John Jacob Astor made a fortune. But did he do it as a fur trader, as he told everyone? Or, was his fortune actually based on his discovery of buried pirate treasure in Deer Isle, Maine? And he kept it secret so he didn’t have to return it to its rightful owners? That's what Franklin Head told the world.
Well, in actuality Astor built his fortune on fur trading. But the myth that he discovered buried treasure on the coast of Maine has persisted – ever since it was created by a Chicago lawyer and bon vivant who liked to entertain his rich friends with fanciful historical spoofs.
Franklin Harvey Head was the lawyer who invented the story. Head was born in New York and went west to Wisconsin to practice law. His career took him to California and Utah, where he owned mining and cattle interests. And finally he landed back in Chicago as a bank director and president of the Chicago Malleable Iron Company.
During his off hours, Head liked to socialize with Chicago’s literary society. To entertain his wealthy friends, he published humorous books based upon fanciful tales.
For example, after noting that in William Shakespeare’s plays characters frequently express their wish for a restful sleep to ease their minds, he published: Shakespeare’s Insomnia and the Causes Thereof. In the parody he included “newly-discovered” correspondence between the playwright and Sir Walter Raleigh, actor William Kempe and money lender “Mordecai Shylock.” The fictitious letters highlighted Shakespeare’s money and marital difficulties, which Head suggested were the root of insomnia that influenced his plays.
To entertain his friends who founded the “Jekyll Island Club” as a retreat for the wealthy off the coast of Georgia, Head published Studies in Early American History: The Legends of Jekyll Island.” The fictitious history interweaves real and fake historical names and stories with the names and photographs of Head’s friends. Yet the book was taken as truth by many, and incorporated into later histories of the island.
It was a Head book dealing with Maine that spawned the Astor story. Head was dining with the daughter of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted when the subject of his Maine property came up. Olmsted owned an estate on Maine’s Deer Isle and spent one summer there before his death.
The Pirate William Kidd was a favorite of Head’s. He worked him into his Jekyll Island history, as well. From his Olmsted conversation came: Studies in Early American History: A Notable Lawsuit. The story is an account of how Olmstead’s descendants had sued the Astor family to recover William Kidd’s pirate treasure.
The Astor Fortune
According to Head’s account, a trapper had discovered a buried treasure chest from William Kidd on land that Olmsted’s ancestors owned on Deer Isle. The trapper stole the chest and, not knowing its actual value, sold it to Astor and it became the basis for the Astor fortune.
In Head’s account, generations later the Olmsteds discovered the theft and were suing Astor for compensation, including back rent on all his Manhattan real estate, which he could not have purchased without the stolen treasure.
The book is full of tipoffs that it is not factual, including references to Olmsted ancestors Cotton Mather Olmsted and Oliver Cromwell Olmsted. Perhaps the most glaring indicator that the story was not true was the absence of any lawsuit that the book was supposedly based upon.
Nevertheless, the appetite for news of the wealthy was so strong the story came to be taken as truth. Liberty Magazine published it as truth and it would be told and reprinted many times over the years.
Originally printed in 1892, the story would surface in 1926 when a California historian presented it as true, and it made its way into newspapers around the world. Not to be outdone, newspapers in the state of Maine even postulated that the state might entitled to recover the treasure, since it would be illegal to sell stolen goods.
There’s no indication that Head, who died in 1914, intended his stories to be taken seriously or that they would be distributed beyond his circle of friends.
This story about the Astor fortune was updated in 2018.