For Ezekiel Hand, a Cumberland County mariner who had just captained an expedition to the West Indies aboard the schooner Charming Nancy, Christmas 1772 must have been a welcome relief from the previous weeks.
According to Elena Darling’s research for an article in a 1950 issue of the Vineland Historical Magazine, Hand and his crew had spent a portion of those weeks waiting to be rescued after their ship had foundered off the coast of the Bermudas.
But records uncovered by Darling at the Bridgeton Court House revealed that Hand had apparently arranged for his trip to the West Indies to provide him with some early holiday gifts. On December 26, the Honorable Charles Read of Bridgeton ordered that the sea captain’s house be searched on suspicion that he had stolen Spanish milled dollars and golden coin (commonly known as half Johannes’s) valued in British currency at over 600 pounds from aboard Charming Nancy on his recent journey.
According to information obtained from Hand and others, the scheme appears more complex than one might suspect. Hand had ordered that the bag of money was to remain on the schooner as the ship was sinking. He apparently told his crew that “he thought ye vessel the safest place tho they were going then to leave her.”
The crew had already prepared a lifeboat in the event they were forced to abandon ship before help arrived. Unbeknownst to the crew, Hand, it seemed, was counting on just that. The lifeboat, which Bridgeton Court House documents indicate was being towed behind the Charming Nancy and was “capable to carry six times as many people,” had been filled with provisions, including water, compasses, blankets, two pairs of breeches, two jackets and a “close bodied coat and surtout.”
While the last several choices would not usually qualify as essential, they certainly were for Hand. The sea captain had transferred the Spanish milled dollars and half Johannes’s to the pockets of the clothing, which would sit comfortably with the other provisions on the lifeboat. The bag that had originally held the money now contained stones and was left on board Charming Nancy once Hand and his crew abandoned ship.
But the sea captain wasn’t finished yet. Records reveal that, once the rescued crew arrived in Virginia, Hand sent a letter to the owners of the shipping company for which he worked acknowledging the money Charming Nancy was carrying. He was specific about the amount that supposedly sank with his ship. “This,” the documents explain, “was to cheat the Insurers.”
The initial search of Hand’s home in late December 1772 did not turn up the missing money, and it was believed the Cumberland County mariner was already in the process of arranging for it to be transported elsewhere. Read wasted no time ordering a second, less patient search.
“If the money is not found,” Read wrote, “by opening all chests, desks or boxes which you desire to have opened & on refusal breaking them open, I should be glad if Hand’s wife were taken aside and told that her husband is in Philadelphia [jail] at the suit of the owner, that if she will discover the money the suit may be discharged and he may return home.” The alternative, Read warned, was that her husband “will be totally ruined if not worse.”
Darling reports that she uncovered no evidence of a trial in either Philadelphia or Trenton and concludes that the money must have been recovered. She also offers evidence from a 1775 diary entry by Aaron Leaming that Hand was still living in this area and had helped Leaming pick up a barrel of sugar. Two years later, a notice appeared that Hand was still sailing the high seas to, of all places, the West Indies.