Amasa Delano’s Ghost

ship in a stormCarolyn Ravenscroft, Archivist

Halloween is a perfect time for a supernatural story. This ghostly maritime tale comes directly from the pages of Capt. Amasa Delano’s memoir, A Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemisphere. Delano was born and raised in Duxbury, the son of shipbuilder Samuel Delano, Sr. and Abigail Drew. Although he was a Renaissance man in his day – a shipwright, merchant sailor, explorer and writer, Amasa Delano is perhaps best known to us as the model for a character in Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno.

In 1787 Capt. Delano and his crew were aboard the Boston-built ship, Jane, on a voyage to Cork, Ireland and St. Ubes, Portugal. The ship had reputation for being haunted and the sailors were on edge. Delano’s efforts to reason with the men and lessen their fears had been unsuccessful. So, Delano took a novel approach to curing their superstitions:

Accounts of ship Jane in the port of St. Ubes, Portugal. Nov, 1788. From Capt. Amasa and Samuel Delano Collection.

Accounts of ship Jane in the port of St. Ubes, Portugal. Nov, 1788. Capt. Amasa and Samuel Delano Collection.

“One pleasant evening, as we were running with the trade winds in latitude 25 degrees north, I heard the second mate and some of the people talking about ghosts. Although doubts were expressed of the existence of such personages, yet many were full in the faith that they were common in all ages. It occurred to me that it was a favorable time to show them a ghost, and make one more attempt to cure them of their folly. They were sitting far aft upon the quarter deck. I stepped down the companion way, went to the state room of the chief mate, and asked him to lend me a hand in showing the people a ghost. He readily consented, and we took two mops, lashed the handles together, made them long enough to reach from a cabin window to the top of the tafferel rail, put a bar across at a suitable distance from the mop-head for arms, dressed it with jackets to give it proportion and shape, put a white shirt over the whole, tied a string round the neck leaving the top of the shirt like a hood on the head, the face looking through the opening in the bosom of the shirt, and gave the whole the appearance of a woman, because this was the kind of ghost most generally expected. A string under the arms easily aided the delusion that it was the slender waist of a female. A cabin window was opened, while I took my station in the gang-way to see the people without being seen. The chief mate raised up the ghost so that it might be seen above the ship’s stern. It immediately caught the attention of the men on the quarter deck, and never did I see human beings more frightened than they were. They were struck dumb, fixed immovable with terror, and seemed like so many breathless but gazing petrifactions. The ghost gently rose and again sunk out of sight, till the chief mate was weary with the labour, and withdrew it at a given signal. I remained to hear what would be said. The men remained motionless and speechless for some time. After they recovered themselves a little, one of the boldest broke silence and began to put round the inquiry what it could be. They concluded it was a ghost, and determined to speak to it fi it should appear again. Upon this I went to the chief mate, and he agreed to hold it up once more. I resumed my station, the ghost appeared and one of them made an attempt to speak, but his courage and his voice failed him. Another attempted, and failed. A third, but without success. The sounds were inarticulate and feeble. The question was to be ‘In the name of the hold God, who are you, and what do you want?’ The image was taken down; we undressed it, and restored the mops to their proper shape. I went to bed without permitting the secret to be known. At 12 o’clock at night, the chief mate came to me, and said that the second officer and people were extremely frightened, and wanted to see me on deck. I got up, and went above, where all the crew were collected and filled with anxiety and alarm. I asked them what was the matter. They huddled round me lake a brood of chickens, and said they had seen a ghost. I inquired why they were frightened at that, since their stories taught them at that ghosts were so common, and so many had been seen already, They answered that they had never been sure of having seen any one before, but now they were sure and the evidence was irresistible…Their sufferings were extreme, and I found it difficult to tell them the trick I had played. As they had never been deceived by me in any way before, and as I feared that some embarrassment might be brought on me in return, I determined not to disclose the truth till the end of the voyage…this affair caused me a great deal of anxiety afterward, and did not accomplish the good that I designed by it.” [1]

The Jane did not make it home to Boston. It was shipwrecked off the coast of Cape Cod on December 28, 1788. All hands were saved, but the cargo was completely lost. Delano was left penniless. Perhaps the real ghosts of that haunted ship were teaching Delano a lesson…

[1] Amasa Delano, A Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres: Three Voyages Round the World; Together with a Voyage of Survey and Discovery, in the Pacific Ocean and Oriental Islands. 2nd ed. (Boston, 1818), 30-32.

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