“One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep” – Anton Chekhov
Nobody likes a plot hole. How am I supposed to enjoy the narrative if you keep testing the limits to my suspension of disbelief? I mean, nobody was actually in the room to hear John Foster Kane whisper “Rosebud” as he gave up the ghost, yet Citizen Kane revolves around investigating the meaning of the word. It only took a day or two for Han Solo and Princess Leia to reach Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back, whereas Luke is hanging out with Yoda in grueling Jedi bootcamp, but young Skywalker turns up in Bespin right after they are captured. Heck, in the biblical Genesis story, Cain is the only surviving son of the first two humans ever created, yet manages to meet his wife (Genesis 4:17). Those little paradoxes, anachronisms, impossible events, implausible timelines, contradictory statements, and exercises in illogic that disrupt the flow of a story can really get on your nerves. We’re willing to overlook a bit of poetic license in the name of entertainment. Plot holes and inconsistencies become maddeningly irritating when you spend your time trying to reconstruct historical reports of strange phenomena. It helps if you drink. The essential problem is that anomalistic occurrences are the very definition of an illogical eruption, popping the comfortable bubble of our credulity. What happened shouldn’t have happened, and consequently we frequently see supernatural narratives, at first rooted in eyewitness accounts, tantalizing evidence of oddity, and memorable precisely because of their bizarre nature, meandering into the realm of interpretation in an effort to plug up those pesky plot holes, hoping to bridge the gap between fantasy and the fantastic. While researching the fate of the SV Sea Bird, a famed ghost ship of Newport, Rhode Island, I went straight over the handlebars and face first into a minefield of gaping plot holes. Now I am determined to climb my way out. Or at least climb high enough to get a cell phone signal. After all, I’m not a Neanderthal.
In potentially one of the earliest reports of a ghost ship along the Atlantic Seaboard of North America, the merchant brig SV Sea Bird came aground at Easton’s Beach, Rhode Island in 1750, returning from Honduras. The crew of eight had completely vanished, apparently within sight of shore (coffee was still brewing in the galley), but the ship was under sail, well appointed, undamaged, and managed to dodge dangerous shoals and coast safely into the beach. There was no sign of foul play. None of the crew were ever seen again, but a live dog and cat were found on board. This is a fairly rudimentary set of facts, but as I poked into the various accounts of the Sea Bird, even the simplest plot points of the narrative were found to be in dispute. The event is variously dated to 1750, 1760, and even 1850. The dog and cat are always noted, but another version inexplicably adds a parakeet to the living survivors. The missing captain was one John Huxham. Or maybe not. He might have been John Husham, or perhaps even John Durham of Middletown, Connecticut. The ship may have refloated itself overnight and sailed away, never to be seen again. Or, as fairly detailed accounts have it, was salvaged and used commercially for many years after without incident. Or, was parked in the Newport harbor, where it was later captured by the British and turned into an armed gunboat. This makes my head hurt. Let’s start with the most commonly quoted rendition of the story. In 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal program of the Works Progress Administration that funded the collection of local oral history and ethnography during the Great Depression, presumably concluding that in times of economic crisis, perennially “starving artists” were likely to wind up as decidedly “dead artists” if someone didn’t step in. In diligently collecting oral histories of Rhode Island, the contracted writers ran across the well know folktale about the fate of the Sea Bird.
The story of the ‘Sea Bird’ is remarkable not only for its interest but its actuality. In Newport, at the eastern end of Easton’s Beach, is a road leading to Purgatory and Second Beach. There, in the year 1750, some farmers and fishermen who inhabited a cluster of dwellings near the water observed, one morning, a vessel on the horizon. At first she did not attract any particular notice, for such a sight was not uncommon; but it was perceived, after a while, that the vessel was approaching the shore — standing in, as it was termed — with all her sails set and her colors flying. Such a spectacle was strange and startling, and the beach was soon alive with people who expected the ship to be caught in the breakers and dashed to pieces. Although not a soul was visible on her decks, she seemed to be guided by some mysterious power as she avoided the crags above and the ledges beneath the water. Approaching the beach, her keel struck the sands so gently that not the slightest injury was sustained. Wondering at this strange occurrence, the onlookers remained gazing at the stranded vessel, unable to believe their eyes. Presently they ventured on board, and the only living things they found were a dog, sitting quietly on the deck, and a cat in the cabin. Some coffee was boiling on the galley stove, and evident preparations had been made for the breakfast of the crew, but not even the ghost of a mariner was there. There was neither evidence nor proof of what might have happened, but it is generally supposed that the crew, finding themselves unexpectedly near the breakers, abandoned the vessel in alarm (the longboat was missing) and were afterwards lost. Later investigations brought to light the facts that the ‘Sea Bird’ was a brig belonging to Newport, under the command of Captain John Huxham, and had been hourly expected from Honduras, having been spoken about a day or so before by a vessel that had arrived in port. No tidings were ever heard of the captain and crew. The vessel was afterwards floated and sold to a merchant of Newport, who changed her name to ‘Beach Bird’ and sailed her on many commissions (Federal Writers’ Project, 1937, p108-109).
Spooky, right? Ship sails in from Honduras; crew seems to have disappeared moments before negotiating the shallows and beaching. Certainly a tale to be told among salty sailors on a foggy night in a dockside bar over a cup of grog. Complicating matters is the fact that an admittedly fictionalized account appeared (set in 1750) in the October 11, 1885 Wilmington, Delaware Sunday Morning Star, a short story of which the first part more or less mirrored an 1859 report of the same event, and the second part was a rollicking tale of murder and mystery involving a crew member who survived and hid out in Scandanavia. The 1859 version is in rough agreement with the oral histories of the Federal Writers’ Project, but lo and behold, provides some additional names of interest – the Sea Bird was, at the time of the crew’s disappearance, owned by a certain Isaac Steele, and was subsequently sold to one Henry Collins who renamed the ship (which according to nautical traditions is a really bad idea) the Beach Bird. Another clue to the timeline is provided in that during the British occupation of Newport, the Beach Bird nee Sea Bird was pressed into service as a warship.
1750 – A singular affair, of which the explanation must ever remain a mystery, occurred at this time. A vessel coming from the westward with all sail set, and altering her course when close in so as to avoid the reef, came ashore on the north-west corner of Easton’s Beach. Upon being boarded by some fishermen who had watched her approach, they found the breakfast table set, the kettle boiling on the fire, a dog and cat in the cabin, and everything undisturbed, except that the long boat was missing, as if the crew had just left her. Not a soul was on board, nor was anything ever heard of from any of the crew, nor any trace of them or of their boat ever discovered. She was a brig from Honduras, belonging to Isaac Steele, a merchant of Newport, and had been hourly expected, as she was spoken but a day or two before by a vessel since arrived. The captain’s name was John Huxham. He, with all hands, had evidently deserted her but a very short time before she stranded, although from what motive is not apparent, and what had become of them was equally inexplicable. It was surmised that the men, alarmed at the roar of the breakers, had taken to the boat and been swamped in the surf, but no bodies or pieces of the boat ever floated on shore. The brig was got off and sold to Henry Collins, then an extensive merchant in Newport, who changed her name to the Beach Bird. She made several voyages afterward, and her hulk was still lying in the harbor of Newport, at the time of the British occupation, when it was raised, and converted into an armed galley by the enemy (Arnold, 1859, p178).
In a number of 20th Century renditions of the story of the Sea Bird, particularly those about strange nautical phenomena, the date is moved forward to 1850 or 1880, but this probably results from either bad research, or confusion over the 1885 short story (our modern newspapers tend not to be literary outlets they once were), so one must be careful in assessing whether one is reading the “news” or “artistic” sections of early American newspapers. Pro tip – if you see a poem nearby, you know where you are. Luckily, the scraps of detail we can glean in the earlier accounts allow us to establish what archaeologists call a terminus post quem, that is, a date limit after which an event could not have happened, as well as a terminus ante quem, or a date before which an event could not have happened. If you find a corpse buried with a Roman coin imprinted with a date of 255 A.D., you can generally assume he didn’t die before 255, fixing a terminus post quem. Now he could have died after 255 A.D. and been buried with an old coin, but at least you’ve got a lower limit. If you just happen to know that the graveyard was unused after 260 A.D., you now can establish that your body was buried there as early as 255 A.D. and as late as 260 A.D. In the case of the Sea Bird, we have three useful bits of information to work with. The original owner was Newport merchant Isaac Steele. The owner subsequent to its short-lived career as a ghost ship was Henry Collins. And finally, there is the suggestion that it was later commandeered during the British occupation of Newport. The British occupied Newport, Rhode Island in 1776, since it was strategically located to launch naval attacks against New York. This suggests that the ghostly arrival of the Sea Bird could not have occurred after 1776, supporting the 1750 date. Also, there does appear to have been a merchant and privateer named Isaac Steele in Newport at or about 1747. Similarly, we know that Henry Collins was a wealthy and distinguished merchant in Newport from 1699-1765, dubbed the “Lorenzo di Medici of Rhode Island”. Although, to make matters more puzzling, various versions of the story mention that the Sea Bird exchanged “All is Well” signals with local fishing boats two days out from Newport, which when coupled with the insistence of many chroniclers that breakfast was set, coffee was warming in the kitchen, and the smell of fresh tobacco smoke lingered in the crews quarters, suggests that whatever plucked the unfortunate sailors from our reality, occurred between two days out of Newport and the ship’s empty arrival two days later at Easton’s Beach.
A curious story of an unguided vessel is preserved in some of the old Newport annals. In the year 1750, a Mr. Isaac Steele, merchant, of Newport, looked anxiously for an overdue brig, owned by him, which was to bring a valuable cargo from the bay of Honduras. A vessel which had sighted her two days out at sea came into port. Mr. Steele and his friends watched the harbor mouth in vain, till early one morning, standing in from the eastward, the brig appeared with all sails set, heading for Easton’s Beach. When close in she altered her course, rounded the rocks, and came quietly ashore at the northwest corner of the beach. Those who had watched her strange maneuvers with surprise lost no time in getting aboard, where, to their astonishment, they found no living thing but a dog and cat. The table in the cabin was set as for breakfast, a fire was blazing in the cuddy and a kettle boiling over it; but no trace of captain or crew was ever found. The subsequent history of this abandoned vessel that sailed home unpiloted, is not without interest. She was gotten off the sandy bed she had chosen, and being practically uninjured, was taken around to Godfrey Malbone’s wharf, where she was sold to a merchant named Henry Collins. (Bacon, 1904, p294-295).
Of course, 18th Century sailing was not the safest occupation, so a certain fatalism no doubt abounded among the seafaring communities of the Atlantic Coast, but they still liked an explanation when their loved ones and colleagues went missing. Sadly, many of the suppositions as to why the Sea Bird arrived crewless fell short of believability. The weather was good, the vessel was perfectly seaworthy (so much so that it was able to navigate itself through the coastal breakers without a scratch), the crew was experienced, the cargo was intact and no bodies ever washed ashore. Still others reported that “Sixty dollars in easily visible coins and cash was found in the captain’s cabin thereby ruling out any possibility of piracy, mutiny, or foul play. On deck, a small skiff was still secured in place on its chocks. Below, the odor of tobacco smoke still hung heavy in the crew’s quarters, but otherwise there was no trace of a single person, nor so much as a vague clue to their fate”.
What rendered the matter all the more singular was the fact that there had been no storm off the coast, and that the vessel was in good sailing condition. Many a conjecture was hazarded, but no certain conclusions were arrived at. It was generally supposed, however, that finding themselves unexpectedly near the breakers, through the carelessness of the helmsman, the crew abandoned the vessel in alarm (the long boat was missing,) and were afterwards lost, although their ship was almost miraculously saved. The name of the ship was the “Sea Bird,” and surely a bolder flight was never before except by a sea-bird made (Dix, 1852, p76-77).
I for one appreciate a measure of specificity, finding it particularly interesting that we have an enormous amount of detail about what happened to the poor Sea Bird after she beached herself sans crew on Easton’s Beach, down to the names and occupations of the folks who helped refloat her.
The vessel was afterwards got off, and William Lee, the grandfather of Robert P. Lee, Esq., cashier of the Rhode Island Union Bank, assisted in getting her off. She was brought round to Godfrey Melbone’s wharf, and sold to Henry Collins, then an eminent merchant of Newport, who changed her name to the Beach Bird, by which name she made many voyages (Peterson, 1853, p64).
Much of human history is oral history, the tales we tell each other around the campfire or by the hearth, but for the past few thousand years we’ve tended to lionize the printed word, shuffling kings and their wars into history, and mysterious accounts passed from generation to generation by word of mouth into folklore. We substantiate the reality of history by writing it down, but the further in time we creep from events, the less we understand the minds of the men that wrote them, gleaning the odd fact here and there, chuckling at their superstitions, and manipulating the warp and weave of their remembered histories to fill in those annoying plot holes that interrupt our reconstructed tales. Thus, the spectral Sea Bird becomes a symbol, a central character about which later generations write fan faction, which itself will become the truth and mythology of the future. Ghost ships fade into the fabulous realm of our imaginations, sailed away from the port of history, but as English essayist Joseph Addison said in 1711, “I think a Person who is thus terrified with the Imagination of Ghosts and Spectres much more reasonable, than one who contrary to the Reports of all Historians sacred and profane, ancient and modern, and to the Traditions of all Nations, thinks the Appearance of Spirits fabulous and groundless”. Puzzlingly, no suspicion ever fell upon the cat and dog.
Arnold, Samuel Greene, 1821-1880. History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. New York [etc.]: D. Appleton & Co., 1859.
Bacon, Edgar Mayhew, 1855- [from old catalog]. Narragansett Bay, Its Historic And Romantic Associations And Picturesque Setting. New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s sons, 1904.
Dix, John Ross, 1800-1865. A Handbook of Newport and Rhode Island. Newport, R.I.: C.E. Hammett, Jr., 1852.
Federal Writers’ Project. Rhode Island. Rhode Island: a Guide to the Smallest State. Boston: Houghton Mifflin company, 1937.
Peterson, Edward. History of Rhode Island … New York: J. S. Taylor, 1853.