Every winter Block Islanders can spot the ghost of the flaming ship Palatine, or so the legend goes.
The tale comes from the true story of a British vessel that ran aground on Dec. 26, 1738, and from the bad reputation Block Islanders earned for looting wrecked ships.
Sailors shook their heads when they spoke of Block Island, where wreckers lured ships ashore, killed their crews and divided the spoils.
“I would rather be wrecked anywhere than upon Block Island,” became a common and significant saying in the forecastle or the midnight watch, when the dark mass of the island heaved in sight,” wrote Samuel Adams Drake in 1883.
The Wreck of the Palatine
Drake described Block Island as “a bank of clay, treeless and wind-swept, eight miles long, rising out of the ocean between Montauk and Gay Head, and lying nearest to Point Judith, on the Rhode-Island shore, from which it is about five miles distant.”
Located in the middle of busy shipping lanes, Drake called the island a ‘veritable stumbling-block in the way of the anxious navigator.’
The Palatine was actually named Countess Augusta. It carried 240 immigrants from the Palatine region of southwest Germany. The ship sailed from Rotterdam in August 1738 under Capt. George Long and a 14-man crew. It headed for Philadelphia and Virginia.
The voyagers had terrible luck. The ship carried contaminated water, and passengers and crew died of disease even as stormy seas pushed them off course northward. After the captain died, First Mate Andrew Brook took charge. Supplies dwindled, and he charged passengers for food rations.
Brook tried to steer the ship between Block Island and Long Island Sound, but a blinding snowstorm drove it aground on the northern tip of Block Island at Sandy Point.
That, at least, is roughly what happened. There are several versions about what happened next.
One version can be found in depositions taken from the surviving crew and discovered in 1925. According to the crew, Brook rowed them ashore, leaving the passengers behind. The Block Islanders then persuaded Brook to bring the surviving 150 passengers ashore, nursed them to health in their own homes and later retrieved their possessions.
The islanders also buried about 20 passengers who died in the wreck. Then in 1947, the Block Island Historical Society put a marker at the site of the ‘Palatine graves.’
At least two passengers settled on the island, and the crew may have scuttled the ship out at sea. Or they may have set it on fire. There is some evidence, though, the ship was repaired and sailed on to Philadelphia.
Another version is less flattering to the Block Islanders. Joseph P. Hazard told it to the poet John Greenleaf Whittier. In that version, the islanders lured the ship onto the shoals with a false light. They then murdered the starving, freezing passengers, set the Palatine afire and sent it out to sea to hide their crime.
A passenger named Mary Vanderline, driven mad by her suffering, refused to leave her possessions. Every year between Christmas and New Year’s, Block Islanders can see the ghost of the flaming ship and hear Mary Vanderline’s screams above the surf.
Whittier wrote a poem about it in 1867 called The Wreck of the Palatine.
Block Islanders didn’t think much of Whittier’s effort. The Rev. S. T. Livermore called it ‘intolerable’ to represent ‘an entire community of law-abiding Christian people as barbarians and pirates.’
The Palatine Light
Like the Flying Dutchman or the Ghost Ship of Salem, the legend of the ghost ship has endured for centuries.
In 1811, Dr. Aaron C. Willey, a Block Island resident, 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.”
He first saw it in February 1810. “It was large and gently lambent, very bright, broad at the bottom and terminating acutely upward,” he wrote. “I saw it again on the evening of December the 20th. It was then small, and I supposed it to be a light on board of some vessel, but I was soon undeceived. It moved along, apparently parallel to the shore, for about two miles, in the time that I was riding one at a moderate pace.”
About the burning Palatine ship… 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.
The names of 15 passengers aboard the doomed ship came to light in 2017, when Jill Farinelli published The Palatine Wreck: The Legend of the New England Ghost Ship. Farinelli came across a letter that led to the discovery of 14 passengers.
They included 32-year-old Sebastien Dieter, his wife Catharina and their three children, all under five. Dieter, a weaver and a farmer, hoped for a better future for his children than they could expect in the town of Schwaigern. The medieval market town had little land and too many tradesmen. Taxes were high, military service compulsory and forced labor common.
Two other young families with small children were also on the voyage. Of the 14, only one would arrive safely in America.
Farinelli discovered another passenger while looking into smuggling aboard the ship. Conrath Gehr agreed to carry rifles to a Philadelphia merchant named Caspar Wistar. He intended to sneak them past customs officials to avoid paying stiff import duties.
Two passengers in particular remained a mystery. Called Short Kate and Long Kate, they chose to stay on Block Island. Island historians say one, who believed in the supernatural, behaved bizarrely and cast spells that bring back the ghost ship.
This story about the Ghost Ship Palatine was updated in 2021.