The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Book Review: "The Palatine Wreck: The Legend of the New England Ghost Ship"

 

For nearly three centuries, stories of a burning ghost ship haunted the residents of Block Island, Rhode Island. Although it is unknown what it was witnesses have seen, the origin of “The Palatine Light” tells a different tale then the one passed down through popular culture. The Palatine Wreck: The Legend of the New England Ghost Ship by Jill Farinelli examines how the legend developed from the wreck of the Princess Augusta and explores how legends can emerge from public memory. By examining surviving letters of passengers, notarial records, and newspaper accounts of merchant ships, Farinelli was able to piece together a narrative of the Princess Augusta’s final journey in 1738 (xv-xvii). Further information on witnessed accounts of the ghost ship and surviving artifacts of the shipwreck was provided by Block Island’s historians. Jill Farinelli has worked as a freelance writer and editor for twenty-five years in Boston, Massachusetts. The Palatine Wreck is her first work of historical non-fiction.

In January 1867, the poet John Greenleaf Whittier published a poem titled “The Palatine” in the Atlantic Monthly. Based on a tale he heard from a friend, the poem was the first to launch the legend of “The Palatine Light” into mainstream society (158).

"The Palatine Light, from an illustration in the Providence Evening Bulletin, September 12, 1933. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library."


For still, on many a moonless night,

From Kingston Head and from Montauk light

The spectre kindles and burns in sight.

 

Now low and dim, now clear and higher,

Leaps up the terrible Ghost of Fire,

Then, slowly sinking, the flames expire.

 

And the wise Sound skippers, though skies be fine,

Reef their sails when they see the sign

Of the blazing wreck of the Palatine!

 

"They burned the wreck of the Palatine."


The origin of the Palatine Light legend began in 1738. Palatines, a name given to the people who resided in regions along the Rhine of modern-day Germany, began emigrating in vast numbers in the early 18th-century. As Farinelli examines, over 6,500 emigrants made their way to the British colonies in 1738 alone in hopes of a better economic opportunity in the Pennsylvania colony (169). Unfortunately, the 1738 sailing season would be one of the deadliest in history, with a death rate of 35 percent. Massive storms in the Atlantic and ill-preparation for numerous overcrowded ships were to blame. The Princess Augusta departed from Rotterdam in June 1738 with an estimated 340 passengers. While only 68 would survive the journey across the Atlantic, it was the ship’s destruction within the sandbanks of Block Island that brought wide-spread attention to the voyage.

Farinelli explores how such a common story captivated the public’s mind in final section of the book. Why was the Princess Augusta the event to be immortalized? One idea Farinelli explores is the rise of the Spiritualist Movement in the 19th century. People became interested in the paranormal and were simply captivated by stories believed to be started by the ship’s survivors, allowing them to remain popular amongst New Englanders (144-145). While Farinelli and other researchers are unsure what exactly caused the illusion of a burning ship, the legend has been embraced by many New Englanders.

"Map of Block Island.

Map: Patti Isaacs, 45th Parallel Maps and Infographics."


Farinelli’s research on the works of 19th-century New England writers, interviews with local Block Island historians, and years of researching Palatine emigration allows The Palatine Wreck to work as a case study for how history can transform itself into legend. A mixture of human tragedy fueled by the national rise in Spiritualism sparked interest amongst artists, who used the legend within their own fictional works. Whittier may have been the most famous example, but a number of writers had interpreted the event in their own ways. The emergence of Spiritualism sparked interest in these types of tales, combined with increased tourism in Block Island. At the end, Farinelli points out that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

In the end it doesn’t matter whether the Palatine Light is a phantom, a figment, or a floating mass of dinoflagellates. Because the light has become an integral part of the legend, its reappearances has served a continual reminder of the tale. Without it, the Princess Augusta and its many passengers lost to the sea, would be lost to history as well. (152).

This book may be of particular interest to those who study transatlantic migration, German migration, and the development of public memory. Local New England residents who are familiar with the tale of “The Palatine Light” may also be interested, as the book provides a thorough background to the incident. The Massachusetts Historical Society holds a number of collections that complement the themes of this book including Palatine migration, transatlantic history, spiritualism, and maritime culture: 

 

Manuscripts

Depositions of officers of the Palatine ship Princess Augusta, 1939

The Palatine, or, German immigration to New York and Pennsylvania, 1897

John Erving logbooks, 1727-1730

Log of the Brigantine Dolphin, 1732-1734

 

Printed Material

Early eighteenth century Palatine emigration: a British Government Redempitioner Project to Manufacture Naval Stores by Walter Allen Knittle [Philadelphia: S.N., 1936]

Boston in the Golden Age of Spiritualism: Séances, Mediums, and Immortality by Dee Morris [Charleston, SC: History Press, 2014]

 

To work with these materials, or any other collections at the MHS, consider Visiting the Library!

*****

[Updated, 5 March 2018, to include images.]

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 2 March, 2018, 3:58 PM

This Week @ MHS

Here is a look at events taking place at the Society in the week ahead as the calendar turns another page:

- Monday, 26 February, 6:00PM : Starting things off this week is an author talk with Pual Finkelman of Gratz College. Supreme Inustice: Slavery in the Nation's Highest Court examines the careers of three important antebellum Supreme Court Justices: John Marshall, Roger B. Taney, and Joseph Story, who all upheld the institution of slavery in multiple rulings. Finkelman establishes an authoritative account of each justice's proslavery position, the reasoning behind his opposition to black freedom, and the incentives created by his private life. This talk is open to the public, registration required with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Fellows and Members, or EBT cardholders). Pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM, followed by the speaking program at 6:00PM. 

- Tuesday, 27 February, 5:15PM : This week's seminar is part of the Modern American Society and Culture series and is a panel discussion. In "Capitalism and Culture," Jonathan Cohen of University of Virginia and Davor Mondom of Syracuse University examine the reaction against welfare state capitalism in the mid-20th century U. S., looking at two companies that promoted themselves as bastions of free enterprise or as a solution to high state taxes. Sven Becker of Harvard University provides comment. 

Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers. To RSVP: email seminars@masshist.org or call (617) 646-0579.

- Thursday, 1 March, 6:00PM : MHS Fund Giving Circle members are invited to Dinner with Dolley, a festive evening with good food, fine wine, and lively conversation inspired by Dolley Madison. During dinner, MHS President Catherine Allgor, who is known for her published work on Dolley Madison, will provide history and fun facts about dining with Mrs. Madison. 

This event is open only to MHS Fund Giving Circle Members. Join a Giving Circle today at www.masshist.org/support/mhsfund

- Saturday, 3 March, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society Tour is a 90-minute docent-led walk through our public rooms. The tour is free, open to the public, with no need for reservations. If you would like to bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or abentley@masshist.org.

While you're here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition: Yankees in the West.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 25 February, 2018, 12:00 AM

“He has been the great landmark of my life”: CFA on JQA’s death and legacy.

On a drizzly February morning in 1848, Charles Francis Adams, son of John Quincy Adams, walked into his Boston office. As he reached his desk, Adams noticed a telegraph that communicated that his father “whilst in his seat at the House of Representatives at half past one o’clock was taken in another fit of paralysis and that it was not thought he could survive the day,” CFA wrote in his diary. Adams was on the next train south.

Charles Francis Adams, Photogravure, from "Portraits of American Abolitionists," MHS.

 

Delays prevented Adams from making his connection to Philadelphia. As he waited for the next train, Adams began reading the book his wife had sent with him, Jane Eyre. That night, February 23rd, he anxiously read a newspaper that had reports from 11 p.m. on the 22nd that John Quincy “lingered.”

The next morning, while on the train to Baltimore, Charles Francis opened that day’s paper.

The first thing I saw was the announcement that at a quarter past seven last night my father had ceased to breathe. . . . Here then it is in all its reality— I have no longer a Father.

After another short layover in Baltimore, Charles Francis reached his parents’ home in Washington, D.C. He went straight upstairs to comfort his mother, Louisa Catherine. Charles Francis sat with her until it was time to go to bed.

She then told me she had no place to put me in but his room— And I went to it, just as he had left it on Monday morning: Yes there was his table and chair, his papers and writing materials, his bed and all his materials for his late sick life. And the animating spirit was not there and I was.

Charles Francis got little sleep.

The next day, his mother was “in a low, fainting state all day, and utterly unable to say any thing.” After a morning of greeting acquaintances and thanking them for their condolences, Charles Francis traveled to the House. He was ushered through crowds to the coffin, where he was left alone. “And here I was to take my last look upon one to whom for forty years I had been looking for support and aid and encouragement!” Charles Francis studied his father’s face through a glass pane and considered his future responsibilities. Poignantly, Adams reflected that he was “alone in the generation,” as his two older brothers and younger sister had all already passed away. He shed a few tears before returning to the committee room to discuss arrangements “until every nerve in me quivered.”

His mother being too unwell to attend, Charles Francis represented his family at the funeral. As he stood on the steps of the Capitol waiting for his carriage, he felt acutely the curious eyes of gawkers and resolutely stared ahead, reflecting on his father’s influence. “He has been the great landmark of my life,” Charles Francis wrote. “My stay and companion.” As he descended the stairs and climbed into the carriage, Adams prepared himself to become the Adams patriarch. “For the future I must walk alone and others must lean on me.”

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 23 February, 2018, 12:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

The Society is CLOSED on Monday, 19 February, for Presidents Day. 

It is a holiday-shortened week but there is still plenty of action happening here at the Society. Below are details for what we have on tap.

- Tuesday, 20 February, 6:00PM : Kendra Field's epic family history, Growing Up with the Country, chronicles the westward migration of freedom's first generation in the 50 years after emancipation. Fields traces the journey of her ancestors out of the South to Indian Territory, where they participated in the development of black towns and settlements. When statehood, oil speculation, and segregation imperiled their lives, some launched a back-to-Africa movement while others moved to Canada and Mexico. Interweaving black, white, and Indian histories, Field's narrative explores how ideas about race and color powerfully shape the pursuit of freedom. 

This talk is open to the public. Registration is required with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Members and Fellows or EBT cardholders). Pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM, followed by the program at 6:00PM. 

- Wednesday, 21 February : All K-12 educators are invited to register for Yankees in the West, an all-day teacher workshop. Using the Society's current exhibition as a guide, participants will investigate how writers, artists, and photographers sensationalized the frontier experience for eastern audiences and conceptualized the West for Americans who increasingly embraced the nation's manifest destiny. 

Registration is required for this program with a fee of $25 per person. 

- Wednesday, 21 February, 12:00PM : "Billets & Barracks: The Quartering Act & the Coming of the American Revolution" is a Brown Bag talk with John McCurdy of Eastern Michigan University. The arrival of British soldiers in the 1750s forced Americans to ask “where do soldiers belong?” This project investigates how they answered this question, arguing that it prompted them to rethink the meaning of places like the home and the city, as well as to reevaluate British military power.

This talk is free and open to the public. 

- Thursday, 22 February, 6:00PM : After the Civil War, artists and writers from Boston faced a question that haunted America: what’s next? For cultural leaders like Charles Eliot Norton and Isabella Stewart Gardner, Reconstruction left them feeling directionless and betrayed. Shunning the Whig narrative of history, these “Boston Cosmopolitans” researched Europe’s long past to discover and share examples of civil society shaped by high ideals. "For the Union Dead: Bostonians Travel East in Search of Answers in the Post-Civil War Era" is a public talk with Mark Rennella.

This program is open to all, free of charge, though registration is required. Click on the link and look for the Register button. 

- Saturday, 24 February, 9:00AM : The second teacher workshop this week examines how the personal and political philosophies of Justices John Marshall, Roger B. Taney, and Joseph Story influenced their proslavery positions. In "Slavery & the U.S. Supreme Court," Paul Finkelman, President of Gratz College, will discuss why these three influential justices upheld the institution of slavery and continued to deny black Americans their freedom. Participants will connect these federal rulings to local court cases, as well as antislavery and abolitionist efforts to undermine these unpopular decrees. 

This program is open to all K-12 educators. Registration is required with a fee of $25 per person. 

 

There is no public tour this week.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 18 February, 2018, 12:00 AM

When the Harlem Renaissance Meets Jim Crow

Your reference to the southerners regard, or rather, disregard of the Negro [--] I experienced a rather amusing incident a few weeks ago.

 

 

 

This passage comes from a letter written by African-American artist Meta Warrick Fuller on 5 January 1928 and recently acquired by the MHS. Fuller’s correspondent was Marion Colvin Deane, a white Canadian woman who worked at Virginia’s historically black Hampton Institute. Deane was an avid collector of autographs, particularly those of famous black writers, artists, educators, intellectuals, and activists. She wrote to Fuller, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Walter F. White, and many others soliciting autographs for her collection.

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (1877-1968) was an accomplished and acclaimed black sculptor associated with the Harlem Renaissance, though her work spanned the decades both before and after that era. Born in Philadelphia, her early artistic promise was nurtured by her family, and she studied art in Philadelphia before traveling to France in 1899 to attend the Académie Colarossi and the École des Beaux-Arts. In France, she met and was mentored by Auguste Rodin. Her work was exhibited alongside older and more established contemporaries like John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt, and she would go to win many commissions and awards over her lifetime.

In 1928, when Marion C. Deane wrote to her, Fuller was living in Framingham, Mass. with her husband Solomon Carter Fuller and their three sons. She worked in her own private studio behind the house.

Fuller began her reply to Deane by apologizing for her handwriting and thanking Deane for “the kind interest and regard – may I be worthy of them.” Then, in response to a comment by Deane on Southern racial animosity, she described a recent “amusing incident” on a Framingham bus. Returning from a shopping trip and finding the bus crowded, Fuller opted to sit in the back, although for her this was “contrary to custom.” From there, she overheard “a youngish sort of woman”—a white woman presumably visiting from the South—talking to a friend.

I could still hear the conversation – she spoke of how strange it seemed to see colored people mingling with white people – in schools – restaurants and the like – she would go out if one sat down at a table with her – it didn’t seem right.

 

And what was Fuller’s reaction? Maybe not what you’d expect.

It all impressed me as very funny – and mischief got the better of me – I wrote on a slip of paper ‘God made man of one flesh[.]’ I rolled it up, and as I passed on my way out dropped it in her lap. I was convulsed at the expression of surprise when she saw what I had done, but I left the car before she had time to read it. I have not since seen the woman with whom she was talking but I am curious to know what she did after reading it.

 

The MHS currently holds no other papers of Meta Warrick Fuller, so this letter is a very welcome addition to our collection. It’s also a fascinating record of racial attitudes in the years between the Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” decision and the height of the civil rights movement in America.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 16 February, 2018, 9:48 AM

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