Author speaks at Taber Library about 'the ghost ship of New England'

Apr 27, 2018

Visitors to Block Island may have heard about, or perhaps seen for themselves, an old-fashioned three-masted ship on the horizon, fully engulfed in flames before it dips below the surface, not to be seen again.

This is the story that author Jill Farinelli heard when she was vacationing on Block Island more than a decade ago. The idea intrigued her so much that she spent the next 11 years researching and writing a book about the ghost ship, she told listeners at the Elizabeth Taber Library on April 26.

There is some truth to the lore, Farinelli found. In December of 1738, the ship Princess Augusta wrecked on Block Island. A so-called "Palatine Ship," the boat was carrying German immigrants from a region known as the Palatine to Philadelphia. Even before running aground on a sandbar in New England, the voyage was far from easy.

The ship set sail with more than 340 people on board – by the time it sailed into Rhode Island, there were only 105 passengers remaining. The others had been lost to dysentery, including the ship’s captain.

Some theorize that the water was contaminated onboard, but Farinelli said it was more likely that the illness had been acquired at the holding camps in Germany.

About 60 people survived the Block Island wreck and a few months later, the survivors finally made it to Philadelphia. Two women, known as “Long Kate” and “Short Kate” due to their differing heights, stayed on the island. Another 30 or so passengers were buried in a mass grave.

Not much is known about any of the passengers or about the wreck, though it is confirmed that it did happen and that it never burned.

“This demonstrates how the absence of information leads people to fill in the blanks themselves,” Farinelli said. “You end up with rumors, but this tragedy was part of a bigger story.”

While it was a tragic ending for the Princess Augusta, a trying journey through storms and sickness was common during the mass migration of new citizens to the American colonies.

“It’s a story about the risks people will take when they’re desperate to start over,” Farinelli said.

As for the ghost ship stories, Farinelli said those started on the one-year anniversary of the wreck.

“The first sighting of a 'ghost ship' was reported in December of 1939, and for a while they were reported annually,” she said. “Then it became more sporadic.”

Sporadic, but still there. There were reports of the burning ship as recently as the 1960s, including one sighting that brought out Navy and Coast Guard searchers, seeking out a ship in distress. Unsurprisingly, no ship was found.

To read more about the shipwreck and the legends and history surrounding it, Farinelli’s book “The Palatine Wreck: The Legend of the New England Ghost Ship” is available at the Elizabeth Taber Library.