Legend Of Fiery Ghostly
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
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
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.
The Mind of James Donahue