Monday, December 15, 2008

Show Me the Money

1830. The nefarious Coney Island crew play the old shell game

Last time, our four pirates - one professional, one semi-pro, and two rank amateurs - their treasure of Mexican gold buried in the sands of Coney Island, were headed for Manhattan when one of the amateurs, John Brownrigg, cracked and told innkeeper Samuel Leonard and his nearby staff of the crime.

Thomas Wansley, the black steward who had first learned of the money aboard their former ship, bolted through the door and headed into nearby woods. Leonard and his staff seized the other two, ringleader Charles Gibbs and cook Robert Dawes, tied them up and sent for local justice John Van Dyck. Brownrigg decided he was better off on the side of the angels and stayed put.

An impromptu posse of one - Robert Greenwood - set off into the woods after Wansley. Finding him after an hour’s search Greenwood stuck a pistol in the steward’s face and told him to lie face down on the ground. Wansley was apparently too agitated to notice the gun was unloaded and he complied. At some point after the volunteer deputy had tied Wansleys’ hands behind his back and lead him back to the inn, he told his captive the weapon had neither a load or a gunlock, remarking that it was, “just as good’s as any other if you knowed how to use it.” The three prisoners were tossed into the Flatbush jail.

Brownrigg meanwhile directed the authorities to the spot on the beach where the money had been buried. “had been” is the operative phrase. The pirates’ new cohorts, the Johnson brothers had just been there and removed it. Authorities searched the Johnson residence but found nothing. But treachery trumped familial feeling. Some time later John Johnson and his wife slipped out on brother William and reburied the treasure once again, in two separate pits, marking the spots by tying small knots in nearby sedge grass. William went to the insurance authorities and informed on his brother; both of them ending up in court. Nothing was proved and the two brothers went their separate ways. When a sufficient amount of time had passed John made his way back to Pelican Beach. Surprise - no knotted grass. He found one horde, recovering three thousand dollars. The other $1600 was gone. Mr. and Mrs. John Johnson soon disappeared as well, taking the money with them into oblivion. It’s likely William Johnson never saw any of it.

We jump ahead to April 22, 1831. On an island in New York harbor where Lady Liberty would one day raise her torch (some reports say Ellis Island), Thomas Wansley and Charles Gibbs danced - briefly - suspended above the ground by their necks.

Jumping ahead again - in 1878 the Brooklyn Union Argus reported that a fisherman named Johnson, “A son of the Johnson who resided on Barren Island at the time of the mutiny”, lost his anchor off Brooklyn. He searched for it for three days before snagging . . . And here the archivist who uncovered the article reported, “rest of article is missing.” Aaaargh ! ! !

One clue is found in the headline - “RECOVERY OF BURIED MONEY”. Check your attics. If you find a copy of the January 12th, 1878 Union Argus, please get in touch.

© 2006 David Minor / Eagles Byte

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