The Curse of Oak Island: The Story of the World’s Longest Treasure Hunt
Randall Sullivan | 410 pages | Atlantic Monthly Press | December 2018 | ISBN: 978-0-8021-2693-1 | $27.00
Sometime during the course of the twentieth century, Canada’s Oak Island, located off the coast of Nova Scotia, became the locus of an industry of conspiracy theorists, treasure-hunters, and historical speculators who sought to probe its supposed mysteries in the name of a bewildering array of pretended adventurers to the island. These have included pirates, Inca, Romans, Vikings, Israelites, and of course Knights Templar. For more than two centuries men have dug holes in the ground trying to prove that Oak Island conceals some fabulous treasure of myriad faces, everything from Spanish gold to Shakespeare’s lost plays to the Ark of the Covenant. All of these adventurers have had one thing in common: failure. The only real treasure ever recovered from Oak Island was the advertising revenue generated by the History Channel series The Curse of Oak Island (2014-present), which is looking to pad its profits with the volume under consideration here, from the pen of journalist Randall Sullivan, formerly OWN-TV’s “Miracle Detective,” and recently a Curse of Oak Island guest who promoted a mega-conspiracy (originated by David Childress, synthesizing earlier claims), that Sir Francis Bacon was the true author of Shakespeare’s plays and that the proof is hidden on Oak Island along with the Jewish Temple treasure and the secrets of alchemy.
I have never been a fan of the Curse TV series, or its stars, Rick and Marty Lagina, who have spent millions digging holes in Oak Island with their friends, to no avail. Almost five years ago, I reviewed the pilot, and I presciently observed that the true appeal of the TV series had little to do with Oak Island’s threadbare mysteries and much more to do with the nature of masculine relationships in middle age:
Everyone on this show is male, and in focusing on the relationship between two brothers and their circle of all-male friends (most of whom have financial investments in the island and its mysteries), there is a sociological undercurrent reflective of the observation that men bond by doing and that this shared activity serves to unite them. […] This isn’t really a show about Oak Island. It’s a show about brotherly love and male bonding.
Or, less charitably, it’s golf with even less of a point.
The book The Curse of Oak Island: The Story of the World’s Longest Treasure Hunt comes to readers wrapped in the TV show’s logo and with cover art of an island dissolving into a skull drawn from History’s promotions for the series. A History Channel logo graces the cover three times, and one-third of the book is devoted to following the investigations of the Lagina brothers, sometimes episode by episode, in numbing detail. The dust jacket wants you to know that this is a book for fans of The Curse of Oak Island, but that is both the book’s strength and its greatest weakness. At times, it seems that Sullivan mistakes the appeal of Curse as a deep fascination with the “mysteries” of Oak Island rather than the joie de vivre that the hunters experienced in sharing their fruitless explorations. It says something about the book—and about the absolute nothing that is Oak Island—that nearly all of the photographs in the book are the faces of old, white treasure hunters, with virtually no images of objects, constructions, or treasures. The parade of blank stares becomes somewhat uncanny and unnerving.
To that end, Sullivan’s book is a strange production. Because it is geared to fans of the show, Sullivan doesn’t do much setup at the beginning of the book, and he quickly plunges the reader into granular details about various people who have traveled to and from the island over the centuries. I will confess that while I have a working knowledge of the outlines of Oak Island’s history, I lack a detailed understanding of the many facts, rumors, and legends about the island that seem a prerequisite to understand Sullivan’s book. There were times, especially early on, that I had no idea what he was talking about, since geographic features of the island and legendary early explorers of them are simply assumed to be household words among the book’s potential readers. A little more setup and explanation would have helped to orient readers who don’t have every episode of the show memorized. Perhaps the disconnect between writer and reader can best be summarized by Sullivan’s claim that early Oak Island researcher Frederick Blair’s legacy was best represented by “any number of enduring quotes from various newspaper interviews he gave.” I had only the vaguest familiarity with any of them, but Sullivan is probably right that publicity was the Platonic ideal of Oak Island research.
About ninety percent of the book is a straightforward and bone-dry history of the various expeditions that have dug holes into Oak Island, going into tedious detail on their budgets, their equipment, and the various holes they dug, the water levels in said holes, and the lack of evidence obtained from the digs. I had difficulty reading it, not because it was hard reading but because I could not force myself to care about it. At rare intervals, the story of the various expeditions interested me—the appearance of notorious fringe writer Harold T. Wilkins and his psychically channeled evidence is a highlight—and some of the documentary evidence of cattiness, pettiness, and feuding among the various personalities is somewhat compelling. But Sullivan chooses to play most of this completely straight, as a serious discussion of a very serious effort to uncover treasure.
This is exactly the wrong choice. The only real way to turn such dry material into an exciting narrative—short of all-out camp, on the order of Ancient Aliens—is to explore the underlying themes that animated the various actors. In this case, the underlying theme is obsession. The “treasure” of Oak Island was not originally all that mysterious or fascinating. The legend began, after all, as the claim that Captain Kidd had buried his gold on the island. The first stories were not substantively different from other lost treasure narratives of the nineteenth century, and, indeed, Victorians didn’t think any more or less of Oak Island than of other similar narratives. The later versions, about Templars and Inca and Holy Bloodlines, were all added later, mostly in the 1940s-1970s, in an effort to explain away the lack of treasure and justify ever more elaborate fantasies about how such wealth has remained hidden.
No, the real issue is why middle-aged men become hopelessly obsessed with Oak Island, even at the cost of their reputations and their dignity. Perhaps the only sympathetic passage in the whole book concerned Mildred Restall, whose husband Robert became obsessed with the Oak Island treasure in his 40s and kept searching for decades. Mildred “became increasingly miserable, exhausted by the continual talk of the search that was the only conversation” her husband offered. Her son told Sullivan that his mother was lonely and the family so poor due to Robert’s single-minded treasure-hunting that Mildred had to make her clothes out of worn scraps of Robert’s work clothes. The middle-aged Sullivan offers no real insight here, though the former Rolling Stone contributing editor has fallen in with the Oak Island obsessives and paints a portrait of himself as a man who can’t handle the fact that the island may hold no great secret. He quotes one elderly researcher as lamenting that the treasure had to exist or “I would have wasted all of these years.” Only at the very end of the book does Sullivan acknowledge that the real curse of Oak Island is “the way it swallowed up people’s lives.”
This failure to fully explore the thread of obsession also leads to the second of the book’s wrong choices. Sullivan is firmly on the side of some lost treasure or another, and he therefore uses editorial asides throughout his narrative to attack anyone, living or dead, who has dared to suggest that Oak Island may hold no real mystery and conceal no fabulous treasure. He attacks Henry Bowdoin—of whom I had never previously heard—in obnoxious detail for concluding in 1911, after finding no treasure on the island, that none was likely to be found. Sullivan sees this as a propagandistic lie designed to humiliate Bowdoin’s rivals and justify ignoring the grandeur of Oak Island’s ersatz mythology. He saves his harshest words for Joe Nickell of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, who suggested in 2000 that Oak Island was really related a ceremonial site used by Freemasons to enact the “Hidden Vault” allegory. Sullivan devotes outsized space to attacking Nickell personally and professionally for a claim that was little noticed then or now, even breaking from his chronological account to fit in more attacks on Nickell’s solution to the mystery.
But what exactly does Sullivan hope his book to be? These weird attacks mark the book as something less than a straightforward history of the treasure hunt on Oak Island. The authorial voice, breaking randomly into the first person in the first two thirds of the book, comes to dominate the last third, turning what started as a history of Oak Island into the author’s own stab at a solution and then a memoir of the apparent highlight of his life, appearing on The Curse of Oak Island TV series. This hybrid narrative sits somewhere in between history and memoir, at times overloaded with arcane excavation details and at other times detailing the author’s excitement about joining the Lagina brothers in the endless quest for the “truth” and his frisson of joy at witnessing the emotional connections that the cast and crew of the show forged. It’s less The Curse of Oak Island: The Story of the World’s Longest Treasure Hunt and more My Little Oak Island: Friendship Is Magic. You needn’t take my word for it. Sullivan quotes Rick Lagina as saying as much: “Rick had told me himself that he believed the emotional connections being made among the people involved in the production and in the treasure hunt itself ‘might be the real purpose of all this.’”
But like any social circle, there is an in-group and an ostracized out-group, and Sullivan repeatedly acts like a social climber looking for approval to sit at lunch with the cool kids. Sullivan gossips about the various backstabbing and undercutting among the show’s cast, guests, and the production team, particularly the wrath of the Lagina brothers at a potential Curse guest who was banned from the show after he was found to have supported Canadian legislation to protect the island’s cultural heritage, which of course would have harmed the show’s furtive digging of endless holes. He talks about how he hides his real thoughts and feelings in order to get in good with the Laginas. In one chapter—surprising for an official History Channel tie-in—he reports that the Lagina brothers suspected Curse producers of planting at least one artifact for them to find in order to increase the drama, and they threatened producer Kevin Burns that they would end the show if they could prove he had faked a find. Sullivan absolves the production team of any wrongdoing and takes it upon himself to act as a go-between to sooth the Lagina brothers’ feelings and reassure them of everyone’s good intentions.
So, what of Sullivan’s solution? It’s basically the one he presented on Curse of Oak Island the TV series a few years ago and which I examined at the time: a ridiculous conspiracy in which Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays to encode alchemical wisdom and such wisdom was carried to Oak Island for safekeeping by a religious conspiracy of Rosicrucians. It’s all a bit pointless since the alchemical secrets Sullivan suggests he possessed—the wisdom of Hermes Trismegistus, the magic of the Watchers, etc.—are medieval stories grafted on to ancient legends, not original to them. And in the book Sullivan happily admits to not really believing it all the way but going with it for the sake of the show.
I will give Sullivan credit for this: He outlines the TV show’s obsession with the Knights Templar and systematically outlines the same failures and weaknesses of Templar conspiracy theories that I have repeatedly discussed over the years, as well as later conspiracies built atop them, down to Zena Halpern’s recent efforts to promote an almost certainly fake map as a medieval Templar record of Oak Island. He correctly observes that the Zeno Narrative—the basis of the TV show’s frequent claim that Henry I Sinclair, Earl of Orkney explored America in 1398—was a hoax, that its advocates were intentional frauds, and that the stories of Templar fleets departing for America were modern tales spun from Victorian cloth. So close, indeed, is his analysis of S02E07 to my own that I can’t help but think he read my review. As far as I know, I was the first person to cite Lescarbot’s 1610 account of Christian symbolism among the Mi’kmaq to refute the Templar flag = Mi’kmaq flag bullshit argument, and Sullivan repeats my analysis. (Sullivan cites no sources in the book and includes no bibliography, so I can only speculate.)
He comes dangerously close to (accurately) accusing the show’s producers and guest stars Kathleen McGowan (the widow of Ancient Aliens star Philip Coppens who thinks herself a descendant of Christ and Mary Magdalene), Alan Butler (who once wrote that future Freemasons built the moon when time traveling), and Janet Wolter (wife of America Unearthed host Scott Wolter) of intellectual fraud by pushing discredited claims and outright hoaxes to play to the Da Vinci Code audience. He also offered some unkind words about what he sees as the overdramatic self-presentation of “Treasure Force Commander” J. Hutton Pulitzer, describing his “getup” as that of “a villain in a campy remake of King Solomon’s Mines.” He criticizes Pulitzer again later in the book, for expressing disdain for academics with advanced degrees. As satisfying as it is to see him attack what he calls “agitated crackpots,” there is more than a whiff of Sullivan trashing his rivals for Curse screen time and the glory of receiving the show’s endorsement for his “theory.” He frequently refers to speculative ideas about Oak Island as having the “third most screen time” on the series or however much, as though it were a mark of quality.
Sullivan chose not to go all the way and admit that the guests’ stories were phony modern fakelore, and he happily explained that he chose not to because of the money the History Channel and Prometheus Entertainment push through that program. Sullivan spoke of how producer Kevin Burns convinced him to appear on the show for “four or five episodes” by offering a “sweet deal” involving “all expenses paid” for a month-long vacation in the “loveliest” scenery in Canada, which would double as research for the book under review here. “They were also covering all of the costs of my research and personal expenses,” he added. Sullivan plainly states that he chose to find a “middle ground” allowing for some Templar claims to be true as repayment for “a decent room in a resort […] and a brand-new Jeep to drive in.” That’s why, despite knowing that most of the show’s claims were bullshit, he “owed them at least a good faith effort to serve the show.”
To serve the show.
Truth, it seems, can be bought for the right price, and the search for facts corrupted by corporate cash. What is amazing is to hear Sullivan freely admit that he will tailor his beliefs for cash payments. In general, he is admirably skeptical of all of the crackpot claims made for Oak Island, except, of course, the one he was paid to advocate. The true depth of his belief in the Baconian theory is unclear, since he claims at times to have devoted years to researching it (the idea was proposed and developed by others long before) and at other times to have selected it as a way to distinguish himself from other wannabe Curse guest stars. This is, ultimately, the problem with paid advocacy: It becomes hard to know how much to trust someone who was paid for the “right” opinion.
Overall, the book is longwinded and extraordinarily dull unless you are fascinated by the most arcane details of the various efforts to dig holes on Oak Island. If it is facts you want, however, this is certainly the place to find information about treasure hunting on Oak Island. However, not all the facts are accurate, and the lack of citations makes it hard to say where some of his errors arose. For example, he alleges that John Dee invented the alchemical maxim “As above, so below,” but this is the second line of the famous Emerald Tablet, which dates back at least to the ninth century if not earlier. Sullivan is a journalist by trade, and the more he dives into the arcana of medieval and ancient history, the more out of his depth he falls. His facts about Oak Island and its modern history are admirably accurate (so far as I can tell) and detailed, and he should perhaps have avoided delving too far into ancient mysteries of dubious connection to the island.
At the end, Sullivan makes an astute observation about the degree to which Prometheus Entertainment and the History Channel are driving the Oak Island “mystery” industry through their Curse of Oak Island, just as their Ancient Aliens series has run roughshod over ancient astronaut theorists like Erich von Däniken, Giorgio Tsoukalos, and David Wilcock, all of whom have expressed concern that the series has made bonkers claims that they do not support. “The treasure hunt,” Sullivan wrote, “and the television show had become not just intertwined, or even symbiotic, but had merged to the point of being completely indistinguishable.” That’s why the real treasure-hunter on Oak Island is Kevin Burns, the executive producer depicted here as a jolly man of slippery promises, who is as obsessed with Knights Templar as he is with monitoring the show’s weekly ratings and spacing out “discoveries” for maximum drama. The real treasure of Oak Island isn’t what—if anything—is buried under the surface, nor hidden wisdom, nor even the camaraderie of the old men who search in vain. The real treasure are the 2.9 million weekly viewers whose vicarious enjoyment of its “mysteries” and emotional investment in the cast translates into untold millions in advertising revenue that handsomely pays everyone involved and keeps the endless quest pushing forward in search of higher ratings and higher ad rates.
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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