The Curse of Oak Island- Season 4, Episode 5: Bullseye
After watching this week’s episode of The Curse of Oak Island, a particular quote, popularly attributed to Mark Twain, comes to mind- “history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Read on for a plot summary and analysis of this tantalizing, nerve-wracking chapter in the history of Canada’s most famous treasure hunt.
The episode begins where Season 4, Episode 4 left off: at the Money Pit area, where a massive steel caisson is being ground into the earth. There, Rick and Marty Lagina and their crew meet with Andrew Folkins of Irving Equipment Limited, who informs them that the operation’s progress is slow but steady. The narrator then explains that the Lagina brothers and their crew are hoping that their caisson will intersect the Chappell Vault, discovered by driller William Chappell and treasure hunter Frederick Blair of the Oak Island Treasure Company in 1897. The narrator describes how the (currently) 143-foot-deep Chappell Vault is believed to be a wooden vault covered in concrete and filled with ‘loose metal’, and how Chappell’s auger brought up from the vault a scrap of parchment inscribed with the letters ‘vi’. There is then a flashback to Season 2, Episode 4, in which Oak Island Tours Inc.’s drill hole ‘Valley 3’ bit into what the crew believed might be the side of the Chappell Vault.
The narrator explains that the earth currently being extracted from the Money Pit caisson is hauled to Oak Island’s Lot 25, where it is dumped and sifted through. At Lot 25, treasure hunter Jack Begley and Oak Island historian Charles Barkhouse sift through the first load from the Money Pit- which they name ‘Pile #1’- with a backhoe. In it, they find a number of wooden planks, which are almost certainly pieces of shaft cribbing left behind by earlier treasure hunters. They pick out these pieces of worked wood and throw them in a separate pile.
After a preliminary examination of Pile 1, Jack Begley goes over the debris with a metal detector. In no time, he unearths a brass bullet casing. Shortly thereafter, he discovers a small unidentifiable object which, according to the metal detector ‘hit’, appears to contain silver. The items are labelled and bagged.
The next day, Rick and Marty Lagina, their nephew Peter Fornetti, treasure hunter Craig Tester, and historian Charles Barkhouse congregate at the Atlantica Oak Island Resort & Conference Centre in Western Shore, Nova Scotia. There, they meet with author and investigative journalist Randall Sullivan. Sullivan reveals that he is in the process of researching for a new book he hopes to write on Oak Island. In his explanation, he alludes to the supposed existence of underground smugglers tunnels beneath Haiti’s Tortuga Island, once a haven for Caribbean pirates.
At the end of their conversation, Marty and the Oak Island crew invite Sullivan to accompany them to the island. Sullivan accepts the offer, and the six men drive to the Money Pit. There, Sullivan marvels at all the heavy machinery and remarks that the ongoing Big Dig, as many Oak Island enthusiasts refer to this long-awaited excavation of the Money Pit, is the first major excavation in the Money Pit area since the late treasure hunter Robert Dunfield’s heavy duty excavation in the 1960’s. Marty responds by stating that Oak Island Tours Inc.’s excavation is “like surgery” when compared with Dunfield’s excavation, which some Oak Island researchers have criticized for being too destructive.
While work continues at the Money Pit area, Rick Lagina, Craig Tester, and Jack Begley travel to the ‘hatch’ on the western end of Oak Island, uncovered in Season 4, Episode 2. The ‘hatch’ is really a rectangular cavity in stone which archaeologist Laird Niven suggested might be artificial. The Oak Island crew discovered this anomaly after investigating a point of interest on a mysterious map of Oak Island allegedly drawn in the 14th Century A.D., provided to them by New York-based researcher Zena Halpern. After probing the ‘hatch’ with an iron rod, the three men learn, to their disappointment, that its stone bottom is relatively shallow, and that the hatch does not open up into an underground tunnel as they had hoped. Although Rick is reluctant to “cross [the hatch] off [the] search agenda”, the crew agrees that an immediate rigorous investigation is unwarranted.
The following day, historian Charles Barkhouse and writer Randall Sullivan meet with veteran treasure hunter Dan Blankenship. Sullivan informs Blankenship that he is working on a new book on Oak Island, and that he was initially dismissive of the notion that pirates are responsible for Oak Island’s underground workings, as some theorists maintain. The three men then begin to discuss the various theories regarding the nature of the Oak Island treasure. Dan Blankenship immediately brings up the theory that the Oak Island treasure is the lost Incan treasure of Tumbes, Peru. The narrator then describes how Spanish conquistador Franciso Pizarro, in 1528, discovered the Incan city of Tumbes while exploring the west coast of South America south of Panama. Impressed by the Tumpis’ vast wealth of gold and silver, Pizarro sailed to Spain and entreated the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (a.k.a. Carlos I of Spain) to grant him ships and men with which to conquer Tumbes and appropriate its wealth for Spain. The monarch granted his request, and Pizarro returned to Tumbes with a full complement of conquistadors. However, upon arriving at the Incan city, Pizarro and his men found it in ruins and bereft of all its treasure. Some theorists believe this treasure somehow ended up on Oak Island.
After the narrator’s explanation, Sullivan states that he finds the Tumbes theory improbable, but does not discount it entirely. He, Blankenship, and Barkhouse discuss various Oak Island theories briefly before concluding their meeting.
At the Money Pit, Rick and Marty Lagina, Craig Tester, and Jack Begley stand by in anticipation as the caisson approaches the 143-foot level, at which depth they hope to find the elusive Chappell Vault. Unfortunately, the first few scoops of material to be hauled from the 143-foot level reveal nothing but mud and rocks. Suddenly, to the crew’s pleasure, the hammer grab used to remove material from the caisson drops a load containing old, blackened oak wood.
Marty enthusiastically suggests they lower the hammer grab back into the caisson to see what lies beneath the wood. Rick, however, expresses his concern that the massive tool might damage whatever lies below, which he believes might be an object of significant historic and archaeological value. Rick wants the crew to slow down “and take a deep breath” before making a decision on how best to proceed, while Marty, cognizant of the “hideous” hourly expense incurred by the excavation crew, maintains that “there’s never been a better time to keep digging than right now.”
Ultimately, the crew decides to take Rick’s advice and postpone their decision until they have mulled it over.
Arguably one of the most interesting discoveries made by the Oak Island Treasure Company (or, for that matter, by any Oak Island treasure hunting syndicate) was the structure believed to be a concrete vault located in the Money Pit between the 154 and 161-foot levels (now from the 143-150-foot levels, due to treasure hunter Robert Dunfield’s operations in the 1960’s, which lowered the elevation of the Money Pit’s surface by 11 feet). This structure was discovered during two exploration drilling operations.
During the first drilling operation, a 7-inch layer of cement was discovered at the 154-foot level. Below the cement were five inches of oak, and below the oak were about 2.5 feet of soft, loose metal, which was encountered again at a depth of 158 feet. Core samples from these depths were analyzed by professionals, who affirmed that the cement was, in fact, man-made. One of the professionals who analyzed these core samples, Dr. Andrew E. Porter from Amherst, Nova Scotia, discovered a small fibrous brown ball which turned out to be a small shred of balled-up parchment with the letters ‘vi’ written on it.
During the second drilling operation, the drill hit cement from 154-161 feet, along with oak wood from 154-158 feet. The results of this operation led the Oak Island Treasure Company men to believe that they had drilled into the side of the vault, which was composed of an outer layer of concrete and an inner lining of oak wood.
The Scrap of Parchment
Upon discovering the 161-foot vault through the use of exploration drilling, the Oak Island Treasure Company submitted core samples from the vault for analysis. One of the analysts, Dr. Andrew E. Porter from Amherst, Nova
Scotia, was tasked with inspecting one of these core samples, which consisted of mostly wood and cement. Among the debris, Porter picked out small brown ball which he thought at first to be a piece of wood. Upon closer inspection, however, he realized that the object was actually a tiny ball of parchment with either paint or ink on it. The Oak Island Treasure Company sent this scrap off to be analyzed by experts in Boston and Halifax, who all concluded that the material was a scrap of sheepskin parchment with the letters “vi” written on it in India ink with a quill pen. This item- which is, perhaps, the most incontrovertible piece of evidence indicating that there was, at some point in the distant past, a human presence deep within the Money Pit- was in Frederick Blair’s possession for decades. Blair eventually passed the parchment scrap down to his son Mel, who would, in turn, bequeath it to Dan Blankenship, a partner in the Oak Island treasure hunting syndicate Triton Alliance. Today, the scrap of parchment resides in Dan Blankenship’s residence on Oak Island.
Randal Sullivan, who appears in this week’s episode of The Curse of Oak Island to market his upcoming book, is an author, investigative journalist, and long time contributor to the Rolling Stone magazine. His 2004 Rolling Stone article The Curse of Oak Island, which highlighted the hardships experienced by various Oak Island treasure hunters over the years, remains an important piece of Oak Island literature.
In addition to his Rolling Stone articles, Sullivan has published a number of books, including:
- The Price of Experience: Power, Money, Image, and Murder in Los Angeles (1996)
- LAbyrinth: A Detective Investigates the Murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., the Implications of Death Row Records’ Suge Knight, and the Origins of the Los Angeles Police Scandal (2002)
- The Miracle Detective: An Investigative Reporter Sets Out to Examine How the Catholic Church Investigates Holy Visions and Discovers His Own Faith (2005)
- Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson (2011)
Sullivan has announced that he plans to release his upcoming book on Oak Island, entitled The Curse of Oak Island, on July 4, 2017.
In this week’s episode, author and investigative journalist Randall Sullivan alludes to a complex system of subterranean tunnels constructed by pirates which run beneath the island of Tortuga, Haiti, suggesting that they rival Oak Island’s underground workings in their complexity and belie the notion, held by many Oak Island researchers, that a pirate crew could not possibly have had the discipline or engineering aptitude to build the Money Pit and the Smith’s Cove flood tunnel.
Interestingly, Dan Blankenship’s former partner, the late Montreal-based treasure hunter David Tobias, once entertained the notion that Oak Island’s underground workings might be a sort of pirate bank. According to Tobias’ theory, the pirates who built this bank first dug the Money Pit. When that was accomplished, each pirate or group of pirates tunneled away from the Money Pit in a different direction and buried their treasure at the end of the tunnel. Each pirate interested in retrieving his treasure in the future, therefore, would only need to know where his own treasure chamber was located in relation to the surface; no digging in the Money Pit would be required. When all the treasure was buried, the Smith’s Cove flood tunnel was built and the Money Pit booby trapped.
According to writer and researcher Darcy O’Connor in his book The Secret Treasure of Oak Island (1978), David Tobias, in the late 1960’s, learned of a Haitian engineer named Albert Lochard who claimed to have uncovered one such communal pirate bank in southern Haiti. Tobias tracked Lochard to New York, where he was “living as a political refugee under an assumed name.” The Haitian engineer claimed that he had discovered a vast treasure in the pirate bank, but that the Haitian government had forced him to flee the country before he could finish excavating. When pressed, he explained to Tobias that the treasure bank’s main shaft led to a chamber at the 140-180-foot depths. Five smaller tunnels led from the chamber, and a number of flood tunnels, plugged with clay, fed into it.
It must be mentioned that Lochard’s tale of the Haitian pirate bank has never been verified, and that a number of researchers doubt its authenticity.
The Lost Treasure of Tumbes
Some Oak Island researchers believe that the Oak Island treasure is none other than the lost Incan treasure of Tumbes, Peru.
In 1528, Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro discovered the city of Tumbes while exploring the west coast of South America south of Panama. Pizarro and his crew were warmly welcomed by the local Tumpis, who called them ‘Children of the Sun’ due to their light skin and shining armour. During their stay, the Spanish learned that the city was one of many under the jurisdiction of Emperor Atahualpa, ruler of the powerful Inca Empire, and that it was rich with gold, silver, and other treasures. Hoping to return in the future with a more powerful force with which to relieve the city of its considerable wealth, Pizarro left two of his own men behind so that they might learn the language and customs of the natives before returning to Panama.
The Spanish governor of Panama would not allow Pizarro to lead another expedition south, and so the conquistador sailed to Spain in order to bring his entreaty to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (a.k.a. Carlos I of Spain). The Emperor’s wife, Queen Isabelle of Portugal, authorized Pizarro’s campaign, and in the spring of 1531, Pizarro disembarked on the shores of Tumbes with 180 well-armed conquistadors. Instead of finding the thriving city he had left in 1528, however, Pizarro found Tumbes ransacked and deserted. In addition, the two Spaniards who had been left behind had vanished without a trace.
Upon questioning some of the locals found in villages in the neighbouring jungle, the conquistadors learned that Tumbes had been sacked by Emperor Huascar, Atahualpa’s halfbrother and rival to the Inca throne, and that its riches had been carried away.
According to an alternative history espoused by some Oak Island theorists, one of the men whom Pizarro left behind warned the Tumpis that Pizarro planned to return with a powerful army and strip the city of its wealth. Heeding the Spaniard’s warning, the Tumbes citizens took their most precious treasures overland to the Caribbean, built a fleet, set sail, were swept north by a series of storms, and were ultimately shipwrecked on Oak Island. There, some theorists believe, they buried their treasure.
There is very little evidence, concrete or circumstantial, to support the theory that the Oak Island treasure is the lost gold of Tumbes. In fact, this unlikely theory is derived from three separate yet eerily consistent incidents involving what some theorists believe to be the supernatural.
The first of these three incidents involves Dan Henksee, an eccentric, reclusive treasure hunter who has lived on and off Oak Island since 1965. Over the years, Henskee suffered a number of frightening experiences on Oak Island which he attributes to the supernatural. The first of these experiences took place one summer day in 1973. While working, Henskee felt as if he was possessed by the spirit of a long-dead Spanish priest whose body he believes might be buried somewhere on Oak Island. According to a witness, Henskee fell into what looked to be a sort of trance and collapsed to the ground, screaming. Henskee believes he relived the priest’s experience of having his throat cut, although he concedes that he is unsure of where or not “the experience that happened to [him]… was real or imaginary.”
Many skeptics dismiss Henkee’s experience as some sort of medically-explainable hallucination, perhaps simply the product of an overactive mind. However, the phenomena Henskee experienced that day in 1973 is particularly creepy considering two supposed paranormal experiences had by self-proclaimed psychics regarding Oak Island.
The first of these supposed paranormal experiences took place in the early 1930’s, when Oak Island treasure hunters
Frederick Blair and Mel Chappell travelled to Saginaw, Michigan, to meet with a professed psychic named John Wicks. During their meeting, Wicks produced a pen and a piece of paper and began to scribble furiously, at a blistering pace, as if his hand was guided by some sort of supernatural force. In spite of the incredible speed at which he wrote, Wicks’ writings were clear and legible. When he had finished, Wicks explained to the bewildered Blair and Chappell that he had been contacted by the spirits of a Spanish priest named Menzies and an Incan priest named Circle who, through his hand, told the story of how Oak Island’s underground workings came to be.
According to Wicks’ writings, which appeared to form a story in mixed English and Spanish, Incan workers arrived on Oak Island in the 1520’s and buried the lost treasure of Tumbes, Peru. Before Francisco Pizarro left Tumbes to return to Spain, where he hoped to convince the king to finance a conquest expedition, he left two Spaniards behind so that they might learn the language and customs of the natives. According to Wick’s scribblings, the priest Menzies was one of the two Spaniards Pizarro left behind. Is it possible that Menzies warned the Incas of Pizarro’s ambition and accompanied them to Oak Island? And is it possible that the Incas, upon interring their treasure, slit Menzies’ throat, and that the Spanish priest’s spirit revealed this incident to Henskee in 1973?
The other ostensibly-paranormal experience involving ancient priests and Oak Island’s underground workings took place in 1976, three years after Henskee’s ordeal. That year, Ray Nutt and his wife, two self-proclaimed psychics from Texas, purportedly experienced a series of visions in which they toured Oak Island’s underground tunnels and chambers. One of the things both Ray and his wife claimed to have seen in their visions was the image of a hooded and cowled priest whose garments were “light tan.” The habit worn by the Hieronymites, members of the Spanish Order of Saint Jerome which had a presence in the Americas in the early 1500’s, includes a brown hood and cowl.
Mulling it Over- Reminiscent of the Onslow Company?
According to a saying popularly attributed to Mark Twain, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” For many Oak Island enthusiasts familiar with the island’s history, this piece of folk wisdom comes to mind in the final scene of this week’s episode of the The Curse of Oak Island.
At the end of Season 4, Episode 5 of The Curse of Oak Island, the Oak Island crew sank a caisson 143 feet deep into the Money Pit area, hoping to intersect the famous Chappell Vault which they believed they drilled through in Season 2, Episode 4. At the 143 foot depth, the hammer grab, which they used to haul debris from the caisson, brought up bits of old oak wood- evidence that they reached whatever they drilled through in Season 2, Episode 4, and a tantalizing suggestion that they might have hit the Chappell Vault. Marty suggested that they immediately dig up whatever lies below, while Rick counselled circumspection, fearing that an aggressive excavation might damage potential artifacts of historic and archaeological significance below. In the end, the crew agrees to postpone the excavation and thoughtfully consider how best to proceed.
This decision to shut down digging operations while within reach of the prize is painfully evocative of an earlier episode in the history of the Oak Island treasure hunt which did not end well for the treasure hunters. Back in 1804, the Onslow Company, Oak Island’s earliest treasure hunting syndicate, excavated the Money Pit to a depth of 90 feet. There, the Company members uncovered the legendary 90-foot stone, which they believed was an indication that the treasure they were seeking was close at hand. After digging several feet below the stone, the crew members decided to call it a day, as it was getting dark. They returned to the Money Pit the following morning, certain that a treasure awaited them. To their dismay, the treasure hunters found the shaft filled to the 30-foot level with seawater. To make matters worse, no matter how much water they bailed from the pit, the surface remained more or less at the 30-foot level. Ever since, flooding has remained one of the two primary impediments to Oak Island treasure hunters, along with lack of funds.
Oak Island Tours Inc.’s decision to postpone work in the Money Pit when they are mere feet from reaching their goal is keenly reminiscent of the Onslow Company’s decision to call it a day shortly after discovering the 90-foot stone. Will Oak Island Tours Inc. be flooded out like the Onslow Company? Or will Oak Island Tours Inc. tackle whatever the island throws at them? Was Marty sensible to suggest that they keep digging? Or is Rick wise to counsel caution? Let us know what you think in the comment section below.
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