Rhode Island legend tells of a spectral ship that haunts the waters off Block Island, bursting into flames and sinking. Depending on who's spinning the tale, the islanders involved...

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CRANSTON, R.I. — Rhode Island legend tells of a spectral ship that haunts the waters off Block Island, bursting into flames and sinking. Depending on who’s spinning the tale, the islanders involved in the human drama turned out to be heroes — or monsters.

The tales hold that the ship is the ghost of one that wrecked on the island’s northern point shortly after Christmas 1738. Other versions say the vessel’s appearance augurs bad weather and appears on the Saturday between Christmas and New Year’s.

And while there’s good evidence that a British ship, the Princess Augusta, carrying a load of passengers from territory that would become Germany, ran aground on the island on Dec. 27, 1738, there’s accord on little else about the incident.

A deposition taken from the ship’s crew shortly after the incident — and republished in 1939 — tells of a voyage in which provisions were scarce, half the crew had died, and others were hobbled by extreme cold. In the document, crew members said a heavy snowstorm drove the ship aground.

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According to folklorist Michael Bell, of Cranston, two versions became popular within a century after the incident.

The on-island version told of the residents’ generosity rescuing and nursing back to health the ill, starving passengers, who had been abused and exploited.

The other version was immortalized by 19th-century poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier, whose poem “The Palatine” appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1867. In it, Block Islanders recall the wreck — and some islanders’ roles in causing it by igniting false signal lights to draw the ship aground.

Then, according to the poet, they plundered the ship “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.”

One year after the wreck, in another storm, the Palatine — apparently called by that name because it carried immigrants from the Palatinate — reappeared in flames.

In the poet’s account, one century after the wreck and plundering, the islanders are still haunted by a blazing ghost ship that appears on some moonless nights.

It’s not a flattering portrait, and it clearly rankled islanders of the poet’s day. In his 1877 history of the island, Samuel Livermore tried to refute Whittier’s version.

“Poetic fiction has given the public a very wrong view of this occurrence, and thus a wrong impression of the Islanders has been obtained,” Livermore wrote.

He included an 1876 letter from Whittier in which the poet responded to islanders’ criticisms. According to Livermore’s book, Whittier said he “did not intend to misrepresent the facts of history,” but wrote the poem after hearing the story from a Rhode Islander. Whittier acknowledged that it was quite possible his source “followed the current tradition on the main-land.”

Livermore instead presented an account by a scholar of his day. According to it, the ship came ashore on Sandy Point, and once the tide rose, was able to be floated again, and towed into Breach Cove by the islanders. Many crewmen fell ill, died and were buried on the island’s southwest side.

Today, a marker, installed in the 20th century, stands at the site. It reads simply, “Palatine Graves — 1738.”

It’s the only major physical evidence of the disaster. Charlotte Taylor of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission said no wreckage has been found that could be linked positively to the ship. Martha Ball, the former first warden of Block Island and a lifelong resident, said there’s some evidence the ship was repaired and continued on to Philadelphia, its original destination.

Livermore blames the story of the ship’s burning and other atrocities on “the testimony of a witch, an opium-eater and a maniac” and concludes “Dutch Kattern (a passenger who stayed on the island after the wreck and was known as a witch) had her revenge on the ship that put her ashore by imagining it on fire, and telling others, probably, that the light on the sound was the wicked ship Palatine, cursed for leaving her on Block Island.”

While Livermore dismissed the story of the islanders’ barbarity, he was less willing to write off accounts of the so-called Palatine Light.

He noted that an unexplained light often was sighted off Sandy Point by people both on Block Island and on the mainland, and included in his book an 1811 account from a doctor — whom he called a man of standing — who had witnessed a light that resembled a ship ablaze.

More than a century after that account, talk about the Palatine Light remained.

“When I was growing up,” Ball said, “they used to say of the Palatine Lights that no two people saw it at the same time. And everyone had a story about the Palatine Lights.”

She said she believes the legend has hung on as long as it has mostly due to Whittier’s work.

“I’m not really sure what would be floating around were it not for that poem,” she said.