Treasure Island: The Enduring Enigma of Tucker’s Cross
By Jake Rossen
Welcome to the inaugural installment of Missing, where we profile some of the most intriguing mysteries involving the disappearances of people, treasures, and more.
Bad weather loomed, and Teddy Tucker was eager to get on with it.
It was 1955, and Tucker, 30, was underwater in Bermuda. The voracious curiosity-seeker was diving at the site of a shipwreck, which he would later learn to be the 16th-century Spanish ship the San Pedro. Sporting a facemask and flippers—hardly the sophisticated equipment of modern explorers—Tucker excavated some wood, some porcelain, and then, finally, a gold cube. It was the first hint that Tucker’s suspicion about lost treasure might be worthwhile.
Gold bars and ingots followed. Day after day, he returned. On the seventh day, Tucker was tugging on a piece of wood 30 feet below the surface when he made the discovery of a lifetime. “There was a big plank of some part of the ship, probably a hull plank or something,” he later said. “Just lifted it up and slid it away—and there was the cross face down under it. And it was bright gold, I knew it was gold, I’d found gold before and seen a bit of it. Picked it up, turned it up. Emeralds!”
The more Tucker stared, the more intrigued he became. The 22-karat cross, barely bigger than the palm of his hand, featured seven green emeralds unharmed by hundreds of years spent in the water. At the time, it was considered, according to LIFE magazine, “one of the most valuable pieces of sunken treasure ever found.” Tucker would later dub it “my most treasured discovery.”
Finding the treasure was a highlight of Tucker’s career as a treasure hunter. But Tucker’s Cross, as it came to be known, would soon pull a disappearing act—one that involved the queen.
Teddy Tucker may not be a household name in much of the world, but in Bermuda, he’s considered something of a local hero. Born in 1925 as Edward Bolton Tucker, his interest in ocean exploration was fueled by his proximity to the water: His childhood bedroom was just 50 feet away, close enough to hear fish feasting on anchovies. As a kid, he worked on fishing boats and at the aquarium. During World War II, he became an underwater demolitions expert for the British Navy. Afterward, he toured the world before marrying his wife, Edna, and settling down in Bermuda.
At first, Tucker tried to put his explosives knowledge to good use on dry land, offering to help demolish an old hotel—but when bricks shot into the air and became dangerous projectiles, he reconsidered work on solid ground. Instead, he began working as a commercial boat operator and turned his maritime passion into an economical boost for the island. The government paid him to retrieve scrap metal from sunken ships. The materials he collected with future brother-in-law Robert Canton were then sold off to raise money to pay off the government’s war debts.
According to Wendy Tucker, who maintains a site chronicling her father’s many adventures, Tucker was busy with that work when he was approached by a fisherman in 1951. The man told Tucker that he had seen marble columns in the outer reefs. Bermuda had long been infamous for its treacherous waters, which suffered from poor visibility and, for centuries, a lack of any lighthouses. Shipwrecks were not uncommon.
When Tucker went out to the site where the fisherman had seen the columns, he discovered a cannon muzzle. It was a ship—perhaps one that had passed Bermuda on its way to Spain or Portugal in the 1500s, taking valuables from the New World back to the Old World.
Tucker took some of the materials but couldn’t find time to return to the wreckage until 1955. He then began a marathon exploration, returning day after day for a week straight and diving up to five hours at a time. Beyond the mask, air hose, and flippers, he wore no other gear and dove headfirst without weights to help him sink, an uncommon practice for bare-skinned divers of the era.
The efforts paid off. He retrieved a grenade and a mortar with a date of 1561 stamped on it along with some gold and 200 silver coins, one of which would date the ship to no earlier than 1592.
And then came the cross. “Awestruck, I counted the large green emeralds on the face of the cross,” he told Wendy later on. “There were seven of them, each the size of a musket ball. Tiny gold nails hung from small rings on arms of the cross, these presumably representing the nails in Christ’s hands … The carving, though beautiful, was somewhat crude, indicating that the cross was the work of local artisans rather than having been made by craftsmen brought over from Spain.”
The piece measured 3 inches by 1.5 inches. Curiously, it had a removable back, which hid a tiny cavity that might have once contained another, smaller treasure. It would soon be dubbed a historically important find—though Tucker hardly thought as much at the time.
A Cross to Bear
Initially, it was hard for Tucker to fathom what he had found. He took no special care with it, later saying that it may have wound up in a closet.
But others understood the significance of the piece, including Mendel Peterson, a curator with the Smithsonian who would come to be known as “the father of underwater archaeology.” The news media covered it extensively, dubbing it one of the greatest treasure finds ever; the cross even got its own spread in LIFE magazine, photographed at three times its actual size.
One dealer who got wind of the discovery offered Tucker $25,000 for it, the equivalent of $280,000 today. Another offer came from Clare Boothe Luce, the U.S. ambassador to Italy who held the cross’s Catholic symbolism in high esteem. She told Tucker she was prepared to pay $100,000 for it, or $1.1 million today. Then she doubled it to $200,000, or $2.2 million.
But such a transaction wouldn’t be easy. Although Tucker found the treasures, the Bermuda government took the position that the items belonged to it. Tucker wryly answered that assertion by offering to re-bury the treasure.
Eventually, the two parties came to an agreement that he would be allowed to retain his finds so long as the island got the first opportunity to purchase them. Wendy Tucker’s site relates that Tucker was paid $43,000 for the entire San Pedro haul, though The Boston Globe reported in 1971 that the number was $160,000, plus another $110,000 for items sold to private collectors. (Why Bermuda didn’t take up Luce on her generous offer is unknown, though it’s possible the government considered the cross a national treasure and was unwilling to part with it knowing such items could further bolster their tourism business. Tucker was also reticent to take them off the island.)
For Tucker, what lay beyond sight and just beyond reach under the water became a subject of constant fascination. Though he remained a commercial diver and fisherman by trade, diving wrecks became his passion: He and Mendel Peterson surveyed sites, mapping the location of artifacts in the shipwrecks using a grid method, and he would often enlist Edna to be a lookout for wreckage, hoisting her well above the water in a helium balloon. Some years Tucker spent 200 days underwater.
He also continued to take trips to the San Pedro. Though Tucker knew other treasure hunters were aware of the find, he wasn’t worried about being left behind. He was, after all, an expert in underwater demolitions.
“[No one] had the nerve,” he said in 1970. “They knew … that I would [booby-trap] the bottom, and then it would have been just like a man picking his way through a mine field.”
In 1959, Tucker struck gold once more. He found the San Antonio, another Spanish wreck that sank in 1621, which contained 57 pieces of gold. Countless fishermen had passed it by, totally unaware of the priceless stash just below them.
By 1965, Tucker was said to have earned roughly $500,000 in such expeditions, though he cautioned that it was slow and plodding work, not the romanticized spelunking of fiction. “So many of these guys get like chickens scratching around,” he said. “You’ve got to do it slow. Before you’re finished checking a wreck, you should be able to tell what the crew ate for breakfast and what the captain wore at dinner.”
He would ultimately find over 100 wrecks, though none would produce anything with as much intrigue as “Tucker’s Cross.” Not strictly because he found it, but because of what happened next.
The Queen's Visit
When Bermuda acquired Tucker’s cross, they kept it on public display at the Bermuda Aquarium. In 1975, it was temporarily relocated to the Bermuda Maritime Museum for a special occasion: a visit from Queen Elizabeth II.
Organizers laid out a variety of treasures for the queen’s inspection, including the cross, and invited Tucker to act as a kind of museum guide. While awaiting the queen’s arrival, Tucker noticed that something was off about the cross. It didn’t have quite the same presence as he remembered. It seemed ... dull.
According to Wendy Tucker, her father picked up the piece and was shocked to see paint come off on his hand. The cross was a plastic replica. Someone had taken the real thing and left the equivalent of a cereal box prize in its place.
The queen’s visit went smoothly: Tucker simply discarded the cheap lookalike. But the larger issue of what had happened to the original cross loomed. Island police alerted both the FBI and Interpol. An investigation discovered that multiple people had access to the cross and that, in all probability, someone had taken the opportunity of its relocation to seize it. The paint on the fake wasn’t even dry.
No arrests were ever made in the case, nor has the cross ever been located in the nearly 50 years since. According to Wendy Tucker, her father believed someone may have been hired to take the cross: Someone had gone through the trouble of fabricating a replica, and it was the only item stolen.
Tucker died in 2014 at the age of 89 having become the preeminent diver in Bermuda and an icon for thrill-seekers the world over. He befriended Peter Benchley, author of Jaws, and even made an appearance in 1977’s The Deep, based on the writer’s book. (Robert Shaw, Quint in Jaws, played a fictionalized version of Tucker in The Deep; legend has it that Quint was also based on Tucker.)
Tucker’s cross has not disappeared completely from the public eye. At the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute (BUEI), which Tucker co-founded, visitors can observe a replica of the treasure made of wood and plastic inside a display case. Depending on where you stand, it can disappear in the blink of an eye—just like the real thing.