Friday, April 13, 2012

Ghost Ship: The Palatine

For two centuries, according to many reports, the Palatine ghost ship has been seen on the anniversary of its demise. 

Witnesses have reported seeing a fiery ship off the northern point of Block Island located 13 miles south of Rhode Island. Some witnesses have claimed to see this “burning spectral ship” off Block Island Sound year after year always at the same time—between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

The legends that are told about this ghost ship are based upon a real vessel that met a tragic end in December of 1738 near Block Island. 

In these stories, this spectral ship is called the "Palatine," but its actual name was the Princess Augusta. Its passengers were German emigrants known historically as the ‘Palatinates,' hence the confusion with the name. 

These Palatine emigrants left their homes to journey to Philadelphia. Tragically for many of these passengers their dreams for a new future ended as Princess Augusta neared Block Island.

It is known that some passengers died during the voyage while others reached their destination. Some who died were buried on the island. 

A written account given by the crew of the ship shortly after it wrecked resurfaced in the 1920s or '30s. This deposition paints a dire picture on board even before the ship was destroyed. Provisions were scarce, and half the crew died during the voyage—the remaining seamen suffered from extreme cold. 

This document went on to describe how the ship hit a massive snowstorm, which drove it aground. The captain encouraged the crew to save what they could of the ship’s cargo before it broke to pieces.

For over two hundred years what exactly happened to Princess Augusta as it neared Block Island depends significantly on who tells the story. There are two well-known versions, which one is closer to the real truth is not known. 

I will briefly share both legends and leave it to the reader to decide.

The people of Block Island tell this tale. They state that the captain of the Palatine and his crew were criminals who abused their passengers by plundering their possessions and then tried to cover it up by deliberately running the ship aground as it neared the island. 

This version of the story mentions kind-hearted islanders were able to convince the crew to release the few remaining passengers that were still alive after the ship had wrecked. In this tale, the islanders then nurse these passengers back to health. 

It is stated the crew cared more about saving the ship and its cargo and would not release a boat for the passengers to use until the islanders intervened.

In this version it is stated that if this ship reappears in December, it is a bad omen or harbinger, predicting a terrible storm will hit that year.

Off-islanders tell a very different tale. This version was immortalized in a famous poem written by John Greenleaf Whittier entitled "The Wreck of the Palatine," which was published in 1867. 

This story tells of how the island farmers having suffered a harsh winter were starving so when they heard the ship was to pass near the island they decided to lure and wreck it to steal its stores.

The Islanders then did this by lighting misplaced fires that drew the ship to the rocky shoreline, which caused it to crash against the rocks breaking it apart. 

In this version, it is said these same lights caused the ship to catch fire and burn. In another story, it is stated the islanders set the ship ablaze and murdered the remaining survivors. 

Ironically, when the islanders boarded the ship, they found that all the ship’s food and water supplies were long spoiled.

The off-islanders tale as to why the ship reappears is different as well. It is said that this fiery ship appears to remind the islanders of the wickedness that was done that day in December. 

One account published in 1879 told by an old man that had participated in the wreck of the ship follows--it was said the memory of it tortured him:

“… he would rave about seeing a ship ablaze, with men falling from her burning rigging and shrouds, and ever and anon shrink in horror from the specters of two women, whose hands he cut off or disabled by blows from a cutlass, as they sought to cling to the gunwale of the last boat that left the burning ship and all aboard to their fate that not one might remain alive to bear witness of the terrible catastrophe and crime.”

Both of these legends are harsh reflections of human behavior, but regardless, the reality of the suffering of these passengers remains. I find the forgotten truth we do know about them compelling enough—even without the two famous legends that have been passed down.

The Palatines were a long-suffering people way before they reached this New England shore. 

These Protestants from Germany endured decades of war, crop failure, famine, plague, and religious persecution. So they decided to immigrate to the New World. 

Ocean voyages at that time involved poor quality food and water, and infectious diseases. Typhus alone killed many children. These Germans faced these perils to gain religious freedom. 

The additional tragedy for the Palatine passengers on the Princess Augusta was the fact they faced yet another deadly peril close to their journey’s end—which many of them did not survive.

This alone could be the reason the ship—starting the first year after it's destruction—reappears seemingly in flames off Sandy Point on Block Island.

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