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The Wreck of the Magnifique and the Missing Treasure

1782 Shipwreck in Boston Harbor Changes the Course of 3 Lives

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In 1820, when harbor pilot-turned-church-sexton David Darling was buried, the story of the French ship Magnifique might well have been buried with him. But it wasn’t.

The French government had sent the Magnifique to Boston in 1782 to join the celebration of the U.S.-French victory over the British in the American Revolution.  The Magnifique was a 74-gun, 170-foot warship arriving in Boston from the Caribbean. Darling, a harbor pilot from Boston, travelled out to meet Captain Macteigne and the Magnifique and guide her safely to shore.

Le Guerrier, a French warship similar to Magnifique

As she sailed past Lovell’s Island in Boston Harbor, an unexpected wind shift pushed the ship on to a shoal. Over the years, historians have suggested that a small fortune in gold, recovered by the crew in the Caribbean, went down with her.

For his part in the wreck, Darling lost harbor piloting privileges, and was given the job of a church sexton in the North Church. There he occasionally got teased about wrecking the French vessel.

On at least one occasion, pranksters scrawled in chalk in front of the church.

Don’t you run this ship ashore,
As you did the seventy-four.

Though it seems likely the French would have removed any gold from the ship during the hours that seamen spent trying to refloat her, the story of the treasure persisted.

The Magnifique

In his 1944 book, The Romance of Boston Bay, Edward Rowe Snow offers one possible solution to the mystery of the treasure. The Magnifique was remembered by old salts, who spread the tale of her demise. In 1840, 1859, 1868 and 1869, treasure hunters tried to locate the shipwreck and her treasure.

Lovells Island, viewed from Fort Warren on Georges Island

They searched the wreck site, visible at low tide on Lovell’s Island (and still is, according to the National Park Service). They found timbers, cannon balls and other artifacts, but no gold. Until the 1920s. Then, Charles H. Jennings, lighthouse keeper, discovered some coins in the sand, according to Snow. He washed them off and set them aside. His temporary replacement soon arrived on the island to cover for the lighthouse keeper’s scheduled leave. Jennings told the man about his find and headed off to his vacation.

Upon his return, Snow notes, the temporary keeper hurriedly departed.  Jennings soon discovered a large hole in the sand where he had found the coins.

“A few months later the assistant retired from the Lighthouse service and lived in comfort for the rest of his life,” Snow wrote. “The reader may draw his own conclusions.”

John Paul Jones

The wreck of the Magnifique changed someone else’s fortunes, though not for the better.  John Paul Jones, the naval hero of the American Revolution, had been supervising the construction of a new ship in Portsmouth, N.H. He hoped to command the vessel, called America, as a privateer. He needed prizes to repay his debts.

John Paul Jones by Charles Wilson Peale

But Congress decided that it wanted to give America to the French to replace the lost Magnifique. It ordered Jones to deliver it to the French captain. Neither party was happy with the decision, but both participated in the show of handing off the ship.

Losing America ended Jones’ American career. He ended up joining the Russian Navy, then dying alone in a Paris apartment. Buried in a cemetery that turned into a garbage dump, his body returned to America years later. Read how Teddy Roosevelt brough him back here.

This story last updated in 2022. 

Images: Lovells Island By Chris Wood, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=997036.


1 comment

Art o' Facts April 24, 2017 - 4:15 pm

Things that make you go hmmm…

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