Among the annals of naval history, three mysteries stand out in our common times: the Bermuda Triangle, the Mary Celeste, and the Evangeline.
In the late 1760s, shortly after the French and Indian War, commerce between England and America became an expensive proposition, as pirates and privateers roamed the seas, attacking friend and foe alike for an easy dollar. One enterprising company, Theophilus Shipping, began building private warships to travel along commercial ships for security purposes. Their prototype was the Evangeline, which saw its maiden voyage on August 19, 1766.1
The Evangeline was either a major success or extremely lucky - for two years, not a single ship it escorted was accosted. Soon, five more ships like it appeared on the Atlantic. Other companies began competing with Theophilus, but they were the first and the best. They hired many a former enlisted sailor to work the ship, and their early success gave them loyalty amongst the various traders and merchants.
Until the Evangeline wrecked.
On September 20, 17681, the warship set sail for America for a job to escort three large merchant ships back to Newport, headed by a Captain Patrick Hill. When it was nearly a week overdue, the American merchants sent out several exploratory ships to search for the Evangeline. They all returned emptyhanded. The ship had simply vanished.
Amazingly, nearly a month later, a man in a paddleboat washed up on shore. He was disheveled, malnourished, and babbling incoherently. He was taken in by the Cartwright family, Constance and Robert. When he had been clothed and fed and nursed back to health (though he was unable to walk again), he revealed that he had been on the Evangeline. When he was asked about the ship's fate, his face showed a "terrifying Countenance" and he shrunk back into his bed.2 Late at night, his caretakers would hear him shouting in his sleep, "as if possessed by Feare."2 He passed away just six months later, and was laid to rest in a small cemetery outside of Sachem Head, Connecticut.
This is where the facts of the Evangeline end, and the mystery begins. The legend is that the sole survivor - who, despite his appearance in Constance Cartwright's diary, is left unnamed - wrote a frantic, unedited, and virtually insane diary during his final days. When he was buried, his correspondence were placed in the Cartwright attic. Over the years, the story of the Evangeline was passed on, but the real history behind it was lost. Was it a freak storm? An iceberg? Mutiny? No reasonable explanation was ever offered, and the records kept back then show no insight into the conditions under which the Evangeline sailed.
All of this changed in 2001, when the mystery of the Evangeline was revealed.
While sifting through a vast array of historical documents that had been preserved by the Connecticut Daughters of the American Revolution, a history professor from the University of Virginia stumbled across a few loosely bound sheets of paper entitled "Diarie of a Dead Man." The first date on it was January 6, 1769. Interested in the title, he read on, and finally the stunning revelation of what he had found hit him. He excitedly called a maritime history professor in his department, who drove over five hours in the middle of the night to verify the find: it was the survivor's diary.3
The first few entries described the man - now given the name "John" due to a referential quote in the diary - and his recovery under the Cartwrights' care. He made little to no reference to the Evangeline at first, only mentioning in his passing his "tremendous Ordeal" and his previous life as a "sailor upon the Seas."4 Then, finally, he solved one of the history's greatest mysteries, in an entry marked simply "The Wreck of the Evangeline." Here now is the entry, printed in full:
I hesitate to write this because I feare it will be ridiculed. Even now I hardly believe what my mind compels me to write as the truth. If one were to tell me this tale now, I would toss it aside as with so much other tomfoolery. Yet my Eyes do not deceive me, and I swear on my father's blessed soul that these words are truth.
We crew of the Evangeline had pushed hard on Capt. Hill's command to make it early to America. Although the winds were light, we held steady and were ahead of Schedule. Capt. was much pleased with our efforts.
As we neared the coast of Newfoundland, the winds all but died altogether. Ice in the water proved to be Dangrous sic and we proceeded at all Times with the utmost Caution. On the night of All Hallow's Eve, as we slowly drifted through a choppy water, an Eery calm overtook the boat. The night air grew misty, and Capt. Hill ordered the ship to a halt until the Fog had passed.
A crie from the Watch-tower alerted us. "Ship off the port bow!" Not knowing whether twas friend or foe, we assumed our positions among the Cannons. A few of us remained on deck with Rifles.
As the ship neared, it was appraised to be a very fast one, moving along steadily towards us. It appeared to be glowing bright blue, though one's eyes might play tricks in such a situation. Yet it remained blue as it came closer and closer, until it was almost upon us. Capt. Hill ordered the lookout to provide fair warning: "Ship off the port bow, avast!"
As he cried out, the ship slowed down almost immediately. The blue glow now shone upon our faces. There appeared to be no one on board, save one man who stood in the middle of the deck. He was the most Fearesome man I have ever seen. He stood seven feet tall, with a hideous red face that appeared to steam. His eyes were as black as coal, and he was smiling.
You may jest, but I command you - it was the Devil himself, leading that ship to us.
The Capt. saw this face, too, and though it was a frightening one, he resolved himself and yelled, "Fire!" Every man aboard paused for a moment, and then released. The explosion was deafening, and the Evangeline rocked in the waters. Yet our shots passed through the ship as if it were not there at all! The cannonballs continued on, landing in the water behind the ship with a dull splash, and the rifle shots (aimed at the man) passed on into the night sky.
And then He began to laugh. As he laughed, his ship caught ablaze. It began to burn all at once, alight with orange and smoke. He continued to laugh, his demonic voice echoing to our ears. Capt. Hill ordered us to turn the ship around make our escape, but none of us dared to move.
As he finished laughing, he raised his hand and shouted, "Fire? I will show you fire!" He lowered his hand, and the sound of a million cannons firing at once roared through my ears. I looked on in horror as a wall of flame rolled out from that evil vessel and slammed into our side. The screams of those men who slowly burnt into ash, I dare not speak of today. More fire came, and a man standing next to me became full aflame. I tried to put it out, but he had already succumbed to the fire. The smell of burning flesh wafted past my nose, and I became sick. I turned to see Capt. Hill, but he, too, was ablaze. His death was the most painful of all to watch - it appeared that the flames were not hot enough to kill immediately. Rather, it seemed as though he merely melted away, his final agonizing screams drowned out by a gruesome gurgling sound that escaped his lips. And then he was no more.
I watched in disbelief as the man on the other ship began to float - Float! Dare I speak these words as truth? What imagination has struck me! What terror! What evil! - over to our own ship. He landed on the deck and began to walk towards me. As he did, he raised his hands, and all sorts of items - barrels, guns, crates, and people - began to explode. The whole world was on fire, and he continued on a path straight .. towards .. me, his smile of doom never leaving his lips, his black eyes never leaving my person. He cast fire all around me, creating a halo for my demise, only to walk right through the fire unscathed. I trembled before him, and he stood over me.
"You will be my messenger. The world shall feare me!" He cried out as the flames around me grew ever hotter. He then waved his hand over me, and I fell into the deepest trance. When I awoke, I was in the care of the Cartwrights, with whom I dare not share this tale of woe and destruction. I close now this tale, and will try - and fail - to remove these nightmares from my life.
Although skeptics have suggested the whole thing is a hoax, both professors and the DAR stick by the veracity of the writing, if not the account.
- Maritime Records: 1750-1775. Issued by Her Royal Majesty's Navy. London: London Press. 1996 ed.
- Cartwright, Constance. Personal correspondence. Dated 1770.
- "Long-lost Evangeline Diary Discovered." USA Today. March 18, 2001. Associated Press.
- Diarie of a Dead Man. Author Unknown. Text available at http://www.virginia.edu/history/faculty/halliday/diarie1.html.
- My bored mind.