The Spirit Ship of Hampton

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By Patrick Curtis

Atlantic News, October 7, 1999

[The following article is courtesy of the Atlantic News ]

HAMPTON — October is time for foliage, pumpkins, candy, and costumes. It's also time for stories of restless, roaming spooks, spirits, hobgoblins and the like.

The weeks prior to Halloween are often filled with stories told to build anticipation for the coming holiday when youngsters dress up to walk in search of sweets, tricks and treats. The stories most requested this time of year from teachers, parents, and storytellers are "true ghost stories."

With respect to accounts of apparitions, "true" is a relative term; ghost stories are most often legends, lore, or even lies perpetuated for the sake of the scare value. The most potent tales of ghosts, however, are those told without confirmation or denial of verity; the listener must decide for him/herself whether or not to believe.

Retired Winnacunnet High School history teacher and Hampton resident Harold E. Fernald recently shared his knowledge of several stories of local "ghosts" that are true — in the sense that none have been proven otherwise. There are witnesses to the events described in each of the stories, but it is ultimately up to the listener — or in this case, the reader — to decide if the reports are merely the imagination at work or chronicled spiritual history.

Fernald states that whether the tales of Hampton ghosts are believed or not, they generate genuine interest and curiosity that frequently lead to listeners learning history of the area. As a teacher Fernald would often include tales of the local "spirits" with his lessons at this time of year and he contends that the response was always positive; also, it contributed — even for doubters --to enthusiasm for the subject matter.
"Local stories give people a way to relate historical facts to their hometown and therefore to their lives," says Fernald.

The following is a summary of the first tale collected and related by Fernald.

The 'William Tell'

Ghosts -- if you should choose to believe in them – can be, in addition lost souls, objects as large and cumbersome as trains. This first story is not of a person's spirit but of a boat christened the William Tell.

In the early 1920s coal was delivered to market along the New England coast as a primary fuel for rural residents and businesses. The William Tell was a delivery vessel for the Hampton area that went down in 1921. The ship's demise was accidental, but the loss resulted in good fortune for coastal residents who found large pieces of coal on the rocks along the shore.

In fact, Fernald reported that an acquaintance revealed some years back that her grandfather still had a chunk of the raw fuel salvaged from the William Tell's wreck. Many a soul was kept warm in the following winter by the cargo of the lost vessel.

You may be thinking that the story is not very ghostly so far; however, it is not until 1938 that the ghost ship makes its appearance. In celebration of he 300-year anniversary of the founding of Hampton, a parade was held traversing the town's center. Floats of historical significance were drawn by horseback down the streets. One float was inexplicably unregistered with the town secretary, Mrs. Brooks, who kept meticulous records, and was attended faithfully to the duty of maintaining the parade's registry.

At the time of the parade, the excitement and revelry perhaps account for the ship going relatively unnoticed, but post parade reviews of photographs taken of the event reveal the William Tell 's presence in the line-up. When questioned, town officials – including Mrs. Brooks – could not account for the William Tell drawn on flatbed by a team of horses that also were unidentified.
In Hampton at that time, any of the horses and participants in the parade were easily named by neighbors, friends, and residents familiar with each other as the populace was not large. But not one soul could name the two men pictured with the ship, and to this day the appearance of the William Tell in the parade remains a mystery.

As with most ghost stories, there are skeptics; but there are also those who insist that a venture to the shore on a crisp, foggy October night may yet yield evidence the William Tell still sails our waters trying to deliver its lost load of coal.

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