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Full-size replica of the Whydah Gally, briefly the world's richest pirate ship.
Full-size replica of the Whydah Gally, briefly the world's richest pirate ship.

Whydah Pirate Museum

Field review by the editors.

West Yarmouth, Massachusetts

If a pirate ever struck it rich, he or she usually didn't live long enough to enjoy it. Yet even by those meteoric metrics, the success of pirate captain Samuel "Black Sam" Bellamy was brief.

Chest overflows with silver coins savaged from the Whydah.
Chest overflows with silver coins savaged from the Whydah.

For a few weeks, according to no less a latter-day authority than Forbes magazine, Black Sam was the richest pirate in history. His ship, the Whydah Gally, was loaded with an estimated five tons of loot from over 50 captured ships, including hundreds of thousands of silver coins neatly packed into bags (Black Sam was known for his tidiness).

The Whydah (WHID-uh) was headed for what is now Provincetown Harbor at the tip of Cape Cod, supposedly so that the gallant Black Sam could present himself as a worthy breadwinner to the girlfriend he'd left behind (No, her name was not Brandy). He had almost made it when a violent storm capsized his overloaded treasure ship on April 26, 1717. All but two of the 146 people on board perished, including Black Sam.

"He was so close," said Meredith Katz, manager of the Whydah Pirate Museum.

The story of the Whydah Gally was dismissed as more myth than fact until 1982, when its remains were discovered by underwater explorer Barry Clifford. Contrary to the heroic Raise-the-Titanic image of remote deep-sea salvage, the wreck of the Whydah was only a couple hundred yards from the beach, in a mere 15 feet of water. Barry could spend the morning digging up sunken pirate treasure, then eat lunch at the Cape Cod McDonald's.

In the conservation lab, lumpy masses are moistened to release their treasure.
In the conservation lab, lumpy masses are moistened to release their treasure.

The discovery of the ship's bell in 1985 proved that the ship was the Whydah, giving it a unique status among shipwrecks. "Other sunken treasure ships have been found," said Meredith, "but no other sunken pirate treasure ships."

Barry Clifford was no pirate, and had no desire to sell his booty. Instead, he wanted to open a local museum, and when West Yarmouth's former Zooquarium became available in 2016, Barry bought it. The large glass aquarium tanks were ideal for displaying long-submerged artifacts that had to be kept wet to prevent them from crumbling to dust like cursed pirate zombies.

Ten-year-old John King was the youngest pirate on the Whydah.
Ten-year-old John King was the youngest pirate on the Whydah. He didn't live to be 11.

Visitors to the Whydah Pirate Museum first see the famous Whydah bell, dramatically lit in its preservation tank, along with a short video that tells the history of the shipwreck. Black Sam, we learn, was a gracious buccaneer, and oversaw his ship of cutthroats -- many of them freed slaves -- as a floating democracy. "He really didn't want to kill people; he was just making money for the love of his life," said Meredith. "Pirates weren't necessarily bad."

The museum has a full-size 110-foot-long replica of the Whydah, populated with costumed dummy pirates: one inspects a flintlock pistol, another counts out loot, a third gets his gangrenous leg sawn off. One dummy, of Black Sam himself, stands in the captain's cabin, where his voice booms in a pirate growl through hidden loudspeakers.

Visitors can hoist a Jolly Roger flag, or touch -- through small holes -- "real pirate treasure" in front of two chests overflowing with silver coins. There are salvaged relics of the slave trade -- the Whydah had been a slave ship when Black Sam captured it -- as well as cannons, cutlasses, navigation instruments, ship riggings, muskets and pistols, shoe buckles, tools, clay pipes, and our favorite, pirate grenades. "We've found cufflinks," said a surprised Meredith. "And spoons; a lot of spoons. Some of them have initials, so every pirate might have had their own spoon." All of these artifacts help archeologists understand what life as a pirate was really like.

Whydah's bell, artfully lit in an old aquarium tank.
Whydah's eternally submerged bell, artfully lit in an old aquarium tank.

"Our visitors have watched Pirates of the Caribbean a million times, so when they come here they're expecting to see Johnny Depp," said Meredith. "The movies have totally tainted pirates. It wasn't like that at all."

Museum displays reveal that pirates would rip jewelry apart to use as currency, and that boarding parties were encouraged to act scary so that ships would give up without a fight. There's also a cage-like gibbet with a skull in it to show where most pirates could expect to end up.

One memorable exhibit features the small leg bone, shoe, and silk stocking of 10-year-old John King, youngest member of the Whydah crew. He had threatened to kill his mother if she didn't let him become a pirate. Mothers are welcome to direct their kids to this display to show them the consequences of bad behavior.

Human bones, and nearly every other relic salvaged from the Whydah, were encased in 400-year-old masses of sand and dissolved iron. The museum has a conservation lab where visitors can see these lumps of sea bed harvested for pirate booty, or just spritzed with chemically-enhanced water to soften them until they're picked apart. Helpful x-ray images displayed with some of the masses reveal what's still trapped within.

Because the Whydah came so tantalizingly close to success before sinking, and because nearly everyone died, the Whydah Pirate Museum is one attraction where you don't have to wonder, "Is anything here cursed?" It's a no-brainer: everything here is cursed.

Whydah Pirate Museum

674 MA-28, West Yarmouth, MA
East edge of town, on the north side of Hwy 28/Main St. When you see the Martin the Bear statue, turn left. If you cross the little bridge across Parkers River driving east you've gone too far.
Summer Tu-Su 10-5; off-season Sa-Su 11-4. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $15.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Tommy the ElephantTommy the Elephant, West Yarmouth, MA - < 1 mi.
Martin the BearMartin the Bear, South Yarmouth, MA - < 1 mi.
JFK Summer Fun Museum and Barefoot StatueJFK Summer Fun Museum and Barefoot Statue, Hyannis, MA - 3 mi.
In the region:
Peggotty - Art Boat Thing, Little Compton, RI - 51 mi.

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