It would be fair to say that the title of George Edmunds’ hefty book “Anson’s Gold and the Secret to Captain Kidd’s Charts” somewhat undersells its scope. Edmunds claims – as does his former research partner Ron Justron’s ‘Great Lost Treasure’, perhaps unsurprisingly – to have solved just about every treasure-related story going, including Ubilla’s treasure, Kidd’s (supposed) maps, The Loot of Lima, The Bosun Bird Treasure, Oak Island, Rennes-le-Chateau, Shugborough Hall, etc etc.

Even though Edmunds pulls his horse up in front of Becher’s Brook (i.e. Justron’s final assertions regarding Tintin and the Secret of the Unicorn, *sigh*), the two theorists’ oeuvres are otherwise difficult to slide a fag paper between, no matter how hard you sand it down. Perhaps experts at telling the People’s Front of Judea apart from the Judean People’s Front would find this easy: I struggled in many places.

Putting the issue of Ron Justron to one side, what is Edmunds’ actual argument that manages to take up his book’s whopping 585 pages?

Part 1 – Identifying Killorain

Edmunds starts by taking the Ubilla treasure story completely at face value: he then trawls through a large number of similar-sounding buried treasure stories, before identifying (or, rather, offering an identification for) the character Killorain.

To do this, he uses what he calls “Story DNA”, i.e. by tracing the fragments of narrative shared, copied and re-used between different buried-treasure stories, Edmunds tries to deduce the relationships between those stories, and to reach out towards the Ur-story buried beneath.

Even though there’s a half-germ of a research idea in what he’s attempting here, at no point in his (actually quite large) book does this ever translate into a research methodology (or even an approach to complex reasoning) that anyone could follow, reproduce or use, on this subject or on anything else.

For sure, Part 1 is the clearest of all his sections: but at the end of it all, it’s still clear as mud to me why Edmunds thinks there can only be a single way of interpreting all the slabs of text he has copied over from numerous different sources to yield his particular conclusion. Yes, I can see how Killorain might be the person Edmunds thinks he is: but it’s a weak, sprawling, unfocused argument that carries him there, and it’s just not written in a way that acknowledges other possibilities or helps readers to eliminate those other possibilities.

Edmunds writes with enthusiasm (and not a little bombast at times): but it would need a significantly sharper knife than his “Story DNA” to pierce these historical veils. Has he managed to identify the treasure Ur-story’s paternity here? No, not really, sorry. 🙁

Part 2 – Identifying the Band of Pirates

Here Edmunds again tries to use Story DNA to strip down the ‘Bosun Bird’, the Loot of Lima, Cocos Island Treasure, Mururoa Atoll Treasure (the same one that excited Ron Justron so much), and the Palmyra Island Treasure stories into their overlapping DNA fragments to identify the band of pirates behind the single (supposed) pirate treasure event from which all these stories were derived.

However, his argument here is terrifically speculative (and noticeably fuzzier and weaker than Part 1’s): and right at the end, Edmunds expands his scope yet further – he now also wants his argument to encompass “Masonic DNA”. By this he means things which sound as though they link to Masonic practices or Masonic history, if you (again) strip them down to their fragmentary parts.

Unfortunately, this latter half makes his argument sound exactly like the kind of paranoid Masonic delusions that have plagued just about every piece of writing on treasure maps for the last century. To the best of my knowledge, there is no historical evidence whatsoever that links Speculative Freemasonry to anything remotely like a genuine conspiracy involving treasure: everything written on the subject has been little more than a giant house of cards (sans Frank Underwood, of course) that a single committed sneeze would blow to the floor.

Hence this for me is where Edmunds’ book “jumps the shark”, i.e. the point where the reader’s sympathies towards the kind of thing Edmunds was attempting (however imperfectly) in Part 1 quickly drop to zero. “Story DNA” was already only as strong as the execution (and this itself was noticeably lacking): but his “Masonic DNA” is just wrong-headed, and on many different levels.

Part 3 – H. T. Wilkins Joins The Party

Here, Edmunds recaps some of his previous book on Captain Kidd’s treasure maps (“Kidd: The Search For His Treasure”), but links his conclusions with Juan Fernandez Island, Oak Island, Plum Island, and a convoluted account of how he believes prolific author Wilkins was the mastermind behind it all.

Errmmm… really? Really truly honestly? Wilkins-as-Svengali is the conceit that enables both Edmunds and Ron Justron to make anything they want to be true sound true (i.e. where Wilkins can only have genuinely copied document X from an original source) or anything that doesn’t fit their chosen narrative sound false (i.e. Wilkins must have cleverly concocted document Y to leave a trail of clues that only the Wisest of the Wise can recognize and see past).

This is, of course, hyper-selective wishful thinking (as opposed to anything that might approach critical evaluation, or indeed critical thought). What makes this even clearer is Geoff Bath’s very interesting series of books, for which Geoff managed to uncover a whole lot of Wilkins’ correspondence. In my opinion, Bath offered up a picture of Wilkins that was radically different from (and, I believe, a lot more accurate and evidentially-grounded) than the one in either of Edmunds’ books.

Yes, Wilkins surely did personally create many of the maps that appear in his books, complete with Alle Ye Olde-Fashionned Nonne-Sense Texte He Couldde Comme Uppen Wyth: but it beggars belief that Wilkins was such a genius that he caused everything to fall into place for Edmunds, by leaving a faint trail of breadcrumb clues to The Real Treasure that only someone who just happened to cross-reference all his different books might possibly notice.

Part 4 – Latcham and Guayacan

This is where Edmunds looks (somewhat cursorily, it has to be said) at the Guayacan treasure story written about by Richard Latcham (and yes, I do have a copy of the original book in Spanish).

I’m sorry, though: as a piece of supposed history, this story really sucks. And the extra letter (supposedly by Captain Cornelius Patrick Webb of the Unicorn) is enough to put anyone right off their soup.

To start to explain away the problems with this, Edmunds (or rather Ron Justron’s Latin teacher acquaintance) translated the Cornelius Webb letter back into Latin (from Wilkins’ supposed mistranslation) and then back into English: and then talks about star codes, alchemy, celestial navigation, and yet more Masonic DNA. All of which is then brought together in the kind of numeric over-wrangling typically employed by conspiracy nutters to prove whatever thing they wanted to prove in the first place. Not that I’m saying that Edmunds is one of those: but the problem here is that his argument doesn’t make it easy to tell the two apart.

Perhaps others will find themselves convinced by this, but it left me as stone cold as Stone Cold Steve Austin. In Antarctica. Eating cold soup.

Part 5 – Rennes-le-Chateau

In which Edmunds recaps Pierre Plantard’s Rennes-le-Chateau story: he concludes that it is nonsense, but based on a genuine document connected to Lord Anson. Which is like asking the reader to disconnect their brain into neutral before turning the page. *sigh*

Part 6 – Anson’s Monument

By this point I was finding it extremely difficult to find the will to turn the pages. Good luck if you want to try summarizing this.

Part 7 – Mathematical-Sounding Stuff

This part covers the Golden Ratio, spirals, hidden geometry, and all the other gee-whizz crop circle stuff they don’t teach you on a Maths degree. If it had any redeeming features, I didn’t manage to pick up on them: by now, the nausea was really quite overwhelming.

Incidentally, a short section on Spanish Treasure Codes reproduces some drawings from a 65-page 2004 book called “The Spanish Code to Treasure” by Lou Layton (now deceased): however, it’s extraordinarily hard to tell whether these are genuine or just wishful thinking.

Part 8 – Was This A Templar Treasure?

Errmmm… no, it wasn’t. Next!

Part 9 – “Well, That About Wraps It Up For God”

Fans of Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy will probably recognize the above as the title of one of Oolon Colluphid’s books. These were all characterized by foolish self-referential logic that purported to use the existence of God to prove His non-existence, e.g.:

“I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”

“But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves that You exist, and so therefore, by Your own arguments, You don’t. QED”

Suffice it to say that, to my mind, this final part of Edmunds’ book – that applies Story DNA, Masonic DNA, star codes, numerology and abstruse numerical calculations to the Shugborough Hall Shepherds’ Monument to supposedly yield the precise longitude and latitude of a buried pirate treasure – reminds me strongly of Oolon Colluphid. And not in a flattering way.

But feel free to read “Anson’s Gold” for yourself and make up your own mind: for what do I know?

The treasure-hunting newsosphere is currently awash (sorry) with reports of Barry Clifford’s discovery of a 50lb 55kg silver bar near Sainte Marie, that he claims was from Captain William Kidd’s ship “Adventure Galley”.


On the premise that there is surely no parade a well-prepared historical mystery blogger cannot rain upon, I have to say that this strikes me as stupendously unlikely: or if correct, then only accidentally so, and against all good research and common sense. 😉

Chapter 8 of Cabell, Thomas and Richards’ (2010) Captain Kidd: The Hunt for the Truth (£0.01 + postage for a used copy of the hardback) covers Kidd’s time on Sainte Marie in pretty good detail. There we find out that Kidd claimed that both the Adventure Galley (Kidd’s original ship) and the Adventure Prize (the Quedagh Merchant) were stripped bare by deserters over “the space of four or five days”: they…

“…carried away great guns [cannons], powder, shot [cannonballs and smallbore balls for hand weapons], small arms [muskets and swords], sails, anchors, cables, surgeons’ chests [including medicinal alcohol and medicines], and what else they pleased.”

Alternatively, Joseph Palmer claimed that Kidd had “ordered the goods to be hoisted out” (Kidd denied this): while the ship’s surgeon Robert Bradinham asserted that the “Captain divided out the shares” (which he also denied). Your view of what happened there depends on whether you believe Kidd or the others: and in fact I’d suggest there’s a pretty good chance all of the above were lying about one thing or another.

However, what nobody seems to be in any doubt about was that the Adventure Galley had been in great difficulty for a long time: specifically, it had been leaking in a distinctly sieve-like manner and so had had to be continually pumped out. But that pumping stopped once it reached Sainte Marie (because almost all its crew deserted or left, yet again depending on whom you believe), leaving the ship’s days numbered.

And in a final act of salvage, the Adventure Galley “was pushed up on the beach and burned so that the iron fittings could be recovered” (William Jenkins, CSPCS America and West Indies, vol.17 s. XI), which was pretty standard practice back then. If correct, then there would be basically nothing of the ship there to be found.

Of course, it’s possible that the historical evidence is utterly and completely wrong. But for a silver bar owned by Captain Kidd to have been found in the waters there, it would surely have had to have been dropped there by the sinking of a ship that was entirely different from the Adventure Galley, and hence a ship that was entirely unconnected to William Kidd. (Kidd sailed onwards from Sainte Marie in the Quedagh Merchant / Adventure Prize, so that too can’t be the source of the shipwreck that Barry Clifford seems to have found).

It’s a great underwater find, sure, but is it from the Adventure Galley? It would be nice if it were, but to my eyes it seems highly likely that it was not. Sorry ’bout that. 🙁

If you know a bit about the history of cryptography, then you’ll probably know that the first well-known modern story about ciphers was Edgar Allan Poe’s (1843) “The Gold-Bug“. Poe explicitly built his narrative around the legend of Captain Kidd’s treasure, so in many ways it forms a kind of literary bridge between the worlds of buried treasure and ciphers. Of course, he was writing some 80 years before the Kidd-Palmer treasure maps and La Buse cryptograms surfaced (and long before “Treasure Island”, which appeared in 1881), so his story is unaffected by any of these.

Just so you know, the (simple substitution) cipher he devised looks a lot like this:-


Previously (in 1840), Poe had challenged readers of “Alexander’s Weekly Messenger” to send in simple substitution ciphers for him to crack in print, and so had for some time been aware of a widespread public interest in cryptography. “The Gold-Bug”, then, was written to capitalize on this interest: and won a $100 prize. Later, many readers were inspired by “The Gold Bug” to develop an interest in codebreaking, most notably a young William Friedman of whom you may have heard…

However, when reading about “The Gold-Bug” the other day, my eye was drawn to one aspect to the whole affair that I found intriguing. At the time, newspaper editor John Du Solle made the suggestion (though one he quickly retracted) that Poe may have drawn inspiration from the 1839 “Imogine; or the Pirate’s Treasure“, written by 13-year-old girl George Ann Humphreys Sherburne.

It’s true that the two tales do share key elements: but as is so often the case, those ideas were without doubt very much ‘in the air’ at the time. Rather, the two stories seem related in the same way that Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” drew ideas from numerous earlier books, but had an entirely new style of presenting them that made it feel fresh and appealing. Basically, in both cases I’m quite sure that Poe or Stevenson weren’t (literary) pirates, but simply well-read writers with a zingy contemporary geometry to add shape and style to the narrative building blocks that they found around them.

But ever since Du Solle’s speedily retracted comparison, it seemed to me that hardly anybody had actually bothered to read Sherburne’s story (mainly because almost everyone mis-spells its protagonist’s name, *sigh*). I did, though: and I found something a little unexpected…


Having trawled past all the girlish swooning chapters and then the unexpected (but unconvincing) chapter with a death, in Chapter VIII the reader finally gets to the climax of the piece where (to almost nobody’s great surprise) the pirate treasure is finally found along with a skeleton…

“Yes”, said Imogine, “and just as you came up, I was about turning over that piece of old iron near the bones.”

“Ah! I see it,” replied her father, “and it looks to me like the top of a ship’s iron pot;” and turning it over with his cane, saw under it white sea sand, [in] which, on stirring about, gold and silver pieces were seen sparkling, which caused an exclamation from all.

“What a great discovery is this!” said Mr Belmont, turning and looking with surprise at Imogine and Cornelia;


After placing the skeleton in a box, and interring it, they removed the treasure, and in doing so, discovered another similar pot to the first under it, but more valuable, which was all moved safely to the house.”

What’s so unusual about this? Well… according to near-legendary metal-detectorist Charles Garrett, it has often been the case that a large treasure cache is buried immediately below a small treasure cache. Garrett post-rationalizes / explains this as a kind of ‘trap’ for treasure hunters, i.e. for them to be satisfied with robbing out the (small) topmost treasure, while leaving the (big) treasure underneath intact for the original owner. (Though personally, I suspect it’s just as likely that they couldn’t be bothered to dig a bigger hole.)

The big question, then, is this: how would a 13-year-old girl writing in 1839 know to describe such an arrangement… except if she had been party to the ins and outs of an actual treasure dig? I’m not suggesting that recovered pirate treasure is the true secret of the Astor family fortune (mainly because that particular joke’s already been done to death)… but maybe there’s a touch more truth in Sherburne’s story than might at first be thought.

Perhaps the real giveaway in the whole thing is the curious tag-line on “Imogine”‘s cover: “This is all as true as it is strange“. What do you think?

PS: another mystery to ponder is who “George Ann Humphreys Sherburne” was? Apart from her presumed birth in 1825, there appears to be no other information on her anywhere at all. Unless you happen to know better, of course… please leave a comment if you do! 🙂

On 15th September 2013 at the cornerHOUSE Community Arts Centre (116 Douglas Road, Surbiton, KT6 7SB), I’ll be giving an evening talk called “Does X Mark The Spot?“, trying to answer the question: are there any genuine pirate treasure maps?

The talk will run from 7.30pm to 9.15pm with a 15-minute interval at 8.15pm (though the doors and the bar open at 7pm). The first half covers Captain William Kidd’s alleged treasure maps, and the second half Oliver Levasseur’s mysterious ciphers. I’ll be happy to answer your pirate history questions both during and after the talk as best I can.

To whet your appetite, here’s a 3-minute promo video:-

The cost is £8 on the door, or £7 in advance via Compelling Press (publishers of my book The Curse of the Voynich). To reserve one or more seats for yourself, here’s a secure Buy Now button that links to PayPal (note that this also accepts Visa, MasterCard, etc):-

But perhaps the biggest question is: why do a talk on pirate history at all? Even if International Talk Like A Pirate Day is coming up on 19th September, surely this whole subject has already been done to death on National Geographic, Discovery, History Channel, etc?

Well… with all due respect to the above-mentioned broadcasters, the way almost all TV producers treat history is pretty much unchanged from the 19th century, when the point of ‘doing history’ was to provide bracing moral stories. What I do is a modern, forensic kind of history, far more accepting of uncertainty, because history – when done properly, at least – isn’t anything like as easy as ‘television history’ would have you believe. And when it comes to pirate treasure, there are plenty of uncertainties!

What is certain, though, is that pirate treasure maps are both fascinating and hugely contentious: so what I’ll be presenting is (I hope) a far more honest and realistic take on them than anything you’re likely to have seen or read before. Come along, it’ll be a lot of fun!

Is there any such thing as a pirate treasure map? Somewhat surprisingly, if you ask just about any academic or maritime historian with an interest in the subject, the chances are they’ll tell you no. In short, the mainstream position is that they’re all fakes, tall tales concocted by scammers to extract money from the greedy and gullible.

Well… I don’t deny that there’s an awful lot of truth in that, insofar as it does often seem that the pirate treasure hunting world (industry?) is populated almost entirely by only two classes of people – the scammers and the scammed.

But over the last year or so, I’ve been researching two very different claimed strands of pirate treasure history – the (alleged) William Kidd maps and the (alleged) Olivier Levasseur (‘La Buse’) maps. (Yes, it turns out that there are at least two versions of the Levasseur / Le Butin cryptogram… but this is all terrifically murky.) And what I’ve found is that just saying “it ain’t so” doesn’t really do these histories justice – the stories behind all of them are simply fascinating.

Anyway, seeing as International Talk Like A Pirate Day is coming up shortly, what I’ve decided to do is give an evening talk on pirate treasure maps to give all this new material a bit of a public airing.

So if you like history and/or pirates or you’re secretly an armchair treasure hunter, I’ve got some great stories for you about these mysterious pirate treasure maps you won’t have heard of or read about. I’m really looking forward to it, and I hope a good few of you can come along and be entertained.

It’s being held on Sunday 15th September 2013 at the Cornerhouse Community Arts Centre in Surbiton (not far from the A3) at 7.30pm (though the doors and the bar open at 7pm). I’ve set up the ticketing via my friend Glenn Shoosmith’s startup BookingBug, and you can book through the nifty WordPress widget in the top right of the page.

I’ll post a bit more about this as the date approaches, but that should be enough to be going on with – hope to see you there! 🙂