Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Captain Kidd and the Redhead

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If there was one constant in the very complicated life of L. Ron Hubbard, it’s that he was fascinated by piracy. As a teenager in Helena, Montana, he and his friends dressed up as pirates for the town’s annual Vigilante Day Parade, with earrings made out of brass hoops from his aunt’s curtains, and won the prize for “Most Original Cast”—an award that is still mentioned in his official biographies. In college, he organized the notoriously unsuccessful Caribbean Motion Picture Expedition, an attempt to sail a hired schooner from Baltimore to the West Indies to film pirate scenes for newsreels: “Scenarios will be written on the spot in accordance with the legends of the particular island, and after a thorough research through the ship’s library, which is to include many authoritative books on pirates.” Hubbard’s output as a writer included such stories as Under the Black Ensign, the satirical Typewriter in the Sky, and Murder at Pirate Castle, the latter of which he turned into the Columbia Pictures serial The Secret of Treasure Island, and his fantasies persisted into World War II. After Hubbard was given command of a patrol vessel in Massachusetts, in an assignment that was terminated under unpleasant circumstances, John W. Campbell wrote of his friend and colleague: “He’s got two stripes now, and was soon going somewhere to pick up some command, so he’s back on sea duty, and evidently going to get somewhere near what would really suit his mentality—a chance to be a privateer.” And a few years earlier, in an article titled “Yesterday, You Might Have Been a Pirate,” Hubbard had written:

I am sure that if I had followed the sea two centuries ago I would have drifted into freebooting. Not for the romance of it, nor for the wild life, nor even for the fighting. I am one of the radical rabble who likes a little personal freedom, a fairly good meal and who dislikes punishment. Yes, I would have undoubtedly fallen in with pirates and my heels would have swung, most likely, from some execution dock.

But Hubbard’s identification with the figure of the pirate may have gone even deeper. In Monitors, the very strange memoir that I mentioned here last week, the pulp writer Arthur J. Burks recounts an incident in which a monitor, or spirit guide, told Hubbard—whom Burks calls “Redhead”—about one of his past lives:

“You were once…” Redhead was informed, and the name of a famous pirate of some centuries previous was given to him. To this his first response was a gasp, followed by: “Since I can remember that guy has been my hero. I’ve dug up chanteys that were sung in his time. I’ve assembled material about him. I’ve read books and stories about him, have even prepared radio skits about him. If this is true, I wonder if such self-worship is justified?”

The monitor added: “In the rare books department of the Public Library, in this particular book, is an ancient oil painting of your former self, done by the Big Hero’s painter friend, which you may scan with interest.” On hearing this, Hubbard promptly went to the library, and Burks writes of his response:

He was paler than is normal even for a Redhead when he returned. “I found the rare book,” he said, “and its title is as we have been given. I found the portrait of my former self too. And listen, folks, if I wore the same costume I could pose for that picture myself! It’s my portrait.”

As far as I know, Hubbard never spoke publicly about this past life in particular—although he didn’t hold back from claiming elsewhere to be the reincarnation of Cecil Rhodes. But it’s tempting to identify this pirate with Captain William Kidd. Hubbard alludes to him briefly in an article on the Caribbean Motion Picture expedition that was published by his college newspaper: “According to Hubbard, the strongholds and bivouacs of the Spanish Main have lain neglected and forgotten for centuries, and there has never been a concerted attempt to tear apart the jungles to find the castles of Teach, Morgan, Bonnet, Bluebeard, Kidd, Sharp, Ringrose and l’Olonnais, to name a few.” In the officially sanctioned book The Fiction of L. Ron Hubbard, William J. Widder mentions an unpublished manuscript titled “Shades of Captain Kidd,” in which “a map to Captain Kidd’s legendary treasure on Mona Island leads two U.S. engineers in Puerto Rico to a hidden cache of a vastly different—but dangerously valuable—kind.” As for the painting that Burks mentions, his description matches the portrait of Kidd pictured above by Sir James Thornhill, who, according to the writer Harold T. Wilkins, “either visited the cell in which Captain Kidd was confined in Old Newgate, or drew a sketch when the prisoner was on trial for his life in the Old Bailey court.” (It appears as a plate in Wilkins’s book Captain Kidd and his Skeleton Island, which was published in 1937, or just a few years before Hubbard’s alleged exchange with Burks’s monitor. Wilkins was the author of several books on pirate treasure, as well as the occult, and he certainly seems like an author that Hubbard might have read.) And to my eyes, the Kidd in the portrait does look a little like Hubbard.

And it isn’t hard to see what might have drawn Hubbard to Kidd. Just as he was fascinated by the figure of Saint Helena, who had searched for relics in the Holy Land, he would have been justifiably interested in the only pirate known to have actually buried any treasure. Hubbard returned obsessively to this idea throughout his career, and after founding the Church of Scientology, he reached the point where he could pull others into his delusions. He claimed to have buried gold and diamonds in Africa in his past life as Rhodes, and as Russell Miller writes in Bare-Faced Messiah:

On the south-east coast of Sardinia…Hubbard mustered the crew on the well deck for a briefing. Standing on a hatch cover so that he could be seen, he told them he was on the threshold of achieving an ambition he had cherished for centuries in earlier lives. This was the first lifetime he had been able to build an organization with sufficient resources, money and manpower to tackle the project they were about to undertake. He had accumulated vast wealth in previous lives, he explained, and had buried it in strategic places. The purpose of their present mission was to locate this buried treasure and retrieve it, either with, or without, the cooperation of the authorities.

It led to a treasure hunt throughout the Mediterranean, where members of the Sea Org were deployed to various sites to search with metal detectors. Nothing was ever found, but for Hubbard, the quest may have been its own reward. As he wrote in “Yesterday, You Might Have Been a Pirate”: “I believe the pirate had a reason for existence. I know that if I were sent back into those centuries I would have followed the more comfortable profession. I know the Caribbean to be soft and glamorous and kind, and if I had had to turn pirate to enjoy it, I would have run a Skull and Bones up the truck. And to hell with the Navy!”

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