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The Great Danville Treasure Hoax

In spite of what you've heard, Captain Kidd's treasure wasn't found in Danville.


As some of you may know, one of my hobbies is treasure hunting. From spring until fall I can usually be found scouring Pennsylvania with my metal detector, digging holes like a human groundhog and hoping to unearth a long-hidden pot of gold. As some of you may not know, however, treasure hunting is not the quickest or easiest way to get rich. Despite all the stories you might have heard about treasure hunters locating vast hordes of gold and silver, most of us are lucky to unearth enough dimes and quarters in a single outing to pay for a cup of coffee at Sheetz (Or Wawa, if you're from the eastern part of the state).

As a kid growing up in central Pennsylvania, one of the oft-told stories of lost treasure that ignited my young imagination was the story of Frank Lewis and Jabob Gearhart, two poor root-diggers who stumbled upon a box containing $47,000 in gold and silver coins while digging up medicinal plants on an island in the Susquehanna River near Danville in 1887.

As the story goes, the treasure was placed on the island by Captain Kidd sometime in the 16th century. Pursued by other pirates on the Chesapeake Bay, he traveled by canoe upriver until reaching a section of the Susquehanna known as Crook's Riffles. He chose an island and buried his loot but, according to legend, was killed before he had a chance to reclaim it.

The story of the Danville treasure and its subsequent discovery became such a sensational topic that it was reported in newspapers across America, and mention of it can still be found today in various books about lost (and found) treasure and on a multitude of treasure hunting websites. People still trek to the island to this day, in the hopes of finding additional treasure. Like many people, I first accepted the story as fact, although the more I thought about the treasure, the more convinced I became of its improbability.

First, let's examine the sheer weight of this treasure, which was reported in 1887 as $30,000 in gold coins and another $17,000 in silver coins. This gold would be worth $798,180 today, and the silver would be worth $452,302. This translates into only about 50 pounds of gold. However, based on the current price of silver, it would require nearly 22,000 pounds of the metal to equal a value of $452,302. Even based on current day values, seventeen thousand dollars worth of silver would weigh over 800 pounds.

Are we to believe that Captain Kidd rowed a canoe 130 miles upstream while carrying at least 850 pounds worth of cargo? Have you ever rowed a canoe upriver, against the current, for a single mile? It's pretty darn exhausting. The more practical solution would have been to transport the treasure over land using horses or mules.

Also, if you've ever driven along the river, you'll notice that between the Chesapeake Bay and Danville, there lies hundreds of islands in the river of all shapes and sizes. Why Captain Kidd would have buried his treasure on one particular nondescript island near Danville instead of an equally suitable island near a less distant place like Millersburg or Harrisburg is a mystery. And let's not forget that most of the islands in the river were inhabited by Native Americans during the time of Captain Kidd's alleged Susquehanna voyage in the 16th century. A slow-moving canoe piloted by a white man transporting a ton of cargo past hundreds of islands occupied by hostile Susquehannock and Lenape would've aroused much suspicion.

However, the ultimate nail-in-the-coffin regarding the Captain Kidd treasure is a newspaper article that appeared in a Danville newspaper in 1914. The author of the article, apparently annoyed by the resurrection of a fake story, definitively puts the matter to rest. From the December 3, 1914, edition of the Danville Morning News:

Captain Kidd and His Treasure Box

Canard Affecting Riverside Set Afloat 27 Years Ago Resurrected and Printed as News

At the station on the Pennsylvania Railroad, South Danville, yesterday morning a call was received for the station agent. W.R. Clark, who has filled that responsible position for a matter of twenty-five years, hastened to reply. What he heard was an irrational recital involving a mixture of dates nearly a generation apart, which made him think that either he or the other fellow on the wire had lost his mental equilibrium. The call was from a newspaper office of one of our neighboring towns and the person speaking wanted to know all the facts about a "treasure box containing a large sum of money" that had just been unearthed at Danville.

What amazed the station agent was the fact that he was addressed as one of the persons that had figured in the remarkable find. At the same time he discovered that he was being addressed as "Mr. Kinter". He hastened to inform the scribe on the wire that there was a mistake-- that he was not Mr. Kinter. "Well, then, where's Mr. Kinter? I want Kinter, the station agent," was the reply, the excited tones indicating the mental stress that the speaker was laboring under. 

In vain Mr. Clark explained  that Mr. Kinter, although at one time agent at the South Danville Station, has been in his grave for a matter of twenty-five years. Other names were thrust upon his ear-- "Jacob Gearhart"-- "Frank Lewis". Shades of the departed-- these have also been dead for years. Mr. Clark didn't exactly lose his patience, but he wanted to know what all this was about. The voice on the wire proceeded to explain. It was all because of a story that appeared in the first page of the Shamokin Dispatch of Tuesday, which under a big head set forth that Danville men had unearthed a treasure box filled with coin while digging up fern roots down along the river.

Gradually the mystery was cleared up. The recollection of a gigantic hoax perpetrated in Danville some twenty-seven years ago, in which Mr. Kinter, Jacob Gearhart and others along with Captain Kidd and his buried treasure figured, arose in the mind of the station agent. The explanation that followed convinced the newspaper man that the story he had in tow was one that was stale when he was a small boy.

The story originated in Danville about the year 1887. It was a canard pure and simple set afloat by one group of wits at the expense of another group. Although printed in one of our weeklies no one about Danville ever took it seriously for a moment. But the Philadelphia dailies got hold of the story and it was treated seriously enough. One or more of them had lengthy editorials on the subject. The episode has been practically forgotten here, but the most of our older residents will recall the circumstances. Perhaps the Shamokin newspaper can explain how the story happened to come to the surface as news at this day.

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