When tracing a family’s history you never quite know what mysteries you will uncover, or whether you’re going to crack a myth that has existed for generations. Sometimes you come across a seemingly inexplicable tale. These have to be explained in the context of the people who witnessed them, dismissed as mass hysteria, or exposed as a complete invention, i.e. a myth made up by writers at the time or later. The most interesting can be reliably shown to have really happened.
A family tree that I traced for a good client of mine held one such fascinating story. The family had settled in Massachusetts in the New England Colonies in America after a bout of fighting for Parliament in the English Civil War. These people were hard nosed fighting merchants and moved from Dorchester Massachusetts to New Haven Massachusetts driven by the prospect of increased commercial opportunities, rather than for any religious reasons that had driven the development of New Haven. No longer wanting to have to pass trade through the Massachusetts Bay Colony at Dorchester, New Haven Colony had built a “Great Shippe” of 150 tons on Rhode Island, an Ocean going vessel that could carry a huge cargo, to bypass the middlemen in Dorchester.
The Colony appointed Captain George Lamberton, the most experienced Sea Captain in the colony to sail the ship on its first voyage. Captain Lamberton was the Father-in-Law of one of the family members I was tracing.
Omens were not good, and before The Great Shippe could sail in January 1646, the sea iced over around it, and closed it in. The was ice so thick that volunteers had to use axes to break a channel through it so that the large cumbersome ship could be towed out backwards by men and horses hauling on ropes to the open Ocean. The superstitious sailors on board were on the brink of mutiny, but the local Pastor a Mr Davenport assured them that God would protect them. Captain George Lamberton persuaded his crew to sail the ship out to the open sea, whilst cursing the ship under his breath as a “…crank sided and Walty Ship that would be the death of them.”
Captain Lamberton was proved correct, and the ship disappeared on its maiden voyage. No sightings of it were reported from other vessels plying the trade routes, and the Colony feared the worst but without any real knowledge of what had happened, until the following summer when it was reported by Cotton Mather an early historian of the colonies that:
‘In June next ensuing, a great thunder-storm arose out of the north-west; after which (the hemisphere being serene) about an hour before sun-set a Ship of like dimensions with the aforesaid, with her canvass and colours abroad (though the wind northernly) appeared in the air coming up from our harbour’s mouth, which lyes southward from the town, seemingly with her sails filled under a fresh gale, holding her course north, and continuing under observation, sailing against the wind for the space of half an hour.
Many were drawn to behold this great work of God; yea, the very children cryed out, There’s a brave ship! At length, crouding up as far as there is usually water sufficient for such a vessel, and so near some of the spectators, as that they imagined a man might hurl a stone on board her, her main-top seemed to be blown off, but left hanging in the shrouds; then her missen-top; then all her masting seemed blown away by the board: quickly after the hulk brought unto a careen, she overset, and so vanished into a smoaky cloud, which in sometime dissipated, leaving, as everywhere else, a clear air.
The admiring spectators could distinguish the several colours of each part, the principal rigging, and such proportions, as caused not only the generality of persons to say; “This was the mould of their ship, and thus was her tragick end”: but Mr. Davenport also in publick declared to this effect, That God had condescended, for the quieting of their afflicted spirits, this extraordinary account of his sovereign disposal of those for whom so many fervent prayers made continually.‘
The “Mr Davenport” mentioned in the report, was the same Pastor who had assured the crew that God would protect them before they set off. So he offset his spurious prediction by interpreting the Ghost Ship apparition as a vision from God, for the benefit of his parishioners.
The point here is that the apparition was witnessed by a large number of steady minded, hard nosed, trading people, and would have therefore reinforced the absolute belief in the supernatural that was prevalent in the populace at the time.
Was The Phantom Ship Story True?
Strange as the story of The Phantom Ship is to modern ears, there is a fully rational explanation to what was seen. Normal explanations centre on religious mania, mass hysteria, and popular storytelling. However, there is a natural phenomenon that exactly fits what the witnesses saw.
The phenomenon is called a “Fata Morgana”, derived from the Arthurian Legend of Morgan Le Fay, who was said to conjure visions of castles, land masses, and ships in the air to lure sailors to their deaths, it has therefore been a well known although relatively rare phenomenon for some centuries, although believed to be supernatural rather than a natural phenomenon, and can be witnessed at sea, on lakes, and sometimes some distance inland when looking out to sea.
Scientifically it is called a “superior mirage” caused by two differing layers of air, the bottom layer being cold, and the top layer warm, these can act as a type of lens, bending light over the horizon and projecting objects and landmarks apparently into the air, sometimes upright, sometimes upside down, sometimes with a twinned image upside down under the top image, and sometimes greatly enlarged, making them appear closer than they are. The sunsets we normally see are a type of mirage, the sun always being already physically below the horizon by the time it appears to be visually sinking below the horizon. The 19th century illustration here shows examples of Fata Morganas both inverting and magnifying ships at sea.
Putting the Phantom Ship vision into context, Cotton Mather reports that the vision was:
- Seen at the same time, for an extended period, by multiple people, including sober adults – so is likely to have actually taken place rather than being a made up story or a product of teenage/religious hysteria.
- The witnesses were looking out to sea – exactly where such a phenomenon would be expected to be seen.
- There had been a severe thunderstorm about an hour before, that had moved off beyond the horizon – severe thunderstorms are typically caused by the coming together of air masses of differing temperatures, exactly the conditions that would be needed for the Fata Morgana.
- The apparition was seen about an hour before sunset, when the sun although appearing low on the horizon, was likely to have been physically below the horizon, illuminating objects beyond the horizon.
- The ship apparition was seen battling against a storm and being dismasted in the process – exactly what was no doubt happening at that time beyond the horizon to ships caught in the same storm that had passed New Haven an hour before.
It therefore seems likely that the good folk of New Haven actually did see the wrecking of a ship at sea taking place in the air above the sea, but the actual event was in real time but beyond the horizon in the storm that had just passed over the town.
Below is a modern photograph of a Fata Morgana, and instances have also been filmed in real time live from beaches in North America.
The most remarkable thing about the event in New Haven was that an actual shipwreck was witnessed, not just a ship passing some miles away. However, it took very little time for the local preacher to claim it as a vision from God, ensuring that modern readers would never believe the amazing phenomenon that the people of New Haven had seen. Below is a representation of what was seen in New Haven painted in the 19th Century by Jesse Talbot, now in the New Haven Museum.
Nowadays these sightings , especially if blurred, brightly lit or with the sun reflecting off of the ship’s windows, are usually claimed to be UFOs, as that is the currently fashionable mania replacing religious revelation! Most recently in an article in splashed all over the media in the UK and abroad:
Why spoil a good headline with a bit of research? (Don’t ask me).
Paul McNeil from Time Detectives is a well known TV Genealogist, whose work includes ITV’s DNA Journey, as well as numerous other appearances on UK television.
Time Detective’s Services for general commissions can be found here: Time Detectives Family Tree Services