to raise money to restore the rest of the crumbling pile.
It is quickly becoming apparent that the show intends to purposely avoid discussing the original source for the Astor-Kidd legend, Head’s humorous account of the alleged Olmstead lawsuit, to give superficial credence to a widely debunked myth. (Seriously, almost every Astor biography makes mention of the story as a hoax.) Is this because the producers are so far down the fringe history rabbit hole that they don’t know fact from fiction, or that they just don’t care? As evidence from Segment 4 will show, they know very well whence the story came, but have chosen to hide the fact from viewers.
After another on-screen recap, Wolter asks Aldrich if she knows of the pirate treasure. She says no and shows Wolter around the decaying Aldrich manor. Aldrich gives Wolter the potted version of her memoir, and Wolter seems a bit confused about how dividing a fortune among many heirs for ten generations could somehow result in having very little left until Aldrich explains it to him.
Wolter describes some of the Astor family’s tragedies (and wrongly gives the Astor who died on the Titanic as John Jacob Astor III instead of IV), and he asks Aldrich again if the Astors had pirate treasure. Aldrich says no, and Wolter wonders whether “jealous” people made up the story. Nevertheless, he concludes “there’s some truth to this legend,” so he travels to Deer Isle, Maine. He describes the string of numbers as his “only real evidence,” again either ignorantly or purposely asserting that the nineteenth century hoax is in fact a real historical artifact.
On a lobster boat traveling to Deer Isle, Wolter and Scheller go in search of Kidd’s treasure, and Scheller relates it quickly to the nearby Oak Island. In a badly acted scene, Wolter pretends to have no idea that another boat is pulling up alongside his, or that the pilot will offer help to find Capt. Kidd’s treasure.
After another on-screen recap, Wolter gives a verbal recap. At Stonington Harbor near Deer Isle, we watch the same scene from before the commercial for a second time. The pilot once again tells Wolter he can help Wolter find the treasure. This useless boating trip, which exists solely for filler, leads to an interminable sequence of watching the ships sail to Deer Isle so the three old men—Wolter, Scheller, and the new guy, charter captain Walter Reed—can stand around and talk. Wolter and Scheller show Reed the secret pirate code, and Reed tells Wolter that the numbers and Astor connection are a “myth.” He gives a quick summary of Head’s pamphlet but without mentioning Head. “It’s amazing how some of these stories can just grow on their own and become truth to many people,” Wolter said, oblivious to the irony.
America Unearthed doesn’t let Reed state the source of the myth—Wolter prefers in his narration to leave it an open possibility that it’s true—but Reed then shows Wolter a photo of a treasure chest he says really is Kidd’s.
Reed tells Wolter that the photograph shows a chest in St. Augustine, Florida. Wolter backtracks and recaps the episode, again asserting falsely that the number sequence is a genuine piece of Kidd’s memorabilia. At an “undisclosed location” in Florida (it’s 12 S. Castillo St. in St. Augustine, if you care), Wolter meets with Pat Croce, the former owner of the 76ers basketball team. He currently runs the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum, where among Croce’s 800 pieces of personal pirate memorabilia is housed a set of Kidd artifacts Croce purchased, including his family bible and a small box.
After an on-screen recap, Wolter decides he’s no longer going to look for gold and therefore “the real treasure is learning the truth about who Captain Kidd really was.” I love the way the show keeps moving the goal posts—we start out hunting for Kidd’s treasure among the Astor millions and end by reading the accounts of Capt. Kidd’s trial to figure out whether he was as piratical as legend suggests. This is a total cop out and seems to suggest that the show (if not Wolter) knows that the Kidd-Astor story is a fake. But here’s what I just don’t get: Even if they want to make a show about this story and conclude, as they did here, that it’s a myth, why not tell the actual story? Why not acknowledge that the story came from a nineteenth century hoax? The show is purposely dishonest for no good reason; they gain nothing from the subterfuge.
That brings me back to my question: Are they so incompetent that they really don’t know the source? Or do they purposely choose to treat their audience as idiots?
Wolter concludes the show by saying that maybe Astor found the treasure, or maybe he did not. The story’s truth doesn’t matter, he implies, because “the spirit of adventure” is what really counts. It is an apology of sorts for the failure to find treasure in any of the four treasure hunting episodes so far this season.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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