Few figures have captured the our imagination as much as the wrecker-pirate who lured ships ashore with false lights, murdered survivors and plundered what the waves did not destroy. They inhabited the world’s isolated coastal frontiers–the Bahamas, the Carolinas, Cornwall, Key West, Newfoundland and New Jersey–and they’ve been stock characters in the lore of the shore for generations.
This engraving graced the cover of Charles E. Averill’s popular 1848 dime novel The Wreckers: or, the Ship-Plunderers of Barnegat. Published two years after sensationalist accusations of piratical wrecking on the New Jersey coast (roundly refuted by a legislative investigation), The Wreckers tells the story of Rudolf Raven,”the Wrecker of Barnegat.” It’s a thriller–more sensationalist than the false charges that inspired the tale–with sentences that made my head spin. And it’s a great read. As Averill describes Raven, pictured above:
…the astonished beholder started, to see the apparition which met his gaze, as that tall form towered commandingly there, upon the verge of the rock overlooking the stormy sea beyond, where, tossed on the waves rolled the shattered wreck of the lost vessel; his majestic person clad in a picturesque costume of the wild gipsey style, with the black plumed Roman helmet or dragoon’s steel casque, imparting such a martial mien to his features of daring cast and stoic, stern pride of look; with the banner of midnight black, now unfurled to the sea breeze, and its waving the folds lettered with its ominous inscription of ‘Woe to the Mariner!’ toward which the blood-streaming sabre in his sword hand’s grasp pointed threateningly, mercilessly, ruthlessly, in warning and token of the dread menace; while close behind, an iron pillar upreared its summit, from which shone forth afar over the waters a steel hoop of lanterns, the fatal false beacon of the Wreckers, with its infernal glare luring seamen and vessel to shipwreck and death!