UNH scientists explore pirate mystery
Scientists at University of New Haven’s Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences are key players in an effort to unravel a salty, 300-year-old mystery found in a shipwreck off the coast of Cape Cod.
Over the next few weeks, they’ll attempt to extract DNA from a long-buried leg bone — a femur, to be exact, found next to an ornate pistol wrapped in a scarf or sash — then try to connect it to a living person an ocean away and generations removed.
In doing so, they’ll try to unravel the burning question:
Could this ancient bone — and the long-buried gun found near it, among remnants of the 1717 wreck of the pirate ship Whydah off Wellfleet, Mass. — really be that of legendary pirate captain Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy?
“We’re really excited to find out what happens next,” said author Casey Sherman, the investigative team leader working with the Whydah Pirate Museum in West Yarmouth, Mass., and Barry Clifford, who found the shipwreck.
“If it is Sam Bellamy that we’ve found, our ultimate goal is to bring him home to his family,” said Sherman, who during research over the past couple of months has found a male relative of Bellamy, who was born in Devon, England.
“It’s the remains of a pirate who has been at sea for 300 years,” said Sherman, who also is a partner in a film production company. “It’s time to bring him home.”
Bellamy was just 28 when he died, according to the museum. The relative is a descendant of Bellamy’s older brother, “and we will be taking his DNA sample” soon, said Sherman.
Whatever happens, the work to get to the bottom of the mystery is likely to be even more fun than the forensic mysteries the UNH scientists unravel on a regular basis, said assistant professor Claire Glynn, a member of the team that will do the DNA analysis.
“Absolutely,” Glynn said. “I mean, you’re bringing history alive!”
It was Sherman, author of “The Finest Hours,” among other works, who got the university involved.
Sherman also is the nephew of Mary Sullivan, who at 19 was the youngest and last victim of the Boston Strangler. During a high-profile re-investigation of his aunt’s murder in 2000, which Sherman later wrote about in his 2003 book, “A Rose for Mary: The Hunt for the Real Boston Strangler,” he met professor Timothy Palmbach, now chairman of the Forensic Science Department at UNH.
When Casey got involved in this effort by the museum, he called Palmbach for help.
At a press conference Monday, what is believed to be Bellamy’s femur — found inside a “concretion” of hardened sand and silt pulled up from the wreck site — was turned over to Palmbach and Glynn.
They’ll work with associate professor of forensics David San Pietro on the effort to extract and analyze DNA from the bone.
Neither Glynn nor Palmbach are sure how it will turn out.
“Anytime you talk about a bone that’s been on the bottom of the ocean for 300 years, you’re talking about a forensically-challenged problem,” said Palmbach.
“We’re hopeful,” Palmbach said. “What we have in our favor, was, this stuff was all, more or less, protected ... in the area off Cape Cod where this was found ... buried in 10 feet of sand and silt.
“Anything of value was buried in sand and silt,” he said. That “gives us a reasonable shot to make this happen.”
But the effort is not without its challenges.
“The biggest task will be finding usable DNA — it is over 300 years old,” said Glynn, although she agreed that the fact that the bone has long been encased “could be good for us.”
But any usable DNA “is not just sitting up on the surface of the bone,” she said. “We need to break it down and grind it up,” and “the DNA that is there is likely to be in very small amounts.
“We’ll cut out a small section of the bone — dig into it — and we’ll basically sterilize the outer surface of it and then we’ll grind it up in a really fine powder,” Glynn said. “It basically opens up the bone, increasing its surface area ... allowing us to get into the DNA content.”
Glynn is not sure how long the analysis will take, but said the team will try several techniques to find the one with the greatest success.
“With 300 years between them, too much has changed” to make a direct DNA comparison using standard DNA profiling, she said.
“So what we’re going to do is look at the Y chromosomes. The good thing about that is, the Y chromosome is only passed along” in the paternal lineage, Glynn said.
“If that that doesn’t work, we’ll have to go to mitochondrial DNA, passed down through the maternal line,” she said.
Both Sherman and Palmbach said that the proximity of the femur bone — and a pelvis that is still embedded in the concretion — to what they believe is Bellamy’s pistol points to the bone being his.
“One of first things that they found was a pistol, and the pistol had sort of decorative” adornments and was “wrapped in a piece of silk,” said Palmbach.
“That kept oxygen away, which is really good. That kept sunlight away, which is really good,” he said.
Sherman said the pistol “was very ornate” and was “covered by a silk sash that had been given to Bellamy by his betrothed on Cape Cod at the time.”
He said it did not appear to be the gun of a common seaman.
Palmbach said that work “will ernestly begin next week ... Our best guess is it will be 30-day process,” he said.
“We hope that we’ll find out one way or another by mid-April, hopefully, who this man might be,” said Sherman.
The Whydah Galley — loaded with treasures from 54 seized ships — sank during a storm off Wellfleet in April 1717, killing the famed pirate Bellamy and his crew, according to a news release from the Whydah Museum.
The shipwreck was discovered in 1984 by explorer Barry Clifford and his diving crew, which included the late John F. Kennedy Jr.
In the years since, Clifford has recovered millions of dollars’ worth of gold and silver from the estimated $120 million in buried treasure on the ship, along with 60 cannons and thousands of other rare artifacts.
Forbes Magazine, in a 2008 story, wrote, “The highest-earning pirate ever was Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy, an Englishman who made his bones patrolling the New England coast in the 18th century. By our calculations, “Black Sam” plundered an estimated $120 million over the course of his career.”
The Whydah — a former slave ship — actually was part of Bellamy’s greatest windfall, Forbes wrote. He captured it in February of 1717, along with the more than 41/2 tons of gold and silver it carrried, then gave one of his old vessels to the defeated crew.
Though Bellamy’s known career as a pirate captain lasted little more than a year, he and his crew captured at least 53 ships under his command — making him the wealthiest pirate in recorded history before his death at age 28, according to the pirate museum’s release.
“Black Sam” also was known his mercy and generosity toward those he captured on his raids, the release said.
“This reputation earned him another nickname, the ‘Prince of Pirates,’” the release said. “He likened himself to Robin Hood, with his crew calling themselves ‘Robin Hood’s Men.’”