So if you can trace with some precision a story getting mucked up and inflated in the telling, can you extrapolate from that the likelihood of a tale diminishing into nothing? And if you can determine that, what can you discover when you reverse engineer the chance of a story being likely?
It’s interesting what a live cannon can make you consider…
Yes, a live cannon; yesterday, they discovered in Central Park a cannon that still had ball and powder in its barrel. There was a piece that had been given to the park soon after the Civil War ended that had been capped and put on display through 1996, when it was removed to keep it safe from vandals. After sitting there for 16 years, the Central Park Conservancy finally got around to refurbing it, and while they were cleaning it, they discovered in the barrel the shot (which just rolled out when they tipped the piece forward) and 28 ounces of black powder that they NYPD removed and set off at the bomb range.
The reporter covering the story and the piece about the incident in the Times claimed the gun was recovered from the HMS Hussar, a British frigate that sank off the Bronx in 1781 during the Revolution. As she was a sixth rate Mermaid-class frigate that was armed with four three-pounders on her quarterdeck, and the fact that in the footage from WCBS we see that the shot and barrel of the piece clearly belong to a three-pounder, it’s a logical assumption that the piece was from the Hussar.
Small problem, though: As far as we knew, the HMS Hussar is still at the bottom of the East River. Where a few treasure hunters would like to send an expedition…
Supposedly, on her last voyage in 1781, the Hussar was en route from New York with the payroll for British troops trying to hold onto the colonies, when she fell victim to the Hell Gate, the same dangerous nautical feature that would claim among other vessels the General Slocum. It’s still treacherous today, so you can imagine how much luck was afforded a full-rigged frigate with a foolhardy captain at her helm.
She didn’t make it, and was lost, supposedly with millions of dollars of gold aboard her (as well as 80 American POWs in her hold). She became the obsession of treasure hunters who wanted to recover her; one effort was discussed in 1936, and another expedition was noted in 1985. There’s an account of a serious search back in 2002 that relates some of the other failed efforts to raise her, starting back during Jefferson’s presidency. You might be tempted to say that there’s enough discussions of this lost ship to fill a book, and in fact there was a book published in 2007 about the hunt for the Hussar.
The thing of it is, according to all of these accounts, the Hussar was lost when she went down off the Bronx, which means that three-pounder in Central Park could not have been from her decks.
But the story of the Hussar isn’t telling us anything so much through what it says as it does by coloring everything that comes within hailing distance of it. The fact that whether there actually is a British vessel carrying enough gold to make any seadog feel blessed to just look at it is not as important as the thought that there might be such a vessel under the silt of the East River. It’s the same deep drive that draws people to look for William Kidd’s treasure in this area, the idea that there must be something out there because it’s too depressing to imagine that there isn’t anything to look for.
But is it possible to deduce that it might not be the Hussar’s treasure, or even Kidd’s, that’s driving us to keep thinking about it? Might there have been another haul, one that either had been remembered by less die-hards keeping it as well recalled as the Hussar’s, or else was better known in circles that didn’t discuss their business in the open, a different treasure that’s on everyone’s minds? Perhaps one accumulated by a crew under a letter of marque?
If we can accept the possibility as stated before that we can never know the full history of a culture that stayed silent, then there may really be a pirate treasure somewhere under water close to where I sit that haunts the subconscious, maybe one with millions in gold seized by a pirate lost to history, the crew under this man (or woman?) sitting on enough loot to purchase a colony from any crowned head outright before their ship was lost to the silt.
And how likely is it that this grand booty is sitting silently out there at the edge of our consciousness, just beyond the reach of hard reality?
Oh, about as likely that a three-pounder could sit in Central Park with a live charge ready to spark for over a hundred years…