Here's the 2nd of 3 of these: another piece that I wrote for The Daily but that never ran.
It wasn’t shocking when Captain Jonathan Chaddock’s ship blew up - wood, flesh and smoking mainsail settling into the waters near the earthen platforms and cannons of Castle Island, Boston. After all, Chaddock was “a loose profligate man,” according to lay historian Thomas Hutchinson, with “a crew like himself.” They had arrived in Boston Harbor that spring of 1643, a band of unruly privateers, and fallen straight to buccaneering and loutishness: the Captain himself was brought before the magistrate and fined 20 pounds after drawing his sword and threatening to murder his own first mate in a bar. Three of their company had already drowned in a previous harbor accident.
So, when two powder kegs on Chaddock’s 30-ton pinnace “took fire and blew her up” as his crew worked that 2nd of November, no-one was especially astonished. Particularly since – according to the contemporary account of John Winthrop, then governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony – the cause may have been one of them recklessly sparking pistols. Five men were immediately “destroyed”; three remaining survived with bad burns.
Far more alarming than the accident was the haunting that followed.
First: light. Two points arising from the Harbor, “in form like a man,” Winthrop tells us, traveling over the water’s surface and then subsiding back into the deep. This came sixteen days after the Chaddock explosion and was witnessed by only a few midnight sailors. A week later, the governor describes an even more extraordinary vision: two shards “like the moon” arose from the northeastern harbor and joined together, “closed in one, and then parted, and closed and parted divers times, and so they went over the hill in the island and vanished. Sometimes they shot out flames and sometimes sparkles. This was about eight of the clock in the evening, and was seen by many.”
Then: voices. “Divers godly persons” further south, near the waters between Boston and the rural town of Dorchester, heard a voice calling out “in a most dreadful manner, boy boy come away away; and it suddenly shifted from one place to another a great distance, about 20 times.” This sonic apparition reappeared a fortnight later, near Noddle’s Island (close to where Logan Airport sits today).
Governor Winthrop is really our only source on this. Historians of subsequent decades – Thomas Hutchinson (also a successor of Winthrop’s as colonial governor) and clergyman William Hubbard -- faithfully recount his version (very faithfully, as one who hasn’t studied might “faithfully recount” a friend’s exam). There is no real reason, however, to doubt the long-serving Winthrop. He is credulous throughout his journals, recording what he is told without judgment, but there is no evidence that he himself is a fabulist.
Perhaps the incidents can be attributed to natural, physical phenomena? Probably not. St. Elmo’s Fire requires an object – optimally a pointed one – to focus electrical fields into its distinctive blue flame. Will-o’-wisps are a terrestrial enchantment, gases from decaying plant matter oxidizing. What the sightings sound most like is ball lightning, a phenomenon that “resembles a glowing sphere” and “does not obey the whims of wind or the laws of gravity,” according to National Geographic’s summary of numerous first-person accounts. Unhelpfully, this turns out to be basically the same as calling the prodigies “lights on the harbor that sure look like ghosts”: ball lightning is something of an umbrella term for stories like this, and science has yet to provide a clear explanation for what it could be.
Winthrop’s own opinion is simple. “It is also to be observed,” he notes, that two ships – Chaddock’s and another – had recently blown up in Boston Harbor, and that both were full of men “such as despised us and the ordinance of God amongst us.” This “It is to be observed” is a signal phrase of Winthrop’s religious disapproval: it was also “to be observed”, for example, that it was “on the Lord’s day” that a lecherous Dutchman was slain, or that three fisherman drowned while drinking.
The governor also dutifully reports another theory, based on an entirely different set of supernatural covenants. One of Chaddock’s slain crewmen, his name lost to history, was reportedly a necromancer, suspected of murdering his master in Virginia and having done “some strange things in his way…hither.” This man’s remains, alone amongst those killed in the blast and unusually for sailors lost in the Harbor, were never found. Perhaps his shade, the rumors suggested, summoned fellow apparitions in its unburied disquiet.
This focus on the man’s body is intriguing. The Puritans did not imbue the fallen human form with any inherent sanctity. Funerals and headstones were simple and austere, and the dead were not buried on Church grounds. A Puritan ghost would never hang about, demanding a proper burial.
Clearly, a different set of rules applied to a sorcerer’s shade – just as different rules applied to Chaddock and all such “proud and intemperate men” who chose to live outside the rules that so bounded Boston’s new arrivals. These rough men, indeed, were just one kind of “other” assailing the Puritans’ purity: the Quakers, forced to worship in secret on Noddle’s Island because the Puritan authorities found them so alarming; the Pequot, Narragansett, and Mohegan tribes, whom the colony’s leaders viewed with a mix of missionary and competitive zeal. The Pilgrims lived in wary compromise between their own strict codes and what must have often seemed the brutal, ongoing insanity of the new world into which they had ventured.
In this we may find, then, one root of this beguiling story. As Thomas Hutchinson wrote over a century later (in his own words, for once): “They had an ocean, a thousand leagues in extent, between them and all the delights of life which they had once enjoyed. On their backs they had a wilderness without limits. As soon as it was dark, their ears were filled with the roaring of wolves and other savage beafts, or which was much worse, the yells of savage men. Where there was any gloom upon the mind, such a scene must tend to increase it.” The strangeness of Chaddock and the rest of his godless crew may have been, to the Puritan mind, too much for even gunpowder to erase – their shades left dancing on the Harbor, like the threat of an encroaching human wilderness.