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Fearless Friday: Charles Haskell and the history of madness at sea (A Real Life Ghost Story)

Updated: Apr 13, 2021

Between 1830 and 1892 nearly 600 ships and more than 3,000 lives were lost in the treacherous and gale-swept waters of the Grand Banks, off Newfoundland. The victims were fishermen, seeking cod in the icy shoaling grounds, and most of them drowned when their ships rammed one another as they jostled in the fierce competition for fish or were wrecked on the shoals. It was hard, nerve-wracking work, and the men who risked their lives each time they put to sea were alert to every kind of omen, good or bad, real or imagined.

In 1869 the Charles Haskell a graceful schooner built and outfitted for cod fishing, was undergoing final inspection when a workman slipped on a companion- way and broke his neck. There could not have been a worse omen than a death, and the captain who was to take the Charles Haskell to sea for her maiden voyage refused to sail in her. For a year no one would assume command of the ship; then, a Captain Curtis of Gloucester, Massachusetts, accepted the position.

During her first winter at sea — a notably harsh one—the Haskell and a fleet of some hundred other vessels were fishing off Georges Bank when a hurricane struck. In the confusion the Haskell rammed the Andrew Johnson. Both ships were badly damaged, but the Haskell managed to limp back to port; the Andrew Johnson was lost with all hands.

If the Haskell's escape seemed to belie her early, unlucky reputation, the fishermen did not believe it: the ship had been too lucky; she should have gone down with the Andrew Johnson, and it was the Devils work that she hadn’t.

Eventually the spring came, and with it better weather and excellent catches. Once more the Haskell was at sea, fishing off the Banks. On her sixth day out, the two men on midnight watch were suddenly terrified: men in oilskins streaming with water from the sea were silently climbing over the rails, their eyes staring hollows. The watch called the captain, and he and the crew saw the phantoms take up positions on the fishermen's benches and go through the motions of baiting and sinking invisible lines. Then, their task done, and in single file, the 26 dead seamen climbed back over the rail and returned to the depths of the sea.

Captain Curtis immediately turned the Haskell toward home, but another night passed before she reached the shore. Again, at midnight, dead men climbed from the sea onto her deck and played out their ghastly charade. But this time, as dawn came and the Haskell approached Gloucester harbor, they climbed overboard and formed a grim, mute procession, walking across the sea toward Salem.

That was the last voyage of the Charles Haskell, for there after not a man would crew her, and she eventually fell into decay and ruin at her mooring.

SOURCE: (Mary Bolte, Haunted New England: A Devilish View of the Yankee Past, pp. 43-46)

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