Looking for the Dutchman's Treasure

By John P. O'Grady

[This article from the Quest magazine was slightly abridged from the full original, which will appear in John O'Grady's forthcoming book Grave Goods.

Every treasure hunt begins with a good story. Back in the 1930s there were a lot of gangsters who had a lot of loot to hide. The city wasn't safe, so they resorted to the Catskill Mountains with their booty and stashed it where wolves and Natty Bumppo once roamed. Have you ever seen those mountains? Secrets abound, but they are wondrously well preserved: every treasure buried in these mountains remains safely hidden, even to this day.One night in the early spring of 1933, a big Packard pulled off on a lonely road somewhere deep in the mountains, in a forest far away from any house. Two men in gabardine trench coats and fedoras got out of the car. Outfits like that usually mean gangsters, and in this case it was Dutch Schultz and his henchman. Dark pines towered above them. An owl may have been watching. Nearby a stream roared with the memory of winter. The air was chill. By the light of a lantern, each man's breath could be seen hovering like a ghost till it rose up and hung itself on the branch of a tree.

Dutch Schultz and his henchman opened the trunk of the Packard and took out a pick and a shovel. They began to dig in the gravely soil and grubbed out a serious hole. From the back of the car they hefted out a shiny steel chest, three feet long and two feet wide and eighteen inches high. Inside were millions of dollars in greenbacks, gold coins, diamonds, and negotiable bonds, or so the story goes. With great effort, the men hauled their burden to the edge of the hole and lowered it into the depths. It made a jangling thud when it landed. The Dutchman took one last look at his treasure before they closed it into the earth. The shiny steel of the chest sparkled with the light of the lantern, or was it the stars?

The Dutchman made careful work of this operation because, like anybody who hides a treasure, he had legitimate security concerns. Given his profession, he was skilled in cracking wise, but when it came to the important stuff he could keep his mouth shut. Although other mobsters around the city suspected the Dutchman had buried a vast hoard, they had no idea where, so they waited for him to slip up. He never did.

In the end, the steel chest remained in the ground. For reasons having little to do with treasure, Dutch Schultz and his henchman were gunned down by fellow mobsters one night in a Newark chop house. The Dutchman himself survived the shooting and hung on in the hospital for several hours. On his deathbed, he gabbled in a fever-induced delirium, each word a polished semiprecious gem of nonsense: "Oh, mama, mama, mama...I'm a pretty good pretzler...sir, get the doll a roofing...I am sore and I am going up and I am going to give you honey if I can...."

The cops, who were interested in the treasure, sat by the Dutchman's bedside and listened to his gibberish and asked him questions, but they couldn't get a straight answer. The mortally wounded gangster kept calling out for his mother. A psychologist in attendance said that this meant the Dutchman had returned to the helplessness of childhood and was crying out for comfort and protection. The cops nodded in agreement; they were used to deathbed scenes.

At one point, the Dutchman said, "The sidewalk was in trouble and the bears were in trouble and I broke it up." That caught the cops' attention. It was a baffling thing for anybody to say, but especially a dying gangster who had a treasure on his mind. Everybody agreed that this was no time to be literal, so they listened for more talk about bears, but Dutch Schultz fell into unconsciousness and that was it. From the treasure hunter's point of view, his last words were never adequately interpreted.

The henchman, on the other hand, was a more imprudent character. A secret usually outweighs the treasure it conceals, and talking about it is a way of disburdening. Before he was killed in the chop house massacre, the henchman unloaded, mentioning to a few friends his part in burying the treasure---always a mistake. Pretty soon the story was out: everybody in the underworld had heard a version of it. Next thing you know, bands of hoodlums in gabardine trench coats and fedoras were prowling the Catskill forests and digging a lot of holes. They didn't turn up much except worms. Then a rumor got out that the henchman had drawn a map and given it to a friend, so this friend was relieved of both the map and his life. Now with directions in hand, the mobsters were giddy with a sense of imminent success. Treasure hunters live for such moments.

The map was said to have consisted of a crude drawing of some pine trees, a creek, and a strange figure that some argued was the eye of an owl and others the footprint of a bear. The formidable obstacles to success were now evident: the map used a code nobody could crack, the only men who had actually seen the treasure were both dead, and none of these mobsters from the city had the woods lore to conduct a proper search for a drink of water much less a hidden treasure. Besides, they were mobsters and had other business, so they gave up the search. The treasure, as far as we know, is still in the ground. As for the map, like the library at Alexandria, it was lost.

But a story like this has a life of its own. It fell into the hands of ordinary people, who passed it like a baton across the generations. The legend of Dutch Schultz's treasure inspired a wide range of people, from little kids listening to the story around the fire at summer camp, to high school students looking for something to do on a Saturday night, to men past their prime rehearsing fictions down at Pandora's Tavern. On a good weekend, the parked cars of treasure hunters line the back roads of the Catskills. Take a walk in the forest at this time and you will hear the soft, arrhythmic clink of picks and shovels floating between the trees, a light mist of unearthly percussion, as if a band of sprites were working some fairy mine always just out of sight.

If you've ever met treasure hunters, you know they are not easily discouraged. They are irrationalists, enthusiasts, the last of the great idealists. There is something wistful and intense about them; you can see it in the eyes, which reveal a wealth of emotion but seem to focus on some distant and cloud-hidden prospect. Siezed by longing, they are undaunted by those who insist that the treasure is just a myth. When everybody else thinks they've gotten to the bottom of things and come up empty-handed, along comes the treasure hunter with a divining rod and begins to dig.

Proverbial wisdom, however, warns that to have a treasure is a fear, but not to have it is a grief. There was a man in Maine who gave up everything to pursue treasure. He had grown up on a stretch of the coast frequented by pirates in the eighteenth century. A lot of treasure was supposed to be buried around there, and this man spent most of his life looking for it.

I knew him in college. He was one of those high-strung people you see on campus who is constantly snacking on nervous energy and washing it down with a Coke. The back of his car was filled with all the junk that goes with being a treasure hunter: picks and shovels, a metal detector, tattered maps to places nobody cared about anymore, and an old book called The Gaining of Treasure and the Wonders of Hill-Digging, the most remarkable feature of which was its advocacy of the use of forest fire as an effective method to "clear out the rank obscurities of pernicious vegetation."

He was always rushing off on some new expedition, prowling the back roads of eastern Maine for pirate treasure. I asked him once what he knew about Dutch Schultz's treasure, but he took it as an insult. He was one of those seekers who made it a point of pride that his quest was for "real treasure" and not some mere loot. As far as I know, this man never come home with any treasure, but his want of success was offset by his sufficiency of faith.

Eventually the man married and had a couple of kids. By all accounts, he had a happy family life and was making a good salary as a land surveyor, but he was never able to overcome his real passion. His greatest fear was that somebody else would get to the treasure first. He noted that over the course of history, the great religious figures pretty much offer the same advice for those who would seek treasure: "Go light." Taking them at their word, he abandoned his family, quit his job, and now spends most of his time on the road, where he sleeps in his car. He lives a mean and solitary life digging holes on other people's property.

Where there is wealth to hide, fear keeps the best guard. In ancient Rome the state treasury was housed in a vault underneath the Temple of Saturn. They knew what they were doing. Saturn was the god who ruled over how people paid for things; he was the great cosmic accountant, who kept a cold eye on all manner of debits and credits. Those under his restrictive influence were said to be dark, melancholy, and withdrawn. Some might say stingy. The old astrologers called him the "Greater Infortune." He hung out in places most people avoid, taking delight, according to one Renaissance occultist, "in Deserts, Woods, obscure Vallies, Caves, Dens, Holes, Mountaines, or where men have been buried." Saturn's name in Greek was Kronos, "Time." Even today, that old god still commands a fearsome respect when he picks up his scythe and does a little gardening; we call him the Grim Reaper. Since time is money, who better to guard a treasure?

Another group that fall under the influence of Saturn are philosophers. The study of philosophy is a kind of intellectual treasure hunt. Although I've never been very good at it myself (professors in college told me my attitude was too "literary" or "not serious enough"), I've always enjoyed bushwhacking around in metaphysical thickets. Not long ago on campus I saw a sign advertising a lecture by a young philosopher entitled "A Sound Argument Concerning the Existence of God." Sounded like directions to a treasure to me, or at the very least a chance to witness the academic equivalent of a guy jumping Hell's Canyon on a motorcycle, so I hastened to the lecture hall.

The young philosopher talked about possible worlds and actual worlds, conceivable truths and necessary truths, reflexivity, symmetry, and transitivity. The talk was intended to be taken literally. In very precise terms, he explained why his premise—that God exists—is true. Among other things, he distinguished "an invalid inference form and its suspicious conditional brethren" from "a valid inference form and its unfailingly trustworthy conditional brethren." It was sort of like the Hatfields and McCoys of the head. Keen as I am for any method that would allow me to distinguish between the suspicious and the trustworthy, I was unable to follow the argument, which is to say, I lost the trail. There could well be a treasure in the logical woods, but at a certain point I realized just how unprepared I was to find my way around out there. I became a lot more interested in just getting home safely. It may have been when the young philosopher said, "I will now proceed to disambiguate my terms."

Driving down the highway in rush traffic, I saw a billboard with a generous black and white photograph of the Dalai Lama, who was wearing his robe and smiling down upon the passing motorists, some of whom were flipping each other off. Nowadays there is much talk about the way things are in Tibet, but persecution there is nothing new. At the beginning of the ninth century, all the Buddhists were either killed or driven out of Tibet by a king named Lang Darma. Before they left town, however, the Buddhists stashed many of their books and sacred objects under rocks and in caves and in other wild places to prevent their destruction. These holy items, to be revealed when the time was ripe, were intended to breathe new life into the practice of future generations of Buddhists.

Over the succeeding centuries, many of these texts and objects did come to light. The Tibetans called them termas, a word that means "treasure," and those who found them were called tertöns, "treasure discoverers." A terma, in fact, can be understood as anything that is precious or worthy of preservation. In addition to books and relics, a terma can manifest as a tree, a rock, a bear, or even a special place, perhaps one untrammeled by human beings.

The forms such treasure may take are innumerable, and each age finds the specific termas appropriate to its spiritual needs. Imagine that some of those earnest Tibetan Buddhists from long ago managed to find their way to North America and concealed some of their termas here, perhaps in the Catskill Mountains.

One summer when I was a kid, my brothers and I were out looking for Dutch Schultz's treasure in a stretch of woods that, by our reckoning, had to be the one depicted by the symbols on the henchman's long-lost map. There was a creek, and there were some pine trees, and we had heard there was a bear around here somewhere, or maybe an owl. This was the place, no doubt. Certainty such as this is one of the treasures of childhood, along with the ability to abandon yourself to a necessary imprecision.

The banks of the creek were thick with daisies and the air was fragrant with wild mountain thyme. We dug around for a while but had no luck, so decided to give fishing a try. We had some line and a hook but no bait. We went digging for worms. It was a dry summer and we didn't find any. Then one of us had an idea: why not try fishing with a flower? It was a big joke, so we baited the hook with a daisy and dangled it into a deep pool.

Almost at once, a fish fell for it. There was a tug on the line and we lifted a huge rainbow from the creek. To judge from my brothers' faces, you would have thought a pot of gold had been raised. We hauled it in and it smelled like a waterfall. We didn't know what to do with it because, even when we had gone fishing with real bait, we had never actually caught anything before, and besides, nobody in our family liked fish anyway. So our catch lay flapping in the summer sun on the summer grass. It seemed like a shipwreck turned inside out.

I don't know what came over us—we were boys not usually disposed to compassion—but without a word we worked together to unhook the fish and return it to the creek. It darted back into the depths. Afterwards when we told the story, a lot of people expressed dismay, not that we had caught a trout with a daisy, but that we had released it back into the water. "You should have held on to it," they said. "What good is a fish if you don't eat it?"

Perhaps they had a point, but today what I remember, more than the taste of any fish, is the look in my brothers' eyes when we pulled that rainbow out of the creek—the pure joy of knowing that one of the great things in life had just happened.


John P. O'Grady is the author of Pilgrims to the Wild and the forthcoming Grave Goods. His most recent book—Literature and the Environment (coedited with Lorraine Anderson and Scott Slovic)—is an anthology of fiction, essays, and poetry that explores the relationship between nature and human culture. He was the guest editor for the fall 1998 issue of Terra Nova: Nature & Culture, published by the MIT Press.


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