Dead men do tell tales...
By Brittany Blackwill, Lead Library Assistant
October 21, 2021
Much of our imagination is taken up with the bizarre. Those fleeting moments when you think you’ve seen something move from out of the corner of your eye. Your hearts race when the creak of a board or the rustle of a curtain goes unexplained. Your breath catches when you see a figure vanish in front of you. The dark murky waters of the ocean beckon you with foreboding tales of shipwrecks and sunken treasures. Film franchises like Pirates of the Caribbean, The Fog, Titanic, and Ghost Ship, play upon our imaginations and our fascination with maritime phenomena. Such maritime disasters hold our imaginations captive with obsession and fear. Contrary to the popularized saying, dead men do tell tales.
Tales of ghost ships have been around for centuries. All of them rooted in some sort of legend. The most original of these tales, one capitalized on by the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, was the Flying Dutchman. As the legend goes, the Flying Dutchman was a captain hell bent on sailing successfully around the Cape of Good Hope - the southernmost point of Africa - even if it took him “until judgement day to do it.” The Devil heard his oath and held him to it. The captain and his ship became spectres, doomed to sail for all time, and to serve as a warning of imminent disaster to all ships who cross her path. But that’s just it, The Flying Dutchman was never a real ship. Just a story; a story taken from poems, ballads, and eventually turned into operas and films culminated from the folklore of several sea-faring cultures.
There are other tales of ghost ships. Tales with ships that are more tangible than a fictitious ship. Ships like the Dash and the Mary Celeste. The Dash was built in the early 1800s. Known as being one of the fastest ships in New England, the Dash was used during the War of 1812 to capture enemy ships. Even in its heyday, the Dash developed a reputation for being able to sail a straight course, regardless of the weather. The ship disappeared, never to be seen again, in 1815. That’s where the legend picks up. In John Greenlief Whittier’s poem The Dead Ship of Harpswell, The Dash entered into a race with another ship. True to her form, the Dash sailed ahead, and was overwhelmed by a sudden and mysterious winter gail, and vanished into thin air. Locals believed that one day the Dash would return to her shores. Furthered by Whittier’s poem was the lore that whoever catches sight of the dash would suffer death. Many people claim that this is exactly what has happened to themselves and their family members. A number of tales exist of people seeing the Dash sail close to the shores of Casco Bay, just outside of Portland, Maine; only to receive word shortly after that a family member had unexpectedly died.
There is no ship so mysterious as the Mary Celeste. Books such as Ghost Ship by Brian Hicks and The Ghost of Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin, continue to capture our imaginations. The Mary Celeste was originally built in the 1860s and originally christened The Amazon. The Amazon was cursed from the start, as many would like to believe. On her maiden voyage the captain fell ill, and they had to return to port. Just a few days later, the captain died. Under a new captain, Captain John Parker, the ship didn’t fare any better. As it was sailing through the English Channel, it collided with another much larger ship. In 1867 under the command of Captain William Thompson the ship ran aground on the shores of Nova Scotia. The damage to the ship was so great that the crew had to abandon the ship and wait for rescue.
The damaged Amazon sat in port until it was auctioned off to a wealthy New York City merchant named John Winchester. He spared no expense in remodeling the Amazon and hiring an experienced captain and crew to sail her. He then renamed the ship The Mary Celeste. Winchester was overly confident in his new vessel and his crew that he decided to bring his family along with him on The Mary Celeste’s first voyage, a trip to Genoa, Italy. They left port on November 7, 1872. It would be the last time anyone saw the Winchesters or the crew of the Mary Celeste alive. On December 4, 1872, Captain Morehouse of the Dei Gratia, noticed a ship sailing aimlessly off the Coast of Portugal. He ordered his crew to advance. That’s when they noticed something wasn’t quite right. The sails were in poor condition, the lifeboat gone, and the store hatches were wide open.
The crew of the Dei Gratia boarded the ship. They found the captain’s sword under his bed. The compass was smashed. The stores of all the expensive and highly valuable ethanol they were carrying; still on board. The kitchen was neat and orderly. The only thing missing were the Winchesters and the crew. Even as investigations began into the whereabouts of the Winchesters and the crew of the Mary Celeste, disagreements about what actually happened began to darken the waters and further propel the ship into infamy. The truth is, no one will ever truly know what happened to the Mary Celeste or to her passengers.
Our fascination with the sea, and those lost to it, will always capture our wildest fears and propel our curiosities. There’s something deeply alluring about the unpredictability and merciless nature of the sea that draws us to them. Like ghost stories that haunt our campfires, ghost ships will never go away; making them the perfect fodder for a Hollywood retelling. After all, dead men do tell tales.
You can read more about the Mary Celeste and other maritime tales of woe at the Lewiston City Library. Many can be found under "Transportation, Ship, History" and "History, Expedition," or "History, Maritime" in the adult nonfiction sections. For younger readers interested in shipwrecks, they can check out the "JUV, Pirates" and "JUV, Science, Disaster" which are located in the children’s area.
The Flying Dutchman:
The Mary Celeste: