Maine author Patricia Hughes has collected hundreds of tales over the decades of daring pirates, amazing bounty, jilted witches and buried loot, but the stories of lost treasure only make it into her books if they meet two criteria.
The story has to be true. And the treasure has to be haunted.
“Somebody (was) murdered while digging them or looking for it, or there’s some sort of curse attached,” said Hughes, of Palmyra. “There’s something different and strange.”
The author of the “Lost Loot” series, now at work on her first international haunted treasure book, will give two talks during the annual Fort Knox Psychic/Paranormal Faire on Aug. 15-16. The next weekend, she’ll be at Fort Knox Pirate Day.
Her first book, “Lost Loot: Ghostly New England Treasure Tales,” took 10 years to write and research. She often pieced together stories that started in 1500s maritime archives in Boston.
“You go down into the dusty, dingy basement — it’s not very glamorous, by the way — and you put the white gloves on and you literally go through those old shipping logs and you look for mentions of something unusual,” Hughes said.
Eventually, she finds it.
“The pirates that I talk about were stealing from the very rich Spanish treasure fleet coming out of South America at the time,” she said. “They would run up the coast. In New England, we have lots of islands and inlets and it was very easy to hide here. But gold and treasure makes ships very heavy, so they couldn’t run as fast, and the French, Spanish and English, if they spotted them, they would follow them, so they had to unload very quickly, hence the reason there’s a lot of treasure here.”
Those French, Spanish and English captains would often log ship sightings. Hughes would note the pirate, date and locale, and then circle back to the nearest coastal town to find out if the area had any rumor of buried treasure. If there’s a rumor but no confirmed sightings, or she doesn’t believe details line up to make the treasure plausible, she drops it.
Much of the stolen bounty in New England was considered haunted or cursed for two reasons, Hughes said.
For starters, it was a great way to scare off the superstitious Puritans who settled here.
“This whole area terrified them,” she said. “If I say, ‘I buried treasure but it’s cursed,’ very seldom would a Puritan go and look for it.”
Pirates also killed the men who hid the treasure so they wouldn’t reveal the loot’s location and because they believed their crew’s ghosts would guard it.
“They honestly believed that where you died, you stayed,” she said. “They would bury as much as they could to get rid of it, and then kill the men who knew where it was, then leave. And then hopefully come back, or forget where they were, or get captured and hanged.”
Unlike modern-day depictions, pirates’ lives were often short and violent, and they didn’t leave treasure maps, Hughes said.
“They had no idea where they were, and, second of all, most of them were illiterate; they couldn’t draw treasure maps,” she said. “I can’t think of a pirate that I’ve ever studied that actually had a treasure map created.”
Hughes, the New England correspondent for Lost Treasure Magazine for the past 20 years, has a few favorite Maine stories.
One involves the infamous Blackbeard, who frequented islands in Southern Maine.
“He had 16 wives and one of them was Mary, on Star Island, which is part of the Isles of Shoals,” Hughes said. “It’s said that people will still see her today walking the beach. As they approach her to say, ‘Are you OK? Is everything all right?’ she just turns to them and says, ‘He will come again’ and she walks off. It’s said she still guards Blackbeard’s treasure to this day, waiting for him to return.”
Another pirate, Sam Bellamy, decided to retire to Machias after a successful career. The story is that he’d amassed enough treasure for each of his crew to have 50 pounds of silver, gold and jewels, which they buried in underground vaults near the Machias River.
But retirement wasn’t bliss.
“The only problem was they had no women up here,” Hughes said. “So it’s said that Bellamy went on one more trip, not as a pirate, but to get women. When you read Bellamy’s logs, Bellamy talks about, ‘the men are complaining, the men are complaining’ …”
Bellamy’s ship sank in a huge storm as he rounded Massachusetts, the weather reportedly brought on by “a witch he had been seeing in the Wellesley area (who) was angry because he wasn’t coming back to get her,” Hughes said.
That treasure might be by the Machias River right now, waiting to be discovered.
Another Maine tale wants to be true, but by Hughes’ research, it isn’t.
More than 100 years ago, John Jacob Astor IV told his children stories about Captain Kidd’s treasure on Deer Isle. Hughes believes the tales were pure fiction, to give the kids something to hunt for. There’s no evidence Kidd ever visited the island, but it’s an enduring tale.
“They say John Jacob Astor was in cahoots with Captain Kidd,” Hughes said. “The problem is, Kidd was hanged in 1699 and John Jacob Astor died in 1912 on the Titanic. You really have to pay attention to dates; that’s how stories and rumors get started.”
Weird, Wicked Weird is a monthly feature on the strange, intriguing and unexplained in Maine. Send ideas, photos and bits of eight to [email protected]