Ghost Ships: The Palatine

by T. Duplain

Palatine Ghost ShipThe Palatine, also known as the Princess Augusta, was headed toward New England the day after Christmas of 1738. Aboard the ship were 150 passengers. Originally there were 340 passengers, but many had died of sickness and disease, as they often did in that day. They were Germans who had left Rotterdam in search for a new life, mostly for religious freedom, in Philadelphia.

Trouble Hits the Palatine
By the time the ship was a little over 10 miles away from the New England shore, it dropped its anchor. When ready to sail again, a strong windstorm started to blast the ship from the north-northwest, along with extremely rough tides. The vessel seemed to be breaking apart, so the mizzenmast (the third mast from the bow) was cut to lessen the struggle. All of a sudden, to make things worse, a heavy blizzard made it near impossible to steer the ship. The captain tried to ignore the weather and attempted to direct the vessel between Long Island Sound and Block Island. At Sandy Point, the northern tip of Block Island, the Palatine ran ashore.

The mate, posing as the captain, refused to let the people on board to leave the ship, because he was still trying to free the vessel from the shore it was stuck on. Eventually though, the captain was forced to give up the impossible task and the Palatine was abandoned. When her cable was cut, she drifted into some rocks and was destroyed. The people on Block Island took the passengers of the ship into their own homes and nursed and fed them, because they believed that the captain and his crew ran the ship into the island to cover up their neglect towards the passengers.

Another Side to the Ghost Ship Story
There is another version of the story, however. Instead of the Palatine hitting the shore because of the poor maneuver attempt by the captain, many believe that locals of Block Island lured the Palatine into the coast with lanterns through the storm so that once the ship crashed into the shore, they could steal whatever was on it. Some even believe the Block Islanders murdered the poor, frightened people on the Palatine. After the slaughter, the ship was burned and set out to sea so that the crime would not be discovered.

It is said that every year, the inhabitants of Block Island can see the manifestation of the blazing Palatine, along with the one woman that was left on the ship to burn to death.

John Greenleaf Whittier, a famous 19th century American poet, tells his version of the incident in his work, “The Palatine”:

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 spectre 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!


"A fitter tale to scream than sing,"
The Book-man said. "Well, fancy, then,"
The Reader answered, "on the wing
The sea-birds shriek it, not for men,
But in the ear of wave and breeze!"
The Traveller mused: "Your Manisees
Is fairy-land: off Narragansett shore
Who ever saw the isle or heard its name before?

"'T is some strange land of Flyaway,
Whose dreamy shore the ship beguiles,
St. Brandan's in its sea-mist gray,
Or sunset loom of Fortunate Isles!"
"No ghost, but solid turf and rock
Is the good island known as Block,"
The Reader said. "For beauty and for ease
I chose its Indian name, soft-flowing Manisees!

"But let it pass; here is a bit
Of unrhymed story, with a hint
Of the old preaching mood in it,
The sort of sidelong moral squint
Our friend objects to, which has grown,
I fear, a habit of my own.
'Twas written when the Asian plague drew near,
And the land held its breath and paled with sudden fear."