“Science and technology revolutionize our lives, but memory, tradition and myth frame our response” – Arthur M. Schlesinger
How many times, while mucking about in the swamps of strange phenomena, have you heard the dismissive phrase, “its only folklore”? Whenever I hear that, my vestigial nurturing instinct (I had it surgically removed in the ‘90s), kicks in and I want to ask the speaker if they find the world to be a big, scary place or if their mother loved them. For example, would you say that “all men are created equal” is fact or fiction? Rationally and empirically we can demonstrate that this it is a blatant untruth, yet in the context of civilized existence and ostensible democracy, we must behave as if it is so. We are not indulging in a lie and casting reason aside, so much as we are collectively agreeing to frame our relations to the external world within a narrative. It is a rational and aspirational act to strive for an ideal and to make hard truths palatable, to box in our essential amorality, narcissism, and selfishness, and thereby prevent society from quickly descending into Hobbe’s “war of all against all”.
Those of a more skeptical mindset tend to view folklore purely as fantastic stories, superstitious holdovers from a darker past, pointing out the discrepancies in versions of each tale, the blurring of facts, the changing of names, the fluidity of the locations, the repetition of themes, the correspondence of symbols, and the implausibility of the monsters and specters that are held to co-inhabit our world, neglecting the fact that folklore is about how we tell ourselves uncomfortable realities that flatly refuse to fit in the sunlit world of the sane and rational, the crazy dictates of our conscience that balk at clawing our way to the top of the great chain of being, or the subtle, acausal, but nonetheless suspicious consequences of our practical actions. Buried in our folklore is our innate human nastiness, exposed for us to see in a form which can communicate an ideal. And it pisses us off, or as Oscar Wilde observed, “Man is a rational animal who always loses his temper when he is called upon to act in accordance with the dictates of reason”.
Were Hansel and Gretel historically authenticated personages? Unlikely. But did medieval German children sometimes wander off into the forest and vanish under suspicious circumstances? Most probably. Did they do so with enough regularity that we thought perhaps the kids should have a template for dealing with such a harsh reality, the predators and pitfalls of life lived a little closer to the wild? When we push our folklore far enough back into the past it provides a comfort zone from which we can digest its underlying ugliness. Time is the spice that makes folklore more palatable. When we can analyze historical documents and determine that the events described in our fairy tales, folklore, and mythology, conspiracy and fringe theories, cannot be substantiated with “acceptable” historical or scientific evidence, we can breathe a sigh of relief, and often ignore the more disturbing meaning lurking beneath the surface – a meaning that is not purely fictional, nor purely factual, rather instructive and sometimes illuminating, shining a light on those dark recesses of human existence that we prefer to overlook.
The inanity of arguing that “there is no truth” is abundantly apparent. Truths abound, but there are also “hard” truths, particularly the ones that we dare not admit to ourselves and act upon except in the realm of our imaginations or common tales that capture the warp and weave of our consciousness. When we don’t want to admit the ugliness of our history, our heritage, or the razors edge that we walk between sanity and insanity, when the prospect of disorder and chaos appear to be the organizing principles of the universe, we take these expressions of fear, this folklore, and provide a superficial analysis that says such and such thing never existed, such a dismal event never occurred, people never behaved so badly, and we point our fingers at historical documentation that proves its absence, all the while deafening ourselves to the veracity regarding the human condition that swims beneath the surface, and sometimes inelegantly flops out on the beach to breathe in a gulp of air and consider an alternative.
We can find a fascinating case study in this dynamic when we examine the origins of the famed “Palatine Lights” off Block Island, Rhode Island, immortalized in John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “The Palatine”. In the 18th and 19th Century, a flaming phantom ship was oft reported cruising off Sandy Point, usually around Yuletide, the spectral remnants of an ill-fated vessel beset by nature’s wrath, mutiny, and atrocity that wrecked on the island on Dec. 27, 1738 (or perhaps 1752). And what once was history, through the inexorable process of our understandings of ourselves, has with time and temperance become folklore, and as folklore, then becomes fiction, as literalists and the eminently rational (who wish to enact a different and simpler world) find ample targets for denial and dissection, stripping the bark from the occasional tree that has sagged into the path while ignoring the hungry eyes in the forest around them. In the numerous extant versions of the back story, the dates change, the names change, and the plot bends, but each one confronts a fear of what man finds himself capable of both doing and enduring. Let’s start with the most common variation.
It was in 1752 that a ship named Palatine started from Holland for Philadelphia. She was crowded with immigrants. It was in the winter and the North Atlantic was in one of her most savage tempers. Gales drove the Palatine far to the north of her true course. Mutiny broke out among the crew. The rebellious seamen murdered their captain and took charge of the ship. With the water and food in their control they sold these necessaries of life to the terrified and helpless immigrants. They demanded $10 for a biscuit and $5 for a single cup of water. And when the unhappy passengers had spent all their money they were left to starve to death and the dead were thrown overboard. Eventually the mutineers, with all of the money and the valuables of the dead and of the survivors in their hands, took to the boats and abandoned the Palatine to the fury of the storms. It was in Christmas week that the ship went ashore on the northern tip of Block Island. The Block Island wreckers swarmed aboard the stranded vessel, bent on robbing it. But they were kind to the miserable, half-starved immigrants. They took them off the ship and into their homes. But there was one of the immigrants who had been driven quite mad by the horrors of their experience. She refused to leave the ship and fought like a wild thing in her shrieking madness. Leaving her aboard, the wreckers towed the ship toward a sheltered cove where they hoped to strip her at their leisure. But another gale sprang up, and rather than run the risk of their prize being torn away from them by the storm and perhaps falling into other hands, the Block Islanders set her afire. Wrapped in a mantle of flame, the Palatine drifted out to sea. The wreckers and immigrants, standing on the shore, watched the burning ship drifting away from them, while back across the water came the unearthly screams of the mad woman left aboard to burn to death. And so, as the years passed, the tradition arose and settled into fixed belief that the Palatine, like the Flying Dutchman, was doomed to sail the sea forever. Hundreds have claimed to have seen the apparition, and the “Palatine Light” is a well known phenomenon along the New England coast. There is, apparently, some kind of light—strange, mysterious, inexplicable—which is seen far out at sea at certain times. One resident of Block Island asserts that the light from the blazing ghost ship is strong enough to illuminate his room at night. The poet Whittier heard the tale and put it into a poem, “The Palatine” … “Still on many a moonless night from Kingston Head and from Montauk Light, the spectre kindles and burns in sight.” . . . And there are people living this day on Block Island who will tell you, with their hand on the Book, that they have gazed seaward in the blackness of the night, startled by a bright radiance at sea, and have watched, with straining eyes, while the Palatine, blazing from truck to keelson, swept along the horizon while the screams of the mad woman came down the wind to chill the marrow in their bones (Conger, 1934, p216-218).
Could this be so? Were the Palatine lights a variation on the overused ignus fatuus (although I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a lot of swamp gas out on the ocean) held to deceive so many into spinning tales of specters and mercurial monsters or the misapprehension of natural phenomena by the reputed common folk? The sober scholar and avowed skeptic asks, how could they be anything else? Sobriety is for stuffed shirts who don’t revel in their own subject, beyond the accolades they are accorded when they demonstrate their mastery within the narrow confines of accepted truth. I say drink and speculate, let your mind wander over forbidden possibilities. How quick are we to slice and dice the narrative into “facts” that can be dismissed, rather than listening to what is being communicated. Phantom ships don’t exist and here’s why, they tell you. There never was a ship Palatine, or at least not one that wrecked on Block Island. In 1870, inquiries of curious historians were made to Charles Mueller, U.S. Consul at Amsterdam (imagined to be the home port of the Palatine) who dutifully reported, “the Custom House Archives there have been searched, and that the record was found of a ship Palatine which was wrecked in the Bay of Bengal, July 14, 1784″ (Livermore, 1882, p99).
Furthermore, naming a ship “The Palatine” which reputedly was carrying a load of immigrants from the German Middle Rhine palatinate of the Holy Roman Empire would essentially be the same as calling any ship loaded with Irish immigrants “The Ireland” for shorthand, the actual existence of a ship with this moniker sinking off India notwithstanding. “Aha! Let loose the dogs of rationality,” cries the skeptic. There was no such thing, and following this train of logic, decrying the fabulous nature of the tale, as its central protagonist has been shown not to exist, or certainly to never have been where it ought to have been. Except that a ship filled with “Palatine” immigrants did indeed wreck off Block Island. What we do have is the good ship Princess Augusta, and she throws a wrench in the works. It was the custom in Colonial Rhode Island, that any accident or misadventure at sea was reported to the first notary public the vessel’s officers could reach, to be included in official records. Rhode Island’s 1738 Notarial Protests include a curious description.
The Ship Princess Augusta, Captain Andrew Brook, on her voyage from Rotterdam to Philadelphia with a cargo of Palatine prisoners and their baggage, was ill used by the sea, weakened by the death of half her hands, was blown out of her course and forced ashore in a December snow storm on Block Island, where the usual protests were made by master and men before the Warden. It is possible that these represent only one side of the story (Preston, 1932, p32).
As it turns out, a bunch of folks from “the Palatine” were being immigrated to the Americas with extreme prejudice in 1738 aboard the ill-fated Princess Augusta, and subsequently found themselves wrecked on the shores of Block Island. The circumstances of this misfortune were a bit vague, but obviously merited some sort of documented protest. Sailing in the 18th Century was a fairly dicey affair, complicated by almost continuous naval warfare between one world power or another, the Golden Age of Piracy, and a nefarious colonial version of modern marine salvage called “wrecking”, which involved deliberately decoying a ship with false lights from shore so that it catastrophically grounds and can then be plundered, a reasonably profitable venture for marginal coastal communities. There are some hints that this may have been an occasional source of income for the colonial residents of Block Island, and it has been suggested that the Palatine (or Princess Augusta) met with this sordid fate.
As a rule the salvage from vessels that came from overseas with passengers (called “hen-boats” to distinguish them from freighters) was highly profitable because immigrants usually brought along all their worldly wealth. Therefore, when one winter’s day in the late 1700’s a large and evidently disabled vessel with many people aboard was driven by a storm on the reefs along the Block Island coast, the wreckers were ready to swarm aboard the hapless craft as soon as it was settled good and solid. When they climbed up the sides and landed on deck they met a sight they never bargained for. Instead of finding well-fed passengers they were confronted by a bunch of human scarecrows—thin, ragged, pitiful creatures that touched the heart of even the most savage wrecker. Men and women, some sixteen of them, were taken ashore and cared for. One woman who had gone mad with fear vanished in the hull of the ship. Every soul aboard was a passenger. What had happened to officers and crew? . . . This was the story the wreckers were told: The ship was the Palatine which had left Amsterdam, Holland, with a group of Dutch families who planned to establish a new Dutch community in Pennsylvania. Bad weather, poor planning, and brutal officers drove the crew to mutiny. Once the sailors had control, they killed the officers, robbed the passengers of all they had, took to the boats, and left the Palatine adrift. When the ship stranded on the coast of Block Island, the victims of the mutiny had been drifting on the cold Atlantic for many weeks. Children and old folks had died of starvation and exposure (Adamson, 1955, p116-117).
Now there are some who believe the story about the pity of the wreckers who found the disabled hulk and nearly crewless ship driven onto shore by a terrible storm was a convenient rewrite of history meant to assuage guilt, suggesting “The Palatine was a Dutch trader which, lured by false lights exhibited by wreckers, went ashore on Block Island in the year 1752. Having stripped her, the wreckers, in order to conceal all traces of their crime, fired her” (Bridges, 1908, p66), and much to their dismay, “As the tide lifted her and carried her flaming out to sea, agonizing shrieks came from the blaze, and the figure of a woman who had hidden herself in the hold in fear of the wreckers stood out black amidst the roaring blaze. Then the deck fell in and ship and woman vanished” (Pears, 1911, p934).
The American poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) in his famous poem about the incident seemed to lean towards the darker version, waxing poetically, as poets are wont to do, “like birds of prey/Tearing the heart of the ship away/And the dead never had a word to say/And then, with a ghastly shimmer and shine/Over the rocks and the seething brine/They burned the wreck of the Palatine.” Of course, by the 19th Century, Block Island had gotten a whole lot more civilized and didn’t appreciate Whittier impugning the character of their not-so-distant ancestors.
In Samuel Truesdale Livermore’s 1881 history of Block Island, he takes a stab at validating some of the details of the story of the Palatine, and despite the fact that she was likely probably named Princess Augusta, unearths some curiously authentic facts in interviews with descendants of the Block Island colonists who would have been involved, gathering odd bits of memory preserved and told to them by their grandparents. A Raymond Dickens mentioned that his grandfather frequently spoke of the ship Palatine, and how its invalid passengers were kindly received in Block Island homes. Also, a well-known personage in Colonial Block Island was a lady known as “Dutch Kattern”, a Palatine survivor who married a freed slave, had children, and was believed to be a witch. “She was a noted fortune-teller; that she would hide away behind a wall, or in a thicket of bushes, and there lie in a trance for hours. On returning to the house much exhausted, and being asked where she had been, her reply was that she had been home to Holland, and then would give an account of her kindred there as she had just seen them” (Livermore, 1882, p101). But rumblings of a darker story never seem to be far below, as the gruesome fate of the Palatine and it’s unfortunate last passenger have been retained in the tales explaining the mysterious Palatine lights, which numerous prominent and respected Block Islanders attested to in the 18th and 19th Centuries. On the first anniversary of the wreck of the ship, the Palatine lights were first sighted.
A twelvemonth later, on the same evening of the year, the islanders were startled at the sight of a ship in the offing with flames lapping up her sides and rigging, and smoke clouds rolling off before the wind. It burned to the water’s edge in sight of hundreds. In the winter following it came again, and was seen, in fact, for years thereafter at regular intervals, by those who would gladly have forgotten the sight of it (one of the community, an Indian, fell into madness whenever he saw the light), while those who listened caught the sound of a woman’s voice raised in agony above the roar of fire and water (Skinner, 1896, p48-50).
The complex tale combined with the appearance of strange lights off Block Island leave us with folklore that in many of its essentials is both patently falsifiable as well as verifiably made in reference to actual events that, masking a disturbing truth that our ancestors were often irredeemable bastards, just as we are, and forever shall be. The story, simplified, retains the horror encapsulated therein, but distances us from it.
The specter of the Palatine is occasionally seen on the Sound, and is the forerunner of a gale of wind. She was a Dutch trading vessel, and was wrecked on Block Island in 1752. The wreckers, it is said, made short work of her, stripping her fore and aft and setting ﬁre to the hull. As she drifted blazing off the coast, a human form was visible amid the ﬂames, the form of a female passenger, left to perish on the doomed craft. Since, and generally upon the anniversary of the wreck, a phantom ship with blazing hull, charred spars, and scorched sails and rigging has been seen cruising of Block Island.
Perhaps we need to temper our demands for empirical verification with lessons from sympathetic magic, which is rather dismissively defined as a “primitive or magical ritual using objects or actions resembling or symbolically associated with the event or person over which influence is sought”, and consider the value of a “sympathetic empiricism”, that suggests while our knowledge is derived from sense experience, our sense experience often escapes the grasp of our conscious morality and encounters the ingratitude of our rationality, and thus we encode our heart of darkness symbolically in folklore. Our folklore plumbs the depths of our capacity for good and evil, and then reports it back to us by the light of the campfire. As J. Michael Straczynski said, “The point of mythology or myth is to point to the horizon and to point back to ourselves: This is who we are; this is where we came from; and this is where we’re going”.
Adamson, Hans Christian. Keepers of the Lights. New York: Greenberg, 1955.
Bassett, Fletcher S., 1849-1893. Legends And Superstitions of the Sea And of Sailors In All Lands And At All Times. Chicago: Belford, Clarke, 1885.
Hill, Edwin Conger, b. 1884. The Human Side of the News. New York city: W.J. Black, 1934.
Bridges, T.C. “Ghosts of the Sea”. The Strand Magazine v35. London: G. Newnes, 1908.
Pears, Chas. “Ghosts of the Sea: The Strange Things That are Seen by Sailor Folk”. The Pall Mall Magazine v48. London: George Routledge & Sons, 1911.
Preston, Howard W. b. 1859. Rhode Island And the Sea. Providence: State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Office of the Secretary of State, State Bureau of Information, 1932.
“Ghosts of the Sea”. Current Opinion v22. New York: Current Literature Pub. Co, 1897.
Livermore, S. T. 1824-1892. Block Island: I. Map And Guide. II. Historic Sketch. Hartford, Conn.: The Case, Lockwood & Brainard co., 1882.
Skinner, Charles M. 1852-1907. Myths And Legends of Our Own Land. Philadelphia &: J.P. Lippincott company, 1896.