Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of ghost sea stories collected and written by Assistant Warwick Harbor Master Steve Brown while he was in the Coast Guard stationed at Pt. Judith.
By STEVE BROWN
It was just after Christmas in 1738 and the British ship, the Princess Augusta (sometimes called the Palatine) carrying a load of passengers from the German territory of Palatine was lost in a blinding snowstorm off the coast of Block Island, R.I. Many passengers were sick and some had died. As the ship was faltering and the main mast was ready to break, the crew and its passengers were relieved when they saw the signal fires of the early lighthouses on Block Island. What they did not know was that the signal fires set on Sandy Point were set to lure the ships into the treacherous waters to be robbed by the people of the island.
Block Island was long known as a haven for pirates in the early days of the United States. Captain Teach, also known as Blackbeard, is rumored to have visited the island, as did Captain Kidd. There is also a rumor that Ann Boney and Mary Read, the most famous female pirates, along with Calico Jack, may have also stopped by this island for ship provisions. It is also well known that the famous pirate, Samuel Bellamy, and his ship, the Widah, stopped often for provisions on Block Island.
How did an island in the early 1700s get provisions needed for ships? The answer was that they would light signal fires on beaches, bluffs and other areas to lure ships into the dangers rather than placing the light in an area where the ships would know to sail away from the danger. This is how this happened on Dec. 27, 1738, when the small community of Block
Island lit the fires on Sandy Point so that the ship Palatine would go aground, rather than sail safely into Newport. The disaster was made famous in a poem by the famous 19th century poet John Greenleaf Whittier.
Leagues north, as fly the gull and auk,
Point Judith watches with eye of hawk;
Leagues south, thy beacon flames, Montauk!
Lonely and wind-shorn, wood-forsaken,
With never a tree for Spring to waken,
For tryst of lovers or farewells taken,
Circled by waters that never freeze,
Beaten by billow and swept by breeze,
Lieth the island of Manisees,
Set at the mouth of the Sound to hold
The coast lights up on its turret old,
Yellow with moss and sea-fog mould.
Dreary the land when gust and sleet
At its doors and windows howl and beat,
And Winter laughs at its fires of peat!
But in summer time, when pool and pond,
Held in the laps of valleys fond,
Are blue as the glimpses of sea beyond;
When the hills are sweet with the brier-rose,
And, hid in the warm, soft dells, unclose
Flowers the mainland rarely knows;
When boats to their morning fishing go,
And, held to the wind and slanting low,
Whitening and darkening the small sails show,
Then is that lonely island fair;
And the pale health-seeker findeth there
The wine of life in its pleasant air.
No greener valleys the sun invite,
On smoother beaches no sea-birds light,
No blue waves shatter to foam more white!
There, circling ever their narrow range,
Quaint tradition and legend strange
Live on unchallenged, and know no change.
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.
In their cruel hearts, as they homeward sped,
“The sea and the rocks are dumb,” they said
“There’ll be no reckoning with the dead.”
But the year went round, and when once more
Along their foam-white curves of shore
They heard the line-storm rave and roar,
Behold! Again, with shimmer and shine,
Over the rocks and the seething brine,
The flaming wreck of the Palatine!
So, haply in fitter words than these,
Mending their nets on their patient knees
They tell the legend of Manisees.
Nor looks nor tones a doubt betray;
“It is known to us all,” they quietly say;
“We too have seen it in our day.”
Is there, then, no death for a word once spoken?
Was never a deed but left its token
Written on tables never broken?
Do the elements subtle reflections give?
Do pictures of all the ages live
On Nature’s infinite negative,
Which, half in sport, in malice half,
She shows at times, with shudder or laugh,
Phantom and shadow in photograph?
For still, on many a moonless night,
From Kingston Head and from Montauk light
The spectra kindles and burns in sight.
Now low and dim, now clear and higher,
Leaps up the terrible Ghost of Fire,
Then, slowly sinking, the flames expire.
And the wise Sound skippers, though skies be fine,
Reef their sails when they see the sign
Of the blazing wreck of the Palatine!
The island people on that snowy winter evening lured the ailing ship to the shore and after taking the passengers dead and alive on shore, the islanders plundered the ship taking anything they found thought to be of value – wine, tea, coffee, cotton, tobacco, the personal belongings of the passengers, ship equipment. The passengers and crew were given quarters on the island and treated very well by the island residents; those who were sick given what medicine and comfort they needed, and those who died were buried on the island in a grave that may still be seen today on Sandy Point where the marker simply reads, ‘’Palatine Graves c1738.” The survivors were then sent to the “mainland” when the weather cleared and spoke of the care and kindness that they received at the hand of the islanders. One passenger, Tall Kattern, actually stayed on the island and her decedents still live there to this day. No passenger would bear witness against any person on Block Island for this incident despite being robbed by them.
The ship was aground, the passengers and plunder was off the ship and it was time to set it back to sea, unknown to those on the crew that were setting the ship back into the ocean there was still a passenger aboard, a woman who was also a witch. She refused to leave the possessions she had hidden and hid when the islanders came aboard. The island crew set the ship on fire and rowed back to the island. It was then learned that the witch, whose name has been lost to history, was still on board. Her screams were heard through the burning timbers and as the sails burned and the ship headed for Newport, it turned back toward the island. Her curse was heard to those on the island who set the fire and they would be cursed forever more.
On cold winter nights during the longest and coldest nights of the year, one will still see the burning ship Palatine as it heads with full sails set toward Newport and as the fire grows brighter, it turns and heads back toward Block Island; and if you listen carefully, you may hear the witch scream her curse. It is told that after you see the ship, a bad storm will approach and those who are inclined will be forced to try to rescue a ship seen in the storm.
This is the legend of the ship Palatine, as told to me by my grandfather. And there are others who have seen a glow off Block Island near Sandy Point, and heard the witch’s curse when it is foggy and visibility is poor or in rain or snow.
My grandfather admits to seeing this ship when stationed at Benton Point Coast Guard Station in Newport. The beach patrol came back reporting a ship on fire and after the crew observed what was thought to be some type of boat fire, the surf boat was launched to Point Judith and Block Island Coast Guard Stations also sent surf boats and searched, but no evidence of a burning ship was found. This was in 1937, almost 200 years after the Palatine burning.
On a cold moonless night in December 1983, while I was going to turn on the foghorn while stationed at Point Judith Coast Guard Station in Narragansett, a glow was sighted off Sandy Point on Block Island. The Block Island Coast Guard Station did not see anything, the OD also observed a fiery glow off Block Island and the station boats were launched, calls started coming into the local police and the Coast Guard that a boat fire was observed off Block Island. Block Island station, Castle Hill Station launched their boats and Air Station Cape Cod sent a helicopter to the area. The weather started warming up, the snow at first turned to rain, then stopped and a fog, the thickest that has been seen in a long time, engulfed the entire area of Block Island Sound. The fog was so thick that the aircraft was useless and returned to Air Station Cape Cod. The search continued for a few days and after no evidence of a ship in trouble was found, the search was called off.
Even today, if it is a cold winter night during the longest and coldest nights of the year, you will still see a burning ship with full sails heading toward Newport and as the fire grows brighter, the ship turns and heads back toward Block Island. But if you listen carefully, you will hear a witch scream her curse and then bad weather will follow.