Saturday, December 6, 2008

Cat's Out

The Remaining Coney Island Pirates Come Ashore

© 2006 David Minor / Eagles Byte

They reopened the Coney Island Parachute Jump tower earlier this month. Shut down since 1965, falling into disrepair and narrowly dodging the wrecker’s ball ever since, the 277-foot structure once again offers us a glimpse of the past glories of the Brooklyn amusement mecca looking out over Gravesend Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

Back in November of 1830, when the four surviving pirates of the brig Vineyard struggled to stay afloat in their longboat (and to hang on to the remaining $5,000 in Mexican gold), there were no amusement park rides to light their way to shore - no Steeplechase horse race, no Cyclone roller coaster, no Wonder Thrill Wheel, no boardwalk smelling of Nathan’s hots. The hotel built here last year would have closed for the season, and no lights winked into the darkness from the structure to guide them ashore.

The killers had little choice but to sweep in with the surf and plow into the darkened, deserted stretch of beach. They hauled their loot up onto the shore, out of reach of the treacherous Atlantic waters. Using the only implement they had, the boat’s oars, they dug a pit in the sand, grabbed enough coins to suit their needs for the immediate future, and buried the remainder.

After smoothing the sand over the money they moved further on up the beach. Suddenly a fifth figure appeared out of the night. It was William S. Nicholson of nearby Gravesend. They told him of being shipwrecked nearby and Williamson directed them to the home of brothers John Johnson, his wife, and brother William. The four drenched seamen repeated the story they’d told Williamson and the Johnsons offered the men their own beds for the night. All the sudden excitement made sleep difficult for some of the company and the two Johnson boys sat up talking to Vineyard sailor John Brownrigg, by now a full-fledged member of the conspiracy, after the rest had gone to bed. Perhaps Brownigg was playing for time, looking for a way to extricate himself from future murder charges, or perhaps it was a case of ‘it takes one to know one’ - he told the two brothers the entire story. He’d judged right - the Johnsons agreed to help their nefarious guests keep the hot gold hidden.

In the morning a meeting was held and the gang of four became a gang of six (perhaps seven, we don’t know for sure about Mrs, Johsnon). The brothers had returned to the treasure site with black Vineyard steward Thomas J. Wansley, to pick up some clothing left behind the night before. The Johnsons returned home and lead the four men to a hotel on Sheepshead Bay where they could catch a ferry into New York. Then, as pre-arranged, the brothers returned to the burial spot, dug the money up and reburied it further along the beach, afterwards walking away out in the ebbing and flowing surf, to obliterate their footprints.

Gathered at the hotel in Sheephead Bay with innkeeper Samuel Leonard, Brownrigg suddenly snapped under the pressure and, before anyone could silence him, blurted out the whole story. All hell broke out, as we’ll see next time.

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