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The Bizarre History of Cape May > Did Lincoln and Captain Kidd really visit Cape May?

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Having lived two centuries apart from each other, it would appear unlikely that William Kidd and Abraham Lincoln had anything in common. But their stories do have long distance similarities about whether they were or were not in Cape May, as well as in other respects.

Captain Kidd, who some historians claim was a pirate and others defend as a heroic privateer who got a bad rap, is the subject of celebrations every summer when North Wildwood and Cape May hold special events inviting thousands of kids to dig for treasures that Kidd allegedly buried in the sands here sometime in the late 17th century.

That is mostly fantasy, conceived to encourage tourism based on the legendary accounts of Kidd’s presence here. But its modern day motives work very well, judging from the sizes of the attendance.

There is some information that gives more credence to Kidd’s visit to Cape May. In his book, “The History of Cape May County, 1638-1897,” historian Lewis Townsend Stevens points to a report by the Lord of Trade on Aug. 10, 1699 to the Lord’s justices that Kidd and other privateers landed at Cape May with goods seized in East India. And, so the story goes, near what is now Cape May Point close to the lighthouse there grew a tree called Kidd’s Tree which was cut down in 1893. The tree supposedly was a range finder to lead the crew back to where the treasure was buried.

The plot moves ahead to July 31, 1849 when a young Abe Lincoln, barely finished of his only term in Congress, is said to have vacationed at then Cape Island with his wife, Mary. The story teller again was Stevens and his conclusion was based on information handed down by others who claimed they had been there and had seen that.

What’s more there was on display in the local movie house lobby a copy of the Mansion House register upon which the signature A. Lincoln and wife is said to have appeared for that time period. The original register version is reportedly in the hands of a man down south who apparently has disappeared with the alleged historic document.

Amplifying the Lincoln story is the opinion that the whole history of the world could have changed on the porch of the Mansion House, where in a rocking chair Mrs. Lincoln convinced her husband not to take the appointment of governor of the territory of Oregon. She allegedly told him she did not want to live way out there with all those wild Indians.

Some historians have theorized that if Lincoln had gone to Oregon it would have been a political graveyard for him and he never would have received the exposure he needed for the presidency. At a time when there had been such lightweights in the White House as Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan it gave cause to wonder what would have happened to the slavery issue if Lincoln had gone to Oregon and someone of lesser talent had become president.

All this supposition, of course, was based on the report that the two Lincolns were really in Cape May and that the signature on the hotel register was that of the real Honest Abe and not the one of a Philadelphia grocer of the same name who periodically vacationed in Cape May with his wife. 

One historian went so far as to call the signature “spurious” and others claimed he could not have been in Cape May on that date because he was in Springfield, Ill. attending to legal affairs.

In more recent times the Lincoln legend was extended here in Cape May County when a Rio Grande restaurant included on its menu the claim that Lincoln wrote part of the Gettysburg Address when he stopped there en route to the battlefield and enjoyed the restaurant’s good food.

Long before Lincoln arrived, Captain Kidd spent much of his time on the New Jersey coast. The Scottish man of the sea married a widow from Monmouth County, in fact, and was granted a license by the King of England to seize and capture French and pirate ships and to split the booty with the government and his backers.

This didn’t always turn out as it was intended and one day his crew attempted a mutiny and one of them was killed. The mutiny was suppressed but from it came Kidd’s depiction as pirate. One account says the event inspired him to attack whatever lucrative ship he saw on the horizon.

As a result the British officially branded him as a pirate and arrested him in Boston. He claimed to have hidden a treasure of 40,000 British pounds, although some accounts said that number was closer to 400,000 pounds. Only 10,000 pounds were recovered on Gardiner’s Island off the Long Island coast. The island is named after John Gardiner with whom Kidd left his booty and who turned it over to the English government.

Kidd claimed there was more and one of the burial places he cited was Cape May, where pirate ships often stopped to get fresh water. This information probably set off today’s Captain Kidd celebrations where little kids imitate Captain Kidd with paper swords and wear pirate-like eye patches and dig for his treasures on the sand.

Kidd and Lincoln were both to die violent deaths. Kidd was sent to England for execution at the gallows, but like much in his life it wasn’t easy. When they placed the rope around his neck and kicked the wooden block from beneath him, the rope broke and he fell to the ground still alive. So they brought him back to the main stage and did a re-run. This time it worked.

Abraham Lincoln’s ending was not as gruesome, but certainty more dramatic and unexpected on April 14, 1865. Five days earlier on Palm Sunday the Civil War had all but ended with the surrender at a place called Appomattox Court House in Virginia by General Robert E. Lee, who is said without much confirmation to have visited Cape May before the Civil War.

A much relieved Lincoln had decided on this first Thursday following the war to attend with his wife a performance of the farce “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater at the nation’s capital. They occupied a private box looking down at the stage and while the actors were emoting at 10:15 p.m. another actor named John Wilkes Booth entered the box. He is not there to express his disapproval of the performance. Instead, he shoots Lincoln in the back of the head with his one shot derringer pistol. At first the audience thinks this is part of the play until Mary Lincoln screams and they realize this is the real thing.

Booth escapes, but not for long. One of the largest manhunts in history follows with 10,000 federal troops, detectives and police on the hunt. He is found in a barn in Virginia where he is shot and killed on April 24. His body is taken to Washington, D.C. and is buried beneath a penitentiary there.

Four others accused of being his conspirators are hanged on July 7, 1865. Unlike the story of Captain William Kidd, the rope does not slip this time and there is no need for a re-run.

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