In the cold night right before the New Years, the light of a ghost ship can be seen outside the shores of Rhode Island known as The Palatine Light. The terrible fate of the wrecked ship still haunts the sea. 

Which, half in sport, in malice half,
She shows at times, with shudder or laugh,
Phantom and shadow in photograph?

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.
The Palatine, John Greenleaf Whittier

The Palatine Light is something that is reported on outside of Block Island on Rhode Island in the US. It is said that on the Saturday between Christmas and New Year’s Eve you can see the lights from the ship, burning as it sails past you as a ghostly apparition. 

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The tradition of the folklore tells of a British ship with German immigrants that were on their way to Philadelphia in the 1700s. Germany at this time was ravaged by famine, war and religious persecution and many made their way towards a better future in America. Those who made it to America were known as ‘poor Palatines’. There are many variants to exactly which year this was supposed to happen, as there are many variations and different historical explanations. 

The Palatine’s Haunted Legend

The ship, known as ‘The Palatine’ came to meet its fate outside of Block Island where it wrecked. The ship had for a long time been way off course and the passengers of the ship had already, before the sinking of the ship, experienced enough hardship on the voyage to drive them mad. The crew had deserted their duties and a horrible mutiny happened onboard that left the passengers to descend into chaos. The passengers that were left were driven mad by desperation, fear and hunger. 

The people of Block Island say that the locals tried to rescue the crew and its passengers, although on mainland New England, they tell a different tale. Namely that the islanders were luring the ship towards them to steal the cargo and kill the people on board. Which is also the narrative that is told in the poem ‘The Palatine’ by John Greenleaf Whittier, which helped solidify the story to a popular legend of The Palatine Light:

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 Palatine, John Greenleaf Whittier

Wrecking is a practice of taking the cargo from a wrecked ship, and coastal people that live in the areas where many ships go down are known as wreckers, looters of ships. In some accounts and especially in fiction, the wreckers went as far as lighting false beacons to lure the ships ashore and killing the survivors, so no tales could be told. Many people feared Block Island as they were afraid of the locals living there doing this, although there has never been any hard evidence of it.

In the cold night right before the New Years, the light of a ghost ship can be seen outside the shores of Rhode Island. The terrible fate of The Palatine still haunts the sea. 
Wreckers: Legends of islander and coastal people on purpose lured ship ashore to pillage the cargo and kill the passangers were often told and depicted in fiction. Like in Daphne du Maurier’s  Jamaica Inn, here, screenshot from the BBC adaptation of the wreckers. // photo: BBC

Both variations of the legends tell that after they had gotten the people off the ship, they set fire to the ship and it was driven out to sea. But the ship was not empty. A female passenger refused to leave the ship as it sank, and those who report seeing the Palatine Lights, claim to hear her screams from the ghost ship. 

The Wreckage of Princess Augusta

There are many ships that went down in these parts that could be the source of the legend of The Palatine Light. Many ships got off course and ended its day on the bottom of the sea this far north. One of those ships was The Princess Augusta and perhaps tells the closest story to the legend.

Like in the legend, the ship had problems onboard long before they hit the shores of Rhode Island. The water supply was contaminated and killed 200 of its passengers and half the crew, including the captain, named Captain Long. 

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It was the first mate, Andrew Brook, that took control over the ship, but a horrible storm pushed the ship of course and they ended up outside of Rhode Island. After three months of the extreme weather and no food, the state of the people on the ship was becoming desperate. Already poor, the passengers were forced to pay for the remaining rations by Brook. 

When it reached the shores of Block island it was severely damaged and leaked and finally wrecked in a snowstorm at Sandy Point in 1738. The waters around these parts are treacherous and in those times, there were at least a dozen wrecked ships every year around these parts.

Apparently Brook left all the passengers onboard and rowed to shore with the remaining crew. Although they were condemned in the public eye, they suffered no punishment for their mistreatment. 

According to the Block Islanders, they were not trying to steal the cargo at all, but help the passengers and bury the dead they could not help. It is said that they helped out all but one of the passengers in some accounts just like in the legends and a couple of the passengers actually settled down on the island, as more names of the passenger list have come to light with names. Mary Van Der Line was forgotten in all the chaos. Driven mad by her suffering and horrible voyage over the ocean, she didn’t get off the ship because she refused to leave her possessions and went down with it. 

In the cold night right before the New Years, the light of a ghost ship can be seen outside the shores of Rhode Island. The terrible fate of The Palatine still haunts the sea. 
Lights in the Sea: The islanders of Block Island have told throughout the years about ghostly lights and apparitions in the sea that are supposedly coming from the ghost ship known in the legend as The Palatine.

The fate of the ship itself is up to debate. There are some evidence suggesting that the Augusta  was repaired and sent to Philadelphia. But other accounts tell the story that sounds much closer to the legend of the ghost ship. 

The ship was seen as unsalvageable after the wreckage and pushed back into the sea to vanish. Before pushing it out, in some accounts they do actually set in on fire. There are to this day no wreck or remains of the wreck to have been found. 

The Sightings of The Palatine Light

Whether the islanders lured the ship ashore, or helped the passengers, they have countless reports about seeing the lights. One islander named  Dr. Aaron C. Willey described the light in 1811 after claiming to have seen it several times himself:

“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.”

So perhaps, when passing through these parts in the winter time, look out to the sea. Perhaps if you look close enough, you too can see the lights of the ghost ship. 

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References

The Legend of the Ghost Ship Palatine – New England Historical Society

Shedding light on the Palatine legend | Block Island Times

The Palatine. John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892). New England: Block Island (Manisees), RI Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. 1876-79. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes. America: Vols. XXV-XXIX

Passengers of the “Princess Augusta,” (1736)

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