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A True Ghost Story from the Sea: The Curse of the Charles Haskell

Tropical Storm Ida, Stephen Fields Beach, Plymouth, Massachusetts

Tropical Storm Ida, Stephen Fields Beach, Plymouth, Massachusetts.

I fear thee, ancient Mariner!
I fear thy skinny hand!
And thou art long, and lank, and brown,
As is the ribbed sea-sand.

I fear thee and thy glittering eye,
And thy skinny hand, so brown.’ –
“Fear not, fear not, thou Wedding-Guest!
This body dropped not down.

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.

The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie;
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.

From the Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

It started with that commerical for the movie. You might remember the one, about a fishing boat sailing out of Gloucester Harbor into the face of a really nasty storm, or rather combination of storms. The trailer ended with the fishing boat heading into a wave of gigantic proportions, and you knew the outcome without even watching the movie.

It was The Perfect Storm (click for trailer), and it’s a pretty good glimpse into a way of life, and way of death that has been a part of Gloucester, Massachusetts for nearly four centuries, allowing the Cape Ann fishing village to lay claim as America’s oldest seaport. Located near the Georges Bank and other thriving fishing spots off Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, the bountiful fishing fields led to a thriving industry that continues to this day. It’s most recognizable symbol, the statue of the Man At The Wheel, stands watch over the Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial, in remembrance of the thousands of Gloucestermen who have perished on the sea. A firm tally is hard to come up with, though a mural in city hall contains the names of more than 5,000 unlucky souls, and the high figure tops 10,000. They crpytic words which lend an air of solemnity to the site quotes the Old Testament – “They that go down to the sea in ships”, from Psalm 107.

Standing in the shadows of the fisherman towering 8 foot overhead, it’s easy to get lost in the names on the plaques, the village at your back and the sea spreading out to the distant horizon before you. Stand there any length of time and you’ll find yourself watching fishing boats coming in from the sea, as well as more heading out in search of profit, knowing full well each trip can be a roll of the dice.

The Gloucester Fisherman's Memorial Cenotaph, Man at the Wheel

Main at the Wheel, The Fisherman’s Memorial Cenotaph, Gloucester, Massachusetts.

The Perfect Storm was filmed in Gloucester, and it’s easy to see why, as the village looks like a fishing village should. This isn’t a quaint little village of brightly colored cottages and small boats chugging out to sea. But instead Gloucester is a bustling place of narrow stereets, dominated by the harbor and the few blocks of shops mainly servicing the sailing trade, and tourists that come looking for the statue of the Gorton’s Fisherman and to have a drink in the Crow’s Nest which was used for the Perfect Storm film.

I found this review of the Crow’s Nest by Kurt H. of Boston when doing my research, because I am nothing if not thorough, especially when drinks are involved …

“Hands down the filthiest, most unfriendly establishment in which I have ever set foot … Three people were smoking inside. Isn’t that illegal in MA? I like a good dive bar as much as the next guy. I’ll give a good dive a decent rating but when it smells bad in a place and people look at me strangely, that can ruin everything for me. Call me crazy. Long story short we were in for about one whole minute, tops, before the creepy stares from most of the people at the bar made clear we were not locals, which made us feel very unwelcome. It’s a shame the owners of this establishment haven’t cleaned it up, promoted the movie tie-in and made a mint from it like the Cheers franchise, but I guess it’s fitting that they lose business for their decision to remain authentic, dirty, unwelcoming or whatever it is they are trying to accomplish. If you don’t mind cigarette smoke, being stared at or the feeling that someone’s about to conduct a drug deal, the Crow’s Nest may be perfect for you.”

Thanks Kurt. It’s always helpful to have a drinking establishment in mind before you hit town, and maybe I was unlucky but the place was fairly low key when I popped in from the bright afternoon sun. In all fairness it was early in the afternoon, which is ideal for me as I don’t mind cigarette smoke, the feeling that someone is about to conduct a drug deal, and I’ve several decades experience at being stared at. Call me crazy, but I’m rather thankful that the owners have let the place remain authentic, dirty and unwelcoming to preppie Red Sox fans and their wives who stumble in wanting to feel like they’re in a cleaned up version of a Hollywood film.

It was the dirty, authentic and somewhat grizzled drunk at the bar beside me who sketched for me the bare bones of the Curse of the Charles Haskell, a fishing boat “damned before it ever left harbor.” I can’t say I got much of the story from the fellow, as the whole tale came out as a long, mumbled slur, told in dead, saliva spraying earnest. Luckily the tale has been retold elsewhere, and I was able to fill in the gaps.

The Charles Haskell was built for cod fishing, and undergoing its final inspection prior to its maiden voyage, when a workmen slipped on the deck and fell, breaking his neck. This would have been about 1869, and superstition was high back then, and someone dying aboard ship before it even left the harbor starts people whispering about a curse pretty quick. The original buyers backed out and it sat in the harbor for a long while before someone worked up the courage to buy the schooner. Then again, New Englanders are crafty, and it’s possible that the new owners never heard of a curse, though they no doubt soon would.

A captain by the name of Curtis got the nod to take the Charles Haskell out on its first voyage, and things seemed to be going well at first. They settled off George Bank along with several other vessels, and the fishing was good. Some say it’s not the ocean that kills you in the Atlantic, but the weather, and this was shown to be true on this voyage. The sky turned dark, the sea began to churn, and soon the crew found themselves in the grip of an unexpected hurricane. The boats fishing the banks didn’t have time to flee, and instead tried to ride it out. Captain Curtis, alarmed at the way the other vessels were threatening to break loose and come careening into his own, ordered the lines to be cut so they could make an attempt to “get the bloody hell out of there.” Once free, the ocean took the Charles Haskell and tossed it wildly about, and into the Andrew Johnson, another fishing boat out of Salem, shearing it nearly in two. Damaged, the Charles Haskell managed to stay afloat and ride out the storm, and back to Gloucester for repairs. The Andrew Johnson and its crew wasn’t so lucky, as all hands were lost to the depths. Some say it was ten men who went down with their vessel, some say as high as twenty-nine. In comparison though tragic, it barely registered a blip on fishing off the Massachusetts coast. After all, in one storm in 1879, 249 fishermen from Gloucester were lost. In comparison, the Andrea Gail in the Perfect Storm went down with six.

The Charles Haskell was repaired and out again on the banks in time for the spring season of 1870. By then talk of a curse was rife, but the men of Gloucester are a hardy lot, and it wasn’t hard for Captain Curtis to find another crew.

The sixth day out things were going fine – great weather, great fishing and clear skies. Night fell and the bright moon lit up the decks, and after midnight the only ones awake were a couple of watchmen. Some movement on the starboard rail caught one of their attention, and looking over they saw the spectres of twenty four men, climbing onto the decks one by one. Rightly petrified, one of the watchmen went for the captain, who made it on deck in time to see the last of the phantom sailors standing dripping on board, his eyes like all of his brethren, nothing but empty, black sockets. Silently they began working with skilled hands at invisible lines, fishing the waters of Georges Bank till finally they put down their tackle. Then one by one once more, they climbed over the rail and disappeared into the sea.

According to my new friend, Captain Curtis was no fool. “Fuck the fishing, fuck the curse and fuck the Charles Haskell he spat, beginning to wave his arms a little too dramatically and earning some of the trademark Crow’s Nest stares from the other locals. In most taverns, even the grungiest of dive bars, when your drinking companion begins exhibiting weird behavior, it’s recommended that you compensate by showing the bartender and other residents that you and the situation is under control. You get bonus points from edging the drink from in front of the madly gesturing intoxicant. I did neither, and instead signalled the barkeep for two shots. In the case of the Crow’s Nest, this proved to be the right course.

My new best friend was pretty worthless for the rest of the story, but I managed to find the end later on.

Still two days out from Gloucester, and firmly convinced that his boat was haunted, Captain Curtis hauled ass for port. But as the sun started to sink on the evening of the next day, Curtis knew they’d have to spend at least one more night at sea. So Curtis took the watch, bundled up against the moonlit cold, and sure enough, once more the phantom sailors appeared, climbing over the railing and taking up their positions, fishing madly, hands pulling frantically and silently. And as before, the put down their lines and disembarked the way they came, only this time they walked over the waves, single file, towards Salem harbor.

It was after dark when the Charles Haskell found its way into Gloucester the next evening, and only then did Captain Curtis relate the full reason to the crew for their return to port. And there the boat sat, rocking gently in the harbor, year after year, for no one even in this village of the hardiest fishermen North America ever produced had the nerve to set foot on the deck, let alone take the Charles Haskell out. And there she stayed, rotting away until only her bones were left, before the ship, rigging and all finally came apart in a storm and sank to the bottom of the harbor.

Well, that or a merchant from Nova Scotia payed next to nothing for her and sailed away into oblivion. No one seems to really know for sure.

The dulcet tones of China Grove by the Doobie Brothers belched forth from the juke box, and tale told, my partner began playing air guitar on his stool, and I slipped away to the bathroom, which I have to say was surprisingly clean. Much of the afternoon gone, and still I hadn’t wandered up the hill overlooking Gloucester Village, nor made my way to the haunted ruins of Dogtown Common, perched and scattered along the cliffs overlooking the harbor. So leaving the loo, I zigged towards the pool tables then zagged towards the huge plate glass window at the front of the bar and out the door once more into the sunlight.

I kept the pace till once more I found myself at the statue, looking out towards the sea. The ocean is bloody huge, and its rage is terrible and beautiful all at once. At Gloucester Harbor you can smell the sea, you can smell the fish, and you can smell the grease of numerous restaurants cooking the bounty earned from the courage of Gloucester fishermen. Somewhere out there, at the bottom of Gloucester Harbor lies the rotting hulk of the Charles Haskell, if legends are true. And further out on the ocean perhaps, you might find a line of sailors, walking blindly, single-file, forever locked in their last voyage, trying to find Salem Harbor and carrying out the job they were paid to do.

Gothic travel rating: The story of the Charles Haskell of course takes place on the Atlantic Ocean, which itself deserves a five crypt rating. Gloucester however, is of course a village, fairly picturesque, fairly busy, and it’s hard to muster up a good gothic mood in a town this size. A different story at night of course, but in general it’s not that creepy. Two exceptions immediately spring to mind – Dogtown Commons overlooking the village, which I’ll get around to writing about later, and the Fisherman’s Memorial Centograph. To just read the thousands of names on the memorial is a humbling experience, and definitely on the creepy side. With that many people giving their lives to scratch out a living here, you have to give them four crypts just for effort.

Click to learn more about Gothic Travel ratings and what they mean

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  • Brad Magnuson March 31, 2013, 1:19 am

    the crow’s nest you speak of, is a sailor’s bar, and it’s kept that way, because that’s how it is with that way of life. it’s a place to pick up crew members on outbound boats. unless you’re local, of course, you’ll get wild stares. if you aren’t dressed like one of the locals, you can expect that kind of behavior. when you’re a sailor, and get off the boat, all you want is a couple cold beers, food, and somewhere to crash until you’re due out again. you have to understand that lifestyle before you go thinking the crow’s nest is going to be some tourist trap. locals don’t want that, and it’s obvious. i’m sure they pass the health inspections, otherwise they wouldn’t be allowed to serve anything.

    • gothiccurios March 31, 2013, 4:01 am

      Well yeah, that’s the charm of the place. I figure if I’m not getting stares then I’m doing something wrong.

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