Ghost Ship of Block Island
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.
—Excerpt from “The Palatine” by John Greenleaf Whittier
The waters of Block Island are cold and dark in the dead of winter. But tales are told of a strange light off the island’s northern point, a light eerily resembling a three-masted schooner engulfed in flame. The light rises and ebbs until finally the ship founders into a silent, watery grave.
Witnesses to the light have desperately attempted to give aid to those aboard the unfortunate ship, but there was never evidence of a shipwreck to be found — no debris, no passengers or crew, just the sound of the sea. And so began the legend of the Palatine, Block Island’s Ghost Ship.
There is startling testimony describing sightings of this spectral apparition – which came to be known as the Palatine Light – but facts concerning the incident are scarce.
What is known with certainty is that in 1738, on a night in late December, the British ship Princess Augusta did indeed founder off the northern point of Block Island. The ship was later called the Palatine because it carried passengers from the Palatinate region in what became Germany.
Depositions of the crew, taken shortly after the wreck, presented a tragic picture of severe food shortages, contaminated water, extreme cold, and illness spreading among the passengers and crew – many had died on the voyage, including the captain. As they approached land, the ship was off course and hindered by a blinding snowstorm. First Mate Andrew Brook attempted to navigate between Block Island and Long Island Sound, but the treacherous conditions drove the Palatine aground at Sandy Point.
Different Accounts About the Wreck
Beyond the deposition, there is little information about happened that night. However, very different versions have arisen over the years.
In one scenario, after the Palatine went aground, Block Islanders rescued the surviving passengers, tending them until they regained their health. Those who did not recover were buried on the southwest side of the island where a marker, installed in the early 1900s, reads: “Palatine Graves – 1738.” No wreckage was ever found that could be linked to the incident but there is evidence that the ship was repaired and continued on to Philadelphia, its original destination.
A More Sinister Tale
A second and decidedly sinister version gained acceptance in 1867 when poet John Greenleaf Whittier’s “The Palatine” appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. Block Islanders were presented as having deliberately caused the tragedy by lighting false signal fires to draw the ship aground, after which they plundered it, murdered the passengers, and then, to cover their ghastly deeds, set fire to the Palatine, sending it back out to sea.
Ominously, one year later, the islanders were haunted by the first of many sightings of a ghost ship in flames.
In his 1877 history of Block Island, Reverend Samuel T. Livermore refuted Whittier’s depiction of barbarism as “poetic fiction” that had given credence to a false account and an inaccurate impression of the islanders.
Livermore’s book included Whittier’s response to public criticism of his poem, explaining that he had not meant
to misrepresent the facts but had simply written it after hearing the story from a local resident.
Livermore also addressed the Palatine Light, noting that residents had often witnessed an unexplained light off Sandy Point that appeared to be a burning ship.
According to the New England Historical Society, Benjamin Congdon, born around 1788, stated “About the burning ship…I may say that I have seen her eight or ten times or more.”
Dr. Aaron C. Willey, who saw the Palatine Light in 1810 and 1811, described it as follows, “The light looks like a blaze of fire six or seven miles from the northern part of Block Island. Sometimes it is small, like the light from a distant window. Sometimes it is as big as a ship and wavers like a torch…large and gently lambent….”
Cloaked in Mystery
Perhaps the whole truth will never be known, but one thing is certain – the Palatine Light is a colorful part of Block Island’s history.