For hundreds of years, treasure hunters have searched in vain for Captain Kidd’s purported hoard on Charles Island off the coast of Silver Sands State Park in Milford. These days, only the most optimistic believe the gold is real.
But there is another, largely unknown, story of buried Connecticut treasure. The tale speaks of a miser’s cache totaling $100,000 in 19th-century gold (more than $2.5 million in today’s money) buried in a dark swamp illuminated only by a nearby lighthouse beacon. For adventurous souls who can’t resist a long-forgotten mystery, the treasure waits to be rediscovered, ironically in one of the state’s most populous summertime spots: Bridgeport’s Seaside Park.
It was 1926. Jazz, bootleg hooch and assembly lines churned Bridgeport, a metropolis as booming as the tons of ammunition rounds rolling out of the city’s munitions factories. Local flapper-girls blushed for the Park City’s own Jack “Bright Eyes” Delaney, light heavyweight champion of the world, and baseball cranks crowded into Newfield Park to cheer the Bridgeport Bears. Wisecracking vaudevillians guffawed audiences in the palatial theaters thronging Main Street. WICC, one of the state’s first radio stations, hit the airwaves in 1926; its call letters an abbreviation for “Industrial Capital of Connecticut.”
On a sinister note, world broadcasts of the era carried disturbing news about members of the archaeology team assembled by adventurer Howard Carter. Scoffing at rumors of an ancient curse, the Egyptologist chiseled open King Tut’s treasure-strewn burial chamber. Now, folks associated with Carter’s incredible discovery were dying under unusual, some believed supernatural, circumstances.
Like Tut’s vaults long hidden in the Valley of the Kings, the walls of grocer Samuel Tischler’s Bridgeport residence held a mysterious secret. Little did the Tischler family realize that a day’s mundane carpentry work would unleash a New England enigma perfectly fit for the raucous Roaring Twenties. Or ancient Egypt.
Samuel and Goldie Tischler, along with their teenage daughter Rose, resided in a two-family home at 29 Ridge Ave. One of the charming neighborhood perks was its proximity to Seaside Park on the shores of Long Island Sound. Wanting to take advantage of the salt breeze, Goldie hired workers to replace her home’s windows. Hammers and pry-bars raised clouds of debris. When the rubble settled, the men noticed something wedged inside the lattice and plaster. A dusty white envelope. Written on the front of the envelope was an enigmatic series of dollar signs.
Goldie opened the fragile packet, discovering a faded letter and what looked like a map. The note was written in pencil on notebook paper, its author employing both cursive and print style. According to 1930 articles in both the Bridgeport Post and Bridgeport Herald, it ran as follows:
The Smith family lived here three years and four months. The old man Smith had money when he died but no one knows where it is. He said that he would never put it in a bank. But he said before he died that it was safe between here and the Barnum dyke. Search was made in October but no sign of money. He was worth $100,000, or very near that. He managed to starve the whole family all the while.
He left a little [the note is torn here, with a single letter “g” visible, the missing word probably being “girl”] a boy, his wife and myself his son to worry about that money that he left behind. He gave me this paper to tell where it was but no one knew what it meant so if you find this or these papers keep them. You may get the fortune.
James H. Smith
July 1, 1888
City directories of the day list five different James H. Smiths. None lived near the South End. In a June 10, 1930, article in the Bridgeport Post, one grizzled resident recalls a Smith family living in the Ridge Avenue house. Another Smith once lived nearby. An 1888 Bridgeport map highlights the name “Horace Smith” as owning huge swaths of land adjacent to the Barnum dyke. This was prior to the existence of Ridge Avenue. Horace Smith was certainly wealthy enough to have buried a treasure. He was president of the Wheel and Wood Bending Co., a manufacturer of wheels, hubs, spokes and all wooden accoutrements associated with horse-drawn carriages — the main conveyance of the 19th century. Was this businessman the Bridgeport miser and author of the map? In a most un-miserly gesture, Horace Smith (still among the living in 1895), relinquished his lands to Seaside Park. Horace died in 1900, 12 years after the hidden letter stated that the anonymous miser had already passed away. Disenchantment with banks may have prompted the wealthy factory owner to conceal only a tiny portion of his riches; the mention of his demise being a ruse by the letter’s author to confuse treasure hunters.
As for the map, it too was rendered in pencil. But in a different hand from the person who signed the letter. The map was sketched on an irregular-size piece of brown wrapping paper. Having remained folded in quarters for so many years, the brittle paper broke at the creases. When fully opened, it fell into four fragments. Goldie pinned the separate parts of the map onto a single sheet of paper.
Goldie and Samuel ruminated over the aged documents. The most recognizable clue mentioned in James Smith’s long-lost time capsule was the “Barnum dyke,” once located in Seaside Park. The park, still a Bridgeport highlight, began its sprawling evolution during the waning months of the Civil War. Foresight and generosity prompted Bridgeport entrepreneur P.T. Barnum to donate the boulder-strewn land he owned, near the harbor’s mouth, for a tranquil urban retreat. This eventually became Seaside Park’s eastern edge. Over the ensuing decades Barnum ceded additional parcels, as well as cajoled his neighbors to contribute their own land to augment the park’s acreage. Frederick Law Olmsted, the man who designed New York City’s Central Park, was engaged to lay out Bridgeport’s oasis.
By the late 1860s Seaside Park was hard-pressed against its swampy western boundaries, a melancholy heath of dark pools, quagmires, rushes and weeds. A mile and a half from downtown, this primordial foothold on Bridgeport’s shorefront ensnared lost livestock and confounded wandering souls. Barnum purchased 33 acres of this tidal marsh with visions of building a dyke to drain the swamp. Nine years later a crew of 40 men were finalizing his berm. The dyke measured 1,000 feet long, 120 feet wide at the base and 45 feet wide at the top. A large tidal pool, built under the insistence of Barnum, was also excavated to help drainage. The man-made pond, with its underground pipes leading to the Sound, was adjacent to Barnum’s dyke near the shoreline. When solid terra firma was established, Barnum gifted the acreage to the city in 1884.
Though long razed, the dyke’s general location is pretty well established. When originally constructed, the berm marked Seaside’s western periphery; today the site is located in the park’s middle section. A road bisecting a portion of meadow, near the stables, still bears the name Barnum Dyke. The Smith hoard could have been buried in this locale anytime during the 1870s or 1880s when the actual dyke was an extant landscape feature. Excluding the previously water-filled site of the man-made pond, the treasure could have been secreted anywhere in the vast green reaches of parkland near the berm.
The Tischlers, as was James Smith before them, were unsure of the cache’s precise location. Any search would conceivably require moving tons of earth. Crews with heavy equipment obviously couldn’t conduct the necessary work in secret. At a loss of how to excavate city property, the Tischlers sought the advice of Parks Commissioner Charles Stuart Canfield. A respected Bridgeport attorney, Canfield was appointed to the parks board at the turn of the 20th century and quickly became the commission’s vice president. After Canfield examined the letter and map, the Tischlers agreed that the attorney should hold onto the papers until a course of action could be determined. The treasure was as good as theirs.
Maybe it was a coincidence, but while Canfield possessed the map he caught a cold. Physicians could only watch as the attorney’s robust health deteriorated.
In two weeks Canfield was dead.
Goldie and Samuel faced a conundrum. They could not demand the return of the mysterious map and letter without raising curious eyebrows. The Tischlers remained silent while the material was bundled with Canfield’s estate. It would be some time before the documents were rediscovered among the papers of the late park commissioner.
It seemed that the map’s uncertainty was also taking a toll on the Tischlers. After approaching Canfield, Samuel derided Goldie for believing in the treasure. Goldie was quoted in the June 15, 1930, edition of the Bridgeport Herald as saying: “I know that many people consider the whole thing a joke, but I am determined to look for the money. My husband has laughed at me about it. He says his children are his treasure. My daughter doesn’t believe the story. But I believe in at least trying.”
It was now 1930, four years since the walls of the Ridge Avenue home had revealed the map. With the Smith documents back in her hands, Goldie hired a lawyer to approach the parks board. All the while she had successfully kept the letter and map a secret. However, word would still come out. An appeal to the parks board requesting permission to excavate a portion of Seaside Park was announced as part of the commission’s June 1930 agenda. It became front-page news. On the afternoon of June 11, 1930, Goldie stood optimistically with her attorney in front of the commission. Samuel stayed away. The parks board studied the crinkled papers and debated the controversial treasure hunt. Finally the commissioners stated that the board did not have the authority to permit digging on city property.
Gold fever engulfed Bridgeport. Everyone in the city had a theory about the treasure. Newspapers opined that Goldie should donate the map to the city, but retain legal ownership of the hoard. Others voiced that Goldie could gift a tree to the parks department, with the caveat that she designate the exact spot where the tree should be planted … and thus allow the treasure to be removed in a civic-minded manner. Residing now on Bridgeport’s Manhattan Avenue, the Tischlers were overwrought by harassing phone calls and a parade of treasure-seekers pounding on their front door. The new owner of the Tischlers’ previous home on Ridge Avenue, John Barocsi, became inundated with people demanding that they be allowed to rip out the house’s walls and dig up the yard. Barocsi smiled and offered his house for sale. (The Barocsi family would live in the house for three and a half decades before it was demolished. A gray apartment building now occupies the site.)
The Tischlers found the notoriety overbearing. Goldie left town for a spell, but vowed to return for the treasure once the furor had died.
What was it that lay hidden between “here and the Barnum dyke”? Was it a hoax? Another enterprising showman mimicking Barnum’s famous museum exhibit, the Feejee mermaid? Did the Tischlers ever find the buried treasure? Whatever happened to the map? No one knows. Nothing is mentioned in local newspapers. Could Tischler family legend hint at validating the treasure tale? Stringing obits, newspaper articles and internet searches together eventually led to living relatives willing to share Bridgeport memories.
David Mendell, for instance, lived in Florida for years with his cousin Morris Tischler (Goldie and Samuel’s son). Born in 1928, Mendell (who, by the way, helped create the Duchess restaurant chain) explains that Morris and he were very close. “Morris died a few years back,” Mendell says. “But he never mentioned anything to me about his mom finding a treasure.” Reflecting deeper, Mendell thoughtfully adds, “But I do have a very distant memory, it’s over 80 years ago, but I recall something that strikes a chord … about a treasure.” Pressed about his memories of the elusive booty, Mendell could not recall anything further.
An odd circumstance arises when consulting old city directories. Samuel Tischler, the grocer, owned a single store in 1930. That’s when the map and letter regarding the buried loot first became public. And that’s when Goldie briefly vanished. The following year Samuel suddenly found himself proprietor of three grocery shops and a home along Bridgeport’s tony Park Avenue. Where did the Tischlers, during the Great Depression, ever get the money so quickly to expand their sole grocery store into a mini-empire?
Recently, Goldie Tischler’s nephew, Joel Berner, was asked about his aunt’s adventure. Berner was just a boy when Goldie died in 1967. He doesn’t recall any family history concerning the map or the miser. However, Berner does explain, “This may, or may not, have anything to do with buried treasure … but sometimes the family seemed to have had buckets full of money and suddenly the money was gone.”
Berner wonders if it might have been another family member who assisted financially with opening Samuel’s three stores. When Berner was a youngster, his father, Aaron, pointed out the former Tischler home on Park Avenue. Describing the abode, even after all these years, it’s obvious that awe still burnishes Berner’s recollection, “The place wasn’t really a house at all. It was a mansion!”
If they never found the treasure, perhaps the Tischlers left the answer to the mystery of the map in a letter hidden in the walls of their Park Avenue mansion. And maybe, just maybe, the miser’s hoard still beckons in sunny Seaside Park.
This article appeared in the February 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine.
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