Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Halloween Ghost Story—The Phantom Ship of New Haven, CT, By Pat Kinsella Herdeg

Growing up, my brothers and sisters and I did our share of searching for ghosts--seances, ouija boards, researching reincarnated stories, oh my goodness, did we love ghost stories. And several of our relatives have stories of ghostly signs or messages left behind after a loved one dies.
But, little did I know that one of the most famous ghost stories of colonial New England—so well known that Longfellow wrote a poem about it-- was also the true life story of two of our ancestors, John Taylor and Mary Lewin.

It’s the tale of a ship that set off to cross the ocean and never was heard from again. Well, in a way, it WAS heard from again. Comparatively few people died, yet we have TWO ancestors on this ship, on different sides of the TaylorBaker family! Long odds, I would say.

In the mid 1630's,the Massachusetts Bay colony was a strong economic hub in the New World. But, another group of wealthy and well connected Londoners founded a town in Connecticut and called it New Haven. They hoped New Haven would soon rival Boston to its north and New York to their south.

As New Haven grew, it sold its products to England, but used the Massachusetts Bay ships to get their goods to England. To save time and money, they decided to build their own ship to transport goods.

They built their ship, and picked the citizens who would make the maiden voyage over to London. Among the seventy picked were two of our own: John Taylor and Mary Lewin.

John Taylor, my ninth great grandfather, first came to America with Governor Winthrop in 1630, and settled in New Haven. A prominent person in town, he was chosen to sail on New Haven’s ship to make the case to English Parliament for New Haven.

Mary Lewin, who is the eighth great grandmother of Ethel and Lillian Baker, was the wife of Stephen Goodyear who was the Deputy Governor of New Haven. She left behind a twenty-one year old daughter, Rebecca Goodyear, who would continue our family line.

What are the odds??!! Both Baker and Taylor!

By January, 1647, their newly built 150 ton cargo vessel was fully loaded with peas, beaver pelts and grain. The seventy people on board intended to show the King and Parliament that New Haven could be a viable port also.

That sailors and ship builders called this ship 'crank sided and walty' ( or in terms we understand today, very unstable), and wholly overloaded, was overlooked.

And, leaving in January? The vessel was iced in so solidly at its pier that every able man and boy had to help hand-chop a three mile channel out of Long Island Sound. Then, the ship had to be towed stern-first through the ice out to the waters of the North Atlantic. Even I know that this is a chillingly bad omen, and the crew members almost mutinied because of it.

Once the ship made its three mile journey out to the choppy ocean waters, it rolled badly in any amount of swell. The ship's master, George Lamberton, an experienced mariner, predicted many times that the "walty" ship would "prove their grave." But, the "Great Shippe" finally sailed into the icy mists of Long Island Sound. The spiritual leader of New Haven, Rev. Davenport, assured them that Divine Providence would protect the loved ones on the ship. But would it? The ship was never heard from again.

As one chronicler of this tale wrote:
"With the fate of the New Haven colony -- not to mention the lives of many of her most influential citizens -- riding on a successful voyage, little wonder that news of their trading ship was awaited with the keenest anticipation by the people of New Haven. Each new arrival from England was questioned anxiously, but the winter months passed, spring moved toward summer and no tidings of the vessel's fate reached the Connecticut settlement. A contemporary at the time said, "New Haven's heart began to fail her: This put the godly people on much prayer, both publick and private, that the Lord would (if it was his pleasure) let them know what he had done with their dear friends."

Six months later, some would say that the Lord did let them know what He had done with their dear friends. On a humid June afternoon, heavy thunderstorms descended upon New Haven harbor. Excitement overtook the town as person after person saw their ‘Great Shippe’ emerging from the cloudbanks and sailing into the harbor. However, it was sailing against the winds and above the waves—in the fogged clouds and not touching the waters below.

As it approached the shore, and as dusk fell, the main topmast broke off, fell and entangled other sails on the deck. Pieces of the ship seemed to break off. Many watching from the harbor saw a human figure on the bow, sword raised and pointing to the sea, just before the ship, ragged, broken and haunted, rolled over on her side and disappeared into the mists.

Thirty minutes had passed. No debris—wood, casks, sails-- from the ship was ever found. The water calmed and the mists lifted. The ship had vanished. Disbelieving at first, soon, all came to believe that Divine Providence had shown them what had happened to their loved ones.

Two hundred years later, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem about the famous ship.

Part of it reads:

And the ships that came from England
When the winter months were gone,
Brought no tidings of this vessel!
Nor of Master Lamberton.

This put the people to praying
That the Lord would let them hear
What in his greater wisdom
He had done to friends so dear.

And at last our prayers were answered:
It was in the month of June
An hour before sunset
Of a windy afternoon.

When, steadily steering landward,
A ship was seen below,
And they knew it was Lamberton, Master,
Who sailed so long ago.

On she came with a cloud of canvas,
Right against the wind that blew,
Until the eye could distinguish
The faces of the crew.

Then fell her straining top mast,
Hanging tangled in the shrouds,
And her sails were loosened and lifted,
And blown away like clouds.

And the masts, with all their rigging,
Fell slowly, one by one,
And the hulk dilated and vanished,
As a sea-mist in the sun!

And the people who saw thus marvel
Each said unto his friend,
That this was the mould of their vessel,
And thus her tragic end.

What did happen? No trace of our ship has ever been found. Perhaps, one day, we will find the wooden skeleton of her on the ocean floor and learn more about our long ago ancestors.

But for now, as you pick up a book of New England ghost stories left behind at an oceanside inn and read about ‘The Phantom Ship’, know that you ARE related to two on that ship, Mary Lewin and John Taylor. And, as you gaze out at the Atlantic Ocean on a dark, windy, winter day, remember them.


Sue Kinsella said...

Oh, what a shivery ghost story for Halloween! I am continually amazed at what you, Jim and others are finding about the apparently weighty role our ancestors played in the early years of settling this country! Thanks for a great story!

MOM/CB said...

Never heard of this before! And to think Both sides of our family were represented! Gives me the shivers for althi I love all my family dearly, to think this may have all been charted out so long ago-- well it is beyond me!!!
Thank you Pat for finding this! Can not believe I am even related to you!!

Jack Kinsella said...

Pat, you are amazing! simply amazing!!

Your amazed dad

Diana said...

How wonderful to hear this.

Unknown said...

I have just recently been reviewing a document passed down in my family that traces me Stan Taylor, to the John Taylor who perished on the Phantom Ship. Perhaps there is a way to share our apparent genealogies.

David Damron said...

I am also a descendant of John Taylor who died on the Phantom Ship. I have thought of starting a facebook group about the Phantom Ship if anyone is interested email me at Or I am on Facebook as David Damron, the one in a lot of genealogy group. :)

Unknown said...

Hello, my name is,Richard taylor. My father is John Taylor. Pretty sure we are related to this John Taylor as my father is from CT

Pat Herdeg said...

Cool! Always great to meet a new cousin.

Jeff Taylor said...

Hi, My name is Jeffrey Taylor from Danbury Ct. I am having my family tree done and at this point the genealogist has traced my direct family line to John Taylor born in 1605 in England and died at sea on that ship. It is still a work in progress but very interesting..Jeff

Pat Herdeg said...


Always great to meet a new cousin!


Anonymous said...

George Lamberton the captain of the phantom ship is my ancestor. George Lamberton's granddaughter, Sarah Allyn was captured in the raid on Deerfield and taken to Montreal. She married my 5th great grandfather Guillaume Lalonde on April 27, 1710. They had 13 children. If anyone is looking for family members who ended up in Canada:

It's in English.

Pat Herdeg said...

Thank you so much for this Lamberton connection, and this link ! And so sorry for the grief your various generations went through. It is worth visiting Deerfield to see the notches still in doors from that raid.

Please do leave other comments if you have other Lamberton family information.