At the risk of being accused of having poor taste, I have to admit that one of my favourite horror films is Ghost Ship from 2002. Think what you like of that film, the opening sequence of the massacre on board ship is a grisly work of art, and once seen never forgotten. Legends of ghost ships have endured for centuries. The following quote is from the Glasgow Evening Post, 14th September 1891:
In the south and west of England, and notably on the Cornish coast, there many stories of spectre ship. Some of them (says “Detroit Free Press”) sailed over land as well as sea. They were usually visible in tempestuous weather, and often manned by bad young men who did some desperate deed and then vanished. Sometimes these phantom barks suddenly carried off notorious wreckers, who had grown rich by luring ships ashore with false lights. Only some fifty years ago the captain of a revenue cutter reported that he had passed at sea, off the Devonshire coast, a spectre boat rowed by what appeared to be the ghost of a notorious wizard of the region.
The question is, how did the revenue skipper know that the boat was spectre? He does not seem to have boarded her. The Palatine is American spectre-ship. She was once a Dutch barque, but was wrecked on Block Island in the year 1752. After sacking her, the wreckers set fire to her and sent her adrift out sea, although there was a woman aboard who refused to land among such human fiends. Every year, on the anniversary of this shocking deed, the ghost of the Palatine is seen blazing away off the Point.
This is the legend of the “Palatine Light”, often reported as a distant blaze out at sea, and for that reason natural gas has been suggested as an explanation by people who feel the need to explain such stories of apparitions. The legend is misnamed, because the ship was actually named the Princess Augusta. The passengers were Palatines from the Palatinate region of Germany, hence the misnomer. The year in the article above is also incorrect. The wreck occurred in the year 1738, on 27th December. In 1867 the legend was immortalised in poetry by John Greenleaf Whittier, one of the “fireside poets”:
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.
The idea that the ship was lured to its destruction by deliberate shipwreckers with a light is almost certainly completely fictional, but when does the truth ever get in the way of a good legend?
Some of the above content originally appeared on our sister site, Windows into History and has been fully revised, expanded and updated. Content from that site is being moved and collated here. In the meantime, there are many more interesting history articles to be found there. RP
My favorite Ghost Ship story is one written by Wade Denning that I heard as a kid on an old ghost story album, just titled “The Ghost Ship”. I don’t think you have poor taste as far as the 2002 Ghost Ship film is concerned. I saw it in the cinema and I was fairly impressed by it at the time. Though I’ve not seen it again since. Thanks for having the Palatine Light ghost ship story and the poem on the Junkyard. 👻
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