Princess Augusta


Legend Of Fiery Ghostly Ship Haunts Rhode Island Coast


By James Donahue


There is a story that shoreline residents near Cranston, Rhode Island, sometimes still see the fiery glow in late December of an Eighteenth Century sailing vessel as it runs up on the rocks off nearby Block Island.


A poem Wreck of the Palatine by John Greenleaf Whittier tells a story of how people on Block Island lit false signal lights to lure a ship into the rocks and then murdered the passengers and crew before plundering the wreck. They later burned the wreck.


Since that event, it is said that people in the area are still haunted by the appearance of a blazing ghost ship that appears on moonless nights between Christmas and New Years.


That is the legend, but is it a true story?


After the poem appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1867, it angered the residents of Block Island who claimed that the story may be based on a real shipwreck, but it didn’t happen the way Whittier’s poem portrays events.


Whittier used the name Palatine, apparently because the vessel was carrying Palatinate immigrants. But the real name of the wrecked ship was the British ship Princess Augusta that ran aground on the island on Dec. 27, 1738.


According to the record, the ship, under the command of Captain Andrew Brook, had just completed a long and stormy passage across the North Atlantic, carrying passengers from territory that would become Germany. Sickness broke out on ship, possibly from bad water or spoiled food, and survivors said they suffered from a shortage of provisions and extreme cold. Many of the passengers died before the vessel arrived off the Rhode Island coast.


One account said the captain was among the dead, and that the ship was under the command of the first mate at the time it was driven into the island in a snowstorm. There also were stories of how the ship’s officers mistreated the passengers during the voyage.


A deposition taken from the ship’s crew tells how the mate refused to allow the passengers to go ashore after the vessel went aground. He later agreed at the insistence of the Block Islanders and the ship was abandoned. It later broke up on the rocks.


As the story is told, the survivors were taken in by the island residents and given food and shelter.


No one is sure how the story got altered to include a burning wreck, that by the time the Whittier poem was published, a burning specter it had become.


And like all such legends, this one is kept alive by not only the telling, but by claims by local residents that the lights of a burning ship are occasionally seen on the anniversary of the wreck.


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