by Barbara Rimkunas, "Historically Speaking", Exeter News-Letter, April 1, 2011
Tucked away in the back of Charles Bell’s History of the Town of Exeter, New Hampshire, is a small anecdote about a group of treasure hunters who were duped by a transient rogue named Rainsfield Rogers. Bell was a cautious historian who wouldn’t have included the story if he wasn’t sure it was true, but he also didn’t want to embarrass the people involved. And so we have a somewhat funny story which, due to Bell’s reticence, has few verifiable elements.
In the tale, Rogers arrives in town and is able to convince about a dozen Exeter men that there is treasure buried somewhere within the town limits. The men formed a work gang and night after night they followed Rogers into the woods and swamps to dig for gold. That they never found anything didn’t seem to have discouraged any of them – nor did it make them question Roger’s ability to pick the sites for digging.
In 1800, around the time this incident seems to have occurred, Exeter was still a strict Protestant town. Parish taxes were collected and church membership was considered a civic duty. But within this stringent society there was still an undercurrent of the occult. “White magic” practitioners were occasional visitors to the landscape and were granted a certain amount of credibility. These people, sometimes known as cunning folk, were contacted to help find lost items or to locate water by dowsing. Among the many types of cunning folk were money-diggers. Tracing their trade back to ancient alchemistic traditions, it was commonly believed that mists and gasses deep within the earth produced hordes of precious metals – particularly mercury and gold. Or the belief might have been that there were piles of gold coins buried by the ancients, or even pirates. However it may have gotten there wasn’t as important as the absolute fact that there was gold in them thar hills.
The New Hampshire Sentinel reported in 1822, “Every country has its money diggers, who are full in the belief that vast treasures lay concealed in the earth. So far from being a new project, it dates its origin with the first man who ever wielded a spade. Even in these latter days, we find men so much in love with the ‘root of all evil’ and so firm in the belief that it may be dug up, that they will traverse hill and dale, climb the loftiest mountain, and even work their way into the bowels of the earth in search of it. Indeed digging for money hid in the earth, is a very common thing; and in this State, it is even considered an honorable and profitable employment.” So perhaps it’s not too surprising that Rogers was able to convince the treasure hunters in Exeter that quick riches only required some digging.
What the Exeter men didn’t know was that Rainsford Rogers had a long history of swindling gullible people out of their own money. He’d been involved in a well-publicized scheme in New Jersey that was published in a book called, “The Morris-Town Ghost: An Account of the Beginning, Transactions and Discovery of Ransford Rogers, who seduced many by pretended Hobgoblins and Apparitions, and thereby extorted Money from their Pockets,” in 1788. He slipped away from Morris County, changed his name to “Rice Williams” for a while and continued to ply his trade as a dowser of gold until he arrived in Exeter sometime around 1800. Charles Bell picks up the story from there, “he came to Exeter, bearing his true name of Rainsford Rogers, which had, perhaps, not acquired so bad an odor in New England as in some other quarters.” He asked the men to wear white caps while digging, perhaps to make it easier to spot them all in the dark.
At one point in the Exeter escapade, Rogers used a tactic he’d used before – he dressed up as a ghost to further convince the diggers that they were in the right place. The ghost muttered something unintelligible, to which one of the men inquired, “a little louder, Mr. Ghost; I’m rather hard of hearing!” The men dug with renewed enthusiasm.
Bell continued, “After a time Rogers disclosed what he declared to be the reason of their want of success. The golden deposit was there, beyond question; but they needed one thing more to enable them to find and grasp it. That was a particular kind of divining-rod.” Naturally, this would cost money. The men raised several hundred dollars, loaned Rogers a horse and off he rode to Philadelphia (or so they thought) never to be heard from again.
Exeter, being a small town, had long been aware of the midnight digging sessions of the “secret” little group. When it was revealed that Rogers was gone, the men involved received no end of ribbing from the population and were thereafter branded with the moniker “white caps.” According to Bell, “The deaf man who required the ghost to ‘speak a little louder’ never heard the last of his unfortunate speech.”