One popular element of pop culture nowadays is that of pirates. Many just can’t seem to get enough of these swashbuckling rugged renegades, and they have made their way into books and film with their adventures. Yet as interesting as all of the fiction might be, sometimes the reality is even more so, and also more sinister. Here we will take a tour of various places that are tied into the pirates of yesteryear, and which hold adventure, intrigue, dark history, and indeed ghosts and cursed treasure.
Our first stop is the shores of Charles Island, in the U.S. state of Connecticut, at Silver Sands State Park and just offshore from the town of Milford. The island itself is rather unassuming and nondescript, just a slash of uninhabited sandy rocks connected to the mainland by a sliver of a sandbar that fades and reappears with the tides, measuring just 14 acres in area and where nesting flocks of birds lazily lounge about without any human interference, but although one might not think much of this place it has the rather dark distinction of having been cursed three times throughout its history. The first time begins with the local chief of the Paugusset tribe of Native Americans, who according to legend was so upset by the invasion of white settlers that in 1639 he vehemently cursed the island to never accept the whites, to shun them and cause their structures to disintegrate and blow away in the wind. Interestingly, the land is indeed rather too unstable for building permanent structures upon, and it has in fact never been inhabited for long despite failed efforts in the past.
This curse was enough to keep most people away from the island for quite some time, but not everyone. In 1699, the legendary Scottish pirate Captain William Kidd stopped by these shores and supposedly offloaded a huge trove of stolen treasure here, supposedly cursing the treasure to bring misfortune and death upon anyone who would try to dig it up, before sailing off on his final voyage towards Boston, that would end up with him captured and finally executed for his numerous crimes. The third curse of the so-called “Thrice Cursed Island” was supposedly brought to the island in 1721, when a ragtag group of sailors stashed a treasure within the earth here that had purportedly once belonged to the great 16th century Mexican emperor Guatmozin, who had ominously cursed his treasure shortly before being tortured and killed by Spanish conquistadors in 1525. The sailors had apparently stumbled across the treasure hidden away in a cave in Mexico and stolen it, after which they been immediately beset by misery and woe. The curse would kill four of the five men who had discovered it, causing the sole survivor, fearful of when these dark forces would finally come for him, to dump it at Charles Island in a panic, along with its insidious curse.
It is unknown how much truth any of these sensational stories have, and no treasure has officially ever been found on this speck of land despite numerous efforts by treasure hunters to locate it, but there are certainly some wild tales about the treasures and the curses. One popular local piece of lore is that two treasure hunters actually managed to unearth a hoard of treasure on the island in 1850, but that as soon as they opened it they were met with fierce blue fire shooting forth and were attacked by the intimidating presence of an immense flaming skeleton that bore down upon them from above. They managed to escape, but are said to have had their sanity subsequently degrade and corrode to the point that they spent the rest of their years locked away in an insane asylum. It is a creepy tale to be sure, and to this day the island is often mentioned as being haunted by the ghosts of Natives and even Captain Kidd himself. Whether any of this lore holds any truth or not, it is all creepy at the very least.
Another island with its share of dark history, buried pirate treasure, and sinister curses is Folly Island, in the state of South Carolina, located just across the harbor from the city of Charleston. The island began its grim trudge through a violent history with the extermination of the original tribe here, the Bohickets, who allegedly sort of disappeared due to disease and fighting with settlers during the 1600s. In the 1700s this place was the haunt of pirates, who would use it as a base of operations from which to launch brutal forays out into the crowded trade route passing by, killing crews and stealing loot. Indeed, the notorious pirate Edward Teach, more popularly known as Black Beard, was said to prowl these waters, and was a regular visitor to the island.
Folly Island was struck with terrible tragedy in 1832, when a passenger vessel called The Amelia was wrecked here on its way from New York to New Orleans. The survivors found their way to the beach on Folly Island, but no efforts were made to rescue them as there was a deadly cholera outbreak creeping through their ranks. All 120 survivors of the ordeal were left to rot on the island, one by one succumbing to the elements, hunger, and cholera. In later years the Civil War would bring more death. In 1863 there was vicious fighting between Union and Confederate forces around nearby Morris Island, and many of the wounded were brought to a field hospital set up on Folly Island, which was used as a staging area during the war. For an untold number of these badly injured men this was their final voyage, and to this day various unmarked graves for these lost soldiers are turned up from time to time, with no way of knowing how many more of these poor souls were buried out there and forgotten. Making it all even more ominous is that some of these bodies have been found minus their skulls for reasons no one can explain.
The tale of the cursed treasure of Folly Island has its origins in the Civil War as well, when a group of Union troops landed here to make final preparations for a push into Charleston. At some point they came across an old woman and a child, holdouts who had refused to evacuate in the face of the Civil Was tearing the area apart, even though all other residents were long gone. According to the tale, this woman told an officer named Yokum that she had seen pirates bury 6 chests of treasure between two oak trees right behind her own shack, and that they had then killed one of their own and tossed his body into the pit with it. This was tantalizing to say the least, but the woman warned that the treasure was guarded by a pirate ghost that would let no one approach.
That evening, Yokum allegedly decided to go off in search of the treasure anyway, and took a bunch of digging tools and a fellow soldier along for the ride. When they reached the location the woman had told them about, there was apparently a fierce and mysterious wind that began to howl and blow with such force that they could barely stand, seemingly getting stronger the deeper they dug, all punctuated by bright flashes of light like lightning only with no accompanying thunder. The unsettled men stopped their dig and it was then that there was a spectacular blinding flash of light that revealed a spectral pirate standing there, unfazed by the wind and glaring at them with malevolent intent. As the ghostly pirate stood there, framed by flickering lights all around him and stinging, windblown sand, Yokum and his companion allegedly dropped everything and ran out of there as fast as they could. It is said that the spectral pirate still guards the treasure to this day, and either no one has found it or they have not lived to tell the tale. Of course it is very possible that this is all a bit of lore mixed in with history, but it is undoubtedly a spooky story either way. True or not, both Folly Island and Morris Island are said to be intensely haunted, and the apparitions of pirates, Civil War soldiers, and Natives are often reported from the area.
Finally, we come to the tale of the legendary 19th century French privateer and pirate, Jean Lafitte, who had a tumultuous and colorful history. Jean, along with his elder brother, Pierre, had a very successful smuggling operation based out of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico that spread out into piracy, and they became a major nuisance for merchant vessels in the area. The whole thing was eventually brought to an end by American Naval forces in 1814, who captured most of Lafitte’s fleet, but the cunning pirate made a deal, agreeing to help them if they showed leniency. This would turn Lafitte into an ally of General Andrew Jackson, and he would play an important role in a major battle at New Orleans against the British, which would be the last battle of the War of 1812.
Lafitte then went on to become a Spanish Spy during the Mexican War of Independence, before returning to his old ways by starting a pirate colony at Galveston Island, Texas, called Campeche, and becoming a major thorn in the side of the U.S., a wanted man once again. Lafitte would continue his pirating ways up and down the coast of Central America for the rest of his days, finally dying in 1823 when he bit off more than he could chew and was killed when he tried to raid a heavily armed Spanish vessel, leaving in his wake tales of hauntings and lost treasure.
Not long after Lafitte’s death there was speculation that he had left hidden treasure caches all over the region surrounding Galveston, Texas, as well as his other old haunts throughout the Texas and Louisiana coasts, and on occasion there have been some rumors of people finding some of it. Some coins from Lafitte’s day have been found at various such places, such as a place called Grand Terre, an island on Lake Borgne, and at Gretna, Louisiana. Yet so far no one has found any major treasure trove, and there are supposedly vast caches of Lafitte’s treasure along the Mermentau River, the Calcasieu River, the Sabine River, and Fowler’s Bluff, Florida, all places the pirate was known to frequent. To this day Lafitte’s treasure has been a popular target for treasure hunters both amateur and professional alike, and there are occasional claims to have even found it, but so far it all remains mysterious. Anyone who wants to look for it themselves though should beware, as there have been stories that the coins are cursed, and have brought misfortune and strife to those who find them.
Speaking of Jean Lafitte’s old haunts, if some stories are to be believed he has all new haunts now, literally. Lafitte once had a modest blacksmith shop on Bourbon Street, in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and it is here where he purportedly spends most of his time in the afterlife. The building, which is now a bar, has a long history of Lafitte’s ghost appearing, always on the first floor. The ghost is said to be what is a full-bodied apparition that reportedly appears very real and life-like, to the point that some witnesses have mistaken him for an actor wearing a period sailor’s outfit, only realizing they are looking at a ghost when he vanishes before their eyes. Lafitte’s ghost apparently never interacts with anyone and never speaks or makes any noise, merely staring from the shadows before blinking away, and making it all spookier is that the same building also is said to harbor the spirit of a mysterious young woman who likes to whisper into people’s ears, and another entity that appears as a pair of blazing red eyes.
Are any of these tales based in reality, or are we looking at myth and legend intertwined with and married to historical fact to the point where the two seem inseparable? What can we say of these tales of hauntings and cursed treasures from the days when pirates stalked the seas? Although there is certainly a sense of urban legend and exaggeration orbiting these cases they nevertheless are spooky and surreal accounts and a peek into another age, when pirates were not just fictional characters, but a real presence to be reckoned with, haunting the seas perhaps literally.