by Susan Taylor Block
Just south of Bradley Creek Point and immediately east of Shandy Hall sits a little isle that looms large in Wrightville’s oral history. It has been both whispered and shouted for centuries that Captain William Kidd buried treasure on Money Island, about 1699. The tale was pervasive at least until the 1840s, and some old-time Wilmingtonians were known to dig expectantly in their inland home gardens even as late as the 1920s. However the tale of Money Island seems to have at least a smidgin of validity. And even if it doesn’t, the legend of Captain Kidd has provided plenty of fun, frolic, and fantasy for those familiar with the story.
Money Island, on Greenville Sound, sits like a mute punctuation mark to the mainland. According to John Bullard, it has changed a lot since he purchased neighboring Shandy Point thirty years ago. “The island was about twice as big when we moved here, and there used to be many trees, including some large ones. But the wave wash from the waterway hurt the trees. Then when hurricanes arrived in the 1990s, they toppled over.”
But considering the digging that’s been done on the candidly named island, it’s a wonder it didn’t wash into oblivion. For, at intervals, both natives and fortune seekers from afar have been shoveling the dirt furiously, searching for jewels, gold, and silver rumored to have been buried there by Captain William Kidd — over 300 years ago.
According to legend, about 1699, Captain Kidd, a Scot, dressed in a pilfered costume, supervised the burial of glittering treasure on the little island that would become known as “Money.” Kidd, a rather elegant pirate, had acquired a small fortune and a good reputation both by marriage and through privateering: the legal brother to piracy. He owned an imposing residence in Manhattan, made friends of at least three governors, and occupied a pew in Wall Street’s Trinity Church, an Anglican body first established by William III, of England — the same monarch who was said to receive a tenth of everything Kidd confiscated. But in time, William Kidd seemed to cross the watery line that divided privateering and piracy, resulting in increased riches but the loss of his base of political support.
Kidd’s fate was sealed when he struck a troublesome sailor over the head with a bucket. The sailor died from the blow and Kidd was labeled a murderer. He began to sail north with a ship full of treasures looted from Spanish colonies. Kidd reportedly buried chests full of precious jewels, gold, and silver as he sailed up the east coast to New York. That way, if exonerated, he stood a chance of recovering at least a portion of his prize. He could also use his treasure maps as barter.
About 1699, Captain Kidd passed the beautiful and uninhabited land of Greenfield Sound and chose a scenic island full of oak and yaupon as one of his branch-banks. He supervised while workmen buried two iron chests full of gold and silver. To mark the spots, they planted saplings over each chest. Captain Kidd paid a shipmate named John Redfield to live across from the little island and guard his treasure until he could return. Redfield buried gold left for his support in three places along Greenfield Sound. Kidd also instructed Redfield to take a portion of one of the chests if he did not return.
A scooner Kidd provided made it possible for Redfield to gather some help from other locations. Together they built several residences, probably at Shandy Hall. Redfield called his own house “Rindout.”
Captain Kidd was arrested in England in 1700 and, despite pleas to former sponsor King William III, was hanged in London, in 1701. Authorities used Kidd as a horrid lesson: The pirate’s body was hung in an iron cage over the Thames River for two years.
In the meantime, Redfield gave up his watch over Money Island and moved to Charleston where, with the spoils of his guardianship, he lived a good life, raised a family, and told his children about the riches Kidd left behind. He even described the stolen Spanish cavalier garb the captain wore as he watched his sailors turning shovels: A cocked hat, with a yellow band and a black plume, a knee-length black velvet coat, blue pants, and shoes with large silver buckles.
African Americans, perhaps former laborers for Redfield who remained on Greenville Sound, may have kept the oral tradition alive in Wilmington while Redfield’s children passed the story quietly to their children. In the 1840s, one of Capt. Redfield’s descendants showed up on Greenfield Sound to dig for treasure. A Greenville Sound boy named Jonathan Gladstone joined in the hunt and later shared his story with Wilmington historian Andrew J. Howell, Jr.
Armed with shovels and axes, the treasure hunters dug dirt and hacked the roots of great trees until they found pieces of one collapsed iron chest. After removing the plates, they used their fingers as “metal detectors,” and found a number of gold coins. The question of what happened to the other buried treasure has never been answered.
Sifting through local pirate lore to find the truths is difficult, too. But we do know that he amassed a genuine fortune. An entire building at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich was bought with a fraction of Kidd’s money. And we also know that Kidd continues to make news. Christine Svenningsen, the widow of a party supply mogul, recently spent $33 million buying up tiny islands in Long Island Sound where Kidd is also rumored to have buried treasure. Though Ms. Svenningsen refuses to divulge her hungry interest in the land known as the Thimble Islands, national newspeople have wondered out loud if she might be readying for a dig.
What is certain locally is that the Legend of Money Island has periodically enriched life at Shandy Hall. One intermittent resident, in particular, made the most of the Kidd’s legend. Dr. George Worth (1867-1936), a Wilmington native who became a medical missionary to China, turned the dark tale into uneasy children’s delight by staging mock treasure hunts by night. Every five years, Dr. Worth went on a year-long furlough from his demanding overseas job and returned to the sound front home of his youth to rest and reacquaint with people and places. His father, a maritime merchant and steamboat builder, amassed a fortune and, along with philanthropist James Sprunt, helped underwrite the cost of the Jiangyin Mission Station, near Shanghai. But before he ever left China, he always wrote a letter home to children of his relatives and friends. With intrigue worthy of tales parents tell their little children about Santa Claus, Dr. Worth created a fantasy that brought a little fright and a lot of joy. His correspondence included a treasure map of his own invention, with claims that it was both newly discovered and guaranteed to lead to hidden jewels and coins if the hunt was executed on a certain night. Of course, Worth timed each hunt to coincide with the full moon.
Two relatives of Dr. Worth, Louise Washburn Boylan, of Wilmington, and Julie Sprunt, of Memphis, remember the hunts well. “He would slip over to the island ahead of time,” said Mrs. Boylan, “and bury lots of dime-store jewelry and worthless coins in the spots that he had already marked on the map. Then he would take us over in a boat after dark.”
Julie Sprunt, who had older brothers, remembers that Dr. Worth even thought up a way to add a more spookiness to the nocturnal adventure. When children were old enough to figure out the spoof, the boys were recruited as “howlers.” As she learned later, Miss Sprunt’s older brothers had been ferried over early to find perches in the trees from which they would screech and howl. So as she was unearthing jewelry and coins, her own siblings were providing an eerie audio backdrop capable of sending chills up the spines of every child on the island. When the youngsters returned to Shandy Hall, they felt they had bravely survived an experience more frightening than Halloween — and one with more interesting plunder.
Dr. Worth always brought plenty of Chinese gifts, including silk worms, home to his family. In the early years, he may have shopped for some Money Island trinkets there as well. In 1920, architect Kenneth M. Murchison, a frequent visitor to Wilmington and Shandy Hall, published a piece of sheet music entitled, “Captain Kidd,” in which Chinese items are a prominent part of the lyrics. Murchison, a gifted musician and a nephew of Mrs. James Sprunt, was related to the Worths through the marriage of Julia Worth to Walter P. Sprunt. Julia and Walter Sprunt owned Shandy Hall and Money Island for many years and today Money Island is still owned by the descendants of Walter Payne Sprunt, Jr. (1914-1983.)
In addition to Murchison’s musical composition, the legend of Money Island and Captain Kidd may have spawned another bit of locally produced art. In 1918, the World Film Corp. filmed a movie in Wilmington. The working title was “Pirate’s Gold,” and one of the stars sent a postcard to California while she was in town. The postcard featured a picture of Pembroke Jones’s “Bungalow,” the Italianate architectural wonder that used to sit at Landfall.
The old house at Shandy Hall, where the Worths and Walter Sprunts lived, still stands today. Dr. and Mrs. James Overton who have worked hard to preserve the ancient elements of the house now own the residence at 2601 Shandy Lane. It is possible that it was built as early as early as 1750 by Joshua Grainger, Jr., a land-rich businessman who ran a shipbuilding business at the foot of Church Street in Wilmington. Grainger could have constructed the original house first as a summer residence, using boat builders as his labor force.
The house contains floors made from halved heart pine logs, hand-chiseled heart pine scaffolding, tree-trunk supports, and four-by-four timbers. Narrow passageways, a few seemingly random levels, and a generally uneven quality give the residence a maritime feel. It is also tempting to wonder if a particle of John Redfield’s house was incorporated into the structure, and if the three famous “little houses” at Shandy Hall were built for the Grainger’s slaves.
Joshua Grainger’s daughter, Ann, married privateer Captain Thomas Wright about 1758. Their youngest son, born in 1768, was Joshua Grainger Wright from whom Wrightsville Beach gained its name. Following the death of Captain Wright in 1771, Ann married Charles Jewkes, a merchant from Portugal who proved to be such a good stepfather to Joshua Grainger Wright that he named the first of his thirteen children Charles Jewkes Wright. Like possibly the Graingers before them, Charles and Ann Grainger Wright Jewkes, operated Shandy Hall as a hotel for mariners and for guests who were simply traveling by water.
And it was actually a houseguest, Wilmington physician Dr. John Eustace, who named Shandy Hall. Dr. Eustace was a great fan of novelist Laurence Sterne (1713-1768). Sterne, an Irishman and Anglican priest, achieved fame in 1759 when his novel of convoluted humor, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. was published. A 2006 movie, based minimally on Sterne’s novel, also used the name in its title: Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.
“Shandy Hall” as a place name could have suggested itself because of a number of reasons: perhaps some humorous idiosyncrasy within the Grainger household – or just the quirky nature of the building itself: A subsequent owner stated it most clearly: “There is not a straight or level line in the house.”
In fact, describing it also as “Shandean,” Dr. Eustace sent the novelist Sterne a gift of an ingeniously crafted two-handled cane crafted in or near Wilmington for the late Gov. Arthur Dobbs. The novelist wrote back on February 9, 1768 thanking Eustace and added what he perceived as particularly Shandean about the cane. “In using the stick, everyone will take the handle which suits his convenience. In Tristram Shandy, the handle is taken which suits the passions, their ignorance or their sensibility.”
A neighboring property, Turtle Hall, got it’s original name, Toby Hall, from Sterne as well. Uncle Toby Shandy was a colorful character in the novel. However Toby Hall, accessed through Shandy Hall, became Turtle Hall, at least by the 1920s when Wilmingtonian Margaret Banck remembers living there as a child.
During the Civil War, the Shandy Hall estate served as a residence for Gen. Whiting and was also the site of many salt works. Yankee ships were known to fire on Shandy Hall and one of the cannon balls remained on the grounds until well into the 20th century. In fact, a cannon ball once passed entirely through a neighboring house. With its front and back door’s open to capture the summer breeze, the ball trailed straight down a central hall and out into the rear garden.
Though many famous people visited Shandy Hall and Money Island, one of the most distinguished was Lincoln Memorial architect Henry Bacon (1866-1924). Bacon was a close friend of the Worths and he loved the place. He did a painting of the house that hung in Shandy Hall until 1950. Bacon also painted an outdoor portrait of an African-American who lived at Shandy. The elderly man was elegant and refined and had been the subject of a locally made daguerreotype, about 1850. As Bacon started to paint, the old man fainted, but recovered quickly without injury. According to Bacon’s niece, Elizabeth F. McKoy, the gentleman thought he had to hold his breath throughout the entire painting process, just as he had while his daguerreotype photo was taken. The present location of either of these valuable Shandy Hall paintings by Bacon is unknown.
Sources, Stories Old and New of the Cape Fear Region, by Louis T. Moore;, Early New Hanover County Records and other writings by Elizabeth F. McKoy; Lawrence Lee Pirate Book Collection, Lower Cape Fear Historical Society; LuAnn Mims; New Hanover County Public Library; A. J. Howell, Jr., Money Island; Beverly Tetterton; Joseph Sheppard; Julie Sprunt, Louise Boylan, Munsett Sprunt Morgan Deanes Gornto, Joe Whitted.