Pirate book author: rum and plundering, but no plank walks
New London — Caroline Driscoll spent summers with her family in Waterwitch, N.J., not far from a massive bluff where legend had it that Capt. William Kidd buried a treasure chest. But the steps leading to the hill where Kidd hid his loot were covered in poison ivy.
"I was direly allergic," said Driscoll, of New London. "Other than that, I would have found the treasure."
Author Eric Jay Dolin, giving a talk on the bloody, rum-ridden history of American piracy at the Custom House Maritime Museum on Sunday, told Driscoll her childhood legend was likely all wet.
Kidd "did sail past New Jersey, but I doubt the treasure is there," said Dolin, whose 13th book, "Black Flags, Blue Waters," storms into stores on Tuesday — a day before International Talk Like a Pirate Day.
Dolin said buried treasure stories — and notions that pirates growled "Argh!" and forced people to walk the plank — are little more than the fluff of literature and Hollywood.
But that hasn't stopped hunters from digging along the East Coast and in Canada, Dolin said, noting potential buried treasure remains a tourist attraction in Nova Scotia.
Dolin also told the curious crowd of the Marble family, who spent decades in the middle of the 19th century digging at Dungeon Rock in Lynn, Mass., seeking treasure allegedly left by a pirate in the 1650s.
"They went bankrupt," Dolin said. "They were digging through solid rock. How dumb can you be? They lost their marbles."
Dolin said he couldn't blame people for their fascination with pirates and the lust for riches.
"I love 'Pirates of the Caribbean' movies, but it's important not to get your real history from Hollywood," he said.
Dolin, who's previously written about whaling, lighthouses and the fur trade, researched pirate history by spending a week and a half poring over the National Archives in England and reading primary source material at the Massachusetts Historical Society and Harvard Library.
But he also told a "dirty little secret" about nonfiction research.
"Every single letter that a colonial official wrote back to the Board of Trade or Parliament or the Crown has been digitized," he said. "I was able to read hundreds of letters from 1680, 1690, so most of my research was done in my humble little office, a converted garage."
So where does genuine pirate history meet the likes of Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow?
Dolin said pirates enjoyed "sticking their noses to sartorial restrictions," wrapping themselves in stolen silk and "brilliant sashes and colorful tricorn hats."
Another thing that Hollywood gets right is pirates' thirst for rum, wine and cutthroat tactics.
"There was nothing romantic about them," Dolin said.
He noted the notorious English pirate Edward Low fed victims their own sliced-off ears or lips, apologizing to the audience for sharing the grisly image before dinnertime.
Colonial and British officials dealt with pirates just as harshly, Dolin said, with torture and hangings. Captain Kidd, for instance, was executed for piracy in 1701, his body covered in tar and locked in an iron cage hung over the Thames River to warn pirates what could become of them.
Mystic resident Kit Hartford came to see Dolin speak because she's "always had a place" in her heart for pirates, having "lived in the Florida Keys for a while."
"They weren't good people," she said, agreeing with Dolin that it was clever that pirate crews evenly disbursed their spoils, or else they'd end up tussling with each other.
In the 1600s, colonists in New York often welcomed pirates because they created ways to sidestep the fierce trade restrictions of Great Britain, Dolin said.
But between 1715 and 1726, more than 4,000 swashbucklers sailed along the East Coast and Caribbean ruthlessly attacking American and English ships, he said. Eventually, pirates "rarely had to resort to force since intimidation, courtesy of the black flag, worked so well."