Notes On Phantom Ships
( Originally Published 1917 )
The annals of the sea contain many apparently authentic accounts of sea apparitions. They are reported with much detail and with that certainty which indicates that they are not merely creatures of the storyteller's art, but are reports of actual experiences of the narrator. Such stories naturally divide themselves into two classes, one relating to phantoms which foretell wreck and disaster to the observer, and the other class represented by those spectral ships which convey warning or tidings of wreck or disaster already accomplished, and thus enable the observer to escape a like fate. The first class of vessels is essentially evil, while the second is kindly and beneficent.
The vast body of data accumulated by folklorists and by societies for psychical research cannot well be ignored without examination, and may even be considered sufficient to make necessary a scientific explanation of apparitions. "The multiplication of the phenomena puts them on the same footing with meteors and comets and all other sporadic or residual facts. Their regular occurrence after a definite type suggests some other law than hallucination, extensive as that is. The collection of a census of events would satisfy science of the need of investigation at least, and that indefinitely. Ridicule after that would only indicate the cries of a dying philosophy." (Hyslop, Psychical Research and the Resurrection, p. 380.) If the study of data concerning the ghosts of men has led to any definite conclusion as to the reality of these phenomena, may we say that that conclusion is as applicable to phantom ships as to phantom men?
Our story of La Belle Rosalie was first made known by Amélie Bosquet in La Normandie Romanesque, and more recently brought to light by Fouju in La revue des traditions populaires, Vol. VI, p. 416, in the series "Légendes normandes du musée de Dieppe" under title Le vaisseau fantome, and finds its counterpart on many seas. We shall refer to those reports only which have been made by careful and trustworthy collectors.
In Scotland a sailor of seventy years told Walter Gregor of two fishing boats which left Broadsea together for Aberdeen. When they were away a heavy blow came on, and the little craft driving under bare poles in a smother of rain and sea lost sight of each other. After many hours the storm abated and one of the boats was approaching the harbor of Aberdeen at night when the form of the other boat was made out ahead of it passing safely into the harbor. This guidance the astonished sailors were able to follow safely into the harbor. On shore none saw the leading ship and no such ship anchored there. It was believed that at the time the lost fisherboat foundered in the storm many miles at sea, for she was never again heard of (Revue des traditions populaires, XI, 330).
An apparition observed by many was seen at Porz an Eokr in the Isle of Batz. A ship appeared there in the early morning while fishermen and coasters were busy with their nets and sails. Sailing well into the harbor in view of all she was observed by many, and so near was she that the voices of her officers, and her hail with the query where to anchor, were plainly heard and marked by their accent as those of islanders. Then from the sight of all she faded away like smoke in the wind. The awe-struck islanders had noted that she was the ship which had wintered in that harbor, and were not surprised to learn later that at the moment the appartion had appeared in their harbor this ship had been lost at sea.
A similar incident is cited in that curious old sea chest The Log Book. In the palmy days when the Dutch were bringing home the wealth of the Indies in their ponderous hulls there sailed from Rotterdam in the month of May, 1695, the good ship Van Holt. Voyages were long in those days, and when the Van Holt squared away to the South the tearful wives and anxious merchants of Rotterdam expected more than one May would pass before the Van Holt was again sighted from their lookout. Time passed with the coming and going of ships, and no news of the Van Holt. Winter storms blew up the channel and down from the Baltic, and one day as the gale was at its height anxious lookouts made a ship in the offing. Straining under storm canvas she was seen to stand for the harbor with the appearance of distress. As she came nearer the familiar hull and rig of the Van Holt were made out, and then in the wrack of clouds or the maw of the sea she was swallowed up. Landmen said she had gone down in the gale, but wise mates lingered over their flagons that night, and told the story of the wraith of the Van Holt. Wherever the Van Holt was that night in her long journey to the stormy cape, it is hardly to be credited that she was off her home port unreported and unexpected, and as no wreckage came ashore and no news of the Van Holt ever came back to Rotterdam it was and is believed that somewhere in the broad ocean the Van Holt was lost on the day her wraith was sighted off the harbor of Rotterdam. (The Log Book, 1827, p. 337.)
The British ship Neptune (Captain R. Grant) was reported as an apparition at St. Ives, on the same day that she was wrecked at Gwithian three kilometers distant (Mélusine, II, 159), and was spoken the day before on the Cornish coast, disappearing suddenly when a boat attempted to board her (Hunt).
Even the stern divines of Puritan New England in colonial days confessed their belief in the phantom ship. Cotton Mather tells of such a craft which was spoken of from the pulpit in New Haven. A new ship left that port in January 1647, for her maiden trip and was never again heard of. Six months later, after a thunderstorm about an hour before sunset, a ship like her was seen sailing up the river against the wind. Drawing nearer, she gradually disappeared and finally vanished altogether. Thanks were offered in the pulpits of New Haven that God had granted this confirmation of the fears of the townspeople.
A Salem divine of the eighteenth century is reported to have vanquished a similar spectre. A ship cleared on Friday from that port for England, having among her passengers an unknown man and a girl of great beauty. Being unknown and unlike the staid Puritans of Salem, it was feared they were witches or demons, and many refused to sail with them. The ship was lost at sea, and re-appeared off Salem after a three-day storm with the strangers plainly visible on her deck. Before the prayers of the minister the ship faded away. (Drake, New England Legends.)
These instances illustrate the class of apparitions which appear but once, and then in the home harbor, at or about the time of dissolution. There is another widely known class of ship apparitions which return on the anniversary of their wreck, or haunt the place of wreck or the home harbor.
On our own coast such a one is the Alice Marr seen off Cape Ann. She is thus described in E. N. Gunison's The Fisherman's Own Book:
"Ever as rolls the year around,
"Not a word of her master's fate,
An Indian woman in a spectral canoe is seen to plunge over St. Anthony's Falls in the Mississippi River. She is a wife who committed suicide there after a vain journey in search of a recreant husband. (Emerson, Indian Myths, p. 149.)
Two pirates are said to appear annually in the Solway. Legend has it that two Danish pirates who had gained their riches and power through a contract with the devil were according to contract finally wrecked there. At the bottom of the harbor these two ships remain intact and fishermen avoid the vicinity for fear they will be drawn down to join the revelling crews. On dark and stormy nights work is done aboard them, and once when a magician struck them with his oar they rose to the surface with all sail set and stood out over Castletown shoals. On the anniversary of their wreck they come in, and re-enact the scenes of their wreck. (Cunningham, Traditional Tales, p. 338.)
Danish sailors have long feared such an apparition. It often happens that mariners in the wide ocean see a ship, in all respects resembling a real one, sailing by and at the same instant vanishing from their sight. It is the spectral ship, and forebodes that a vessel will soon go to the bottom on that spot. (Thorpe, Northern Mythology, II, 276.) The Flying Dutchman is a similar omen. So the Maoris have often seen a giant war canoe on Lake Tarawera which disappears when hailed and always foreshadows volcanic eruptions, or other great catastrophes.
French fishermen at Heyst see a phantom ship which they call the Concordia and which is known by its redcapped trucks. On the approach of a tempest this grim monitor passes along the beach from the great dune of Heyst upon the sands lying between the sea and the dunes. Her appearance is rather good than evil as she gives warning to the small coasters and fishermen of approaching danger.
This is one of the most interesting of land and sea ships, of which we speak elsewhere. Hunt cites several such, one being connected with the story of a young man who turned pirate, and whose ghost often appeared in his pirate craft off the harbor in uncanny gales, sailing against wind and tide. Like other sea spectres he is accompanied by a dog. Spectral ships sailing over land and sea were formerly known in Porthcurno harbor, and were said to foretell by their number the strength of an approaching enemy, or the number of wrecks to be expected.
In the Solway appears a spectral ship which marks for destruction the vessel which she approaches. It is the ghostly bark of a bridal party maliciously wrecked, the spectral shallop which always sails by the side of the ship which the sea is bound to swallow. (Cunningham, Traditional Tales of the English and Scottish Peasantry.)
A Highland parallel is the Rotterdam, a big ship which was lost with all on board and whose spectral appearance with a ghostly crew is a sure omen of disaster. (Gregor, Folklore of Northeast of Scotland.)
Such a ship is also known in Gaspé Bay in the Gulf of St. Lawrence though no portent is drawn from her appearance. She is described as a quaint old-fashioned hull with huge poop and fore-castle, and queer rigging. From her ports and cabin windows lights are seen and her decks are crowded with soldiers. An English officer with a lady on his arm stands on the heel of the bowsprit and points shoreward. Suddenly the lights go out, shrieks are heard and the ship disappears. It is said to be the ghost of a flag-ship of Queen Anne sent to reduce the French forts, and lost with all on board. (Le Moine, Chronicles of the St. Lawrence, p. 36.)
From the same locality come the stories of the ancient caravel which still sails across the Cadelia Flats, and of the spectral light which marks the spot where the privateer Leech was destroyed in Chester Bay.
An ancient Japanese legend gives an account of one of the few actively dangerous phantom ships with the recipe for avoiding her lures. She is an ancient war junk, and her spectral character is made known by her lack of halyards. To be safe one should sail into her, when she will disappear. The sea will be filled with the forms of her men who cry aloud for dippers with which to bail out the sea. The wise fisherman will throw them dippers with pierced bottoms lest they cast the water upon his own ship. (Naryoshi Songery in Annuaire Soc. Pop. Trad., 1887.)
Many spectral ships carry lights, and spectral lights mark the resting-place of wrecked pirates and wizards. Pirates on the coast of Cornwall followed such lights many miles to sea only to have them slip away when approached.
Similar fleeting lights are pointed out by "Maggie of the Shore," a well-known Scotch witch, and such appearances foretell wreck. Near Stanard's Rock in Lake Superior a green light is said to hover over a ship wrecked there, and a figure is seen praying there. It is said that the drowned never rise from this spot.
Along the coast of Cornwall floats the Fraddam witch in a tub formerly used by her in her incantations, with a broom for an oar and a crock for a tender. The unfortunate who see her will soon be drowned. Her tub is to be classed with the fleet of devil ships.
There are several interesting instances in which the spectral ship is a psychopomp or soul-bearer independent of her identity as a ship. Thus near Morlaix in Finisterre they say that lost ships return to haunt the coast with their ghostly crews of the drowned, and these ships are said to grow larger from year to year. (P. Sébillot in Revue des traditions populaires, XVI, p. 23d.)
Near Dieppe, on the same coast, appeared the "Phantom Boat of All-Souls' Night" and other soul-ships like La Belle Rosalie. (Chapus, Dieppe et ses environs.)
French fishermen consider All Soul's Day, le jour des morts, a day of bad omen and seldom go to sea upon that day. Fishermen of the south of France fear that on that day they will see unpleasant sights or bring up skulls or bones upon their hooks. (Sébillot, Le Folk-Lore des Pecheurs.)
On the coast of Rhode Island is seen the tragic spectre of a burning ship. The apparition is well known as "The Burning Pala-tine," or the "Block Island Phantom," and is variously accounted for. The best-known story of her is that embodied in Whittier's poem, according to which the Palatine was a Dutch emigrant ship bearing many well-to-do Hollanders bound for Philadelphia. The captain was killed by a mutinous crew who starved and robbed the passengers. The ship was cast upon Block Island, and since that day the spectre of a burning ship has frequently appeared.
"And the wise Sound skippers, though skies be fine
Another legend told by Whittier is of the "Dead Ship of Harps-well," seen off Orr's Island on the Maine coast :
"What weary doom of baffled quest,
"For never comes the ship to port,
"Shake, brown old wives, with dreary joy,
Closely allied to these spectres which haunt the home port or the place of disaster are the many ghostly ships seen only at long intervals or raised by magic. Such is the spectral lugger with all sail set, seen on a pool on Lizard Promontory in Cornwall (Bottrell, Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall) and the spectral smuggler seen near Penrose on the moor in a spectral sea.
In the Canadian story of the La Chasse Galerie, Sebastian Lacelle is said to have been an Indian who was to have married Zoe de Mersac in the year 1780. The day before that set for the wedding he went hunting and was lost. Since that time he has been seen passing over Askin Point on the Canadian shore, his spectral canoe buoyed in clouds, his coming announced by the barking of his dog Chasseur. (Hamlin, Legends of le Detroit, p. 126.)
Such spectral canoes served in Canadian fancy to bring the spirits of living lonely trappers and voyagéurs from the vast wilderness of the West to join their friends and families on Christmas eve.
"Then after Pierre and Telesphore have danced `Le Caribou'
Near Prenden in the Baltic is often seen a phantom fisherboat with nets spread. When approached it disappears. (Kuhn and Schwartz, Norddeutsche Sagen, p. 78.)
So there are vague rumors that the Griffin, La Salle's first sail on the Great Lakes, suffers from the curse of Metiomek, and is still cruising in northern Lake Michigan.
Columbus was accused by mutineers of having summoned the ghost of a caravel with Escobar in command. Fairy literature has many such examples. In an Ojibway tale a fairy Lohengrin in a spectral canoe appears at the moment when a maiden is to be sacrificed to the spirit of the falls, and acts as her substitute by drifting over them. (Lanman, How-hoo-noo.)
There yet remains that large group of spectral appearances which may well be classed as optical illusions. A few instances will suffice to illustrate their nature and circumstances.
An Ayr legend of the early eighteenth century tells of a ship called the Golden Thistle which, having unsatisfactory winds, stopped at the Isle of Skye, and there procured from a witch a bag of winds tied with human hair. Sailing away thus equipped she passed near the Blue Crag of Ailsa. Here in the spectral dawn the superstitious captain, deceived by the reflection of his own ship, made hail, and the crag re-echoed his name and destination. The terrified man believed he had seen the wraith of his own ship, and soon died in the delirium of brain fever. (The Log Book, p. 293.)
A spectral ship often seen at sea proves on approach to be a rock, and is believed to have been a slave ship thus transformed by a magician who killed all the negroes and jumped overboard. (Schmidt, Seemanns-Sagen and Schiffer-Meirchen.)
Explorers of the French Geographical Society encountered in Africa the belief in. such an apparition which was so real that they were obliged to secure the services of a fetich doctor. This apparition appears before sunrise during the rainy season in Lake Z'Onangue. A great ship with many masts seems to come from the en-chanted or sacred islands in the middle of the lake. After some minutes many white men are seen to ascend her shrouds ; guns are fired and the ship disappears. The natives say this tells the presence of a ship at Cape Lopez. The fetich doctor from the bow of the explorer's boat offered brandy and biscuit to appease the enraged spirit of the islands. (Bulletin de la Soc. Geog., 1889, p. 304.)
A fatal apparition known a century ago as the Black Trader is said to have foretold by the number of lights burning along her deserted decks the number of lives demanded of the ship which was unfortunate enough to sight her. (Log Book, p. 99.)
When the Melanesians saw ships for the first time they believed them to belong to ghosts and to foretell famine (Codrington, The Melanesians) and the first ship apparition of Europe was a plague ship.
Captain Slocum, the well-known "Single-hander," thus de-scribes an incident of his return in a canoe from the South Atlantic where his ship the Aquidneck had been wrecked : "A phantom of the stately Aquidneck appeared on night sweeping by with crowning sky sails, that brushed the stars. No apparition could have affected us more than the sight of this floating beauty gliding swiftly and quietly by from some foreign port. She too was homeward bound. This incident of the Aquidneck's ghost, as it appeared to us passing at midnight on the sea, left a pang of lonesomeness."
Without further multiplication of instances, we may look into the psychology of the belief and its physical explanations. That it still holds a powerful place in the minds of men, there can be no doubt. Poor and industrious as are the fishermen of the Flemish coast, they seldom venture out on All Souls' Day because of the living fear of such an apparition. They say that on that day, November 2, there appears near the shore a spectral fisherman who will carry away forever in his nets all the living who look upon him (Rev. tr. pop., XV, 317; cf. Kuhn and Schwartz, Norddeutsche Sagen, 78). Prayers, incantations, and amulets are still employed the world over to defend against such mischances.
The cases we have cited may well be divided into three classes : spectres which haunt the place of disaster and death ; spectres and apparitions which appear at various times and in various places ; and apparitions admitted to be optical illusions.
Of the first class we have seen that the attendant circumstances are similar to those reported in connection with accounts of ghosts which appear in and about the abiding place of the individual in his lifetime. One theory advanced by psychology to explain these apparitions is the theory of the projected self or the embodied thought. May we then extend this theory to the wraiths of inanimate things? The scientific theory of phantoms of the dead is not mere meta-physical dogma, but is founded upon a wealth of well-attested data gathered by trustworthy observers.
It appears from a scrutiny of this material that such apparitions are in almost every case the wraiths of those who have died violent deaths under circumstances of great distress and excitement. "The phantom of the dead is produced under the most favorable circumstances. The objective senses are being closed in death. The emotions attending a death by violence are necessarily of the most in-tense character. The desire to acquaint the world with the circumstances attending the tragedy is overwhelming. The message is not for a single individual, but to all whom it may concern." (Hudson, The Law of Psychic Phenomena, p. 300.)
These being the conditons, it is suggested in theory that this thought upon which the agonized mortal centers for the moment his very being, somehow takes material embodiment by reason of its very intensity. If we accept this theory of embodied thought as an explanation of human ghosts, may we not logically extend the reasoning to the ship-spectres we have noted?
We find that the human ghost is clothed as in life, and has all the material accoutrements of its human original. We read of the ghost of a drowned sailor appearing at the bedside of his mother overseas, his yellow oilskins dripping with brine. We read that on the eve of the dissolution of some fine ship her form was seen off her home port.
If we say that the death struggle of the sailor lad brought forth that all-conquering agony of purpose to communicate for the last time with the distant mother, and that that thought took form in the ghostly visitor at her side, may we not say the same for the ship? Certain it is that in the hour of wreck and death the scores of hapless passengers and sailors turn with an agony of yearning toward the familiar home harbor they may never see again. Their very souls strain with that desire to carry over seas the news of the terrible ending of the voyage.
I am aware that this theory of the embodied thought sounds very Platonic and metaphysical, and that it leaves pertinent queries unanswered. Another theory more readily grasped would account for the phantasms of the dead on the hypothesis of the visualization of a telepathic message received by the subjective mind. In the present state of psychology we may consider either right, or both wrong, or find a Scotch verdict, as we will.
Of the class of wandering and recurrent ships, we can only say that perhaps they lie midway between the real wreck-wraith and the optical illusion. The optical illusion finds its explanation in the well-known phenomena of refraction, mirages, and looming. Aside from these, however, there are many other phenomena of the daily life of the sailor which readily form the basis for such belief. Sea novelists have painted terrors which seem fantastic to landsmen, but which have for the sailor the full force of sober truth. In the uncanny spectral nights of the tropics when the sea burns with phosphorescence, and the sounds of creaking timbers and idle blocks echo like spirit voices, small wonder that the burdened eye of the sailor sees unearthly visions and his strained ear hears unearthly voices. What sailor who has boarded a derelict green with the deathdamp, or an abandoned ship whose silent fore-castle and empty falls tell their story of mutiny or despair can ever get the grewsome vision out of his eye? What lookout who has started from his doze to see a lofty ship pass silently across his bows without sound or hail can ever forget the stifling terror of his fears, or drown the thought that he has seen a phantom? Sight and sound alow and aloft are to the sailor as trail and track to the woodsman, eloquent of meaning. His perception in times of calm or storm is open wide to the slightest sound or sight that may fore-tell coming change. To this consciousness cloud and mist shapes, mirages, and the thousand sights and sounds of the ever shifting panorama bring many extraordinary and inexplicable things, which are stored away in memory, and find their expression in the tenacity with which sailors cling to their belief in the "supernatural."