We all dream of uncovering a secret that’s been lost for generations. Whether it’s a hidden passageway leading to adventures untold or treasure buried on a remote island, our inner child never quite gives up on fairy tales.
For one brother and sister from Tampa, Florida, though, this fantasy became a reality. When they discovered a mysterious box in their grandparents’ attic, they couldn’t believe what was inside.
When Mike Lopez and his sister Maria were growing up, their grandfather Ernesto used to tell them tales of the legendary Spanish pirate Jose Gaspar. But they surely could not have guessed that one day they would go on to become a part of Gaspar’s legend themselves.
In 2015 Maria was busy cleaning her grandparents’ house when she made an intriguing discovery. Hidden away in the attic of the building was a rectangular wooden box.
Unsure what to make of her find, Maria took the box to her brother Mike. In turn, he looked to local television station WFLA to shed some light on the matter.
With their help, Lopez brought the box to the Tampa Bay History Center, where curator Rodney Kite-Powell was keen to take a look. Eagerly, Lopez shared the incredible contents of his grandparents’ box.
Lifting back the hinged lid, Lopez revealed a hoard fit for a pirate king. In the box were several old coins, an aged map – and what appeared to be a mummified hand.
Jose Gaspar, also known as Gasparilla, is a famous figure in Florida legend. A ruthless pirate captain thought to have terrorized the Gulf of Mexico in the 18th century, he was said to have fought many battles from his base on Gasparilla Island, Florida.
Despite legends about Gaspar being popular throughout Florida, though, there is little historical evidence that the man ever existed. Nevertheless, his story continues to enchant generations of Floridians – not least the Lopez family.
According to Lopez, his grandfather claimed that his father had once found a hidden treasure belonging to Gaspar himself. Still, not being interested in pirates as a child, the grandson thought little of the story – until the box came to light decades later.
From the torn and yellowing map to the ancient-looking coins, the discovery certainly seemed to have come straight from the pages of a pirate adventure. But had Lopez’s great-grandfather really discovered Gaspar’s hidden treasure? And just who was the owner of the horrible hand?
On closer inspection, the mystery deepened. The map depicted the downtown Tampa area, showing the Hillsborough River and several of the bridges that cross it. There was also a photograph among the contents of the box, which Lopez identified as his great-grandparents on their wedding day.
Perhaps most intriguingly, one skeletal finger of the desiccated hand bore a ring. And it was inscribed with the name that supposedly haunted seafarers centuries earlier – that of the legendary Gaspar.
Most people in the Florida area know the story of Gaspar and the rumors that he left millions of dollars’ worth of treasure buried around the state. But expert Kite-Powell was quick to quell any speculation that the Lopez family may have stumbled upon the stash.
“They’re a little thin to be Spanish coins,” he told WFLA when asked to examine the contents of the box. “Generally, older coins were thicker.”
Kite-Powell also believed that he could ascribe a rough era to the map. Sadly for lovers of lore and legend, though, he dated it a lot further forward in time than Gaspar’s heyday as a buccaneer: in his opinion, it’s probably from the 1920s or ’30s.
As for the mysterious hand – that, too, may have a more prosaic explanation. Kite-Powell has suggested that it could be the mummified paw of a monkey; Mike, though, still thinks it could be of human origin.
And the coins? Well, they could also be newer than Mike and Maria may have hoped. Every year, the city of Tampa plays host to the Gasparilla Pirate Festival. Held since 1904, the event celebrates the legend of Gaspar with – among other events – a grand parade through the Floridian streets.
As part of the parade, a group of people calling themselves Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla toss beads and coins into the watching crowds. Kite-Powell suggested, then, that it is an early version of these commemorative coins that Mike had discovered in the mysterious box.
Regardless of the truth behind the contents of the box, though, the Lopezes may still keep them as a family heirloom. As Maria explained to Tampa’s WTSP 10 News channel, “Either my great-grandfather made the best, most elaborate pirate hoax ever and never shared it with anyone, or he really did find some treasure on the Hillsborough River. There’s really no way to know which is the case.”