I wasn’t around whenIn Search Of was on the air, but my dad loved this show. He liked it so much he watched the reruns when I was a kid, and that got me hooked. To be fair, it didn’t take much to get me hooked on something sci-fi and fantasy-ish. I like to tell people I’m a second generation gamer, my parents teaching me how to play DnD at a very early age, and I was fed a steady diet of 80’s and 90’s SF/Fantasy movies, TV, books, and comics. I regret nothing.
Oddly enough though, my dad didn’t buy into anything he watched in these shows. I’m pretty sure he believed alien life was out there, somewhere, but here on earth? Nope.
I also remember wanting to own a whole set of those Time-Life Book seriesThe Enchanted World andMysteries of the Unknown. I still love this stuff (and still want a full set of both) but I don’t believe any of it. I think that’s a gift of my early exposure to role-play and my parent’s critical love of SF/F (and horror, thanks mom).
Today, I have the delightful hobby of still watching shows that build off the success of In Search Of, and tearing them apart like a rabid raccoon.
It’s usually pretty entertaining to me, and as I’ve grown with it over the years, I moved from simply making fun of the things that “clearly don’t make sense, dude,” to wondering why people believe in the things they do and how I can tap that to try and change things. It’s a mental shift and I suspect one tied to gradual maturity.
Thomas Jefferson supposedly said, “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions.” But what makes AccentAliens unintelligible to me, and so damn believable to others? Why are so many people, oft of a certain demographic, so desperate for White Europeans to be the first to the Americas? Why do people believe the original Shakespeare manuscripts are buried on Oak Island?
More importantly, can they articulate their reasons for their beliefs, or are they amorphous, out of focus, beyond their own understanding? If that’s true, is it fair for me to simply boil it down to Racism, Colonialism, and Ignorance? Ugly words for ugly concepts, but does that make me wrong? How can I explain this to people, about their beliefs, getting them to think about it and without offending them?
I don’t know, which is why I enjoy this. It’s mental exercise for me, keeps me honest, makes me question myself, my own beliefs and the world around me. Also, there’s a not-so-small part of me that just loves the ridiculousness of it all, and well, it’s funny in a laugh-or-you’ll-cry way. I swear….
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From time to time I get sent books to review. The last one I did was theLost History of Ancient America, and wow. So when the publishers of Randall Sullivan’s new book, The Curse of Oak Island: The Story of the World’s Longest-Treasure Hunt, reached out to me I warned them. Sure, I’d love to review it, but I’m a debunker, and I know a bit about the whacky-ness that is Oak Island. I might not be the best person to review a book on the topic.
The publisher assured me that I would find the book non-fringy, and asked if I would consider it. So I said yes. I did warn them after all. Now I love getting books in the mail. Really love it, like a kid at Christmas love it. So when the shiny new hardcover arrived I was giddy.
I did have to wrap of a demanding semester in grad school, so I took a brief moment to look inside. I wanted to give the book my full attention and wondered if it might be a good addition to my collection of pseudoarchaeology books by non-archaeologists that looked at pseudoarchaeology topics critically. I liked what I saw in the first few pages.
Sullivan describes the original article he wrote for Rolling Stone on the Oak Island mystery.
He then described his unease at the article after publication.
“It was the nagging thought that I’d accepted the semiofficial legend of Oak Island without sufficient examination, though, that truly bothered me.”
That certainly caught my attention.
Sullivan then briefly describes an on-air encounter he had with Joe Nickell from Skeptical Inquirer:
“…when we spoke briefly about this off camera, I was acutely aware that i wasn’t confident enough in what I knew about the historical records to refute some of what he was saying. That troubled me.
It also troubled me that I might have given some preposterous theories about what had taken place on Oak Island more than their fair due,…”
I was honestly put at ease with the book based on the self-reflective nature of these statements. We’ve talked about on the blog and the show, that a key feature of a lot of pseudoarchaeology is that it repels self-reflection and rejects criticism. To see Sullivan doubting his own conclusions and admitting he was caught flat-footed by Nickell was refreshing.
Then I had to put the book down to finish my paper. When I picked it up again, I was ready to see how Sullivan had addressed his doubts and what he’d found in the process.
A few things here before we dive into the book.
I am a skeptic of Oak Island. I firmly believe that there is nothing on the island beyond the mundane, and even that has been swiss-cheesed to the point of meaninglessness by the 200-ish years of people drilling random holes into it looking for treasure. I think it’s the most abhorrent abuse of what could have been a fantastic archaeological site and due to the lack of any kind of methods or standards used by anyone who ever dug there, anything that is found on that island is immediately suspect and probably contamination from the people that dug there before whoever is digging there now. Oak Island is a shining example of why archaeology isn’t done this way and should be a warning bell to archaeologists of what can happen if we don’t communicate our methods and standards more clearly to the general public. Who knows what has been lost on that island due to the destruction of treasure hunters.
That out of the way, Sullivan’s book is not a giant 410 page novel on why Oak Islands is clearly the home of Celtic, Pirate, Freemason gold and the lost works of Sir. Francis Bacon. Well, not entirely, it is a detailed history of the phenomena that is the Oak Island treasure hunt.
Sullivan backs up all the way up to when the three men credited to starting this whole crap ball rolling, and then write about how he went a step further to locate the three men in time. It’s impressive, and Sullivan shows his work, talking about census records, and land deeds, and even the elusive Daniel McGinnis. Sullivan talks about his search of the historical evidence of the man, and then made a strong case as to who McGinnis was and why he’s so hard to track. His conclusions are perfectly acceptable and logical.
Basically, what I’m saying here is, unlike many books on pseudoarcheology topics, Sullivan is providing fresh material and doing actual labor to find new threads for the theories presented in the book.
That said, Sullivan does spend time looking at a good number of the various theories that plague Oak Island. These I find interesting because Sullivan spends time talking about the possible origins of the theory and then talks about how the theory affected the show.
Sullivan’s insights into the behind-the-scenes of the Curse of Oak Island show are also interesting. Sullivan talks about his interactions with various guests, the producers, and the interactions with the show’s various on-air personalities. It’s honestly very humanizing and if you’d never watched the show you would think these are very calm, level-headed, reasonable men.
Sullivan is kind in his treatment of the show, and it’s clear he’s friendly with the cast. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but it must be kept in mind that Sullivan is sorta paid by the show to do his research for the show. I wouldn’t expect him to go on a huge “Down with the History Channel!” rant. I did feel a few times that Sullivan was maybe turning a blind eye to things, or not looking as closely as he could at things.
The incident with the Spanish maravedi (piece of 8) a coin dated to the 1600s but the shows on-hand experts is a good example. Sullivan describes one of the final moments of season 2 of the show. There is a stunning moment where a Spanish maravedi coin is found, saving the show and allowing the Lagina brothers to be funded for another season of digging on the Island. It’s…a little too convenient of a find. So convenient that, according to Sullivan, even the Lagina brothers were suspicious of it.
Sullivan kind of glosses over the incident, hand waving a bit that the Lagina brothers both thought the coin had been planted. They confronted the producers and asked Sullivan about it. Everyone told them no, they hadn’t planted it. Still. Someone could have, given the way it was discovered and the chaos around the discovery, the desperate need for it, and the timing of it. I’ve been doing this debunking thing too long to accept that this was all coincidence.
Another moment in the book that sticks out is the aforementioned on-air interview with Joe Nickell. Not the interview itself, which Sullivan doesn’t go into much, or really at all. But you can clearly tell from the writing style and words he uses that Sullivan isn’t happy about how the interview went. He basically attacks Nickell and in a very fringy ‘all skeptics are mean and wrong’ kind of way. It’s a red flag for me.
As much as the book doesn’t really focus too much on one theory over another as to the ‘why’ or ‘what’ of Oak Islands’s supposed treasure, it is interesting to see which theories that Sullivan appears to like most. One about how the island was a Pirate Island like Tortuga (Haiti) and so had fortifications and smuggling tunnels built into it was interesting, but Sullivan didn’t build that out enough for it to really stick.
The other one he seemed to really like is extremely convoluted and hard to follow conspiracy that Shakespeare wasn’t really the author of his plays, Sir Francis Bacon was, and that Bacon then hid all the evidence for this on Oak Island of all places. Sullivan seems to waffle on his support of this but is clearly enamored by it.
The rest of the theories he brings up he treats respectfully, giving them time and research when possible. He talks about the people who possibly began a few of the lingering rumors about the supposed treasure on the island and always links back to an interview or moment on the show. He connects the dots quite well and if nothing else, brings the “why do people believe this?” into the light.
I found the book interesting. It cleared up a few things and pointed some things out I didn’t know about the island and the show. Did Sullivan’s book change my opinion on the destruction of Oak Island, or justify the frankly pot-hunting behavior of the show? No. But in all honesty, I don’t think it was meant to.
Sullivan’s book is just what it claims to be, despite the sensational creepy/cool cover and the huge title tie-in to the show. It is the story of the world’s longest running treasure hunt, the history of it, the men who dug, the theories they use, and the myths and legends around this island. It gives an interesting view into the other side of the camera for the TV show and gives us little glimpses into the thinking of the men currently grinding their way through the island.
The Curse of Oak Island: The Story of the World’s Longest-Treasure Hunt, was well written, informative, and yes, ever so biased. I really would have liked to see an index and a bibliography, but the timeline was nice. Sullivan doesn’t really shove any particular theory down the reader’s throat, but he clearly has his favorites. Sullivan doesn’t seem to be trying to change anyone’s minds about the show or the topic beyond simply informing them.
He does at times state things as facts that I am more than dubious about. Findings that are questionable at best he just accpets and then presents. But often just as quickly as he’s presented an artifact as fact, he jumps to the next theory and doesn’t really come back to it. It’s an unintentional way of showing just how messed up and unconnected all the random theories about Oak Island are.
Do I think the book is a little one-sided? Yes. Do I think it only reinforced the need for professional archaeologists and standardized methodology? Yes. Do I think Oak Island is permanently damaged as a site? Yes. Am I even a little convinced about any of the theories presented by the book? No, but I also don’t accept Nickell’s theory of Freemasons’ either…so there’s that.
I won’t not recommend the book. It had information in it, especially about the TV show. Just read it with your thinking hat on, and if something seems fishy or glossed over, there’s probably a reason for it.
I don’t endorse the book though.
Sullivan did a good job on research and it’s clear he cares about the topic. But it’s still a pro-Oak Island book, it’s still pseudoarchaeology, and it still endorses the damage being done to the island in the name of obsession and treasure. I could rant for days about the problems with the whole concept of Oak Island, and Sullivan doesn’t even touch on these issues other than to lament the lives, and fortunes lost to looking for something that is clearly not there.
Sullivan could have been somewhat critical of his topic and failed to be. Yes, he was less convinced by some theories than others, but in the end, Sullivan is still hyping the romantic idea of treasure on Oak Island. He’s still adding fuel to a smoldering fire.
I suppose though when you’re being paid by History Channel, funded, hyped, supported and marketed by them, are you even able to be critical? Was it even an option for Sullivan? Or was the course of this book set from the beginning, much like the finale of season 2 of the show.
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The ongoing saga that is Oak Island is back in the news again. Mainly due to the current claims of finding an ancient Roman sword in a ship wreck off the coast of said island. Which isn’t entirely true, as we’ll discuss later in another post. Until we’re able to get to those posts I highly recommend that you go read Andy White’s excellent work on the Roman Sword and #SwordGate.
It’s also come to my late attention that there’s a TV show completely dedicated to the saga of Oak Island. Said show has managed to have 3 television seasons on the History Channel (not surprising). I’ve decided to start looking into these shows myself, but that’s another blog post as well. I will not be using the show as a reference here in this series of posts.
Here, I want to look over the actual history of Oak Island, as is documented, and examine some of the claims made about this highly disturbed piece of land. It’s a lot more interesting than it first looks, and covers a lot of ground, as you’ll see.
The Origins of Oak Island as We Know Them.
For those who don’t know, Oak Island is a privately owned island off the south coast of Nova Scotia, Canada. It’s only about 140 acres big, and is at max 36 feet (11-ish meters) above above sea level. It’s been the source of endless speculation for over two centuries, and one could say an endless money sucking and sometimes deadly disappointment for those who pursue it’s supposed treasures. Most recently, History Channel has thrown their hat into the ring of Oak Island spectators with their three year old show “Curse of Oak Island”, though I’m pretty sure it’s not as huge a money suck for them as it’s been for those in the past.
But what are these “mysteries” and “curses” that surround such a small piece of land? They really span quite a distance, being associated with everything from Captain Kidd to the Knights Templar to the Ark of the Covenant to pre-Columbus European visitors. Even Shakespeare gets thrown in just for fun!
The main focus of so many investigations on the island is the center around what is known as the Money Pit. One of the earliest accounts is mention in what is basically a letter to the editor from the August 20, 1857 issue of the Liverpool Transcript. After setting a somewhat defensive air, J.P. Forks (1857) gives a somewhat vague description of the excavation site on Oak Island and some detail is given about the excavations shafts themselves. There is a mention of the goal of this was to find a buried treasure of Captain Kidd, but unsurprisingly, this was unsuccessful (Forks 1857). Forks (1857) then goes on to talk about a different, haunted island that he’s going to visit in order to get evidence of real live ghosts. I guess he was over looking for the treasure for the time being. I know logically there must be an earlier account or story written in the Liverpool Transcript outlining the events that Forks is replying too, but I haven’t been able to secure it yet.
In a similar style as Fork’s letter, in 1862, J.B. McCully writes to the Liverpool Transcript, again with an air of justification, to explain why he and his company are on Oak Island digging. He gives a brief review of the the first setters in Chester who already had a tail of an old crew member of Captain Kidd’s crew saying that he helped bury a treasure of about 2 million pounds on some island (McCully 1862). What island this was is not clarified in McCully’s letter, but he then goes on to tell a now familiar story of of a Mr. McGinnis and his adventures. Probably most satisfyingly, he’s also the first person to use the term “Old Money Pit” in reference to the excavations done by his company (McCully 1862). It doesn’t seem to be flattering.
Many sources now retell McCully’s story and it’s really changed very little despite the game of telephone it’s gone though since first being mentioned in print in the Liverpool Transcript (Nickell 2000, O’Connor 2004, Oak 2008). New information has been added and fleshed out, we hope by facts. Though McCully gives no dates for McGinnis’ original discovery and subsequent digs, according to a website called Oak Island Treasure and others (Nickell 2000, O’Connor 2004), the real story starts all the way back in 1795 (Oak 2008). In this version Daniel McGinnis was out fishing one day and soon found himself inland under a old oak tree “bearing the marks of unnatural scarring (Oak 2008)”. He deduced that these were rope scars and it was somehow used as part of a rope and tackle system (think pulleys) used to move items up and down a shaft (Oak 2008) . Sure enough, there happened to be a roughly 5 meter diameter depression under said tree, and this was all McGinnis needed to realize that there was pirate gold buried under this tree (Oak 2008). Long story short, he went home, got some friends to come help him, and they began what would end up being a 10 ish year excavation to find bupkiss.
What we do know, thanks to land deeds, is that John Smith purchased the area where the Money Pit stood on June 26, 1975 from Casper Wollenhaupt and he held it for the next 62 years (O’Connor 2004). Daniel McGinnis either was a tenet farmer for Smith, or also purchased land adjacent to Smith’s and the two men worked at how to continue digging for the treasure as they farmed their land (O’Connor 2004).
This is Just the Beginning for the Oak Island Saga.
In 1803 the Onslow Company was founded, it included the original three excavators, McGinnis, Smith and Anthony Vaughan, plus the addition of Simeon Lynds (McCully 1862, O’Connor 2004). Lynds, fascinated by the prospect of a mysterious treasure, was able to raise moneys from some 30 businessmen from Onslow, Canada to fund further excavations (McCully 1862, O’Connor 2004). With this new infusion of money the new company set to digging.
Interestingly there was something to the shaft that the Onslow Co. was investigating. The ground had been disturbed at some prior point as it was much softer to dig than the surrounding dirt, and apparently pick ax markings could be seen in the walls as the workers dug down (McCully 1862, O’Connor 2004). Most interestingly were the wooden platforms found at roughly every ten feet to a depth of about 90 feet (McCully 1862, O’Connor 2004). This detail seems to become important later on, but for now, this is obviously evidence of the pit being intentionally created and not a natural phenomena. Even the descriptions given of the dirt, the clay, the stratification and the eventual water gain all sound completely realistic (McCully 1862, O’Connor 2004). All accounts of the excavations are fairly believable up to this point, until we get to one particular detail.
Forty Feet Below.
At some point apparently a stone was found that had a mysterious cipher written on it (McCully 1862, O’Connor 2004). O’Connor tells us that this stone is recorded in the Onslow Co.’s accounts and that it was supposedly seen by hundreds of people before it vanished in 1919 (O’Connor 2004). McCully also mentions the stone and that it bore an inscription:
“… and one at 80 feet was a stone cut square, two feet long and about a foot thick, with several characters on it. (McCully 1862)”
But he doesn’t mention if the inscription was translated nor does he provide a sketch with his article. It’s also possible that he never even saw the stone himself, just based the wording in his article. He’s apparently just relaying what he’d been told about it.
The stone’s adventures between the time it was discovered and the time it vanished are almost comical. First it was placed in Smith’s Fireplace as a curio piece (think detailed mantel piece), then it was taken by one A.O. Creighton, who brought the stone to Halifax while he was treasurer for a different Oak Island searching company as a way to raise funds (O’Connor 2004). Then the stone was apparently used to beat leather for book binding before vanishing in 1919 when the A.O. Creighton’s bookbinding business closed (O’Connor 2004).
As far as the inscription goes, it was never written down formally. It’s even dubious that the inscription existed. Harry Marshall, the son of Creighton’s bookbinding partner recalled the stone in an affidavit, but never remembered any inscription on it (O’Connor 2004). The only possible copy of said inscription existed as part of a supposed 1909 letter from a schoolteacher who apparently drew it in the letter she was sending (O’Connor 2004). O’Connor admits that the glyphs from said letter do translate to say “Forty feet below two million pounds are buried.”, but the code used for the cipher is so incredibly simple that it’s easy to doubt it’s authenticity (O’Connor 2004). O’Connor is very frank about the dubious nature of the inscription, and suggests that it was probably investor bait, if it existed at all (O’Connor 2004).
The apparent origins of the wording of the original inscription seems to have come from “True Tales of Buried Treasure”, a book by Edward Rowe Snow published in 1951 according to the Crystalinks website (Nd). Snow claims he was given the set of symbols by Reverend A.T. Kempton of Cambridge, Massachusetts (Crystalinks Nd). Kempton apparently appears for this one encounter, and has no further involvement with the story (Crystalinks Nd). Thus is the known history of the inscription bearing stone.
There is a good deal more to the mysteries of Oak Island, and we’re going to look at these in another post. For now let’s just process what has been presented here, and look forward to more about this kind of interesting place.
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