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Suffolk Closeup: The mystery of Gardiners Island

I’ve been giving presentations about Gardiners Island at the East Hampton Library, Southampton History Museum and last week at the Suffolk County Historical Society Museum.

Part of the talk involves the pirate Captain Kidd, who in 1699 famously buried treasure on Gardiners Island, which is east of Shelter Island. Years ago, for a TV shoot on the privately held island that’s been in the Gardiner family for nearly 400 years, Robert David Lion Gardiner, its “16th Lord of the Manor,” brought me to the spot where the treasure had been buried.

Numerous historical accounts relate that after leaving the treasure on the 3,300-acre island, Captain Kidd told the “3rd Lord of the Manor,” Jonathan Gardiner, that if the treasure wasn’t there when he returned, he would kill him.

Captain Kidd was on his way to Boston and never got back to Gardiners Island. He was arrested and tried for murder and piracy and hanged.

The treasure was recovered from Gardiners Island but historical accounts say that somehow a diamond was either taken by the Gardiners or fell out of the travel bag in which the treasure was placed to be sent to London. In any event, the diamond was given to Jonathan’s daughter, Elizabeth, say the accounts.

Before the talk last week, I was a guest on Giana Volpe’s “Media Mavens” radio program on Southampton-based WPPB, the NPR station, and spoke about the upcoming presentation. Then, when I got to SUNY/Old Westbury College, where I’m a journalism professor, there was a phone message from Dr. Gary Rosenbaum. The physician, an infectious disease specialist at Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, said he’d heard me on WPPB, and then told a fascinating, history-changing story.

As a Boy Scout, his troop from Commack spent several weeks in 1971 in a camp-out on Gardiners Island. At one point, Dr. Rosenbaum related, Mr. Gardiner invited the boys and their leaders into the main residence on the island, its Manor House, and showed them goodies which Mr. Gardiner identified as being from Captain Kidd’s treasure.

This included, said Dr. Rosenbaum, a tiara studded with rubies and emeralds, and gold coins known as Spanish doubloons. An armed guard stood by as the items were presented, he related.

I asked Dr. Rosenbaum if he might come to the Suffolk County Historical Society Museum presentation and tell the audience there what he just told me. He did. I introduced him from the audience as I got to the portion on my talk about Gardiner’s Island involving Captain Kidd’s treasure, briefly summarized his story and said he would provide details.

When I finished, I asked Dr. Rosenbaum to come to the podium. There he repeated what he had originally told me on the phone. He noted that the guard, armed with a sidearm, “watched us like a hawk” as Mr. Gardiner displayed the items.

Buttressing Dr. Rosenbaum’s account was an audience member, Peter Vielbig of Shelter Island. A “history buff,” he’s on the board of the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm on Shelter Island (where there’s also an historic manor house) and long active in the Shelter Island Historical Society. Mr. Vielbig said all of Captain Kidd’s treasure apparently never got to England.

This, he said, was confirmed by Mr. Gardiner when Mr. Vielbig visited Gardiners Island on a tour of it with the Sag Harbor Historical Society in 1975. Mr. Gardiner, however, “didn’t say” the Gardiners got more of the treasure beyond that diamond.

In articles about the auctions of Gardiner heirlooms after Mr. Gardiner died in 2004, and then his wife, Eunice, died in 2011, there is reporting on furniture and paintings and similar items being sold off but, unless I missed something, nothing about the sale of a tiara or gold doubloons.

The question: Where is the rest of Captain Kidd’s treasure now?

And who to contact on this? With Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner having passed away and leaving no heirs, I tried to contact their last attorney. But answering the phone number of the lawyer who is listed on Google resulted in my being connected to a bagel shop in Smithtown. Seeking information from English Colonial authorities in Boston about whether they knew they had been short-changed would be to no avail, since they haven’t been around for centuries.

In coming months, I’ll again be giving the presentation about Gardiners Island — in itself an historic and ecological jewel — at the Amagansett Free Library, Huntington Public Library and Shelter Island History Center. It will include a screening of the TV piece filmed on Gardiners Island, which features scenes of the exquisite island and my interview with the late Mr. Gardiner there.