Rev. Cotton Mather was nothing if not a prolific storyteller and historian. His writings, more than 400 books and pamphlets, informed many people living back in England about America. In his Magnalia Christi Americana he told of the ways God was at work in America. John Greenleaf Whittier drew on the work for his poem about the ghost ship of Salem.
The setting was the main wharf in early Salem, Massachusetts sometime before 1675. At that time, it wasn’t unusual for colonists to return to England to visit family or to tend to their estates or other business matters.
But no sea voyage was without risks, and this story captures four of the colonists overriding concerns: fear of ocean travel, suspicion of strangers, grappling with harsh nature and supernatural occurences.
In this story, a strange young couple arrives in Salem to make passage on the vessel Noah’s Dove. The people of the town are leery of the strangers. Some take their presence as a bad sign. But the ship is headed to England and on the day of its departure, the passengers – eager for a taste of England – are bent on leaving.
The wharf is crowded with passengers getting on the ship and those seeing them off. As the boarding continues, a raven flies overhead and lands on one of the hands of the town clock, pushing it forward ten minutes.
The sight makes the crowd even more uneasy and as the crew of the ship cast off lines in preparation to sail, fights break out among some of the departing passengers and their wary friends and family who are staying behind and trying to discourage them from leaving.
Into the scene, the two strangers arrive – husband and wife. She is crying as they board. No sooner have they set foot on the boat then a breeze kicks up and the ship is briskly carried out to sea. Within hours, the breeze has turned into an all-out storm. Hail, thunder, lighting and strong winds all lash the sea for three solid days.
The Noah’s Dove has surely perished, the townspeople say. On the fourth day, the sun comes out and the townspeople go to the harbor. In the distance they see a sailing vessel. The off-shore winds will prevent it from landing for at least a day, cautions one old salt. But the ship defies logic. It sails forward straight into the wind and toward the shore.
The Rev. Zebedee Stibbin, shaken by the site, leads some in reciting the 46th Psalm for comfort: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear . . .”
The Noah’s Dove steadily presses on toward land, and as it nears the passengers can be seen. The young couple, the strangers, are arm in arm on the deck. But they are dead silent and don’t seem to even be aware of the approaching shore.
Suddenly, the masts of the ship collapse, and with one huge thunderclap and flash of lightning, the ship is sunk to the bottom. The story was so powerful, it has lived on and been retold for more than 300 years.