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Pirates’ Ghosts: Aar-r-gh!

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 33.5, September / October 2009

They embody legend: romantic, swashbuckling, heroic figures—enchanting rogues whose ghosts eternally guard their buried treasures, search for their lost heads, or simply beckon to the credulous from their supposed coastal haunts. I have sought their specters from New Orleans to Savannah, from North Carolina’s Ocracoke Island to Oak Island in Nova Scotia’s Mahone Bay. Here is a look at some of what I found; as usual, not everything was as it seemed.

Jean Lafitte

I began to think about pirates’ ghosts on an investigative trip to Louisiana in 2000, when a nighttime tour of New Orleans “haunted” spots took me to two sites associated with an unlikely American hero, Jean Lafitte.

Lafitte (ca. 1780–ca. 1825) became known as “The Terror of the Gulf” for his exploits as a smuggler, privateer (one licensed by a government to seize its enemy’s ships), and later pirate. Lafitte was transformed into a hero during the war of 1812. Suspected of complicity with British forces, he proved his loyalty to American General Andrew Jackson in 1815, spurning a British bribe of £30,000 and fighting heroically in defense of his adopted homeland during the Battle of New Orleans (Groom 2006).

Dead since approximately 1825, Jean Lafitte still reportedly gets around, haunting, some say, a New Orleans bar, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, at 941 Bourbon Street. One ghost guide claims the structure was built “around 1722” (Belanger 2005, 91), but other sources place it at least half a century later—no earlier than 1772 (Dickinson 1997, 54). (See also Herczog 2000, 255; Cook 1999, 52; Bultman 1998, 95.) Of briqueté entre poleaux construction (i.e., bricked between posts), it was stuccoed over at a later period and now is in “alarmingly tumbledown” condition (Cook 1999, 52). (See figure 1.) Some sources (e.g., Nott 1928, 37, 39) are skeptical of tales that Lafitte actually ran a blacksmith shop as a cover for smuggling, but, says one, “it makes a good story” (Downs and Edge 2000, 197).

Certainly, as I can attest, the place is darkly atmospheric, and both the ambiance and imbibed spirits, together with the power of suggestion, no doubt contribute to reported sightings of the pirate. However, even one ghost promoter concedes, “Such sightings may not withstand a sobriety test, but this does little to dampen the pervasive appeal of Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop and Bar” (Sillery 2001, 110). In other instances—as when a bartender reported that “a short, stout man walked out of the fireplace” (Belanger 2005, 91)—the circumstances are suggestive. The bartender may well have been tired (it was “late one rainy night”) and in a daydreaming state (he was “alone” with the soothing patter of rain), just the conditions known to prompt apparitional sightings in which images from the subconscious can momentarily be superimposed on the individual’s surroundings (Nickell 2001, 290–293).

This is most likely to happen with imaginative individuals, especially those having fantasy-prone personalities. Psychics and mediums typically have characteristics associated with fantasizers (such as encountering apparitions, communicating with paranormal entities, and so on [Wilson and Barber 1983]). Consider a New Orleans ghost guide who calls herself “Bloody Mary”—a self-described “mystic,” “psychic,” and “medium” who believes she has had previous lives (qtd. in Belanger 2005, 88–90). She writes:

The first time in this lifetime that I entered Lafitte’s I was compelled to stare into the dual smithy (now turned fireplace). Staring at me from the center was a pair of eyes—free floating, with no face to be seen. My eyes and his were locked in a trance for some time until the eyes simply poofed into two bursts of flame and disappeared. That, of course, broke my trance, and when I bent down again to recheck the scene, nothing was to be seen. I checked for mirrors, candles, and such mundane things that might explain what I saw, but I found none. Shrugging my shoulders, I simply decided it was a sign of welcome. (qtd. in Belanger 2005, 91)

Elsewhere she has felt rooms “calling” to her, has sensed a “time portal,” and has been lured to a room by “astral travel,” saying, “I truly believe I had stayed there before.” She has spirits who travel with her, sees a spectral resident in her hallways, and will “occasionally invite inside and outside spirits to parties” (qtd. in Belanger 2005, 88–91). Over the years I have observed a correlation between fantasy proneness and intensity of ghostly experiences (Nickell 2001, 299). “Bloody Mary” provides further evidence of the link.

“Ghost” photos taken by patrons at the Lafitte Blacksmith Shop and Bar have been described by Victor C. Klein (1999, 54) as exhibiting “strange luminous, somewhat amorphous, translucent cloudlike images.” Although he does not reproduce the photos, the descriptions are consistent with the camera’s flash rebounding from smoke or mist. Note Barbara Sillery’s comment (2001, 110) that “the pirate has been frequently sighted in the smoky haze of the dimly lit rooms” (emphasis added) that are illuminated entirely by candles (Herczog 2000, 255). Not a single ghost has ever been authenticated by mainstream science, which attributes them to myriad non-supernatural causes (see Nickell 1994, 146–159; 2008).

Not far from Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop is a slate-paved pedestrian walkway known as Pirates Alley. It is supposedly haunted by the famous pirate, but—as one source acknowledges—“every historic site in New Orleans claims the ghost of Jean Lafitte” (“Pirates” 2009). The claim for Pirates Alley is that Lafitte met Andrew Jackson there in 1815 to plan the Battle of New Orleans; however, the alley was not actually constructed until the 1830s (Cook 1999, 25). (See figure 2.)

Lafitte’s ghost is also reputed to make appearances at La Porte, Texas (east of Houston). Legendarily, Lafitte buried a treasure there, consisting of gold and jewels and allegedly protected by his ghost. However, the treasure-guarding ghost is a common folklore motif (or story element) (Thompson 1955, 2: 429), and reports of some residents having been “awakened in the middle of the night by Lafitte’s ghost, dressed in a red coat, standing at the foot of their beds” are easily explained as waking dreams. These occur in a state between wakefulness and sleep, and they are responsible for countless ghostly visitations (Nickell 1995, 41, 46, 55).

Captain Flint

Some sources associate Lafitte (if not his ghost) with another place, Pirates’ House Restaurant in Savannah, Georgia, where I investigated and had a pleasant lunch on March 24, 2004. A more cautious source states only that “famous pirates such as Jean Lafitte came to port in Savannah,” so it is “reasonable to suppose that many of them came to the Pirates [sic] House to enjoy a bit of grog, a sea chanty, and a coarse joke or two.” This source (“Legend” 2009) adds:

There are some who believe that the spirits of pirates still inhabit the Pirates House. Mysterious lights have been seen in the old seamen’s quarters, and noises heard, apparitions that cannot be pegged to any human activity. There are those who have sensed presences and scenes of ancient violence. Yet others have passed years without noticing anything unusual in the building suggesting that the only piratical activity still in the house is the imbibing of generous quantities of ale by the witnesses to these events.

A popular ghost guide—Haunted Places: The National Directory (Hauck 1996, 141)—alleges that the restaurant was once Lafitte’s home, adding, however, “it is the ghost of another notorious pirate known as Captain Flint, who haunts the place.”

A “History” (2009) provided by the restaurant’s Web site, states

’Tis said that old Captain Flint, who originally buried the fabulous treasure on Treasure Island, died here in an upstairs room. In the story, his faithful mate, Billy Bones, was at his side when he breathed his last, muttering ‘Darby bring aft the rum.’ Even now, many swear that the ghost of Captain Flint still haunts the Pirates’ House on moonless nights.

Figure 2. Pirate's Alley is another supposedly haunted site in New Orleans' French Quarter. Photo by Joe Nickell

Figure 2. Pirate's Alley is another supposedly haunted site in New Orleans' French Quarter. Photo by Joe Nickell

It helps here to realize that “Captain Flint” was a fictitious character in Robert Louis Sevenson’s tale of greedy pirates and revenge, Treasure Island (1883). Although it is claimed that “Captain Flint” was modeled on a historical character, that remains unproved, and there is only a supposed connection to Pirates’ House (“Legend” 2009; “Captain Flint” 2009). This case is instructive in showing that an apparently fictional character can haunt a place just as convincingly as a real one!

Captain Kidd

Treasure Island appears to be a source for other tales involving pirates’ ghosts and the buried treasures they allegedly guard—none more famous than that of “Captain” William Kidd. A seventeenth-century privateer for the British against the French off the coast of North America, Kidd later became an outright pirate. British authorities declared him such, arrested him at Boston, and transported him to England. There he was tried, convicted, and hanged in 1701. His remains were displayed publicly, in a dangling iron cage, as a warning to others (Cawthorne 2005, 169–191; Klein 2006, 51–64).

“After his death,” according to a scholarly source, “Kidd became a legendary figure in both England and the U.S. He became the hero of many ballads, his ghost was seen on several occasions, and numerous attempts were made to discover a fabulous treasure that he supposedly buried in various points ranging from Oak Island, Nova Scotia, to Gardiner’s Island, New York” (Benet’s 1987, 529). In addition to Treasure Island, the Kidd legend also strongly influenced Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Gold Bug” (1843). Treasure was recovered from Kidd, but even before his hanging rumors spread that there was much, much more. (Klein 2006, 58). (See also Shute 2002; Beck 1973, 337–338.)

Although proof or even credible evidence is lacking, Oak Island in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, is believed by many to contain a fabulous treasure—possibly Kidd’s imagined trove. The island is steeped in legends about ghosts who guard the fabled “money pit.” The focus of “the world’s longest and most expensive treasure hunt” (O’Connor 1988, 4), this is a shaft, dug and re-dug for some two centuries, representing an inverted monument to greed, folly, and even death (Crooker 1993, 92–93; Nickell 2001, 219–234).

I visited Oak Island in mid 1999 after giving a presentation at a forensic conference in nearby New Brunswick. Although at the time the area was guarded by a no-trespassing sign rather than pirates’ ghosts, I was able to access the island by a causeway and spend quality time with Dan Blankenship, dubbed “Oak Island’s most obsessive searcher” (O’Connor 1988, 145). The next day I viewed the remainder of the island by boat, piloted by local private eye Jim Harvey. After considerable subsequent research (Nickell 2001, 219, 234), I concluded that the “money pit” and accompanying “pirate tunnels” were natural cavern features, that the treasure was fictitious, and that many of the cryptic elements in the Oak Island saga were attributable to “Secret Vault” rituals of the Freemasons. Indeed, the long “search” for Oak Island’s legendary treasure was carried out largely by prominent Nova Scotia Masons.

Over the years, the legendary pirate-guarded treasure has also been the target of dowsers, psychics, dream interpreters, and other mystics—not one of them successful. If the site was indeed guarded by a ghost—of Kidd or an anonymous pirate—he seems not to have known he was wasting his effort on a nonexistent treasure trove.

Blackbeard

Of history’s most notorious pirates, Edward Teach surely tops the list. Born possibly in Bristol, England, circa 1680, Teach, like others of his ilk, turned from privateering to piracy, his trademark jet beard earning him his sobriquet “Blackbeard.” His “terrifying appearance, daring raids and murderous exploits” made him an enduring legend (Klein 2006, 76). He plundered the Atlantic coast, but when he planned to establish a fort at Ocracoke, an island off North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the governor of neighboring Virginia responded. The governor persuaded the Virginia Assembly to post a £100 reward for Blackbeard, dead or alive, and lesser rewards for his men.

On November 22, 1718, two sloops under the command of Lt. Robert Maynard confronted Blackbeard’s Adventure at Ocracoke. After unleashing a broadside against the Jane, Teach and his men boarded her, only to be overwhelmed by armed men hidden in the cargo hold. In the ensuing fight Maynard attacked Teach with pistol and sword, finally decapitating him. When its companion sloop pulled up, decks of the Jane were awash in blood. Maynard suspended Teach’s head as a trophy from his sloop’s bowsprit (Klein 2006, 76–87; Cawthorne 2005, 199–207).

Today, Ocracoke is as lush with legends as it is with scenery. My wife and I visited Ocracoke on our honeymoon in 2006. The name itself has a Blackbeard legend attached: Supposedly, during the night before his encounter with Maynard, Blackbeard was impatient for dawn, crying out, “O crow cock! O crow cock!”—hence the name of the inlet and the island. Actually, long before Blackbeard, old maps show the area below Cape Hatteras with the name Wokokon. Sometimes spelled Woccocock, this apparently Native American name evolved (its W dropped) to Occocock (various spellings) and then to the present Ocracoke (Rondthaler, n.d.).

Other Blackbeard legends fare no better. One holds that after he was decapitated, his corpse was tossed overboard, where it swam “three times” around the sloop before finally sinking (Cawthorne 2005, 205). Of course, since this is scientifically impossible, it little matters that another source says it was “several times” (Klein 2006, 86). Still another best describes it with appropriate sarcasm as “seven times, or was it eleven times, or perhaps by this time it is seven times eleven” (Rondthaler n.d.). There are variations of the tale (to folklorists, variants are evidence of the folkloric process). One version states “that Teach’s headless body ran wildly around the deck before throwing itself into the sea” (Pickering 2006, 74). Another variant combines two legends, having Blackbeard’s severed head circling the ship and simultaneously crying out “O crow Cock! O crow, Cock!” supposedly because Blackbeard wanted morning light to help him find his body (Walser 1980, 12–14).

Sightings of Blackbeard’s ghost commonly involve familiar folklore motifs. Endlessly, we are told, Blackbeard wanders Ocracoke searching for his lost head (Elizabeth and Roberts 2004, 13). So ubiquitous is this motif that I have encountered it in various countries (see, for example, “Headless Ghosts I Have Known” [Nickell 2006]). It is one that neither raconteurs nor the credulous can resist, though for others it is so hackneyed as to seem a caricature of the ghost-tale genre.

So is the legend of Blackbeard’s ghost searching for his treasure—not at Ocracoke but at the Isles of Shoals in Maine and New Hampshire, as well as on Smith and Langier Islands in Chesapeake Bay (D’Agostino 2008, 110–111). But these have a suspiciously literary quality and seem of relatively late vintage, probably deriving from the Kidd legends.

Blackbeard is just one of four ghosts alleged to haunt Ocracoke—or only three if the “old man with a big, bushy beard” that appears in a museum’s upstairs window (Elizabeth and Roberts 2004, 10) is the pirate himself. But that is not claimed, and the ghost of the historic David Williams House (now the Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum) not only has his head on his shoulders, but the house dates from 1900, long after Blackbeard’s time. The ghost tale is even more recent. Julia Howard (2006), the Museum’s director since 1972, told me she believes the story was fabricated by a docent (since deceased) whom she described as “a character.” Howard also related how a volunteer once accommodated a mother whose boys had wanted to see the ghost. While they were outside looking up, the volunteer surreptitiously jiggled the curtains, creating a “ghost”—as real as any, pirate or not. l

References

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.