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Anyone Ever See a Sailing Ship on Fire?

Anyone Ever See a Sailing Ship on Fire?
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Welcome to the June 2008 edition of “Jud’s New England Journal,” the rather curious monthly musings of Judson Hale, editor-in-chief of Yankee Magazine published since 1935 in Dublin, New Hampshire.

Anyone Ever See a Sailing Ship on Fire?

We love taking the Point Judith Ferry (Galilee, Rhode Island) out to Block Island, and so do more people than Block Islanders would probably like. It’s such a magical place. But I wonder how many have seen a sailing ship burning and then sinking off Block Island shores. I’ve personally talked to several who swear they have. And they were sober, too.

Now bear with me for a moment. It all began back in the 1700s, when a ship called the Palatine sailed from a German port, bound for Philadelphia. The captain died — or was killed — en route, and the crew then robbed the German and Dutch passengers before leaving them onboard while they high-tailed it for land in lifeboats. That much is fairly well recorded in history.

So now the legend takes over: The Palatine supposedly drifted, or was sailed, onto the shores of Block Island, where greedy islanders plundered and killed the passengers and then set the ship on fire while one live, screaming woman was still onboard. Nasty, nasty … and Block Islanders don’t buy it. They insist the islanders heroically rescued the passengers and nursed them back to health while burying the dead. I’ve personally seen four little “Palatine” gravestones on the island, so labeled by a historical monument.

Now, enter famous New England writer John Greenleaf Whittier, who couldn’t resist writing a poem about the whole affair, including the following six lines:

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.

Since John Greenleaf Whittier wrote those lines, lots of people have actually seen the burning Palatine.

“I was walking home on a night late in November,” Mrs. Venetia Rountree, a former business manager of one of Block Island’s summer hotels and a graduate of Brown University, told our Yankee Magazine reporter some years ago. “It was moonless and windy, and we were busy getting ready for a predicted storm. Then I happened to glance out to the Sound, and I saw a flickering glow. The light grew bigger as it approached the shore — and I recognized it from drawings and paintings I’d seen. It was the Palatine.”

I recall another Block Island native visiting our Yankee offices back in 1958, the year I began working there, and how earnestly she described how, as a young girl living on the north end of the island, she was awakened one night by her parents and saw, for several awestruck moments, as she described it, a flaming ship that “rounded the Point” and then disappeared beneath the waves.

Walter Johnson of the United States Geological Bureau, as it was called some time ago, once tried to calm everyone down with a scientific explanation for all these sightings of the burning Palatine. He said that in that area of the ocean, just as is claimed in the so-called “Bermuda Triangle” area of the Atlantic, there are clouds of gas, which may escape from vast deposits below the ocean floor and reach the surface, sometimes actually igniting into flames.

Well, okay. But flames always in the shape of a sailing ship? Personally, I tend to go along with John Greenleaf Whittier.

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Anyone Ever See a Sailing Ship on Fire?

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