Creatures of a Rhode Island Halloween: The Ghost Ship Palatine
Trick-or-treaters in the vicinity of Rhode Island’s southern coasts may also want to watch the ocean very carefully, in their case, for signs of a ghost ship said to haunt Block Island. A source no less credible than the New York Times reported on this legend in its edition of November 20, 1899…
During the month of November, a majority of [Block Islanders], or at least those who are descended from the ancient settlers of the community, look for the appearance of the Palatine, the phantom ship….The wife of one of the hotel owners on the island insists that the Palatine spectre was seen by fifty persons in 1880. And there are others who will declare that it makes its annual appearance, and that usually it foretells the death of an inhabitant of the sea-girt isle. The apparition makes its appearance on the edge of the night, when the conditions are best suited to a supernatural visitation. The ship appears in a cloud, with every sail set and drawing full. Her head is pointed toward Newport, when of a sudden the vessel’s course is altered and she heads straight for the breakers. She strikes the cruel rocks, recedes, and sinks in the darkening water, while her shrouds and sails are all aglow with the fire that breaks out from the hull.Would it be a cliche to say that the legend of the Palatine may demonstrate how man may be the most dangerous creature of all? John Greenleaf Whittier’s “The Wreck of the Palatine”, published in 1867 and part of the background of the Times story, tells of a sailing ship lured to disaster by the devious residents of Block Island…
Into the teeth of death she spedAn August 15, 1885 report from the Times relays a detailed version of this legend in prosaic form.
(May God forgive the hands that fed
The false lights over the rocky Head!)
O men and brothers! what sights were there!
White upturned faces, hands stretched in prayer!
Where waves had pity, could ye not spare?
Down swooped the wreckers, like birds of prey
Tearing the heart of the ship away,
And the dead had never a word to say.
And then, with ghastly shimmer and shine
Over the rocks and the seething brine,
They burned the wreck of the Palatine.
Rhode Island folklorist Michael Bell, however, tells an alternate narrative, supported by records made at the time of a confirmed 18th century shipwreck, but hidden from historians until the 1920s…
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.The second version of the incident referred to by Bell, of course, was the version immortalized by Whittier.
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.
As early as the late 1870s (after Whittier’s poem but before the original records were rediscovered), a gentleman named Samuel Livermore investigating the original incident concluded that there was no evidence that the residents of Block Island had intentionally wrecked the Palatine — but that accounts of the appearance of a burning ghost ship were credible!
Finally, the 1899 Times story concludes on this ghostly note…
In connection with the ship Palatine, an interesting story is told of a dancing mortar, which once belonged to that ill-fated ship. It is a common mortar, and was used to grind corn. It now rests in the Rhode Island Historical Society’s rooms in Providence. The old mortar rested in an old house on Block Island for many years. About the time the Palatine was due to make her appearance, the mortar would hop from its resting place to the floor and the skip and whirl to the brownstone hearth, where it would dance in rhythmic time. Warming up, it would leap back and forth from the floor to the ceiling of the room, beating an unearthly tattoo on the hardwood planks. The peculiar action is authenticated by reputable people who have investigated the occurence.