By Jude Seminara
Anyone who spends enough time at sea is bound to see some strange things from time to time. Sailors are a superstitious lot, and no maritime community is without a take of a ghost ship. Gloucester has the Charles Haskell.
The Haskell was built in 1868 and made her maiden voyage to George’s Bank handlining in February 1869, captained by Clifford Curtis. Her first trip was a success; she returned to Gloucester with 75,000 lbs of fish in her hold. Three days later, the Haskell again made for George’s.
On March 6, a gale pummeled the fishing fleet at anchor on the banks. Crews stood ready with axes to cut anchor cables should the lookout see the lights of a drifting vessel bearing down on them. Cutting the cable may save the ship from a collision, but the peril of drifting onto the shoals or into another anchored vessel was an ever present risk.
Contemporary newspapers related the tale of the Haskell after she limped into port missing her bowsprit and head. Within a month, the ghosts showed up.
When the Haskell cut her cable during the gale, she scudded at the mercy of the wind. With the captain at the helm and sails set, she bore down on an unidentified Salem schooner and collided. The Haskell rose up upon a wave and before she could get clear of the Salem schooner, her bow crashed down again and cleaved the Salem schooner nearly in half, sending her to the bottom almost immediately with all hands. The Haskell was the rare vessel that survived a collision on George’s and managed to return to port.
The damage to the Charles Haskell was repaired and she soon put to sea for another voyage. As she returned to Gloucester, off Eastern Point, so the story goes, a phantom schooner, that of the Salem vessel sunk on George’s Bank, came alongside. Her crew of ghostly fishermen came aboard and demanded that the Haskell alter her course to Salem. When the captain refused, the specter sailors jumped overboard. Another version of the tale, recounted in a late-nineteenth-century ballad called The Ghostly Crew (1874) has the ghosts of the dead Salem crew coming aboard as the Haskell’s crew were handlining on the Bank. The ghosts assumed their position at the rails as if they were fishing, then climbed back overboard into the sea. On one occasion on George’s, the crew was so shaken by the otherworldly visitors, the captain was compelled to return to Gloucester with no fare. The Cape Ann Advertiser called the haunting of the Charles Haskell “such a silly ghost story” and reported that despite it, the Haskell was on a trip to George’s in April of 1870.
The story of the haunted schooner made the rounds of Gloucester’s waterfront; sailors, being a superstitious lot, refused to board her. According to John Winters, the last surviving member of the Charles Haskell’s crew, who retold the story to his dying day in 1920, four crews refused to sail aboard her, and she ended her days as a sand freighter. The fate of the Charles Haskell is disputed: she was either lost in a shipwreck or rotted at the wharf. The ghostly visitors were not reported to have been seen again.