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Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats – Voltaire

This seems like a safer way to fish.

This seems like a safer way to fish.

Life is uncertain, or in the vernacular, “Shit Happens”.  As this is not a particularly robust philosophy of existence, we tend to putter through life with a distinctly asymmetrical notion of probability.  That is, we confidently attribute repeated successes to our good looks, charm, and wit, but strings of tragedies to bad luck, jinxes, and curses.  Psychologist Thomas Gilovich, in his How We Know What Isn’t So pointed out, “If a person has experienced such a large number of positive outcomes that it is worthy of comment, an additional success is not, by itself, terribly noteworthy.  A subsequent failure on the other hand, violates the typical pattern of success and thus stands out in the person’s experience.  Examples of earlier jinxes are therefore easy to recall”.  What we’re looking for are departures from the base rate.  When everything is hunky-dory, the cows come home, the crick don’t rise, and the harvest is bountiful, we count our blessings and don’t bother looking too hard for statistical aberrations.  When catastrophe starts to cluster, we start calculating the odds. What is our sense of “creepiness”, but a feeling that when bad stuff keeps happening in the same place, chances are bad stuff will likely keep happening.  Mathematicians have given us some abstract terminology to make us sound a little less crazy in the notion of the “strange attractor”, that is that there are dynamic systems in which the system tends to evolve towards a particular value from a wide variety of starting conditions.  For all practical purposes, one might say that there are circumstances where the bad seems to keep attracting the awful.  We would call this being cursed.  Even the most die-hard rationalist may pause before booking a trip on a boat named the Titanic.  When measuring the likelihood of catastrophe, we look for notable departures from the base rate, particularly when these deviations involve murder, mayhem, or monsters and make layman’s calculations about the probability of another horrible occurrence given the history that we are aware of.  Those with a strong survival instinct walk away.  The intrepid disbelievers who spit in the eye of fate wind up as a folkloric warning that as Terry Pratchett said, “God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players [i.e. everybody], to being involved in an obscure and complex variant of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.”  Consider the case of the schooner Charles Haskell, from its inauspicious beginning to its ignominious end.

The Charles Haskell was a sixty-five ton cod-fishing schooner built in the Cape Ann, Massachusetts shipyards in 1869.  The original owner/shipbuilder was listed as one Samuel Haskell, who presumably named the ship after a dear relative.  Before even leaving dry-dock, she was embroiled in tragedy.  During her final inspection before putting out to sea for the first time, a workman is said to have slipped and broken his neck.  This was considered to be an overt sign of the ill-favor of the nautical gods, and the salty sailors of the Cape, used to walking a fine line between making an honest living and drowning horribly, took such omens seriously.  The original owners put her up on the auction block when they discovered they couldn’t find a crew willing to man the unfortunate ship.  As always, there was somebody who is willing to suspend their belief system in the name of a bargain.  This is usually the same person that looks for the house abandoned by the past three owners due to poltergeists and scoops it up at rock-bottom prices.  We wouldn’t have horror movies if it wasn’t for these people.  At any rate, another owner purchased the Charles Haskell and hired an intrepid Captain named Curtis willing to pit his maritime savvy against the grim odds.  Things were looking up when the Charles Haskell made it out of port and up to the Cape’s Georges Banks.  Except for that whole being born under a bad sign thing, which inevitably catches up with you.

It was a dark and stormy night on March 6, 1869, and the weather off the Georges Bank, which is bad on a good day, was especially terrible.  The Georges Bank was prime cod-fishing territory, and thus often crowded with vessels looking to bring in a sizable haul of seafood, yet of all the vessels caught in the tempest, the Charles Haskell had the misfortune to collide disastrously with another ship.

It was the sixth of March, in the year 1869, that occurred another gale of great proportions which caused great disaster among the Georges fleet. The details of a particular experience were given me by one of the crew of the schooner “Charles Haskell” which had a very narrow escape while on the fishing grounds. In company with several other vessels, this craft was caught in a sudden gale of great fury, in the midst of which she began to “drag”, a menace to those vessels anchored about her. Seeing their danger and having given up hope of their anchor holding, they finally got some sail on the craft, cutting their cable, and thus endeavored to work clear of the fleet about them. The snow was falling in great clouds and the wind was blowing with terrific fury, as borne on the wings of the gale, they dashed on through the night. Now the form, of a vessel would appear in the blinding snow ahead and be gone in a moment; now a craft went drifting by, or perhaps having “cut”, was seeking safety like themselves. Then a light was seen in the darkness ahead, the form of a vessel appeared, the outline of a schooner under sail, even as they were. With all the fury of the gale driving them on, with terrific impact they struck the unknown schooner amidships; there was a sound of rending plank, a fleeting glimpse of men upon her deck running aft, sharp outcries heard even above the roar of the wind and sea, and the Haskell, bowsprit gone, drifted clear, while the other no doubt sank beneath the waves, every man of her ‘crew going to a watery grave (Smith, 1915, p47).

The doomed schooner that was inadvertently sunk in this cataclysm was named the Andrew Johnson (although some sources say the Andrew Jackson, but agree that she was sailing out of Salem, Massachusetts).  Lists of merchant vessels of the U.S. from 1868-1872 identify  Andrew Johnson at 937 tons as “lost”, but also list a schooner of the same name, also out of Salem, MA at 67 tons.  Either way, she went to the bottom with all hands, yet the Charles Haskell managed to limp back to port.  This was itself considered to be fairly unlikely since as it turns out that when two ships collided off the Georges Bank in the 19th Century, they both generally sank – in fact so rare, that in 1869, the Charles Haskell was the only know ship to have survived such a collision in the area.

Schooner A. R. Andrews, Capt. Maker, broke adrift on Georges, during the gale on Saturday night, March 6th, 1869, and was knocked down by a heavy sea. Her masts breaking off, she subsequently righted, and fortunately none of the crew were lost. Without any sail to steady her, she was driven before the tempest, the sea often making a clean breach over her, while the crew had to lash themselves in the most sheltered portions of the wreck to avoid being washed away. In this deplorable condition, the brig Como, Capt. Williams, from Messina for New York, fell in with them, and, after great exertions on the part of her crew, succeeded in saving the sufferers. They were blanched and frozen, with barely vitality enough to revive. Schooner Charles Haskell had a very narrow escape from foundering. On Saturday night, during the same gale, dragged her anchors and was obliged to cut. While under sail, endeavoring to get clear of the fleet, came into collision with another vessel, staving her bowsprit completely through her, breaking it off, carrying away her head gear; then rising on a wave, struck her again, and it is supposed that she foundered, and all on board perished. The Haskell returned to port, and her disabled condition gave some idea of the violence of the shock. This is the only instance known where two vessels have collided on Georges and one has escaped foundering (Proctor, 1873, p100-101).

Now, the alert readers among you may be thinking, “Hey, that sounds like remarkably good luck for a supposedly cursed ship”.  Not so lucky for the crew of the Andrew Johnson, but they say any shipwreck you can walk away from is a well-managed shipwreck.  Unfortunately, the sea is a harsh mistress, sailors can be a superstitious lot, and this only further contributed to the Charles Haskell’s reputation as a cursed ship.  From port to its first fishing trip, the Charles Haskell may have tallied up a total of 27 deaths (the worker in dry-dock and the 26 crew members of the Andrew Johnson – sources are unclear on the crew size, ranging anywhere from nine to twenty-six).  As the Charles Haskell limped back to port, the optimistic may have been prematurely considering this turn of relative good fortune as a turn in the tide of awfulness dogging the ship, but since bad usually seems to follow bad, it actually went from bad to worse.  The Charles Haskell was patched up and set out on another fishing expedition in 1870, again under the command of Captain Curtis.  Six days out of Gloucester, the latest fishing expedition seemed uneventful, even profitable, until that is the Charles Haskell was boarded by the phantom fisherman of the Andrew Johnson.  Jonathan Winters, the last surviving member of the 1869 crew of the Charles Haskell maintained to his dying day that the ship was thereafter tormented by the dead crew of the Andrew Johnson, reported in his 1921 obituary.

The burial of John Winters, recalled to old-time fisherman a tradition of a modern Flying Dutchman with its ghostly crew that was believed to roam the seas in pursuit of a ship that had sent them to the bottom, relates a correspondent from Gloucester.  Winters was the last survivor of the crew of the Gloucester schooner, Charles Haskell, which in a storm in March 1869, ran down and sank a Salem schooner and its entire crew on Georges fishing banks.  He died at the Fisherman’s Snug Harbor in his eighty-second year, repeating almost to the last the tale of the ghost ship supposed to have pursued the Haskell throughout its career as a fisherman.  Once off Eastern point, at the entrance of Gloucester harbor, Winters said, a schooner ran down the wind, hove alongside the Haskell, and its phantom crew climbed the rigging, declaring themselves the ghosts of the Salem fisherman.  Winters and others of the Haskell’s crew refused to fish in the ship again and a new crew was taken on.  These returned with a similar story of ghostly visitations at sea, took their dunnage bags and quit.  Another and still a fourth crew were shipped, but each came to port with a renewal of the story of a ship shrouded in white and a specter crew, and the Haskell was hauled up, unable to get men.  It finished its seagoing as a sand freighter and the Salem ship was not heard from again (Carroll Herald, August 31, 1921).

There are creepier versions of the tale, that have heads of phantom fisherman bobbing on the waves and climbing up from the deep to board the Charles Haskell and go through the ghostly motions of cod-fishing, but these elaborations are presumably the result of poetic license when telling bedtime stories to small fishermen. Regardless of the specifics of the haunting, it seems rather clear that ghosts thereafter plagued the ship.

There have been ghost ships since the Flying Dutchman, notably the Gloucester schooner Charles Haskell, which sank another schooner in 1869 and was thereafter deserted by four successive crews (Durham Herald, Dec. 2, 1920) because she was persistently pursued by the phantom of the ship she had sunk (Frank C. Brown Collection, 1952, p625).

Curiously, it seems the Charles Haskell was still sailing in 1885, but unsurprisingly, the luck of the doomed vessel didn’t seem to improve, even were one to have the necessary gumption to endure nightly visitations from the phantom crew of the Andrew Johnson.

April 29, 1885—At a little before 5 in the morning, during a heavy northwest gale, the crew of the Sandy Hook Station. (Fourth District,) New Jersey, sighted a schooner-smack, which had been anchored in Sandy Hook Bay, dragging towards the shore. There was a heavy sea running, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that they got alongside in the surf-boat to offer assistance. She was the Charles Haskell of Gloucester, Massachusetts, with a crew of sixteen men, on a fishing-cruise. She had struck bottom some distance out, where the Sea made a clean breach over her fore and aft, and, as the fishermen refused to leave, the keeper advised them to hoist the jib to force the vessel farther up on the beach, beyond reach of the heaviest breakers, in order to save her from filling and going to pieces. His advice was followed, and the craft soon drove so far up that she lay nearly dry at low tide and was perfectly safe. The keeper afterwards, at the request of the captain, sent a despatch to the owners. She was got off, in a leaky condition, the night of the 30th, at high water, with the aid of three tugs (United States Life-Saving Service, 1885, p224).

Eventually, it became impossible to find a crew, and the poor Charles Haskell was simply left to rot, which while severe, indeed seems prudent.  In the end, you just have to play the odds, whether you believe in ghosts or not.  Unless we believe we have a solid and complete understanding of the universe and how it operates, we have to rely on probability, for as George Boole said, “Probability is expectation founded upon partial knowledge. A perfect acquaintance with all the circumstances affecting the occurrence of an event would change expectation into certainty, and leave neither room nor demand for a theory of probabilities”.  As perfect knowledge is a pipe dream, if you wish to avoid any preternatural awkwardness, you have to go with what you do know.  And if common knowledge is that a ship is cursed, it’s best to err on the side of caution, and mind Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s observation that “Curses are like chickens, they always come home to roost”.

Duke University. Library. Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore. The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore: the Folklore of North Carolina. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1952.
Procter, George H., b. 1835. The Fishermen’s Memorial And Record Book: Containing a List of Vessels And Their Crews Lost From the Port of Gloucester From the Year 1830 to October 1, 1873 . Gloucester, [Mass.]: Procter Brothers, 1873.
United States Life-Saving Service. Annual Report of the Operations of the United States Life-Saving Service for the Fiscal Year Ending … Washington: G.P.O., 1885.
Smith, Sylvanus. Fisheries of Cape Ann: a Collection of Reminiscent Narratives of Fishing And Coasting Trips, Descriptive Stories of Sandy Bay And the Harbor, Also Some Interesting Comment On Fisheries Legislation And Cause of the Decline of the Fisheries, With a Prophetic Glimpse Into the Future. Gloucester, Mass: Press of Gloucester Times Co., 1915.
“Pursued by Ghostly Ship”.  Carroll Herald, August 31, 1921.