The Legend of Money Island
BY Susan Taylor Block
A little isle that looms large in Wrightsville’s oral history lies just south of Bradley Creek Point and immediately east of Shandy Hall opposite the mainland shoreline. It has been both whispered and shouted for centuries that Capt. William Kidd buried treasure on Money Island in about 1699. The tale was pervasive at least until the 1840s and some old-time Wilmingtonians were even known to have dug expectantly in their inland home gardens even as late as the 1920s.
The tale of Money Island seems to have at least a smidgin of validity. And even if it doesn’t the legend of the very real Capt. 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 30 years ago. “The island was about twice as big when we moved here and there used to be many trees including some large ones ” he says. “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. From time to time both locals and fortune-seekers from afar have shoveled the dirt furiously searching for Kidd’s treasure.
According to legend Kidd 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 with at least three governors and occupied a pew in Wall Street’s Trinity Church first established by William III of England — the same monarch who was said to receive a tenth of everything Kidd confiscated in the name of the crown. But in time Kidd apparently crossed the watery line that divided privateering and piracy resulting in increased riches but the loss of his political support.
His 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 was then also accused of piracy when in 1698 he captured a heavily laden French ship — which he was supposed to do as a privateer — but not apparently if it were captained as this was by an Englishman.
He began to sail north for home with a ship full of treasures and he reportedly buried chests full of 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 Kidd passed the beautiful and uninhabited land of Greenville Sound and chose a scenic island full of oak and yaupon as one of his branch banks. The legend has him supervising while workmen buried two iron chests full of gold and silver. To mark the spots they planted saplings over each chest. Kidd paid a shipmate named John Redfield to live across from the little island and guard his treasure until he could return. Redfield then buried gold left for his support in three places along Greenville Sound. Kidd is said to have instructed Redfield to take a portion of one of the chests if he did not return.
A schooner Kidd provided made it possible for Redfield to gather help from other locations. They built several residences probably at Shandy Hall. Redfield called his own house “Rindout.”
Kidd was arrested in England in 1700 and despite pleas to former sponsor King William III was publically hanged in London in 1701. As a deterrant to piracy authorities used Kidd as a horror lesson: the pirate’s body was hung in an iron cage over the River Thames 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 tales of 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 to their children. In the 1840s one of Redfield’s descendants showed up on Greenville Sound to dig for treasure. A Greenville Sound youngster 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. Digging down they 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 Kidd amassed a genuine fortune. An entire building at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich was bought with 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 interest in the Thimble Islands national news media have speculated she might be preparing 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 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 Worth went on a year-long furlough from his demanding overseas job and returned to the soundfront 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 left China on furlough 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 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 of Worth’s relatives 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 Worth even thought up a way to add 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 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.
Worth always brought plenty of Chinese gifts home to his family. In the early years he may have shopped for some Money Island trinkets 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 Capt. 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.”
Select sources: Lawrence D. Kessler Julie Sprunt Louise Boylan Munsett Sprunt Morgan 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; Stories Old and New of the Cape Fear Region by Louis T. Moore; Deanes Gornto Joe Whitted.