In Episode 274, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger sail out of Gloucester Harbor in Massachusetts, aboard the fishing schooner Charles Haskell. In March of 1869, the Haskell was fishing on Georges Bank when a perfect storm knocked her into another vessel sinking the other ship and damning her crew. The ghosts of the sunken crew came back to haunt the Haskell. The story still haunts Gloucester Harbor.
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[OCEAN WAVES / SEAGULLS]
RAY: Whenever we’re in Gloucester Harbor, I can’t help but think of the movie, The Perfect Storm that came out back in 2000.
JEFF: Ray, I can understand that. That story depicted the loss of the fishing vessel The Andrea Gail back in October of 1991. Seeing these fishing boats today pulling in and out of the harbor, and looking at the clouds in the sky, you can’t help but wonder if the seas will turn angry today.
RAY: The Andrea Gail story reminds us that the sea can still be a dangerous place for a boats even in these modern times with radar, sonar, radios, advanced weather reporting, and so on.
JEFF: That’s for sure. Accidents still happen, and sea captains sometimes push their luck and take risks with their ships and crew.
RAY: So today’s story must be about a boat?
JEFF: That’s exactly why we’re here, Ray. We’re in Gloucester Harbor in Massachusetts looking for a ship that was once crewed by ghosts.
JEFF: Hello, I’m Jeff Belanger, and welcome to Episode 274 of the New England Legends podcast.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Thanks for joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. Did you know most our story leads come from you? This one did. Thanks to Matt Moreash for emailing us about this story. We’re grateful when you get involved. It takes a community to keep these stories coming week after week.
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JEFF: The sea by the shores of Gloucester seems pretty calm today.
RAY: Sure, but we know that can change in an instant.
JEFF: It can. Even well season captains and crews can get caught off-guard. Before we jump into this week’s adventure, I thought we should take a short walk over to the south side of Stacy Boulevard to the edge of the harbor and check out the Fisherman’s memorial.
RAY: I’ve seen pictures of this statue before. There’s a fisherman holding a ship’s wheel. He’s wearing a hat and rain gear. Inscribed below the statue it reads: They that go down to sea in ships. 1623-1923
JEFF: Right, the statue was placed here in 1923. Obviously there’s been another almost century of history since then, which includes more accidents and loss of life.
RAY: I’m reading some of the statistics on Gloucester… man… this is staggering. Over 5,000 people have been lost to the sea from ships hailing from Gloucester Harbor. Between 1860 and 1906 – 660 ships sank. And a single storm in 1862 claimed 15 schooners and 120 men.
JEFF: The city of Gloucester commemorates all of these losses with the memorials here, plus they keep a running tally on their Web site that lists all of the information known about the sailors and the ships. The Andrea Gail is on that list, of course.
RAY: Over 5,000 people lost! I feel like every one of them could be a story.
JEFF: There’s no doubt about that. Included on this list of those lost are three schooners who were all lost in the same incident back in 1869. So let’s head back there and take a sail on a schooner named Charles Haskell.
[OCEAN SAILING NO SEAGULLS]
RAY: It’s early March of 1869, and the schooner Charles Haskell is making its second voyage ever out of her home port of Gloucester Harbor. The Haskell is a fishing vessel heading for the bountiful waters of Georges Bank under the direction of Captain Clifford Curtis.
JEFF: Fisherman can be a superstitious bunch. As they set sail, maybe somewhere in the back of the minds of the crew of the Charles Haskell is the story of their ship being cursed.
RAY: Cursed?! Already? It’s only a few months old!
JEFF: Well, if not cursed, then maybe born under a bad sign? During the ship’s final inspection after construction was a complete, a workman slipped on the deck, fell, and broke his neck. An event like that spooked some crews who refused to work on her.
RAY: Yikes! But when the seas are calm and the winds are good, it’s easy to put thoughts of curses out of your mind.
JEFF: Sure. Plus, Georges Bank is producing. Fishing schooners are quickly filling up with fish. It’s March 6th when the Charles Haskell reaches Georges Bank to start fishing. The wind is blowing from the east, northeast. And the schooner drops her anchor…
JEFF: And before the anchor touches the bottom, the fishermen have already landed two cod fish. While that sounds promising, the fishermen are a little unnerved, because when the fish bite before the anchor hits bottom, some say that’s a bad omen and means there’s going to be a gale that day.
RAY: The Haskell isn’t the only ship to know these are prime fishing grounds. As we look out on the horizon, I can see dozens of other schooners all after the same thing. The ships are spread out, but there’s more than you can count.
JEFF: Still, fish after fish are coming out of the sea, and filling the hold of the Charles Haskell. It’s a good day for fishing, which is keeping the crews mind off of the fact that the sea swells are growing larger as the afternoon wears on. The winds are picking up.
[WIND SLOWLY BUILDING]
RAY: The captain orders the foresail to be reefed, which means the sail can be hoisted at a moment’s notice should the ship go adrift in the oncoming storm. The biggest threat in these waters isn’t so much going adrift, but the dozens of other ships nearby. If one ship is tossed into another, it’s curtains for both boats.
JEFF: It’s 9PM. The Charles Haskell is dealing with hurricane force winds. Sleet is pelting the crew like tiny rocks. Some of the schooners are starting to drift. Their anchors aren’t holding them in place. And to make things worse, when one schooner sees another drifting toward them, they’re obligated to cut their anchor line so they can get out of the way. Two drifting ships, quickly becomes four, and so on.
RAY: All hands are on deck aboard the Haskell. There will be no sleep tonight. They’re in the teeth of a mighty storm. Their only chance is to ride it out. The Haskell’s crew keep their signals lights lit so other ships can see them. And now the Haskell’s anchor is dragging. It’s 10PM when the anchor snags something on the bottom and sends the bow of the ship high into the air.
JEFF: Suddenly, signal lights from another ship appear dangerously close. The rolling waves are tossing these boats like toys. Captain Curtis yells out “Hard Up!” ordering the helm to steer hard to try and evade a collision. But in the fierce storm, no one could see that the oncoming ship was under sail, trying to maneuver. A wave suddenly sends the Haskell towering up, just as the other vessel dips down in the trough of the wave. Everyone on board the Haskell holds their breath waiting to learn their fate. When…
JEFF: The Haskell drops down almost on top of the other vessel, slicing her in two.
RAY: Though there’s yelling aboard the other ship, no words can be heard over the raging storm. The crew of the Haskell can only watch in horror as the other ship and crew are dragged under the inky black and foaming waters. Plus, the crew of the Haskell still don’t know their own fate. Two of the Haskell’s crew, George Scott and John Winters, rush below deck to see if their hull has been crushed in during the collision. If it has, then it would only be a matter of minutes before they join the fate of the crew of the other ship below.
[RUNNING DOWN WOODEN STAIRS]
RAY: The men see no sign of water below deck. They even rip up some of the floorboards of the forecastle’s floor to see if there was damage, but there’s none.
JEFF: The Charles Haskell was well-built. When she dropped down on the other ship, her bow acted like an axe, and sliced the other ship in two. No one had ever heard of such a collision that didn’t doom both ships.
RAY: Though the Haskell isn’t leaking, she’s not out of the woods by a long shot. The main boom and rigging on the starboard side of the ship had been ripped off the ship by the wind. Some of the loose rigging is knocking into the hull of the ship and threatening to create a break that could sink the ship.
JEFF: Under the power of two sails, the Haskell plods on until dawn when the storm finally passes.
[STORM FADES OUT]
JEFF: The crew are exhausted, and with so little sail, it takes her a week to limp back Gloucester.
RAY: Nine vessels went down in Georges Bank during that horrific storm. And 90 men were lost. The schooners: A.E. Price, the Andrew Johnson of Salem, and the Martha A. Porter where three of the ships lost that night. Which one was taken down by the Haskell was a mystery… for the moment.
RAY: The Charles Haskell is soon repaired and ready for sea once again. But her reputation among the rest of the fleet is dark. There’s a cloud over the Haskell.
[OCEAN SOUNDS AGAIN NO SEA GULLS]
JEFF: A few weeks after repairs, the Charles Haskell is back on Georges Bank fishing once again. This time the seas are much calmer, but the fishing is still quite good. By the end of the day, the ship’s hold is on its way to filling up with cod. The crew turns in for the night, ready to fish again in the morning.
RAY: It’s midnight. It’s quiet. The night watchmen is at his position on the decks scanning the ocean, but not too concerned given the calm seas… when suddenly… he sees some glowing apparitions of fishermen walking on the ocean.
JEFF: They’re walking toward the bow of the Charles Haskell!
RAY: Oh man… one of the ghosts just climbed over the bow of the ship.
JEFF: And there’s another doing the same thing!
RAY: The nightwatchman can only watch and question his senses.
JEFF: The ghosts make no sound. They file over the bow of the boat.
RAY: This is incredible. The ghosts look like they’re taking up positions on the Haskell. That man over there looks like he’s tending to the sails. There’s another over there who looks like he’s opening up the fishing bait.
JEFF: That ghostly man is standing behind the helm. And more of the ghostly men look like they’re hauling in fish. This is the eeriest sight I’ve ever seen!
RAY: This is so spooky. The night watchman is running below deck to rouse the others.
[RUNNING ON WOOD]
RAY: Pretty soon, the entire crew of the Haskell is witnessing this ghostly crew tending to their duties. After a few minutes… the ghostly crew and their skipper dissipated into the night.
[OCEAN NO SEA GULLS]
JEFF: It’s midnight the following night, when once again the ghostly crew of the damned boards the Haskell to tend to their fishing duties. But thew crew of the Haskell wants nothing more to do with this ghostly business. They demand the skipper point the bow toward Gloucester right away. The captain agrees, and home they head.
RAY: The Haskell’s crew are petrified. What if the ghostly crew takes over the Haskell and claims it for themselves? What if they’re thrown overboard by these spirits? Would the Haskell become some kind of New England version of the Flying Dutchman? Even under full sail toward home, the ghostly crew continues tending to their former duties.
JEFF: All night they sail with the ghost crew. The Haskeel passed Thatchers Lighthouse, and then Eastern Point. Just as the Haskell is approaching Gloucester’s harbor, the ghostly crew begins to shake their head in protest. They don’t want to lower the sails. The skipper of the Haskell demands his crew to take in the sail as they approach the docks.
RAY: Look at the ghostly crew! Their shoulders have slumped. They’re walking toward the bow of the Haskell, and climbing over the side and heading back into the ocean.
JEFF: They’re heading southwest in the water away from the boat. That’s the direction of Salem! And that brings us back to today.
JEFF: Because the ghostly crew seemed bound for Salem, that convinced the crew of the Charles Haskell that the unknown ship cut in two during the storm must have been the Andrew Johnson out of Salem.
RAY: After the Charles Haskell made port again in Gloucester, the tales of the ghostly crew boarding the Haskell made it around town pretty quick. Soon, no one wanted to work on the ship, no skipper wanted anything to do with her. So the Charles Haskell was sold to a company in Nova Scotia. No one ever heard if the ghostly crew of the damned still boarded the cursed ship.
JEFF: Most of what we know about this story comes from a March 7, 1899 Boston Globe article that covered the 30-year anniversary of the storm and disaster at sea that lead to the haunting of the Charles Haskell.
RAY: And we know from this memorial in Gloucester today, and from the running tally of lives lost kept by the town, that the sea is still incredibly dangerous. Fishing vessels are still lost at sea, and people die in these waters. The Charles Haskell wasn’t the first… and it won’t be the last.
JEFF: And that haunts us. For sure.
RAY: And that takes us to After the Legend where we take a deeper dive into this week’s story and sometimes steer off course.
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