Thursday, June 01, 2006

 

Florida pirate museum proves a treasure trove

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Times Argus
By Jessica Gresko
May 28, 2006


Pat Croce's passion for pirates is written all over him.

The former president of the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team has a Jolly Roger tattooed on his left hand and a ship on his left forearm.

A parrot tattoo sits on his shoulder, and he even wears a silver hoop earring. It's when he pulls back the corner of his mouth, however, revealing a molar cap etched with a skull and crossbones, that it's clear this is no ordinary obsession.

For the past 16 years, Croce has also been collecting pirate artifacts, indulging a childhood fascination with the swashbucklers and amassing a treasure trove of objects: the journal from Capt. Kidd's last voyage; one of only two known authentic Jolly Roger flags; and a treasure chest once owned by Capt. Thomas Tew, said to be the only one in existence directly traceable to a pirate.

For years, the 51-year-old Croce hid the loot in his home. Last year, however, he began sharing the booty with the public, opening a $10 million museum called Pirate Soul in downtown Key West.

Croce says a pirate spirit has infused all of his undertakings.

"It's that bold and adventurous nature, where they just go for their goal, throw caution to the wind, set their sail and go," he said recently in Key West, where he has a home.

Croce's daughter, Kelly Croce Sorg, lives on the island and is the museum's chief executive. Opening a museum in Key West, which was built on the spoils of shipwrecks and where buccaneer street performers now rove, just made sense, Sorg said.

At the museum, visitors start their tour in a re-created marketplace of Port Royal, Jamaica, peering in the windows of the gun shop, the mapmaker, the bookmaker and the physician's office to see artifacts. In the next room, a tavern, guests can sit down amid centuries-old wine bottles and a plate recovered from the pirate Blackbeard's sunken ship and browse an interactive book of pirate biographies on touch screens.

Then it is on to the deck of a pirate ship, where sound effects and video bring a ship takeover to life. Near the end of the tour, visitors encounter a talking animatronic head of the pirate Blackbeard and can step into small, dark rooms simulating a ship's hold and listen as pirates give chase.

"It's kind of like something you'd see at Disney World," said Bert Knisely of Thomasville, Ga., who visited the museum recently on his honeymoon.

Theatrics aside, the real gems of the collection are the estimated 500 artifacts on display — pieces of maps, navigation instruments, cannon balls, weapons and even a rare pirate wanted poster. Most of the objects are Croce's, but there are also pieces on loan from the North Carolina Maritime Museum and the Delaware Art Museum.

Trevor Huggins, 18, who toured the museum while visiting from Augusta, Ga., said he was surprised at the number and quality of the artifacts as well as what he learned about daily life on a pirate ship.

"I learned how brutal it actually was," Huggins said. "I didn't realize that at first."

Signs also tell visitors that walking the plank is likely a bit of fiction. Pirates usually just pushed any scurvy fellows overboard or used them for target practice.

Visitors even learn about two female pirates: Anne Bonny and Mary Read.


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