A True maritime legend unfolds in the pages of this story. A tale that needed to be told, and a warning to those who do not believe in history.
The Watchman’s Bell
The Doctor and the Minister lifted the body of Captain Sole from the deck, and lowered it to a small boat tied alongside of the Watchman. They recovered the ships log book to be examined later. There would be no way to recover or remove any of the other bodies from the ship. An order was given to put a torch to the ship, to put an end to the Watchman and its devil crew forever. Oil was spilled on the decks and into the hold and long streams of blood mixed with the oil washed over the sides of the dying vessel. The water surrounding the ship turned blood red as the mixture fell to the surface. All of the men who had boarded her now returned to the smaller boats and withdrew for safety. The torch was lit and tossed upon the deck.
The flames swept across the decks and into the rigging, and deep into the hold of the vessel. Smoke from the fire blocked the sunlight, and soon the entire ship was engulfed in flames. As the fire raged, pieces of rigging, masts and spars, crashed to the deck below and frames ruptured and gave way. With each crash, fire rose up, and with the sound of it escaping the ship were the sounds and moans of the hundreds who had died in years past. As night approached, the sound from within the still burning ship was the sound of pain and suffering, of captured and tortured souls now flying upward in the heat of the fire. By midnight, the tide had turned and the flames died away. All that remained were sparks and bits of wood floating on the surface where once the ship had stood.
At first light, the men who had withdrawn in small boats returned to the scene. There, where the burned remains still crumbled at the low tide, an ominous and foreboding image appeared in the mud, still visible as it settled into the depths below. There, last to disappear beneath the surface, was the Watchman’s Bell; all that remained of the slave ship and her years of misery. It would be left there forever. Ships, fisherman, small craft traveling the old north channel, would give it a wide berth as they sailed in and out of the harbor. As the years passed, the channel shifted and became unused and the bell was all but forgotten. Not written up in historical records, not noted in ships logs, it remained as a possible hazard to navigation until the Navy decided to remove it from its resting place, in preparation for war.
The time came for the Chief to report his findings to the Navy officers in charge. He entered the meeting room and presented his facts in a deliberate and factual manner, and he followed with an impassioned plea that the bell be left alone. After his report, he waited outside the room and there he sat. He heard great roars of laughter from his superior officers. Laughter, and jokes, and guffaws, and soon the decision was reached. The bell, the eternally damned and cursed iron bell would be moved. It would be salvaged with all of the power of the Navy if needs be, but it would be moved.
Several days later, a huge ship that had formerly been used to lay Trans-Atlantic cables was brought to the sight of the bell. Divers entered the waters and again the bell was chained to the ship. No need to wait for tides now. The ship with all of its power moved into position. The massive engines snorted to life, the winches on deck growled into action, and in moments, from the cold black sea, the bell emerged. Hanging now suspended in the sunlight, the bell appeared to turn color. Black at first, but as the mud and slime of one hundred years on the ocean floor slid away, the bell began to rust before the eyes of all who were watching. It was taken ashore, and slowly lowered to a concrete pad at the end of a pier at the Navy Yard. It was a strange sight to all. A rusted mass of iron several feet tall looming above the pier. Untouched and unmoved for days, it sat there. At the end of the second week a rain storm swept by the area. When it had passed a large pool of water settled at the base of the bell, and as it sat there drying in the sun, it turned in color from a strange red to a deeper blood-red shade. The Navy expecting the rust to stain the cement ordered the bell to be moved again. This time a civilian company would be called upon to take the bell from the area.
The owners of the shipyard had heard of the bell, and after some small negotiation, offered to remove it, in return for which they would keep the bell, to be hung in the high tower of the new shipyard building. Riggers were set to the task of transporting the bell, and they arranged for large cranes to haul it high up to the loft above. Working hard with heavy timbers and staging, and great feats of manual labor, the bell was finally hung. By days end, it would be firmly in place and awaiting service of its new owners, all of whom were unaware of its history and origin. Plans were made that at eight the following morning, the bell would be rung. It would mark the start of a new shift, and a new era for the shipyard.
Shortly before midnight the shouts went out from the electrical shop in the lower level of the new building. Soon more shouts, and all work stopped. A fire had started in the shop and was quickly spreading to other areas below. In moments, it raced uncontrolled from one shop to the next. There was no way to stop it’s fury as it moved with a force, a life of its own. It quickly engulfed the whole new building and raced up to the highest point of the bell tower. As morning came the earliest rays of the suns first light would pierce the sky and rest upon the still standing skeleton of the burned bell tower.
The tower had been the center of the whole area, and now it was all but gone. Up high in the still rising smoke and ash. All that could be seen was the bell. The bell was black and shining in the sun and after a few moments of glory it crashed down from its perch, down into the ashes piled up beneath it. The entire tower collapsed into the smoldering rubble, hiding the bell from view once more. A shower of sparks rose upward, and a great hissing sound was heard, as the bell reached the bottom of the now water soaked remains of the building. It came to rest at the very bottom of the heated debris. Having been heated by the night of flames and now tossed again into water the bell hissed like it had done at its birth on an island beach years before. The tower was no more, and the bell would not be rung to start the new day. No one would hear its voice.
The following week, the task of cleanup and rebuilding was underway. No effort would be made to sort through the remains of the building, so great cranes were brought in along with earth clearing equipment, to clear the site for renewal. A barge was floated up the channel and tied alongside of the center pier. The debris, the ruins of the now destroyed building, along with the machinery and hardware within would be transported by barge to a dumping site miles off shore in the Atlantic Ocean. It would be dumped forever in a place where nature would cover its traces. All but gone, all loaded aboard the barge and the lines were cast off and slowly the barge was pulled from the site. Among the rubble, and just barely visible to a careful eye, was the again rusted bell, sitting atop the pile of burned debris.
A large tow boat was brought up the channel to take away the barge and the debris. I watched as the tug, and the barge moved away from the pier and started down the channel, and thought to myself with horrid amazement, how odd it was that anyone would name a tow boat Watchman. That was the name carefully lettered on the stern of the tug, and it was visible only as it turned down the channel. That. I thought was the absolute end of the Watchman, and her bell, I would never have to revisit the story again.
Now, after all these years have passed, a story in the evening newspaper told a different ending. The headlines read “Young Divers Find Old Bell at Former Ocean Dump Site” Plans are being made to recover the bell and to bring it to shore.
An ending, no, I think not, the Watchman’s Bell is a story that will be told over and over again. May God have mercy and silence its’ voice forever.
Peter Alden Yule
Peter Alden Yule
The Old Yankee Storyteller
The Watchman’s Bell
Peter Alden Yule
I had lived with the knowledge of that damned bell for many, many years and had all but put it out of my mind. Only now, am I reminded of it. Not by choice, but someone has to be told. I had never heard the bell ring and never wanted to. When first it was brought here from Boston, few people, if any, knew of its origin, of its beginnings. Oh sure, there were the stories, the tales of it’s horror, and the rumors of evil and suffering, but for sure and certain, there was no one, no one alive today, who had ever heard the deep mournful voice of the Watchman’s bell.
It was during the early years of the war that the bell was brought down. The owners of the shipyard were bringing the yard “up to date” to handle contract work being given out by the Navy. New ships built of wood, to be used as minesweepers and small freight carriers would be built on a demanding schedule. In all my years, I had never seen a timetable by which men would build large wooden ships. The Navy, well they had their rules, their books, and their plan of how the work should proceed. To meet the plan of turning out a fully fit seagoing vessel every ninety days was unheard of, but with the nation at war, we would do everything possible to meet the challenge.
The owners of the shipyard just south of Boston were called upon to make many changes in those early days of World War Two. They had expanded the construction sheds where the ships were built. At the entry to the main yard, they had erected a huge new building to house machine shops, the electrical shops, the cutting rooms and the new main offices. In the center of the building they had built a great tower over one hundred feet tall. Nothing in town was any higher. At the very top, somewhat like a church steeple was a large loft area in which would be placed a single large bell. The shipyard would work, around the clock, and the bell, according to Navy traditions would be used to mark the changing of the shifts. The Navy required that three shifts be used to complete the ships on their terms and on their schedule. The Navy wording in the contract specified that an “appropriate device, audible for a great distance,” be used in the manner above. The bell, the Watchman’s bell was to be that device.
During the early days of the war, the Navy had made a “sweep” of Boston harbor, to remove from it “any and all such items or objects as may be or may become a hazard to free navigation.” It was during the search of the old channels that the bell was discovered. From the bottom of the unused somewhat shallow channel, just outside of the primary shipping route, the bell would be recovered. Standing upright in the mud of the shallow channel, covered with black slime and shell encrusted, it must certainly have appeared as a grotesque object to the divers sent to examine it before removal efforts would be made. The bell stood more than seven feet tall, and measured five feet across at the base, or mouth. The weight of the bell could only be guessed at when first efforts to remove it from its watery grave were about to be made.
A Navy tugboat was stationed in the channel, and heavy chains and cables were lowered from its deck. With great effort they were made fast to the bell by divers. The pulling of the bell from the channel bottom was to take place in mid afternoon at the lowest point of the outgoing tide. It was during July, and a heat wave had a hold on the area for several days. It was a Friday and all was ready for the salvage effort.
The divers surfaced shortly after noon with their work below the waves completed. They were brought on board and their diving gear removed. Nothing to do now but wait for the tide. From the galley, lunch was brought up on deck for the crew. To the east, just above the horizon, clouds were beginning to gather. A break in the heat wave and showers were expected. By the end of the lunch break, the clouds had moved closer and appeared more ominous. The barometer began to drop and a storm began to approach. The crew became restless and anxious waiting for the expected low tide, hoping to finish the days work and return to shelter inside the harbor before the storm broke.
Faster it came now with heavy rain visible beneath its dark and towering clouds. As it neared, lightning bolts danced from cloud to cloud with long spindly bolts touching down on the surface of the water. Now, chained to the bell below, stuck firmly in the mud of one hundred years, the tug began to dance about like a small insect caught in the flow of water from a downspout. Unable to run for cover or shelter in the lee of a nearby island, the tug soon became an unmanageable bouncing cork tossed about on the storm tossed waters. A decision was made and approved by radio to put all power to work and pull the bell free without waiting for the lower tide. The weight of the extra lengths of chain and cable would add to the force needed for the task. The tug, turned with her stern toward the bell, and the full power of her massive engine was applied. The sound of the strain on the engine, the hull, fittings, chain and cables could be heard even above the sound of the wind now screaming across the waters.
The heavy chains pulled down on the stern of the tug and the rain fell heavier than ever before. The cleats and bollards on deck were soon awash in the downpour. The final bit of power was coaxed from the engine and the waters astern of the tug turned with a fury. The tug of war of vessel against the bell lasted for nearly an hour with the effort becoming more strenuous on man and machine. The tug would lurch forward over growing swells blowing toward her. The bell was unyielding in its grip to the channel floor. The battle continued with the tug becoming more of a victim than a victor in its relentless struggle. Suddenly a blinding flash of light, a single bolt of lightning guided by an unknown force, struck the tug. The lightning raced its way along the deck house, and into the afterdeck. It ripped and tore its way through to the bottom of the hull, and burst its way out through the bottom of the ship. The lightning could be seen in the water as it followed the chains down through the storm tossed waters, until it reached the bell. The tug briefly raced forward as the cables and chains parted. Cut in half by nature’s most uncontrolled force, the remaining chain and cable now hung below the vessel.
Through the hole in the bottom of the mighty tug, water raced in filling the hull faster than the pumps could expel it. The wind screamed like never before and waves now broke across the powerless craft and in a matter of minutes it was driven hard aground on the shores of a nearby island. The bow of the tugboat plowed deeply into the soft mud, and soon she settled, filled with water, to the shallow bottom below. The bell was still a hazard to shipping and still to be removed. For now it had won. The Navy log of that day would read Friday 13 July salvage of bell of unknown origin failed. Tug YT301 lost during operations, all hands safe. End report. The storm had ended, and the sun returned above.
The Watchman’s Bell
The best research records of the Navy yielded no clues, no information, nothing that would prove to be useful for the task. The Chief found it necessary, after his search of all of the government files and records to consult with local agencies for information. The navigational charts at that time did not show the bell as a hazard so he thought perhaps some of the local seagoing craft had encountered the bell in the past. A check with the local Coast Guard offices indicated that no ship, no fishing boat, nor any other local vessel had ever been in contact or experienced an accident with the bell. The records indicated that over the years in that very channel where vessels had run aground or struck against unknown rocks, or hit other submerged objects, there was never an accident involving the bell. Before the Navy launched its second attack on the bell, the Chief knew that he alone must get the information needed. He would have to go outside of normal channels for this.
For the next week the Chief would search the records of local maritime organizations, the Harbor Pilot’s log books, the Maritime Union records, the public library files and more. There would be no clues. With only a short time remaining, he grew restless and frustrated. The commanding officers must have the data he thought as he studied the crude drawings of the bell done by the divers who had seen it. That bell, he thought, that damned ugly bell, rough cast and resembling an inverted champagne glass, was not the shape of a Navy bell, more like, well, it didn’t matter he thought. He was sure in his own mind that he had seen a bell like that once before, but as hard as he tried he could not recall where it had been.
His frustration grew and he knew that he must leave the problem aside for a short break. Just a walk, just a breath of fresh air. He signed out at the Navy base just after noon-time. He passed the main gate and drew in a breath of fresh air. Not conscious of any particular destination, he began his walk.
He ambled past the end of the Navy base and was soon headed to the heart of Boston. He walked aimlessly but seemed to be draw along by some unknown force of which he was quite unaware. Soon he found himself standing in front of an old cemetery, a burial ground preserved by an ancient historical group. He became aware of his location, but did not remember the path that he had followed to get there. It will come to me, he thought, as he entered into the graveyard through heavy iron gates and began to walk up and down among the old worn paths.
On the upright soft black slate headstones still visible he could read the names of men of historic importance who helped to forge the history of Boston and the nation. He walked slowly among the headstones, when suddenly he dropped to his knees. There it was before him amid the ornate carvings scrolled on the top of the stones. The exact image of the bell, as if it had been drawn a day or two before. He pulled from his pocket the crude drawings of the bell done by the divers and held them up to the stone. Identical, so much so, that they could easily have been traced like a rubbing done by a school child. How could this be? How could the bell, now sitting at the bottom of the harbor in cold dark waters have been drawn so completely on this stone. The stone marked the resting place of a man now dead for more than one hundred years. “Whose grave is this, what does this all mean?” he thought. He found in his pocket another piece of paper and quickly he copied all that he could read of the inscription on the weathered stone. “HERE LIETH THE REMAINS OF CAPTAIN BARRON SOLE WHO DIED BY THE HAND OF GOD AUGUST 03 1865.”
Rearmed with new questions and new hope, he visited the Maritime Historical Society. In the dusty and damp basement, he quickly found the name of Captain Sole in an old yellowed ledger book. A journal of sorts, listing every Captain who had sailed from the Port of Boston, or who’s remains were laid to rest there. He read the names of men long since forgotten. Captain Linus Alloe, of the trading ship Morganthal, late of the Port of New York. Died in his sleep July 01, 1881. Captain John Berger, of the Collier St Paul, late of Liverpool England, at rest Nov. 06, 1881, from natural causes. On and on they went, page after page identified by their ship and their home port, telling the manner or cause of their demise.
When he reached the page on which the notations that he had searched for were written, he paused. How very odd, only one name on the page, and written at the very bottom. Every other page in the ledger had at least six or more names upon it, but this page, only one name. Captain Barron Sole, of the Slaver Watchman of the southern ports, died By Gods hand, 03 August 1865.
Other notes, scribbled in pencil, were also on the page, but were not a part of the original entry. In one handwritten margin note, the word fear, in another, the mark Ex William, and still a third note, the words, a message of sorts or perhaps a command, “silence to the bell forever!” Beneath it all, were the scribbled words printed in a crude manner, “Taken To Hell by the Devil.”
The Watchman’s Bell
He wandered from room to room of the Society library, looking in book after book for reference to that ship, still hoping to find details of it’s bell. He would then have the information needed before a new salvage and removal effort took place.
As the afternoon slipped away, he made little progress. The keeper of the records for the Society politely offered his assistance as the supper hour drew near. The Chief had obviously been unaware of the time, but the older gentleman wanted to secure the building and retire for his evening meal. The Chief told the man of his mission, and the man listened intently without speaking a word. When the story had been laid out in detail, the older man pushed himself back from the table at which they had both been seated.
“Bad business, filled with woe and sorrow, pain and suffering,” was his only comment. “Now you Navy boys have stepped right into it, and you don’t even know what you’re up against.” The older gentleman had been a ships Captain himself. He had gone to sea before the turn of the century and had indeed sailed upon the great wind driven ships now long gone. He had witnessed the last days of sail, and in his time he had heard all of the stories, the legends, and the tales of the atrocities of the slave trade. “Not a proud thing,” he said.
“The name of your Captain Sole sits alone in the book because he was a slave trader. There would be no other man who would share a page in history with the likes of him.” A burial in Boston and a record of his well-earned death was all he would get. A Christian effort by those who carry on, but no good mention nor any soul so unworthy, as to share his page. “Let me ask you Chief, is there no way that you can get those Navy folks to give up on this?” He paused for a moment and looked at the Chief, and then answered his own question. “No I suppose not.” “Well let’s get to it,” he said getting up from the table and asking the Chief to follow him. They walked to the rear of the building and turned to descend into another musky damp basement room. It was the location of the old vaults, kept out of public view, that contained the records of slave traders, pirates, and smugglers, all cut from the same cloth. The Navy Chief would now learn at the hands of an expert, all that he would have to know about the Watchman and her bell.
“It was well known, that the stone cutters of old would always try to put on the headstones an object that spoke of the deceased. If the man were a farmer, perhaps a sheaf of wheat, or an idle plow. For a Captain of honor, a figurehead from his ship, a row of fancy knot work, or a set of sails. For your Captain Sole, only the bell would do. Yes, on his stone, the bell. It killed him, you know, never touched his body, but killed him dead,” said the gentleman in a matter-of-fact statement.
The Chief did not know, but reminded his new mentor that the inscription read Died at the Hand of God. “Oh, that he did, but surely you must know, that God does work in many ways,” he replied.
Back in the days just after the civil war, those men who had invested large sums of money to build slave ships and enter the slave trade were out of business. The more human beings they could put into their ships holds, the more they could make with each trip. Your Captain was one of them. He had the ship the Watchman, built special just for the hauling of human cargo, poor captured black human beings from their native lands to the southern ports of this country. Toward the end of the war, with slavery outlawed, the ships owners had to avoid capture by the former pirates now being paid a bounty for their ships. They had a choice to head for Key West to scrap the ships for pennies on the dollar with the ship breakers, or if they could find a way, to hide the identity of the ship, and sell it as a merchant vessel. Your Captain had a lot of money invested, just to haul his cargo. Look, look here at the logs of that cursed ship. Crossing after crossing, bringing back hundreds of human beings, locked in iron chains and manacled together hand to foot. Packed into dark airless holds, with little food, and always afraid. In one crossing alone, your Captain boasted of hauling five hundred slaves to port, and he casually noted to do it he had to load nine hundred on board, because so many would die or be killed to show authority on the crossing. Yes, Chief, the Watchman was built for one purpose only and no other. The shackles, clamps, racks, and hard board shelves were built right into her hull. A devils design, for sure.
“Well, as the war ended, your Captain had to sell his ship to pay back the debts he had run up having her built. No one, not one single merchant trader, not even those that hauled animals would have any part of the ship. The ship-breakers refused to pay even pennies on the dollar for her hull and fittings. That ship was damned from the time it was built, and everyone knew it”
From the log book, it would appear that Captain Sole took his ship into the islands of the West Indies. He would be safe there, protected by mercenary pirates. While there, he again dealt in slaves, only this time he purchased them for a special task. He had them gut the ship. Stripped clean of all traces of it’s foul past. The shelves on which his human cargo was kept were pulled from the bowels of the ship. Removed, were all of the chains, the iron manacles, the hooks and torture cages. The shackles with blood and flesh still on them, all removed. The Captain was a sly one, and he had a mold built right there on the beach. Crude, unpolished, a sand casting mold, and then he fashioned a clay crucible and ordered fires be built with the removed hardwood from the ship. The metal would be melted down and cast into the mold to fashion a bell for the ship. That is where the bell came from. The blood and flesh of slaves and done with their own labor. That damned iron bell.
It should have ended there. The whole story should have ended right there, but that was not to be. Captain Sole had other ideas, and so too did the slaves of the West Indies.
The Watchman’s Bell
The Chief, and the older gentleman, had been talking for hours when they heard footsteps in the room above them. The older man excused himself and went upstairs to lock up the building for the night. When he returned he was in the company of a second, older gentleman whom he had planned to dine with that night. Having lost track of the time, the second man found it necessary to come in search of his friend. Like the first man, the second had also sailed in the days gone past, and he joined the chief at the table for the discussion that would continue late into the evening hours. He was told of all that had transpired, and like the first man, his response was much the same. Was there no way that the Navy could be convinced to leave the bell rest? Assured that there was not, he grabbed at the Navy Chiefs hand. “Please, you must try. Do not let that bell be raised,” he pleaded. “Have you told him all of it yet” he asked of the first gentleman.
“No, not yet” was the reply.
“You must do it; you must tell him all of it, before it is too late. That bell must never be brought to the light of day again. Too many have died because of that infernal bell!”
The three men sat now together as the story was unfolded to the Chief Petty Officer. Captain Sole, having gutted the ship, and using it’s iron to cast that bell, had planned to sail the ship north, to sell the ship in areas where she might not be recognized. He had planned to sail it to New England and offer it as a Whaler or a bulk carrier for loose cargo. He was sure that he had removed all traces of the ship’s trade as a Slaver, and in New England, for the right price, who would question it?
In the Islands of the West Indies, where the Captain had gone to do his dirty work, there were many freed black slaves. Some had fled to freedom; others had been set free there. There, in the Islands, they practiced the old ways of their homeland and of their heritage.
Seeing the purchased slaves of Captain Sole being used for such a project had stirred them into action. Not the kind of action that a Navy man might expect. When the fire was set to melt the iron, the free black men watched carefully. As it roared to life they began to chant in the language of Africa. Closer and closer they moved to the flames, chanting in unison and now slowly circling the fire as it grew. As the fire roared and hissed, several of their number would take turns running up precariously close to the intense heat, and throwing into it various bits of wood or stone or shell taken from small leather bags carried by their Shaman, their witch Doctor.
The Captain, on seeing this behavior ordered his crewmen to stop the practice and to bring the leader to him. With guns drawn and aimed at them, the black slaves were forced to withdraw from the flame. The leader of the group and one young girl who could speak in English and in the African tongue were brought before the Captain. He instructed the girl to find out what had been done to his fire and to his bell by the others. She spoke to the black man and he spoke back with clucking sounds punctuated by a large laugh and a grin on his face.
The Captain ordered the girl to translate what had been said, and she responded, telling him that the fire was not the Captains, that the bell was not his. Both, she said, belonged forever to the men and women and children who had died on his ship of doom. The black man spoke again grinned and laughed loudly, spit on the ground before the Captain and turned his back to walk away. The girl was again pressed to translate what had been said, but she would not answer.
The Captain ordered her to speak, and the girl refused. The Captain then ordered that the black man be brought back from the fire’s edge, dragged before her, and he then raised his gun and shot and killed the man before the eyes of the young girl. He promised to kill her if she would not speak and tell him what had been said. The girl refused.
The Captain ordered the girl to be stripped and whipped until she could take no more, and when asked to speak, she again refused. Throughout the night, the Captain tried again and again to force the girl to speak, and she was in total fear of her life, but again and again she would not speak. The girl knew instinctively that as long as she refused, the Captain would have to let her live, for only she knew what secret words had passed from the older black leader of the slaves.
The Captain had the girl taken out to the ship now anchored a short distance from shore. In the morning, he sent his crew ashore again, to bring all of the slaves that had worked on the project, and any others that they might find, down to the beach where he could see them. When this had been done, he brought the now wounded and bleeding girl up on deck of the ship where she could see her friends, her family, and the members of her community. The Captain ordered the girl again to speak, and as before, she refused. At that moment, the Captain ordered that each and every black faced man, woman and child, who had seen his deeds, and knew his plans, be shot to death, and the girl would be forced to watch. She could stop the killing only by telling him what he wanted to hear, what had been said to her by the leader. One by one, the black people were killed, and their bodies tossed on the still smoldering fire. The girl saw her mother and father and the rest of her family dispatched at the hands of the Captain, and still, she would not speak.
The night came and sounds of the fire still burning on the beach could be heard. Smoke from the fire blackened the night sky, and at midnight, the flames stopped glowing on the shore.
In the morning, the crew was sent to the beach again, this time to dismantle the sand mold into which the bell had been cast, and to bring the bell close enough to the shore line that it could be hauled back and up to the ship. The metal of the bell was still hot as it was pushed and pulled across the wet sand and at each turning it hissed as it cooled in the waters. By midday the bell was brought aboard the ship, and tied securely on deck. One more time the girl was ordered to give up the message, and still she would not.
The ship sailed north with only a few of its crew members still on board. Most had now abandoned the ship and Captain Sole, while those that remained did so with the promise that they would share the profits from selling the ship in the northern ports.
The weather favored the trip, and in ten days time, the ship was in the waters east of the Carolinas. The ships log revealed that on Sunday morning, the wind had stopped and the temperature was rising. To the south, and the east, the skies grew dark. Strange clouds moved on the distant horizon. Silence of an uneasy nature overtook the crew.
Again the Captain ordered the young girl to be brought on deck. She was given food and water for the first time in ten days. She moved about on deck, and looked to the western sky and began to smile. “What was said, I must know” demanded the Captain. The girl would not speak.
The Watchman’s Bell
It was on the Captains mind to have the girl whipped again, but he became distracted by his crew and the storm clouds now approaching his becalmed ship. Before the clouds, and only a short distance from them, could be seen the sails of a much larger vessel moving rapidly before the oncoming winds. The vessel appeared to be on a Northwesterly course, a course that would bring it close by the Watchman.
The crew studied it as the distance narrowed between the ships, and so too, did the small frail black girl. The Captain ordered all sails set, and a course be made to the Northeast. If a wind was coming, he would sail hard and make up for lost time. He planned to ride the wind, no matter how strong, all the way to the New England coast. Within a few minutes, the crew was working hard to control the ship as it started to move forward. They worked harder than ever, being short handed, and the ship being so light. No one, for the moment, watched the larger ship as it came within hailing distance of the Watchman. No one except the black girl.
Quickly seeing hope unfold before her eyes, she scurried to the rail of the ship. The Captain on seeing this ran to grab her, but as he moved closer, the ship rolled, and he tripped and fell to the deck just beside her feet. As he did so, he struck his ankle against the bell lashed to the rail where the girl now stood. The ankle broke, and he yelled out again to the girl to tell what had been said. He moaned in pain and writhed at her feet. The child smiled, and as the larger ship came even closer she could see people on deck, watching her. She shouted out now, above the wind what the Captain had wanted to hear. “A curse, a curse of death on the bell Captain, it will kill you and all who hear it’s voice, she shouted, the bell will kill you.” Then in a moment of hope and desperation, the girl was gone. She jumped into the waters below and watched as the ship sailed on. The sea boiled as the ship moved ahead and the larger ship swept about and to the spot where the child was last seen, and where she now swam for her life.
A single effort would be made to save her, to rescue her from the sea. A large net was hung down the side of the great ship and it was steered toward her. She reached out and grabbed at the net as the ship rolled and heaved, towering above her. She felt the net slip from her hands. Again and again she tried to hold on, and just as the ship would pass her by she felt the strong hands of a sailor reach out to her. He had risked his own life and climbed down the net to bring the child on board. In one final heroic effort, the child was plucked from the sea. Divine mercy and providence had spared her on that day.
She was brought on deck and soon rushed below in the arms of women passengers on the great ship. She was fed and bathed, and her wounds tended to, and she was dressed for the first time in her life by the hands of love. The great sailing ship was headed for Chesapeake Bay, and protection from the oncoming hurricane. The Watchman would now challenge the storm at sea, short handed and light and with a crippled Captain on deck.
Before nightfall, the great passenger ship was safely anchored at the inland port of Baltimore. On arrival there the Captain took time to go below and to talk with his newest passenger. The girl, in the comfort of her saviors and surrounded by caring strangers, no longer felt danger or death. She told her story to the Captain, in detail. She told of the slave ship Watchman and of the vile Captain, Barron Sole, and she told of the massacre that she had witnessed and of the atrocities of the crew. She told of the bell cast from the iron worn by slaves. She told them of the curse placed upon the bell. She told of the Captains plan to sail to the north and to profit from the ship, and she spoke of her family and of how she would miss them forever. She thanked this stranger, this Captain, for her life. She told of being in Africa and being taught English by people called missionaries in a small school. She now astonished her hosts by remembering that those missionaries came from America, from a place called Baltimore, herself having no idea where she was.
As a strong Christian man of New England stock, the Captain vowed that Captain Sole’s plans would never be met. He mustered horseback riders and volunteers to assist them, and sent the riders north along the entire coastline to alert the port captains and harbormasters to provide no shelter, no help, and no comfort to the Watchman and her crew. At no place on the entire coast would that ship ever find safe haven. He vowed that he would personally pay a bounty for the Captain and would see to his trial if ever he were found alive. It was his solemn word.
All along the coastline, from Norfolk to the south, to the furthest points of the Maine coast, the story of the Watchman was told. Harbormasters posted lookouts. Ship’s Captains and fisherman were given the message. At every coastal point people watched and waited, but there was no sign of the Watchman.
On the morning of the tenth day, a fishing schooner returning to Boston from Georges Bank and the offshore fishing grounds, moved slowly through fog shrouded waters as it sought to enter Boston harbor by the old North Channel. As they neared the area, a lookout was sent aloft to help guide the vessel through the shifting channel’s flow. At nine in the morning the lookout shouted down from his perch that a great sailing ship was in the channel behind them and was bearing down on them under full sail, from the southeast.
A breeze swept in and the fog lifted. As it did so, the crew of the schooner could now see the ship as it slipped past them within a hundred yards of their vessel.
From the decks of the schooner, now low in the water with her holds filled with fish, not one person could be seen on the tall ship. The sails of the ship could now be plainly seen, and appeared to be badly torn and ripped. Little more than strips of cloth hung below the ships tall spars. Quickly now, more men went aloft to get a better look at the strange ship now slowing as it entered the narrow part of the channel. The shout again from the lookout high above, there is no life on her. No one moves on her decks, and no one steers her.
Others soon confirmed this specter. The long ship slid silently by, and the crew of the schooner watched as the great ghostly vessel moved past toward the harbor at Boston. In a moment, it was obvious that the great sailing ship had become the victim of the hurricane that had raced past a week earlier. Now, it looked as if the ship was being guided by an unseen force, by some unknown hand directing it in the channel. Another shout from above, “She missed the mark, and she’s going aground. She’s headed for the north end of the island. She’ll ground out there for sure.” And so she did. The schooner now moved to close the distance again and neared the stern of the now grounded ghost ship. The sailor posted at the bow was first to yell, “It is the Watchman. She’s the Watchman, and she is hard, hard aground.”
The schooner turned away, no longer wanting to approach the damned vessel, now stuck hard in the mud and rocks of the old North Channel. A large thud and the clatter of her rigging was all that was heard as the long ship slammed again and again deeper into the channels edge. The schooner returned to the channel and slid into Boston Harbor.
The fate of the Watchman quickly spread throughout the waterfront. Port authorities and Captains of other ships now began to head out to see the death ship as it spent its last day at the edge of the channel. By noon time, a small flotilla of boats was nearing the ship. It was a clear day now, with calm seas as they approached. A boarding party was sent out in smaller boats to go onboard the ship now sitting half out of the water, stranded by a receding tide. Lines were tossed aboard, and men began to slowly climb up to the rails towering above.
Their first sight of the decks of the ship would stop the boarding party in their tracks. The bell, the massive iron bell, had come loose in the storm, and had rolled about on the tossing decks of the errant ship. Lying on the decks, in fly covered pools of blood and flesh, could be seen the remains of the ships crew. Grown men, who had seen war and death many times were now sickened at the sight of broken bodies, crushed beneath the iron mass of the bell. Arms and legs had been severed, crushed and torn from the bodies. Skulls were fractured, and the contents poured out. There, there in the middle of all of it, sitting up against the base of the main mast, was Captain Sole. His clothing was clean, his body intact, his hands folded on his chest as though in prayer, and his eyes open wide, staring at the bell resting just an arms length away. Never before had anyone seen such a sight. A Doctor, and a Minister of God, who had come on board approached the Captain’s lifeless body, while others in the party moved away, seeking stability at the ships rails. Here was seen on the Captain’s face, unmistakable testimony to the cause of his death. There were no scars, no sign of blood, no visible sign of injury, but for the swelling of his ankle. The doctors proclamation was simple and to the point. Captain Sole died of fear. Fear that no man could ever endure, had captured his mind and his body, and Captain Sole died from fear, fear of the bell.
Perhaps he feared retribution from God Almighty, perhaps he feared eternity in hell, but no mistake would be made in the Doctors pronounced cause of death…Fear. Fear, by the Hand of God claimed Captain Barron Sole aboard the slave ship Watchman.
This scene too, could well be the end of this story of the Watchman’s bell, but alas it is not.
The Navy Chief was determined now to follow the trail given to him. He must learn more of the Slaver, Watchman, and more of Captain Sole. He knew that slave ships had sailed in American waters freely engaging in their foul trade for years before the Civil War. How could it be that the Captain of such a vessel would end up in a grave in Boston? And what of his ship the Watchman.
Now the Chief was completely recharged. He had indeed seen the image of the bell before. As a schoolboy of ten or eleven years he had visited this very spot with his school class. He must know more about it all. Who was Captain Barron Sole, and what did it mean “Died by the Hand of God“?The Navy would not leave well enough alone, and within weeks they would be back to carry out their mission. They would bring the bell to shore for disposal, and remove it as a hazard to shipping. Before a second try would be made, the Navy decided to research the bell and its history. To determine it’s origin and hopefully to learn its weight and how it came to be in this lesser used channel. The research task was assigned to a Navy Chief Petty Officer, who had been born and raised in the area, and who had many local contacts.