Grave concern

Jack Fitzgerald
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Author suggests mysterious Harbour Grace tomb could belong to famous Newfoundland pirate

The identity of the remains in a grave at Harbour Grace displaying the pirate’s skull and crossbones might never be known, but there is a possibility that it’s the resting place of Capt. John Keating.

He is the most internationally famous of all Newfoundland pirates.

Keating was born in Harbour Grace in 1808 and died at St. John’s in 1882.

While two sons of Harbour Grace are mentioned in the many books on “The Lost Treasure of Lima” — also known as “The Cocos Island Treasure” — Keating is the one who found the treasure in 1841 and again in 1845.

The treasure was originally pirated in 1821 by Capt. William Thompson from the port of Callao, Peru, and buried on Cocos Island.

The second person was Capt. Nick Fitzgerald from Riverhead, Harbour Grace.

He was given the map by Keating (about 25 years later), and after Keating’s death, made a deal with adventurer Herve Montmorency to give him the map in return for five per cent of the treasure.

At today’s value, the treasure is estimated to be worth $350 million.

Of the two Harbour Grace natives, the one most likely to have a grave marked with the sign of a pirate is Keating.

After finding the treasure and returning to St. John’s — twice — with parts of the hidden Lima treasure, Keating bragged about his success so much that towns-people nick-named him “Keating of the Cocos.”

When he first met Fitzgerald, he boasted, “I am known in St. John’s as Keating of the Cocos.”

In fact, Rupert Furneaux, author of “The Great Treasure Hunt,” claimed, “From John Keating has descended the fundamental Cocos Legend which is accepted by all modern Treasure Hunters.”

It was Keating’s successful expedition in 1841 that set off a treasure hunt craze that continues to this day. Nobody goes in search of that treasure without researching Keating.

In 2012, German filmmaker Dr. Ina Knobloch — with whom I worked on earlier documentaries on this treasure — teamed up with a British industrialist on a treasure-hunting expedition.  

The Montmorency Expedition failed and Fitzgerald died in 1905.

I located Fitzgerald’s grave, but had no success in making an absolute finding of Keating’s grave.

Up till now I believed that he was buried with his first wife and child in the family grave at Belvedere in St. John’s. Yet, his name is not on the tombstone, so I cannot be certain he is buried there.

Montmorency published a book on his expedition. It created a sensation here due to the Newfoundland connections.

The Lima treasure was originally stolen by British-born Capt. William Thompson and, after burying it on Cocos Island, he returned several times to retrieve portions of it.

While trying to evade authorities, he crossed over Mexico and ended up in Metanzas, Cuba, where he met Keating. Thompson jumped at the opportunity to join Keating as a crewman on his return to Newfoundland.

In St. John’s, Thompson boarded with Keating’s mother two doors east of Prescott Street. Keating and the pirate soon became friends.

They turned to Capt. Billy Boig, whose residence was on George Street, to plan a major expedition to retrieve all the treasure. This expedition ran into problems, Thompson died and Boig was murdered. Keating found the treasure, did not tell the crew, and took as much as he could carry back to Newfoundland.

 Keating displayed during his lifetime the kind of ego that would prompt him to immortalize his connection to one of the world’s greatest pirate stories with a skull and crossbones marking his grave.


Jack Fitzgerald wrote about this story in his books “Treasure Island Revisited” and “Remarkable Stories of Newfoundland.” He has also participated in several documentaries on the subject, including “The Real Treasure Island.”



Geographic location: Newfoundland, Lima, Cocos Island Callao Peru Treasure Island Mexico Metanzas Cuba Newfoundland.In St. John Prescott Street George Street

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Recent comments

  • Pirate Queen
    September 07, 2013 - 16:16

    As others have commented, the skull & crossbones was common on 17th-century headstones and does not designate a pirate. (Skulls minus crossbones are much more common.) There's one in the very old cemetery in Plymouth, Massachusetts:

  • Fred Penner
    August 28, 2013 - 10:48

    The entire cemetery is covered in grass. Not three feet from the headstone in question is another lamb motiff partially buried in the grass. Clean it up because there may be others.

  • Agnes
    August 25, 2013 - 14:36

    PG Murphy I doubt very much that a non-Roman Catholic would have been allowed to be buried in a Roman Catholic Cemetery given the animosity that existed amongst the different religious factions in Harbour Grace at that time.

  • pgmurphy
    August 25, 2013 - 12:43

    The person or persons in this grave may not be Catholic at all.I did some research and discovered that the symbols on this grave were used as a designation of someone who was a free mason.This could be a case of not having access to holy ground in and around the community to accommodate a dead person.Free masons used the type of scull and crossbones in there burial procedures.The Catholic priest would have let this happen to show that the individual was not Catholic.

  • Fred from Brigus
    August 25, 2013 - 05:57

    This is a fascinating article that needs more researching. Maybe the authorities should excavate the grave and do some DNA testing. Any of you history buffs out there know what happened to the body of Monseigneur Murphy from Brigus. His body went missing from his crypt and has never been found. Now that is a real mystery that needs researching.

  • Bruce Hynes
    August 24, 2013 - 20:36

    Just because a "skull and crossbones" motif appears on a gravestone does not indicate anything other than someone is buried there. This theme was popular years ago and may be found on old tombstones throughout Europe and North America. In addition, Mr Murphy, who commented on a person dying of some dread disease, may just be right.

  • mojo
    August 24, 2013 - 19:33

    a way to lure tourists mabye? ; }

  • Mark
    August 24, 2013 - 19:18

    It is very obviously a memento mori, a common funerary decoration that was in style in Europe until the 19th century. It says nothing about the person who is buried there., The notions that this symbology is associated with pirates, plague victims or knights Templar are incorrect and have been debunked by scholars. Memento mori are very common in many parts of the world, including places as close by as New England.

  • rhonda parsons
    August 24, 2013 - 14:16

    My wish is that people become aware of the treasures we have here in our own backyard, and to get some help in bringing these wonders back to life for all to enjoy. Old should not tossed aside, but preserved and treasured always.

  • mike
    August 24, 2013 - 13:58


    • pgmurphy
      August 25, 2013 - 08:56

      After some research ,i have found that the person buried there may not be Catholic.The person may be a Free mason.It was common to use the designation of a scull and cross bones for such a purpose.The question then arises why a Mason buried on Catholic ground.There is believe it or not some history in Newfoundland that allows for such a burial.When the community couldn't supply sacred ground a dispensation would be made by the church with the condition that the grave would be so marked.

  • Don II
    August 24, 2013 - 10:56

    So far we have heard tales that this is the grave of a Knights Templar or a Pirate. Perhaps the Holy Grail itself lies buried beneath the stone! The cemetery records show that two deceased Roman Catholic priests, one of whom drowned in 1799, are buried somewhere in the cemetery. It appears that the land on which the cemetery is situated was donated to the Roman Catholic Church by the Thistle family in 1799. It appears that the skull and crossbones emblem relates to the acceptance of human mortality and the certainty of death, the lamb emblem relates to innocence and the cross emblem denotes that the deceased person was a Christian. Has anyone checked the tombstone for any evidence of the name of the manufacturers of the tombstone? If the tombstone maker can be identified there may be archived records to identify to whom the tombstone was sold and in what year it was sold. What material is the tombstone made of, sandstone, concrete, slate or marble? That information may lead to the identifying where the tombstone was made and in what time frame it was made. Has anyone checked to see if there are any archived files from the local undertaker of the day which might shed light on whose grave this is and where the tombstone was made and by whom? It appears that the elaborate tombstone would have been expensive and beyond the financial means of most ordinary people of the day. Has anyone proposed the use of ground penetrating radar to obtain an image of what is inside the grave? People can speculate on all sorts of possible scenarios but only proper research and investigation to obtain the facts will ever really solve this "mystery". The lack of historical facts will result in myths and folklore taking hold as established fact or result in the spinning of tall tales that will have no relation to the truth. Tourists who spend a lot of money and time to visit the Province want authenticity in the historical sites they visit. Tourists do not appreciate being told some trumped up story similar to those that they can hear in any tourist trap around the world.

  • hoople
    August 24, 2013 - 09:02

    I took a look at this grave and compared the symbols to common symbols used in the same time period in Europe. What I found was that the winged Cherub heads were used to show assent into heaven. Used mostly on children's graves. The horizontal crosses with the lambs on them, again is used to signify lamb of God on children's graves. The skull and crossbones were common during that period to signify the conflict between life and death. the fact there aren't any names may signify a death at birth. Or maybe all of this is meaningless and it is a pirate grave by a clever Pirate trying to fool us.

  • pgmurphy
    August 24, 2013 - 08:41

    In certain parts of Europe it was common to bury a person or persons who have died of a contagious disease such as TB or the Plague in such a marked Graves The skull and crossbones were used as a representation of sickness or danger for hundreds of years .I would be wary about opening such things out of idle curiosity.

  • Mick
    August 24, 2013 - 07:36

    May be the Cocos treasure is buried there ? What a better place to hide it