Shedding light on the Palatine legend

A new book offers new information
Fri, 12/08/2017 - 4:00pm
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The following is an interview with Jill Farinelli, author of the new book, “The Palatine Wreck.”  Farinelli will be holding a book signing at the Island Free Library on Saturday, Dec. 9 at 4:30 p.m. and will talk about the ship that is the origin of the famous Block island legend, the Palatine light.

One important note, the name of the ship was not Palatine, but rather Princess Augusta. Palatines were people from a region in south west Germany, and who were passengers on board the ship.

Q. You obviously did quite a bit of research for the book, but can you tell us where you first heard about the wreck of the Palatine?

A: I heard about the Palatine light while visiting friends on the Island. They’ve vacationed here for decades and know a bit of the island’s history. We were walking out to North Light one day (that hike gets harder and harder every year), and they told me about a fiery ghost ship that had supposedly appeared offshore over the years. They didn’t know much more about it, but naturally I was intrigued. I stopped by the Historical Society and found Robert Carlson’s book on the Palatine legend, published 1994. 

When I got home, I found some articles about the Palatine light, but they were mainly a regurgitation of the legend. I wanted to find out who was on board, what happened to them at sea, and how the ship, en route to Philadelphia, ended up in Block Island Sound. Was the first mate really the scoundrel he is made out to be in the legend? Were the Islanders thieves? But initially, I was struck by the fact that none of the passengers had ever been identified. I thought they deserved to have their names known.

Q: How did you go about doing your research?

A: I began my research locally, in Rhode Island, then branched out to neighboring states. I obtained copies of the sources Carlson had found, but unfortunately, I didn’t find much more in New England. I contacted the Ramsgate Maritime Museum in England, where the ship was owned, and got some information on the vessel and the crew. At that point I decided to organize my research by each leg of the journey: the trip down the Rhine River, boarding the ship in Rotterdam, the stopover in the English Channel, the voyage across the Atlantic, the wreck on Block Island, and the arrival of the survivors in Philadelphia. I began contacting archives, libraries, historical societies, and museums in these places. I corresponded with hundreds of people who work at these places, most of whom were happy to answer my questions. I hired several researchers in Germany, the Netherlands, and England to scour certain archives for information. It was faster and cheaper to have a local expert do it. They know where to look for what I needed. These are people who love history and love what they do, and they were intrigued by the story as well, which was fun. I also subscribed to some genealogy message boards, which yielded some information on the ship’s crew.

I had different types of documents from multiple countries, in different languages, using two different calendar systems (the Julian and Gregorian calendars, which differ by 11 days). I plotted the voyage on an Excel spreadsheet, recording the date and location of the ship based on the evidence I had found... it was overwhelming at times.

Q: Readers may be surprised to hear about the origins of the ship itself. Was there anything you discovered in your research that surprised you?

A: I was surprised to learn that the main purpose of the voyage had been misrepresented all this time. The Princess Augusta was not a passenger ship but a cargo ship that had been temporarily refitted to carry “human freight” on the first leg of a three-part, Transatlantic trading voyage. The ship was headed to the West Indies after dropping off the Palatine passengers in Philadelphia. Carrying Palatines was a way for ship owners to make more money on the westward leg of the voyage, when their ships would otherwise be sailing in ballast. Also surprising was the extent of smuggling on Palatine ships, both by merchants and by the passengers themselves. I am certain that some of the goods that washed up on the beach after the ship broke apart were being smuggled.

Q: I understand you’ve been to Block Island. What did you discover about the island that you had not realized before. Did writing the book make you look at the island in a different light (no pun intended) than you had before?

A: I did not realize the enormous number of shipwrecks and strandings that have occurred in the waters surrounding the Island. I was looking through the U.S. Life-Saving Service Annual Records (published from 1876 to 1914), and there seemed to be at least a dozen accidents at Block Island every year. There were several wrecks on the island while the Princess Augusta castaways were still convalescing there. That’s how treacherous these waters are. I had read that foreign vessels are required to have a local pilot on board when they pass through Block Island Sound.

I don’t know if the book made me look at the island differently. It’s always been a special place to me. 

Q: How long did it take you to do the writing? I’ve read this is your first book — did you find the process easier or more difficult than you had imagined?

A: It took 10 years to research and write the book. I worked on it in between freelance jobs and while raising my son. I was fortunate because I worked at home and made my own hours, and I have a husband who is very supportive of my work. Some parts of the project were more challenging than others. Certain chapters were more complicated to write. Several times I made research discoveries that changed the direction of the story. I hit a wall around year eight and took a few months off to do other work. After a break, the pieces fell into place and I was able to continue and finish. The research was a joy. I felt like I learned something new every day. The writing was a lot harder. Many Oreo cookies, many tears.

 Q. The legend of the Palatine light is one of those things that makes Block Island mysterious. What are your thoughts about the legend?

A: There is so much about the universe that we don’t know, so many things we can’t explain. I have no doubt that the light — whatever it is — is real. What causes the light, and what it represents, I cannot say. Is it the manifestation of the souls who died aboard the ship? Who knows. It’s a manifestation of people’s hopes and fears, at the very least.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
A:  I grew up in a small town just south of Albany, New York. I studied English and American Studies at William Smith College in Geneva, New York. After graduation in 1984, I moved to the Boston area because I wanted to live near the ocean in a place with a lot of history. My career path led to educational publishing, where I spent many years writing and editing middle school science activity books. (I had a lot of on-the-job science training.) I currently live in Wrentham, Mass., with my husband and our 17-year-old son, who was in first grade when I started the book. 

Interview conducted and edited by Lars Trodson.