Haunted Ship Constitution
By James Donahue
Some years back I had
the privilege of walking the decks of the last sailing ship ever commissioned by the U. S. Navy, the USS Constitution.
The 250-year-old but
well restored and cared-for ship was then, as it remains today, a museum piece anchored in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Rigged as a sloop-of-war, the
Constitution remains a relic of America’s
I roamed the vessel,
marveling that 285 sailors could live together within the tight quarters of that 176-foot-long wooden ship. That they did
it for months at sea seemed an incredible accomplishment.
What I didn’t know
then was that the old ship had a reputation as one of the most haunted ships in the world. Sailors on naval vessels moored
nearby, in past years, reported sightings of spirit forms of men in outdated Navy uniform walking her decks.
That should not be surprising
because the Constitution has had a long and bloody history. Many good men have perished on her decks, both in battle and while
on duty at sea. Operating a full-rigged military sailing ship is dangerous duty, even in the modern navy.
Some of the ghosts have
been identified, naval historians believe.
Among the first crew
members to die on the Constitution’s decks was Seaman Neil Harvey. The man fell asleep while on watch during a battle
with the French Frigate L’Insurgent in the West Indies in 1799. Commodore Thomas Truxton,
the first man to command the Constitution, ordered an officer to run a sword through Harvey’s
gut. After the battle, Truxton had Harvey’s body tied
over the end of a cannon and blown to pieces as a warning to the other sailors. They say Harvey’s
spirit has haunted the ship ever since.
At least one other sailor
died in that same battle.
The Constellation, then
rigged as a 36-gun frigate, engaged the French ship Vengeance, 52 guns, off Guadeloupe
Island on Feb. 2, 1800. The Constellation won the five-hour nighttime
battle, with a loss of 14 lives. The ship later participated in campaigns against
the Barbary states, the Caribbean pirates, and the battle of Craney Island during the War of 1812.
Other missions included
providing support for land troops fighting the Seminole Indians and stopping slave ships at sea.
One final death is noted.
An unidentified boy was murdered by two sailors while aboard as a surgeon’s assistant in 1822. It is said that this
boy’s spirit joined the others that haunt the Constitution.
When the rumors of spirit
sightings began circulating in 1955, Lt. Commander Allen R. Brougham went aboard the ship with a photographer to see for himself.
The two set up on a spot overlooking the ship’s wheel. At about midnight, the figure of a nineteenth century navy captain
appeared long enough to be captured on film. The picture shows a man in gold epaulets reaching for his sword. He is believed
to be the ghost of Captain Truxton.
Other sightings include
the figure of a sailor running across the gun deck. Another seaman has been seen wandering around the gun deck. Others say
they have heard the sounds of cries and moans in the hold, the sounds of unseen people running, and even smelled gun smoke.
Then there is the ghost
of Carl Hansen, a night watchman who worked on the Constitution until he was replaced by an alarm system in 1963. His spirit
has been observed playing cards on the lower decks. A priest claimed to have once been given a tour of the ship by a man who
was not part of the staff. As the story is told, the guide fit the description of Hanson.
Over the years, the Constitution
has gone through so many restorations that few, if any of the original wooden parts of the ship remain. But the ghosts of
men who died on her decks have obviously chosen to remain.