The most famous ghost ship in the world is the Flying Dutchman. The legend of the Flying Dutchman tells of a ship that can never make port and is doomed to sail the oceans forever with its ghostly crew. Sightings in the 19th and 20th centuries reported the ship to be glowing with a spectral light. If hailed, the crew of the Flying Dutchman will try to send messages to land or to people long dead. Sailors say the sight of this phantom ship is a portent of doom. Rhode Island has its own legendary ghost ship called the Palatine.
On Saturday between Christmas and New Years, a spectral light is said to sometimes appear over the sea off the northern point of Block Island. It is the supposed apparition of the burning ship Princess Augusta, also known as the Palatine, which legend says wrecked in 1738. Some say the ghost ship haunts these waters to this day and it has become known as the Palatine Light. Many people over the years have said they’ve witnessed this flaming apparition.
There are two versions of the story about what happened to the Princess Augusta, her passengers and crew. One version of the story paints the islanders as helpful and caring, while the other version has it that the islanders were wreckers that lured the ship to its destruction.
The Princess Augusta left Rotterdam in August of 1738 with 340 immigrants from the Palatine region of Germany seeking a new life of religious freedom in Virginia where three-thousand of their countrymen had settled. This is why the ship later became known as the Palatine, thus the confusion over her name. The ship carried a 14 man crew under the command of Captain George Long. A spell of bad weather and storms ensued driving the ship far off course to the north.
The water supply became contaminated causing a “fever and flux” that killed two hundred of the passengers and half the crew, including Captain Long. After the captain died, the first mate, Andrew Brook, took over command. With dwindling supplies of water and provisions, Brook forced the helpless survivors to buy them. When the passengers ran out of money many starved to death and their bodies were thrown overboard.
As the Princess Augusta approached land in a strong northwest gale, the ship began to show signs of breaking apart. The crew cut away the mizzenmast to ease the strain. Brook tried to steer the ship between the end of Long Island and Block Island but his navigation was off. The ship ran aground on the shore of Block Island at Sandy Point. This much of the story we know is roughly based on fact but there are two conflicting versions of what happened next.
Depositions discovered in 1925, which were taken at the time of the wreck, paint an unsympathetic view of Brook who rowed to shore with the entire crew while leaving the passengers aboard. In this version, the Block Islanders evidently did what they could to help the passengers. They convinced Brook to let the passengers off the ship and later retrieve their possessions. They took the survivors into their homes and nursed them back to health and they buried about twenty passengers who died after the wreck.
It appears that after an official inquiry no charges were filed against the crew for their actions. The crew and most of the surviving passengers made it to the mainland of Rhode Island. Two survivors remained on Block Island and settled there. One, Dutch Kattern, was well known as a witch and might have been responsible for spreading some of the stories.
Most accounts indicate that the ship was determined unsalvageable and was pushed out to sea to sink. It may have been set on fire to scuttle it. In some accounts, a woman named Mary Van Der Line was driven mad by her suffering, refused to leave the ship, and went down with it.
The next version of the story was told by Joseph P. Hazard to the poet John Greenleaf Whittier. It portrays the Block Islanders as ruthless wreckers who intentionally lured the ship onto the shoals with a false light for the purpose of salvage. They murdered the starving, freezing passengers, set the Palatine afire and sent it out to sea to hide their crime.
This version received literary sanction in John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem of 1867 “The Wreck of the Palatine.” The people of Block Island were not happy with this portrayal and in his 1877 history of the island, Samuel Livermore tried to refute Whittier’s version of the Palatine disaster: ”Poetic fiction has given the public a very wrong view of this occurrence, and thus a wrong impression of the Islanders has been obtained.”
The Block Island Historical Society erected a marker in 1947 on the spot where the ship is thought to have run aground which reads simply, ”Palatine Graves — 1738.” No remains of the wreck have ever been found and Martha Ball, a former first warden of Block Island and a lifelong resident, says there’s some evidence the ship might have been repaired and continued on to Philadelphia. Many islanders including Benjamin Congdon, born around 1788, believed in the legend: “I may say that I have seen her eight or ten times or more. In those early days, nobody doubted her being sent by an Almighty Power to punish those wicked men who murdered her passengers and crew.”
In 1811 a Block Island resident, Dr. Aaron C. Willey described the Palatine Light. “The people who have always lived here are so familiarized to the sight that they never think of giving notice to those who do not happen to be present, or even of mentioning it afterwards… The light looks like a blaze of fire six or seven miles from the northern part of Block Island. Sometimes it’s small, like the light from a distant window. Sometimes it’s as big as a ship and wavers like a torch.”
Even today many people claim to have seen the Palatine Light. Could this light be a natural phenomenon such as the eruption of methane gas from the seafloor, or could it be the burning of the ghost ship Palatine? Whether you believe in ghosts or not Whittier’s poem made the legend of the ghost ship famous and is a great read.
Old wives spinning their webs of tow,
Or rocking weirdly to and fro
In and out of the peat’s dull glow,
And old men mending their nets of twine,
Talk together of dream and sign,
Talk of the lost ship Palatine,
The ship that, a hundred years before,
Freighted deep with its goodly store,
In the gales of the equinox went ashore.
The eager islanders one by one
Counted the shots of her signal gun,
And heard the crash when she drove right on!
Into the teeth of death she sped:
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.
– John Greenleaf Whittier, 1867