American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

GHOSTS AND GHOST SHIP LEGENDS. Beginning with the oldest yarns of the sea, authors and storytellers have described, largely in oral tradition, ghosts and ghost ships that appear and reappear in many different forms. Some of these legends assert that ghosts bedevil a ship until their wants are recognized and satisfied. They appear as cold, but corporeal, people, as wraiths upon the water or in the air, as voices or sounds, and as transmigrated beings assuming the form of a bird, fish, or sea mammal. They can guard treasure and occupy lighthouses* and the ships in which they went down. Although generally feared by seamen in the lore of the sea, ghosts are, for the most part, benevolent, warning sailors of impending danger, effecting rescues, or conveying useful messages.

Unhelpful ghosts, according to legend, are those for whom the ship is responsible. Should a man be killed during construction or launching or by falling from the rigging, his shade will not rest until the vessel is wrecked. If a ghost takes the crew with her, so be it.

Sailors believe that the sea seeks to claim the wicked and will take the good to get them. Hence, in the midst of great storms, the ghost of a murdered person will appear and identify the killer. He is thrown overboard, the storm abates, and the ship is saved. Sailors also believe that their best friend will be loyal even after death and that drowned sailors sometimes take the form of birds. If a gull drove a particular sailor out of the rigging just before the mast fell, and if other people were killed, for example, it meant that his long-dead friend had saved him.

Ghosts often appear in numbers. The schooner Haskell ran down the Johnson in a gale on Georges Bank with the loss of all hands. When the Haskell returned to the scene, she was boarded by the drowned crew. She went back to Gloucester* and became derelict, for no one would go in her. The Northern Light is said to have been saved from disaster by a dripping crew of sailors who came aboard in a raging gale on Georges Bank and took over the schooner, sailing her safely back to Gloucester.

Sailors believe in the supernatural and have reported frequent sightings of ghost ships in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and the Bay of Chaleur. Most observations occur in high latitudes off great capes and reefs where visibility is poor, temperature low, currents strong, and storms frequent. Some such visions happen only once, such as the vessel loaded with Puritans that left New Haven, Connecticut, bound east, its specter reappearing bound west a few days later; all hands were dressed in black, singing hymns.

Ghost ships have been preserved in a wide range of literature that depicts a variety of circumstances. A vessel might sink with loss of life and without proper rites being performed, or ships and crews might be destroyed by mutiny,* wreckers, or inhuman acts of the captain. Ghosts sail ships of their own accord or travel aboard vessels to return to their place of rest. Some never sink but roam the sea forever, particularly if the captain committed sins against humanity or defied either God or ocean. A few vessels, like the Merry Dun, were said to have been built by Satan, manned by fiends, and sent to search for drowned souls to haul to hell.

Traditionally, ghost ships move across a windless sea. They sail backward with the sails trimmed forward or sail directly into the wind. Some carry sail when no sail can be borne. Some burn. Some ghost ships are so sea-worn that their planks have fallen off, the sun shines through their ribs, and only the bolt ropes of the sails remain. The crews are often skeletons. Satan’s vessels might show red and blue running lights. While the Quedah Merchant plies Long Island Sound for no apparent purpose, most ghostly ships predict coming events. The Teaser and the Palatine* burn before a storm; the Dash foretells a death on Harpswell Island, Maine. To meet some ghost ships such as the Flying Dutchman augurs immediate death.

An influential English ghost story is The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The ballad has a Latin epigraph by Thomas Burnet, a seventeenth-century theologian, which translates: “I readily believe that there are more invisible beings in the universe than visible.” The Rime of the Ancient Mariner includes earthly and heavenly spirits, Death and Life-in-Death, and a skeleton ghost ship. The Ancient Mariner wonders if he is a ghost himself. According to John Livingston Lowes in The Road to Xanadu (1927), The Rime of the Ancient Mariner likely collects many of the oral tales of ghosts at sea told during Coleridge’s time.

In America, Richard Henry Dana Sr.,* in the poem “The Buccaneer” (1827), writes of a burning ghost ship and a white horse that rises from the water. The ship and the horse avenge the massacre of the passengers. In the short story “MS. Found in Bottle” (1833), Edgar Allan Poe* gives the text of a manuscript written by a shipwrecked* man whose vessel collides with a ghost ship. The man is hurled on board the ghost ship. The ancient sailors cannot see him as they sail their massive black ship toward the South Pole.

Many ghost stories of the sea are influenced by real events. The 1738 wreck of the Princess Augusta inspired William Gilmore Simms’* poem “The Ship of the Palatines” (1843) and John Greenleaf Whittier’s* poem “The Palatine” (1867). Whittier also wrote “Death Ship of Harpswell” (1866), which describes a ghost ship that haunts the coast of Maine. She is sailed by the Angel of Death, sails against the tide, and never comes into port.

Washington Irving* published “The Haunted Ship: A True Story as Far as It Goes” (1835) about a ship adrift in the Bahamas. In 1850 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow* wrote “The Phantom Ship,” inspired by the disappearance at sea of the Fellowship, which sailed from New Haven, Connecticut, in 1646 on a voyage to England. In “The Phantom Ship” the ship makes one appearance only, unlike other reappearing legends. Longfellow shows the people of New Haven observing a “Ship of Air” that sails against the wind. They see the faces of the crew as the sails blow away and the masts fall one by one, until the ship has completely disappeared.

In 1886 Celia Thaxter* published “The Cruise of Mystery,” a poem about a slave* vessel that turns into a ghost ship. The captain kills all the slaves by locking them in the hold during a storm. He forces the crew to throw the dead overboard when the weather improves. The captain turns the ship around to get more slaves, and eventually the corpses swim back to the vessel and lash him to the mast. The rest of the crew escapes, but the Mystery still sails, and presumably will forever, always followed closely by misfortune.

Joshua Slocum’s* nonfiction classic Sailing Alone around the World (1900) describes a ghost from Christopher Columbus’* crew who boards his vessel, Spray, and steers while Slocum is ill, conning her through a storm. In another legend, a man named Seymour Harnish saw a green and dripping sailor climb in over his ship’s bow. The ghostly mate shook Harnish’s hand and walked off the stern. Harnish opened the throttle for home, arriving just before the outbreak of a storm. A more contemporary use of the ghost ship is Ole Rolvaag’s The Boat of Longing* (1921). In Vincent Ferrini’s* Telling of the North Star (1954), a ghostly crew disembarks to claim an eager young woman who has become obsessed with reading her grandfather’s logbooks in the attic.

Though not American, universally the best-known and most dreaded ghost ship is the Flying Dutchman, which is said to haunt Cape Horn* and the Cape of Good Hope. According to this tale, a Dutch sea captain named Vanderdecker, or the Cloaked One, once attempted to round the Horn in his ship, the Voltigeur, but was held back by head winds. In a rage, he swore he would go around no matter how long it took “or be damned.” God appeared and ordered him to recant. The Dutchman refused and ordered him off the quarterdeck, in desperation shooting at God. The bullet bounced back, wounding Vanderdecker in the hand. God then pronounced his fate: he would never reach land, never receive or send mail, always be wet, always have head winds, have only vinegar to drink, chew molten iron, and never rest. Any vessel he spoke would become accursed and go down in a storm with all hands. Many seamen claim to have sighted the vessel; always she is seen driving hard in the murk before a hurricane off one of the two great capes.

Several variations of the nineteenth-century Flying Dutchman legend exist, with the captain and ship known by different names and with the story set in different places. Some trace the story back to the crucifixion and the tale of the Wandering Jew. According to sixteenth-century German lore, a man named Ahasuerus laughed at Christ on the way to the cross, and Christ promised that the man would wander until his return. From that time, Ahasuerus could be identified by a large black hat and black cloak, fated to walk the world unceasingly, homeless and solitary. Others claim the story derives from a Norse legend of the Viking Stote. German composer Richard Wagner wrote the opera Der fliegende Hollander, or The Flying Dutchman, in 1841. British author Captain Frederick Marryat wrote the novel The Phantom Ship in 1839. In 1888 W. Clark Russell published a three-volume account in The Death Ship.

Visions of ghosts and ghost ships in maritime lore can be rationalized by fatigue, cold, bad food, poor visibility, anxiety, and especially a subliminal response to minute atmospheric and oceanic changes, which can lead to a dreamlike trance where fantasy and reality merge. Today, sailors and landsmen still report ghosts on vessels, in lighthouses, and at sea all over the world, including aboard the U.S.S. Constitution in Boston and aboard the Charles W. Morgan in Mystic, Connecticut. [See also FINAL PASSAGES; GREAT LAKES MYTHS AND LEGENDS; MARY CELESTE]

FURTHER READING: Baker, Margaret. Folklore of the Sea. North Pomfret, VT: David and Charles, 1979; Bassett, Wilbur. Wander-Ships: Folk Stories of the Sea with Notes upon Their Origin. Chicago: Open Court, 1917; Beck, Horace. Folklore and the Sea. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1973; Beck, Horace. The Folklore of Maine. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1957; Behrman, Cynthia Fansler. Victorian Myths of the Sea. Athens: Ohio UP, 1977; Goss, Michael, and George Behe. Lost at Sea: Ghost Ships and Other Mysteries. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1994; Snow, Edward Rowe. Strange Tales from Nova Scotia to Cape Hatteras. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1949; Snow, Edward Rowe. Unsolved Mysteries of Sea and Shore. New York: Dodd, Mead 1963.

Horace Beck and Richard J. King