2. Captain Kidd's Skeleton Island

Hubert Palmer was a wealthy bachelor practising law from his home in Eastbourne, on the south coast of England, until his retirement in 1934. He and his brother, Guy, maintained a deep interest in the sea and its history, and Hubert was an avid collector of books and artefacts relating to piracy.

His collection contained many items associated with the famous pirate Captain William Kidd. These included portraits of Kidd himself, paintings once belonging to him, his sword-belt and cutlass, a flint lock pistol, silver buckles, a snuff box and a churchwarden pipe./font>

Among his numerous pirate relics, Palmer had a number of old sea charts reputed to have once been in Kidd's possession. These had been discovered in secret compartments of four items of furniture.

Considering Kidd's notoriety, it would not be surprising if a number of genuine Kidd relics had survived to find a place in Hubert Palmer's museum. However, some of the pieces may have been of doubtful origin, among these perhaps the chests and, some say, even the charts. 

The Palmer-Kidd Charts

The discovery of the charts was reported in 1935 by journalist and author Harold T. Wilkins in his book Captain Kidd and his Skeleton Island. The story was re-told in 1958, with several major differences, by Anthony Howlett, some time after Hubert Palmer's death, in 1949. Howlett's article appears in The World Wide Magazine under the title The Mystery of Captain Kidd's Treasure.

Rupert Furneaux added more details to Howlett's account in an article titled In the Steps of Captain Kidd which appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1977. Recently, the same story, and a great deal more, has been included in a comprehensive book on the charts by George Edmunds with the title Kidd: the Search for his Treasure.

Howlett went to some lengths to uncover the story of the charts while Palmer's housekeeper, Mrs Dick, was alive. He also saw the original maps. His record of the discoveries, perhaps drawn from the memories of people 20 years after the events, does not tally with the account by Harold Wilkins, who was an associate of Palmer at the time the maps came to light. Howlett is emphatic about his version of the story and states that he had full access to Palmer's papers and notes. Wilkins may also have claimed a greater friendship with Palmer than was warranted.

Furneaux traced the location of the maps in the late 1960's and, in the mid 1970's, followed up some of Howlett's statements about their authentication, but he also failed to uncover the true story of the discoveries.

The Hardy Chest

In 1930, Miss Pamela Hardy, descendant of Captain Thomas Masterman Hardy, Nelson's Flag Captain at Trafalgar, decided to part with an oak chest that had been in her family for many years.

The chest was described at the time of sale as 26.25 inches long, 13 inches wide, 16 inches deep and having a false bottom. It was left by Kidd to his bosun Ned Ward on threat that Kidd's ghost would haunt him if he ever broke open the chest after his death. Ward's grandson sold the chest to Captain Hardy and it eventually came to Miss Hardy through her father.

On the lid is the Black Flag with Skull and Crossbones. Also carved into the lid is the legend 'Captain Kidd his Chest' and the date 1699. The chest contained three coins, one silver and two copper. They were all too worn to be identifiable with any certainty but seemed to be of the correct period (Charles II and William III - 1660 to 1702).

Lid of Pirate Chest

Figure 2.1: Inscription on the lid of the Hardy chest

The chest also held a book, published in 1662, containing a printed sermon preached on May 29, 1662 by Daniel Cudmore, minister at Tiverton, Devon. This date fell on a Thursday.

Wilkins claims that the false bottom had been found before Palmer obtained the chest. One day someone had been fingering the chest and happened to touch a loose nail on one side, near the bottom. The nail was similar to other studs in the chest. However, on the other side of the chest there was another loose nail similarly placed. These secured the false bottom. Inside was a chart of an island in a far-eastern sea. It seems, therefore, that the chart had been found previously.

This chart is hand-drawn, like that found in the Morgan chest, but in red and black ink on an oblong piece of parchment, signed 'W.K. 1669'. Compass bearings are shown. There is a lagoon to the north and a coral reef to the south. Crosses identify the location of a number of treasures.

Wilkins reports that in block letters at the foot of the chart are instructions to pace out a distance in feet, on a certain bearing, to a big tree. Changing direction, the treasure hunter must head for certain rocks where, x feet by x feet by x, the treasure will be found.

Howlett reports Palmer's purchase of the chest as taking place in 1931, the year in which Wilkins reports that Miss Hardy died. Howlett places both the book and the chart in the secret compartment. The seller's description, reported in full by Wilkins, records the book as being in the chest itself. Note also that Howlett places this particular chart in the Morgan chest (which would seem to have been correct). The original map has been published and is shown below:

The Coral Island Map

Figure 2.2: The Coral Island Map (The Skull Chart)

There is no mention of the tree reported by Wilkins, but such elaboration from him is not surprising.

Howlett reports the Hardy chest as having been acquired in 1931 but it did not contain this particular chart. Edmunds refers to this map as the Skull Chart, as it was found in the chest that contained the skull, as below.

The Morgan Chest

Harold Wilkins reports that the first chart came from a chest bought in 1929 from an old sea captain named Daniel Morgan, who lived in the town of Barnstaple. He claimed to be descended from the buccaneer commander Sir Henry Morgan (who had no children, legitimate at least). He also claimed that the chest was the one reported to have featured in Kidd's trial. One of his ancestors, he asserted, was head jailer at Newgate and may well have appropriated the chest after Kidd's death.

The lid of the Morgan chest has ornamental hinges and is adorned with an oblong brass plate engraved with the initial 'K' and the skull and crossbones (not the best way for Kidd to convince anyone of his innocence on a charge of piracy). Inside was an ivory carving of a skull resting on a model of a bible of some material like slate or stone. Wilkins reveals that a verse accompanied the model:

Ye, who helpless vessels sack,
And riches gain by murder, see,
Before your pirate ship comes back,
How many will be like to me!

Wilkins implies that the seller, Morgan, knew of a hiding place behind the mirror inside the lid, and of the chart that was concealed there. The chart was hand-drawn, depicting an island in a far-eastern sea. It had the initials and date 'W.K. 1669' written upon it in red ink. No other details are given.

Howlett reports that the chart from Morgan's chest has a zig-zag line in red showing two crosses and internal detail as reported for the Hardy chest discussed above.

Furneaux gives the dimensions of the Morgan chest as 18 inches long, 10.5 inches wide and 8 inches deep, the mirror being 4.5 inches long and 3 inches wide. Howlett reports the chest as being the third find, in 1932, not the first in 1929, and the skull and bible being of plaster rather than ivory and stone (Wilkins provides a picture with a caption stating that the skull rests on a marble bible). The map was found behind a piece of green canvas-like cloth.

The Bureau

Wilkins reports that, in 1932, Palmer visited the antique dealer who had obtained the previously-mentioned chests and was shown a heavy oak bureau of 17th century origin. It had two small and two large drawers, brass locks and handles, and a plate engraved 'Captain William Kidd. Adventure Galley 1669'. Palmer was told that the previous owners had lived in London.

Palmer noticed that one of the two runners supporting the lid was similarly engraved. On closer inspection he saw that the runner had been sealed with grey wax. With the help of the antique dealer, the seal was broken and a roll of parchment withdrawn. This was yellow with age and proved to be part of a legal document relating to Kidd's wife Sarah, containing the text "of me Sarah W".

The parchment provided another drawing of the same island, once more identifying the far-eastern sea. It was drawn in red and black ink and initialled 'W.K. 1669'. This reinforces the significance of the date in Kidd's mind because he must have drawn the chart more than twenty years after this date. Sarah would surely not have taken Kidd's name until they were married in 1691, and it is unlikely that the island was drawn first.

Sarah was semi-literate. The outline was most likely added to a legal document prepared by someone else, and it is doubtful that this clerk would have been given a treasure map to write on! 

George Edmunds includes a copy of this chart in his book. It can be seen that just the first letter of the second name, or surname, is shown. This may or may not be a 'W'. Sarah's maiden name was Bradley, and her married names were Cox, Oort, Kidd and Rousby. She is known to have signed herself 'Sarah S. K. Kidd' (also Keede). The paper may even relate to another Sarah.

Sarah Kidd Chart

Figure 2.3: The Sarah Kidd Map

Wilkins does not report these finds chronologically but, according to his account, this chart is the first to identify the stretch of water in which the island is located. 

Howlett reports the 'Sarah Kidd' chart as the first found, and notes that Palmer's brother Guy was with him at the time of the discovery, rather than the antique dealer. He also says that the bureau was purchased in London. Both Howlett and Furneaux report the cross on the chart, the presence of 'China Sea' at the top, and observe that the ink is fading.

The Workbox

Wilkins claims that in February of 1933 he received a letter from Palmer informing him that a fourth map (rather than a chest) had turned up. Apparently, Palmer had visited his customary antique dealer who mentioned that an old naval man had approached him about a brass-bound chest bearing a plate with the inscription 'William and Sarah Kidd: Their Chest'. The owner had dropped the chest one day and had seemingly touched a secret spring, whereupon a parchment bearing a drawing of an island fell out.

Palmer had to wait some time before he obtained the chest ( referred to as a workbox) and was able to study it. The secret compartment was hidden by four cunningly placed nails which secured a false bottom.

Inside was a musty old parchment (kindly left by the previous owner) stuck to the back of a leather binding (such as the cover of an old bible). The paper had formed part of an old legal document but the back contained a drawing of the same island.

This chart contains much more detail than the others. Wilkins reports that instructions run round three sides, detailing "feet to step out from triangles, stakes in a lake and Death Valley". 

Skeleton Map

Figure 2.4: The Skeleton Map (The Key Chart)

The border text may read: 360 yards V.R NORTH 3 stumps: 55 feet - fou? (or from) centre of tri(angle?) be(tween or twixt?) Rocks 20 feet E - skele(ton?) of Le6. A number of interpretations are discussed in later chapters.

Most important of all is that this chart provides a latitude and longitude. The text suggests why the chart is referred to as the Skeleton Map and why the island is referred to as Kidd's Skeleton Island. The map was first published by Furneaux. A more accurate copy, drawn from the originals, is to be found in Edmunds' book.

Furneaux reports the workbox to be 12.5 inches long, 7.5 inches wide and 7 inches deep. Howlett reports the purchase date as 1934. Wilkins records that he was informed of its availability by letter from Palmer dated February 16, 1933. Such precision would only be possible because he kept the letter or recorded the date of such an important event - the highlight of his book. Wilkins also reports that Palmer was notified of another chest in the summer of that same year (1933).


Apart from the discrepancies mentioned, Howlett's account emphasises that Palmer bought each chest and then fortuitously located the secret compartments and the maps they contained. This has led some to question Palmer's honesty, lawyer though he was. They argue that it is demanding a great deal to believe that Palmer bought even one old sea chest, happened to locate a secret compartment that no previous owner had identified in the past 230 years, and found therein an old chart. With effort, this may be accepted as one of those rare chances in a million. They argue that having this happen four times in succession is altogether too much to believe.

Wilkins' account is quite explicit; Palmer was not solely responsible for finding any of the secret compartments - or the charts. In three cases, Palmer learned of the charts through a local antique dealer, Mr. Arthur Hill-Cutler, and had to buy the chests to lay his hands on them. In only one case did Palmer buy a chest and, for whatever reason, investigate it in the presence of someone else, in this case the very antique dealer who put it his way. We are not told who initiated the search and which of the two was prominent in finding the secret compartment.

Palmer was very touched that the seller of the workbox subsequently took the trouble to show him other Kidd relics, which Palmer then bought. Not surprisingly, Palmer continued to receive word of more chests. Palmer (and perhaps the dealer) may well have been duped, but this is not to say that the charts are necessarily fakes.

It is clear that by the time Anthony Howlett began his investigations the story had changed. Whether Hubert Palmer decided to romanticise the tale twenty-five years later will probably never be known. However, Wilkins' story of the finding of the charts is easily believable - Palmer's isn't - though Wilkins is not a very credible witness.

Note: The most current and authoritative account of the discovery of these maps is provided in Maps, Mystery and Interpretation Vol. 3: Sizing Up the Money Pit.


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