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Legend of 18th-century ship still haunts Block Island

CRANSTON, R.I. -- Rhode Island legend tells of a spectral ship that haunts the waters off Block Island, bursting into flame and sinking into the ocean.

Depending on the version of the story, the ship augurs bad weather, and may also appear on the Saturday between Christmas and New Year's.

The tales hold that the ship is the ghost of one that wrecked on the island's northern point shortly after Christmas 1738.

And while there's good evidence that a British ship, the Princess Augusta, carrying a load of passengers from territory that would become Germany, ran aground on the island on Dec. 27, 1738, there's accord on little else about the incident.

A deposition taken from the ship's crew shortly after the incident -- and republished in 1939 -- tells of a voyage in which provisions were scarce, half the crew had died, and others were hobbled by the extreme cold.

In the document, crew members said a heavy snowstorm drove the ship aground. They testified that Captain Andrew Brook encouraged those on the ship to save what they could of it and its cargo ''both before and after She broke to Pieces. . . ."

According to folklorist Michael Bell, of Cranston, within the century after the incident, two versions of the story became popular.

The on-island version told of the residents' generosity rescuing and nursing back to health the ill and starving passengers, who had been abused and exploited by the captain or the crew. The other version was immortalized by the 19th-century poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier, who was born near Haverhill, Mass.

Whittier's ''The Palatine" appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1867. In it, Block Islanders recall the wreck -- and some islanders' roles in causing it by igniting false signal lights to draw the ship aground.

Then, according to the poet, they plundered the ship ''like birds of prey/Tearing the heart of the ship away,/And the dead never had a word to say/And then, with a ghastly shimmer and shine/Over the rocks and the seething brine,/They burned the wreck of the Palatine."

A year after the wreck, in another storm, the Palatine -- apparently called by that name because it carried immigrants from the Palatinate -- reappeared in flames.

In the poet's account, a century after the wreck and plundering, the islanders are still haunted by a blazing ghost ship which appears on some moonless nights.

It's not a flattering portrait, and it clearly rankled islanders of the poet's day.

In his 1877 history of the island, Samuel Livermore tried to refute Whittier's version of the Palatine disaster.

''Poetic fiction has given the public a very wrong view of this occurrence, and thus a wrong impression of the Islanders has been obtained," Livermore wrote.

He included an 1876 letter from Whittier in which the poet responded to islanders' criticisms. According to Livermore's book, Whittier said he ''did not intend to misrepresent the facts of history," but wrote the poem after hearing the story from a Rhode Islander. Whittier acknowledge that it was quite possible his source ''followed the current tradition on the main-land."

Livermore instead presented an account by a scholar of his day. According to it, the ship came ashore on Sandy Point, and once the tide rose, was able to be floated again, and towed into Breach Cove by the islanders. All the passengers came ashore, except one who refused to leave the ship. Many, however, were ill, died and were buried on the island's southwest side.

Today, a marker, installed in 20th century, stands at the site. It reads simply, ''Palatine Graves -- 1738."

It's the only major physical evidence of the disaster. Charlotte Taylor of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission said no wreckage has ever been found that could be positively linked to the ship. Martha Ball, the former first warden of Block Island and a lifelong resident, said there's some evidence the ship was repaired and continued on to Philadelphia, its original destination.

Livermore blames the story of the ship's burning and other atrocities on ''the testimony of a witch, an opium-eater, and a maniac" and concludes ''Dutch Kattern [a passenger who stayed on the island after the wreck and was known as a witch] had her revenge on the ship that put her ashore by imagining it on fire, and telling others, probably, that the light on the sound was the wicked ship Palatine, cursed for leaving her on Block Island."

While Livermore dismissed the story of the islanders' barbarity, he was less willing to write off accounts of the so-called Palatine Light.

He noted that an unexplained light was often sighted off Sandy Point by people both on Block Island and on the mainland, and included in his book an 1811 account from a doctor -- whom he called a man of standing -- who had witnessed a light that resembled a ship ablaze.

More than a century after that account, talk about the Palatine Light remained.

''When I was growing up, they used to say of the Palatine Lights that no two people saw it at the same time. And everyone had a story about the Palatine Lights," Ball said.

Ball, who admits she doesn't have much patience for ghost stories, said an uncle who died before she was born was the only one in her family who claimed to have seen the lights. She noted with a laugh that he was the same one who also claimed to have felled six ducks with a single shot.

She believes the legend has hung on as long as it has mostly due to Whittier's work.

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