ST. PETERSBURG — The pirate Jose Gaspar is widely thought to be a myth, yet a South Florida woman claims to be his great-great-great-granddaughter. A Sarasota treasure hunter has led a team on the search for his booty for the past decade. And since September, a St. Petersburg jewelry shop has been selling coins that were allegedly stashed in one of Gaspar’s buried chests.
So, wait, was the patron saint of Tampa Bay revelry and namesake for the area’s largest annual parade real?
The answer could lie with those coins and a man known as Uncle Vern, who might be able to authenticate the currency as pirate. But it’s unclear if he would be willing to talk or is even alive.
“If Uncle Vern comes forward,” jeweler Gene DeLuigi said, “my coins rewrite Florida history.”
Locked inside a glass case in his corner of Boggs Jewelers at 3609 49th St. N in St. Petersburg, salesman DeLuigi has dozens of coins that range in price from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on the condition, and date to the 1400s through 1700s.
DeLuigi claims to have bought the coins from a stranger a decade ago and has since learned that they came from a treasure chest that Gaspar buried along the Peace River in Charlotte County. Certain the tale is true, DeLuigi recently donated a handful to the St. Petersburg Museum of History.
So, are the coins authentic?
Yes and no, said Rui Farias, executive director of the museum.
The coins are likely of Spanish origin and from the era when eye-patch-wearing pirates sailed the seven seas. “Boggs Jewelers also had them authenticated by David Reynolds Jewelers on Central Avenue,” Farias said. “They’re an incredibly reputable company.”
And the story that they belonged to Gaspar?
It’s widely believed that the Gaspar story was first published in the early 1900s to help promote the railroad near Charlotte Harbor and was later made famous by Tampa’s Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla. Gaspar is “an entirely fictional character” created to lure tourists, according to a 1980 article in the Tampa Bay History publication.
“I would love to prove that he was real but that would be a little harder,” said Farias whose middle name is, we are not pulling your peg leg, Gaspar. “I like to joke that we’re related. We’re not, but it would be fun if we were.”
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In a story that many would consider unbelievable, perhaps the most astounding part is that Chanoce Gomez claims to have learned of the Gasparilla Parade just a few years ago.
“I live in LaBelle,” the 52-year-old said. “It just wasn’t something I knew about.”
But she had always known about Gaspar, a man she says was her thrice great-grandfather.
According to legend, after decades of plundering and pillaging throughout the Caribbean, the U.S. military finally caught up with Gaspar in 1821 and sunk his ship near the mouth of Charlotte Harbor. Rather than be captured, Gaspar is said to have died by tying a chain around his neck and jumping into the gulf. Some of his men, including Juan Gomez, escaped.
Juan Gomez, believed to be a real person whom historians say frequented the Tampa Bay area, was known for entertaining people with stories of Gaspar and other tall tales of his days as a pirate, selling hand-drawn treasure maps that led to nothing.
“My mother was Paullet Gomez Lovett,” Gomez said. “Her father was Tim Gomez, whose father was Charlie Gomez, whose father was Francisco Gomez, whose father was Juan Gomez.”
She claims that, according to family history, Juan Gomez was not telling stories about his pirate boss Gaspar.
“He was telling stories about himself,” she said. “Jose Gaspar was his alias.” And, while some of his maps might have been bogus, some were real, one of which is said to have led to treasure along the Peace River.
In 2013, an unidentified old man brought a few hundred of what he said was a collection of thousands of coins to Boggs Jewelers to be authenticated, DeLuigi said. “He said, and this is important, ‘A man named Vern sent me up here’” but said nothing else of the man.
The coins, DeLuigi said, are a mixture of nickel, silver and traces of copper and known as “pieces of eight” because they are the size of a U.S. silver dollar but can also be divided into eight fragments.
Boggs Jewelers authenticated the coins and DeLuigi bought 120. He gave away 15 as gifts.
“Remember, I still wasn’t told of a connection to Juan Gomez,” he said. “I just thought it was cool to give people pirate coins.”
A little over a year ago, he was showing off a few of the coins while having lunch at the Nav-A-Gator Bar & Grill in Arcadia. A waiter suggested that DeLuigi meet his friend Michael Gattuso, who had been searching for similar coins. They got together two days later and, when DeLuigi retold the story of the old man and mentioned the name Vern, Gattuso asked, “You mean Uncle Vern?”
The treasure hunter
As the story goes, Juan Gomez escaped his sinking ship and came ashore on land owned by the Boggess family near the Peace River. The matriarch, Lady Boggess, made a deal with the pirate. She would let him hide there in exchange for a portion of the treasure. He later hid most of it throughout that area.
That tale is what inspired Gattuso and his team, known as The Real Treasure Hunters, to search for Gaspar’s riches, relying on lure, maps that might have been drawn by Juan Gomez and stories passed on by old-timers, one of whom was “Uncle Vern.”
“Uncle Vern is Vern Collins,” Gattuso said. “He is part of the Boggess family.”
According to genealogy records, Vernon Merle Collins’ mother was Vera Lily Boggess.
In a video from 2013 on The Real Treasure Hunters’ website, Vern says that he once had a metal map that led to Juan Gomez’s treasure. Vern’s ace is hard to make out in the video, and that was done at his request, Gattuso said. Not recorded is that the map led to three treasure chests buried along the Peace River, Gattuso said, but Vern claimed that two old men had just recently found two.
“Then recently, I learn Boggs Jewelers have a similar story that took place at the same time,” Gattuso said. “It adds up. And the third is still out there … Uncle Vern could tell us if the link is real.”
But it’s been eight years since he last spoke to Vern.
“I don’t know if he is alive,” Gattuso said.
The Tampa Bay Times could not find an obituary for Vernon Collins. Public records show he would be 90 and list his most recent address as a post office box in Fort Ogden. The Times left a voicemail on a number listed for Vernon Merle Collins in Fort Ogden but did not hear back.
“Uncle Vern won’t talk,” Gattuso said. “We got him to talk a couple of times and that was it.”
Since putting the coins up for sale in September, DeLuigi said, he has sold six.
Because the Peace River is a state waterway, nothing considered to be an artifact can be taken without the state’s permission. So, before the museum accepted the donated coins, they first had to ask the state’s Division of Historical Resources if the treasure was legal to possess.
“We sent them photographs of the coins and information on them,” Farias said. “They felt comfortable saying they were authentic pieces of eight, but probably did not come from the Peace River or an archaeological site. They said the coins likely came from a shipwreck in the Atlantic or the gulf, where tens of thousands of these coins have been found.”
The state is right, Gattuso said. They did come from a shipwreck, but the treasure was then taken to land.
Soon, the coins will help promote local lore. In January, the history museum is co-producing “Gaspar! The Musical” at The Palladium in St. Petersburg. The coins will be on display at the venue — because the story behind them is fascinating, even if it might not be true.
“What do they want, a video of Juan Gomez coming up with a ship and the cannons blaring?” DeLuigi said when told of the museum’s hesitance to accept the story as fact. “This is truly buried pirate treasure. How cool is that?”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the ancestors of Chanoce Gomez. The story has been updated.