by Michael Bell

The light of a spectral craft.

The morning after Christmas of 1738 broke calm as the ship Princess Augusta lay at anchor some twelve miles off the New England coast. Aboard were about 150 passengers, the survivors of the 340 German Palatines who had boarded the ship in Rotterdam seeking a new life of religious freedom in Philadelphia. By the time the ship got underway, a strong tide and heavy swell had come up. The Princess Augusta was soon fighting a heavy gale from the north-northwest. As the ship began to show signs of breaking apart, the mizzenmast was cut away to ease the strain. To make matters worse, a blinding snowstorm accompanied the gale, limiting visibility to a few hundred feet. Attempting to steer between Block Island and Long Island Sound, the ship ran aground on Sandy Point, the northern tip of Block Island.

A deposition taken from the ship's crew shortly after the incident (but not rediscovered until 1925), recounts that the mate (and acting captain) refused to allow the passengers to go ashore, presumably because he was more concerned with tackling than people. During the voyage, "a fever and flux", possibly caused by bad water, had decimated the passengers. The master and some of the crew had died as well. At the insistence of the Block Islanders, the captain finally relented and the ship was abandoned. When her cable was cut, she drifted free and broke up on the rocks.

Within a hundred years, two major versions of this incident had entered oral tradition. One shows the people of Block Island to be kind-hearted souls who saved the shipwrecked passengers and nursed them back to health in their own homes after the cruel captain and crew deliberately ran the ship ashore to conceal their plunder and mistreatment of the passengers.

But the other legend, told by off-islanders, portrays the Block Islanders as ruthless wreckers who intentionally lured the ship onto the shoals with a false light for the purpose of salvage. In some variants, the islanders even murder the starving, freezing passengers, then burn the ship and set it adrift to conceal their crime. As the ship is consumed by the flames, a woman who has refused to part with her possessions wrings her hands and shrieks until she, too, is devoured by fire.

This last version received literary sanction in John Greenleaf Whittier's poem of 1867. In "The Wreck of the Palatine" (the name by which the Princess Augusta is generally known), Whittier wrote that, after erecting "false lights over the rocky head," the "eager islanders" swooped down "like birds of prey/Tearing the heart of the ship away/And the dead had never a word to say." Whittier cemented the foul reputation of the islanders with the next two stanzas:

And then, with ghastly shimmer and shine
Over the rocks and the seething brine,
They burned the wreck of the Palatine.

In their cruel hearts, as they homeward sped,
"The sea and the rocks are dumb," they said:
"There'll be no reckoning with the dead."

But where poetry leaves off, legend steps in to give the dead their due. The legend of the Palatine is kept alive by her reappearance in fiery form on the anniversary of her wreck. Many claim to have peered out into Block Island Sound on a black night in late December and seen the burning spectral ship. Benjamin Congdon, born around 1788, offered an explanation: "About the burning Palatine ship... I may say that I have seen her eight or ten times or more. In those early days nobody doubted her being sent by an Almighty Power to punish those wicked men who murdered her passengers and crew."

As with other elements of the Palatine legend, the meaning of the ghostly apparition varies. In the off-islanders view, shared by Congdon, "the Almighty sent a Fire or Phantom Ship to let the islanders know He had not forgotten their wickedness." This interpretation is in line with the values of Puritan New England, where such apparitions were accepted as God's divine providences. On Block Island, however, the sighting of a phantom or flaming ship is seen simply as a bad omen, usually foretelling foul weather.

The legend of the Palatine doesn't end with the burning ship. There is, for example, the story of "Tall Kattern," one of the three survivors who stayed on the island. She developed a reputation as a witch. Then there are the mysterious "dancing mortars" that were fashioned from the arborvitae beams of the ship. But these tales, while certainly part of the Palatine story, deserve separate treatment.

In the meantime, keep your eyes focused on Block Island Sound between Christmas and New Year's. And don't be startled if you see a ghostly glow on the horizon.

Michael Bell, formerly Rhode Island's official state folklorist, is the author of Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires. This article originally appeared in the December 1993 issue of Guide to the Ocean State. It appears here with permission of the author.

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This article last edited April 21, 2004

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