Podcast 269 – The Ghost Ship Sea Bird

In the fall of 1750, the ghost ship Sea Brid beached itself in Newport, Rhode Island. The crew were never seen again.

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In Episode 269, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger search for the Sea Bird, a seaworthy ghost ship that beached near Newport, Rhode Island, in the Autumn of 1750. With no crew on board, and no sign of any trouble or theft, a legend was born. The captain and crew were never seen again. 135 years later, a plausible tale of mutiny and murder surfaced that made the newspapers, keeping us wondering what happened to the Sea Bird.

Read the episode transcript.

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Produced and hosted by: Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger
Edited by: Ray Auger
Theme Music by: John Judd

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*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.

RAY: The weather may be getting colder, Jeff, but it’s still nice here by Easton Beach.
JEFF: It is, mid-fall still suits Newport, Rhode Island.
RAY: Newport Harbor is just to our west. There’s plenty of boats out on the water today. Not too many people walking on the sand. I think a lot of us forget how great the beach and ocean are even when it’s not summer.
JEFF: I agree. It’s great for a picnic, a stroll, or legend hunting. And please do keep your eyes peeled on the water today, Ray.
RAY: What are we looking for? A shark?! A storm? A boat?
JEFF: We’re looking for an old boat. We’ve come to Newport in search of a ghost ship called Sea Bird.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger, and welcome to Episode 269 of the New England Legends podcast. Thanks for joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time.
JEFF: And we can’t do it without you! We’re a community of legend seekers who are always on the lookout for ghosts, monsters, aliens, odd history, road side oddities, and everything else that makes New England like no other place. Most of our story leads come from you! If you know of a great local legend, don’t assume we’ve heard it. You can reach out to us anytime through our Web site, or get involved in the super-secret New England Legends Facebook group. It’s where thousands of people are sharing weird stories.
RAY: The New England Legends Facebook group may be the WORST kept secret around.
JEFF: Good point.
RAY: Before we go searching for the ghost ship in Newport, we want to take just a minute to tell you about our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals!
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JEFF: Lately I’ve been making Nuwati Herbals RootBerry Tea during the mid-afternoon when I start to hit that lull. It’s a sweet treat! I love that it tastes great—just enough like root beer and enough like tea.
RAY: Nuwati Herbals has so many great flavors, you could try something different each day of the week. There’s Peach Nilla, Blueberry Cinnamon, Strawberry Moon, Chocolate Chai, Honey and Spice… and… it’s still too early to mention their Christmas tea, isn’t it?
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RAY: Okay, Jeff. So we’re on Easton Beach searching for a ghost ship?
JEFF: We are. Though we’re a few hundred years too late on this one. But this was ground zero for an event that launched a legend. One of the greatest maritime mysteries in the history of Newport.
RAY: So I know from some of our previous adventures that there’s two kids of ghost ships. Way back in Episode 43 we explored the ghost ship of New Haven, Connecticut.
JEFF: That’s right. That was the story of a ship that sailed from New Haven but was never seen again, until a specter of a ship in the clouds sailed above the harbor in front of dozens of witnesses before it dissipated.
RAY: Then there’s the other kind of ghost ship. Back in Episode 88, we searched for the Mary Celeste which once sailed out of Marion, Massachusetts.
JEFF: Right, the Mary Celeste was found drifting in the Atlantic, but seaworthy in every sense. But the entire crew was missing and never seen again.
RAY: THAT kind of ghost ship freaks me out more than any cloud formation.
JEFF: Well then I’m glad you brought an extra set of pantaloons, Ray. Because the Sea Bird is similar to the Mary Celeste… only stranger. So let’s head back to the Autumn of 1750 and explore this seaside mystery.
RAY: It’s October of 1750, here by the busy docks of Newport Harbor. Fishing vessels, and other ships come and go. It’s always bustling here.
JEFF: Today is an exciting day, because a 300-ton, square-rigged brig called Sea Bird is expected to arrive home from Bristol, England.
RAY: Sea Bird is owned by Isaac Steel, and is sailing under the command of Captain John Huxham. Huxham is well-seasoned, and his crew know their way around trans-Atlantic voyages.
JEFF: We know the Sea Bird should be here soon because a fishing vessel pulled in a little while ago, and the crew said they saw the Sea Bird a few hours back, and got close enough to give a wave to Captain Huxham who also waved back.
RAY: Gathered on the docks are some of Captain Huxham’s friends who are eager to greet him and help unload his cargo from England.
JEFF: Oh… that looks like it could be the Sea Bird now.
RAY: It looks big enough. I see the square-rigging. Yup. That’s the Sea Bird.
JEFF: It’s getting close enough that some of the folks on the docks are waving. Ahoy!
RAY: Ahoy! Wait… that’s kind of weird…
JEFF: What is?
RAY: The Sea Bird should be heading a little more westerly if it’s going to pull into the docks…
JEFF: You’re right. In the direction the ship is heading, it’s going to miss us.
RAY: The people gathered on the docks are starting to wave frantically.
JEFF: At this rate the Sea Bird is not going to make this dock.
RAY: It doesn’t seem to be slowing down or taking in any sail either. And…. Wait… do you see anyone on the decks?
JEFF: I don’t. And you’re right… she’s sailing right for beach to our East.
RAY: Oh! She just beached right into the sand!
JEFF: A few of the smaller vessels are pulling out from the docks to see if they can help. The people gathered are already running toward the beach where the Sea Bird just landed.
RAY: I still don’t see anyone on the ship!
JEFF: Me neither. Let’s climb up onto the deck.
JEFF: This is so strange…
JEFF: There’s a dog here.
RAY: Yeah, but I don’t see any sign of anyone else. Let’s head below deck.
RAY: Look at this in the galley!
JEFF: This is weird…
RAY: Breakfast is laid out on the table, but the food hasn’t been touched.
JEFF: Check out the stove, Ray.
RAY: There’s still a fire burning inside, and… wow… the coffee is boiling on the stove. Let’s head over to the Captain’s quarters.
RAY: I smell tobacco. Like someone was just smoking in here.
JEFF: I smell it too. And look on the desk over there.
RAY: There are a few gold coins sitting there.
JEFF: Exactly.
RAY: What do you think it means?
JEFF: Look around. There’s no sign of any trouble or any damage. If pirates boarded the ship they would at least taken the gold coins. Is that the Captain’s log book over there?
RAY: I think it is. It’s still open. The last entry was this morning. It says Branton Reef sighted… that’s just a few miles outside of Newport. He must have wrote this an hour or two ago.
JEFF: Let’s head back on deck… I want to check something out.
JEFF: Okay, the skiff is still secured right where it should be.
RAY: But the long boat is gone.
JEFF: Why would the captain and crew load into the long boat just a few miles from shore?
RAY: The smaller vessels that just came over from the docks in Newport, are now heading further out to see if they can spot the long boat or any survivors.
JEFF: This is so strange. There’s no sign of any damage or a struggle. No reason to abandon ship. And nothing is stolen or out of place. The cargo, the food, and everyone’s personal belongings are right where they should be.
JEFF: Right! And the ship’s dog seems fine. His tail is wagging, and he looks well-fed.
RAY: This is so weird. Local magistrates launch a full investigation. But as days turn to weeks, no sign of the captain and crew are ever seen again. They seem to have vanished… and that brings us back to today.
RAY: One version of this story goes that after the Sea Bird beached, it was dragged out and destroyed by the next tide. But the more likely version is that the intact Sea Bird was sold to Henry Collins, who renamed her Beach Bird, and continued to sail her for many years. But the part about the Captain and crew never being seen again, that never varies.
JEFF: Okay… there’s more, but the more on the story of the Sea Bird didn’t come out for more than another century, and many people believe what was found was pure fiction. The story made its way around the newspapers in the latter half of the 1800s. We found it in the May 4, 1885 San Francisco Examiner newspaper. This article claims to have found a reason the ship arrived empty.
RAY: This article reads like a movie script. It says early in the year 1800, the ship Soldan out of New York, ran aground in the Baltic Sea and was taken to a Swedish port of Ysted for repairs. While staying in town, The Soldan’s captain, a man named Robson, found an old American man was living in town, so he paid him a visit. For reasons we can only guess, the old man felt obliged to share a secret he’d carried for the last 50 years. The old man said his name was Thomas Hanway, and when he was 19 years old, he sailed with Captain Huxham aboard the Sea Bird. Hanway claims he was on the ship during that fateful voyage.
JEFF: In his confession, Hanway said that Captain Huxham was a stern man from the beginning of their time together, but the First mate was at first an amiable man that Hanway took a liking to. But once they got to sea, the mate was far worse than the Captain.
RAY: Hanway claimed the ship began its journey in New York, then sailed to Bristol, England, with passengers. Hanway, and his crewmate Hensdale, were treated so cruelly, that their intent was to jump ship in Bristol and find other work.
JEFF: And jumping ship is against the law, because a ship needs a certain number of sailors on board to be considered sea worthy. Maritime law doesn’t take kindly to deserters. When the captain caught wind of Hanway and Hensdale’s plan, he arrested them, and chained them to the mast until they sailed from Bristol and were back out at open sea. After that, the torment of the men only got worse. Hanway and Hensdale seethed at the First Mate. Threatening to beat him up, or toss him overboard if given the chance. But then… according to the story… one dark stormy night, during rough seas, Hanway was at the helm when the mate called Hensdale to take in the foresheet. Hensdale said he couldn’t do it alone. The mate went to help, and the next thing anyone knew, the mate was overboard and sucked below the inky black water.
RAY: The crew cried murder. Hensdale and Hanway said it was an accident, but the captain locked the men up and said they would hang for murder when they reached Newport.
JEFF: Hanway swears it was an accident that killed the mate, but it doesn’t matter. His Captain doesn’t believe him. And now the two men are consumed with saving their own lives at all costs. That’s when Hanway says the devil took over. Hanway and Hensdale slipped out of their shackles, creeped up to the deck, and began the execution of every man on board. So they solved one problem of getting arrested and hanging as soon as they reached Newport. But they knew they couldn’t arrive in Newport or any other port for that matter, without a captain and crew. No one would believe them. So they got close to Newport, slipped into the longboat, and set the Sea Bird on a collision course with land.
RAY: Hanway claims he and and Hensdale waited for darkness, slipped ashore, and started new lives for themselves. Hanway made it to Sweden where he lived to be an old man, right up until his confession to this visiting Captain Robson.
JEFF: Robson wrote down the confession and sat on it until his deathbed, the article claims, which is why it only surfaced so long after the fact.
RAY: Most people think this story of Hanway and Hensdale is made up by writers a century after the fact because it’s a plausible explanation as to why a ship would sail into a Newport Beach under such mysterious circumstances.
JEFF: Plausible, but impossible to prove…
RAY: Impossible to disprove too.
JEFF: That’s true. The reality is we’ll never know for certain what happened to the Captain and crew of the Sea Bird. But we’ll continue to tell the tale and wonder what or who sailed that ghost ship in to Newport Harbor all those years ago.
RAY: That we will. And that brings us to After the Legend, where we take a deeper dive into this week’s story and sometimes veer of course.
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We’d like to thank our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals, thank you to our patreon patrons, and our theme music is by John Judd.
Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.

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One Response

  1. Lydia Dustin
    October 17, 2022

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