Mooncussers. Land Pirates. Wreckers. These iconic figures are the epitome of evil. They intentionally lure ships ashore for illegal plunder. Murder, deceit, and bloodcurdling knavery are the tools of their trade, and while their myth endures, especially in the wreck traps of yore (think: Cornwall, New Jersey, Cape Cod), the nefarious wrecker has always been a figment of the Romantic Imagination. A slew of historians–here’s the best yet–have searched high and low for real-life mooncussers and they’ve come up empty handed… well almost. Like other figments of the Romantic Imagination, wreckers became staples of nineteenth-century Atlantic World literature. Wrecker lit is pretty spectacular. I’d like to share a few of these salty tales on Ships on the Shore.
What follows is a classic retelling of a long-forgotten wrecker short story published serially in the Ladies’ National Magazine in July 1843. This one has it all — a raging storm “increasing in fury every hour,” a mysterious, desperate “solitary wayfarer,” an imperiled vessel, and… well you’ll just have to read it. Part one is transcribed below:
By Charles J. Peterson
The storm was at its height. During the whole day and part of the preceding night it had been blowing fiercely, increasing in fury every hour, until it now raged with an intensity rarely witnessed even on our hospitable Atlantic coast. The wind whistled shrilly over the flat beach, making the bare elder bushes rattle like dry bones and almost prostrating the solitary wayfarer, who stood, half sheltered by the low sand hill, gazing out over the white and troubled ocean. Whoever he might be he had chosen a singular hour for his watch. It was long after twilight, and, in the shadowy obscurity, the agitated ocean before him, with its dark billows tipped with foam, stretching away before the sight until lost in the gloom of the wild seaboard, had something ghastly in its aspect. A rack of leaden colored clouds drove across the firmament, stooping low down over the waters with a weird and threatening aspect.–They ran in mountains, and though the whole surface of the deep was spotted with foam, there was a white continuous line that never disappeared, just beneath the visible horizon, betokening the shoals on her coast. Further in the waves broke again; and a few yards from the watcher they were shivered for the third time, hurling themselves on the beach in ceaseless thunder. At first their dark bosoms could be seen heaving sullenly up against the black seaboard; then, all at once, a white line of foam, beginning at one end of the toppling wave, would run swiftly along the brow; the crest would curl over for an instant; and then the huge mass of water would plunge headlong, in a cataract of snowy spray, on the beach.–For a space the fragments of the wave would be seen shooting up the sand, and then as rapidly returning with the undertow. Another billow would now break with a concussion as loud as before, again the shattered wave would slide up the beach, and again the undertow would succeed.
But it was not to gaze on the sublimity of this scene that the solitary individual had taken post on that desolate beach. His eye ranged the horizon as if in search of some expected object, and at length he stooped forward, and shading his eyes with his hand, gazed intently across the white waste of waters, with a smile of savage, almost fiendish exultation came across his face.
‘Ay! there she is,’ he muttered, ‘I knew she could not escape, for I saw her in the offing an hour ago, I was sure. I have her now.–There has been but a poor trade in this winter; but this tall ship will make up for the bad times.’
He rubbed his hands as he spoke, and looked around, as if already contemplating the bales of rich silks which he expected to realize from the wreck; for well he knew that nothing short of a miracle could save the doomed ship, since she was already too nigh to be able to claw off the coast in the teeth of the northeaster. He then cast his eye upward to a light fixed on a heavy pole, on the summit of the low sand hill.
‘Ah it’s a trick I never knew to fail,’ said the wrecker, as if conversing with himself.–‘They think it the light off the Hook, and shape their course accordingly. Let me see,’ he continued, stopping a short space to think, ‘they will bear up a little, so they’ll come on a mile or two further down. Well, well, one place is as good as another. By morning’–
‘The crew will all be dead,’ said a harsh voice behind him, so unexpectedly that he started and looked around like one half expecting to see a spirit.
The wrecker’s fears, however, vanished when holding the lantern to the intruder he beheld a woman’s face. But it was seamed with exposure and age, and made more repulsive by the grizzled hair which hung like a Medusa’s snakes about it. She wore a man’s hat and pea-jacket.
It’s only me, Master Bowen, said she, ‘you needn’t be afeered. The devil will no doubt have you some day, but not yet, not yet. You haven’t murdered folks enough yet by luring them on here. But your time’s coming.’
A dark scowl settled on the wrecker’s brow at these words, while the veins of his forehead swelled like a whip-cord with suppressed passion.
‘What call you here, old beldame?’ he said sharply ‘I told you to say up at the hut,’ and noticing a leer in her eyes, he continued, abruptly changing his tone, ‘well–what have you seen to pay for our walk?’
‘Nothing, master, nothing. I haven’t long suspected. But enough,’ she added, smiling maliciously, ‘to make your neck not worth a farthing, if I speak out.’
The man regarded her, for an instant, with a scowling brow, and perhaps might be meditating whether he should not murder her; but the temptation passed away, or he thought proper to change his tactics.
‘Come, come, old Kate,’ he said, at length, ‘this won’t do. You and I have been together too long to fall out now. You’ve seen me do only what a dozen others along the coast have done, and what you’d do yourself if a good chance offered. Here, on the beach, all that comes ashore is ours, and, if the winter’s unlucky, we must take to our wits to make it more fortunate.’
“Ha! ha! old master,’ said the creature, changing her malicious laugh to one of seemingly unearthy jocularity, ‘there you’re right. I was only trying your nerves. What! old Kate tell on you. Not for all the fiends below. Besides,’ she added, and her voice lost some of the its harshness, as if a better feeling was struggling to break through her icy heard, ‘it’s all for Margy; all we get–all that falls to our lot, all that I pick up. Sweet child, I wish she would come back–when, did you say, she was to leave Charlestown?’
‘She was to have come home this winter, but I sent word for her to stay till summer. By that time I shall have left here, and I thought it best, on further consideration, that she should not return to this neighborhood.’
‘Oh! ay! I see it now. You will go to Philadelphia or York, as you’ve told me, and set up for merchant or gentleman. Well–its best. I can’t go; but I’ll come sometime and see Margy. She’s more like my own child than a stranger. It’s best she shouldn’t know the folks down here. But ha! look yonder–the ship will soon be on.’
(to be continued)