Sunday, April 3, 2011

Pirates on Coney Island

Yes, there were honest-to-goodness pirates that landed on Coney Island. Well, Pelican Beach, which apparently was considered part of Coney Island in 1884, at least. From an 1884 book:

Piracy. The Tragedy of the Brig Vineyard.
—Coney Island is connected with a tragedy of the sea, well-nigh forgotten by even the older residents of the vicinity, but which was the cause of intense excitement at the time. On the 9th November, 1830, the brig Vineyard cleared from New Orleans for Philadelphia with a cargo of cotton, sugar and molasses, and $54,000 in specie (all Mexican dollars), consigned to Stephen Girard, Esq., of the latter city. The officers and crew of the brig were William Thornby, Captain; Mr. Roberts, Mate; Charles Gibbs (alias Thos. D. Jeffers), Aaron Church, James Talbot, John Brownrigg, and Henry Atwell, seamen; Robert Dawes (age 18 or 19), cabin-boy, and Wansley, a young Delaware negro, steward and cook. When the brig had been five days out at sea, and was off Cape Hatteras, the negro steward informed some of the others of the money on board; and, with Gibbs, Church, Atwell and Dawes, planned to kill the captain and mate, and possess themselves of the specie. On the night of March 23d, between 12 and 1 o'clock, as the captain was on the quarter-deck, and the boy Dawes was steering, the negro Wansley came up on deck, and, obeying a pre arranged call from Dawes to come and trim the binnacle-light, as he passed behind the captain felled him with a pump-brake, and killed him by repeated blows. Gibbs then coming up, he and Wansley flung the captain's body overboard.

--A History of the town of Gravesend, N.Y. By A. P. (Austin Parsons) --see pages 37-38

They cruelly killed Roberts too! If the above book is to believed, then after the mutiny, about $23,000 of the money--and several men--were lost at sea. Gibbs, Wansley, Brownrigg and Dawes threw most of their take away, keeping $5,000. Tavern-owners John Johnson, his wife, and his brother William housed the men, not knowing they were pirates. When Brownrigg confessed to the mutiny, John and William dug up the treasure and reburied it. (Later, John and his wife re-reburied the treasure, to cut William out, but lost $1,600 of the money they buried.) Brownrigg's testimony seems to have led to Gibbs and Wansley being hanged April 22, 1831.

But that said, actual history of this incident seems sketchy, since every modern article I find seems to mention different facts. For instance, there's bit of a summary at the Brooklyn Eagle but some of the figures and dates don't match the 1884 Gravesendhistory and the article cited below. The Canarsie Courier also has interesting information, but again, contradicts both the Eagle and the above-referenced article, even stating the tavern owner is William Johnson!

Anyway, almost 10 years later, it appears, a storm uncovered the treasure. Per the Gravesend history cited above, Willett Smith and Henry Brewer reportedly discovered this treasure, though the amounts cited in the article below are substantially more than $1,600. The Brooklyn Eagle article claims that EACH man had $5,000, so who knows?

From the N. Y. Star

MONEY DIGGERS. A few days since I was in the vicinity of Coney Island and the money diggers, and learned a few particulars which may prove somewhat interesting. The place of deposite was on Pelican beach, separated from Coney Island by Plum Inlet, and adjacent Barren Island. On this latter Island was the small tavern house, kept by a person who is supposed to have shared largely in the spoils of Gibbs; but after burying them, lost his landmarks, and was unable to recover the money. The surface of about five acres of the white sand of this snowey beach has been disturbed, and at one time as many as 250 persons have been at work. These worshippers at the shrine of Pluto, were ferried over by Dutch fishermen in a small boat, at the charge of a small sum on going over, but on returning had to submit to a quadruple exaction. Charon, with his craft, made a full share of profit. About $7000 has been exsanded, and the most fortunate hunter collected $2000. There was no gold found as reported. The right of "meum et tuum" was not vested in the discovery, but decided, by a scrabble, pugnis et unginbus; strength and activity giving the larger amount to eh more successful, as with boys scrabbling for pennies. Some ludicrous scenes occurred. One digger exposed the top of a bag, when to secure it, he immediately fell face down, covering it with his body for the purpose of securing the whole contents--he availed little by his attempt; those near him extracted from under him nearly the whole of the dollars, leaving him about two hands full. A strong man, with a shovel or other implement, would keep at bay those who might be near, as he would throw out the specie and thus secure his discoveries. On the whole it was a happy thing for the seekers, as many of them are fishermen and clam-men. The coin are sought after by many as keepsakes, tending to keep alive the recollection of the horrible deeds of Gibbs and Walmsley, certainly a taste which make it agreeable to its possessors to dwell on horrors, and which must have been posessed, not in an eminent but large degree, by the physician, who could have had a piece of Walmsley's skin tanned into leather and wear it as a purse.

A gale was the cause of uncovering some of the money, which was seen by one man, he was seen by another, who was attracted to the spot by seeing the first unusually industrious on the barren sand. Working till night they separated on enjoined secrecy--the latter told his wife, the wife another woman, the woman the neighbors, and finally it spread through counties.

The tavern house has been left by the ones who entertained the pirates. Barren Island is only remarkable for its being crowded with shrubby cedars, on which the crows that infest the corn-fields of Long Island find their roosting places.


The Huron Commercial Advertiser, February 28, 1840 (Google says January but looking at the paper itself, it appears to me to be February)

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