Ghost of White Island
Don’t go to White Island on a moonlight night especially if you are afraid of ghosts.
White Island rises with several other rocky islands above the North Atlantic, about ten miles out from Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Like the other rocks in the Isle of Shoals chain, White Island is cold and rocky, wind-swept and inhospitable much of the year.
A famous treasure, according to legend, lies hidden on the rock. But White Island is the subject of another, even more famous legend. A ghost story. The ghost of a young woman named Martha Herring walks there.
Many years ago—about three centuries, in fact--a mutineer whipped Martha’s father with the cat-o-nine-tails before her eyes. He continued until he’d lashed all life out of the body of John Herring, the former captain of the small privateer known as Porpoise.
Sandy Gordon, the leader of the mutineers, forced the young woman to marry him. He turned Porpoise into a pirate ship and fell in with Edward Teach, the pirate known as Blackbeard. Later, Gordon imprisoned her, pregnant and terrified, on the miserable rock in the cold North Atlantic. He charged her with terrible oaths to protect his treasure. A British man-of-war defeated and hanged the young woman’s pirate husband. He never returned to his marooned young wife.
Martha’s specter walks in the moonlight to a low spot on the island. She is dressed in a long dark blue coat, though her blood has not been chilled by an Atlantic nor’easter for 300 years. Her bones have lain in a grave on another island, many years since.
She stares out at the southeast horizon where she last saw her husband’s ship, The Flying Scot, leaving her alone in a tiny cabin on top of the rock called White Island.
People who have seen her ghost say that she doesn’t see them, but speaks in a soft, but audible voice. Over and over, she says, He will return. He will return.
Guests at the Retreat Center on nearby Star Island, the largest of the rocks in the Isle of Shoals chain, laugh when they hear the legend of the Ghost of White Island. Who can believe such a story? A ghost? Pirates? Absurd.
But they bid goodbye to others who are leaving for the mainland by repeating—in some cases laughing and mocking--the young woman’s cry of pain, loneliness and terror: You will return. You will return.
* * * * *
Another teenager named McKenna met the Ghost of White Island when grief had all but overwhelmed her.
McKenna’s life fell apart one afternoon in January. The first semester of McKenna’s freshman year in high school had just ended. The bus ride home from school after her last final exam found her giggling at everything her friends said.
As she left the school at 11:00 A.M., she buttoned up her winter coat. The sun shone bright and the temperature hovered in the mid-40s. Though warm for January in the northern suburbs of Chicago, the weather that day didn’t fool her. McKenna saw the storm clouds in the west. A big midwinter storm would hit the area soon. Thunder and lightning and drenching sleet would drive all activities indoors.
McKenna told her friends that she intended to go out to lunch with her mom, who had offered a celebration for McKenna’s outstanding first semester in high school. Dad had gone out of town to Puerto Rico, entertaining some clients with four days of golf.
She walked up the long driveway to the house, listening to the sound of some winter birds in the large trees on their property. She felt enthusiastic about a few days off from school. She saw a flash of bright red and smiled to think about the lovely cardinals that frequented the wild bird feeder which she and her mom, Anna O’Neill, maintained.
The day fell apart as she walked in the front door, singing a greeting. Mom sat on the large leather couch in the living room. She rose as McKenna came in. “Honey,” she said.
Mom wasn’t crying but as soon as McKenna saw her mother, she knew that something big had happened. Her stomach fell.
“What is it?” McKenna said. Mom beckoned to her. She came over and Mom put a loving arm around her.
“Honey,” Mom said, but then didn’t speak for a few moments. “Honey, I just received a call from Mr. Denton,” she said.
“Didn’t he go with Daddy to Puerto Rico?”
“Yes, he did. He called me from the hotel in San Juan.”
“Why would he call you? He isn’t even. . .” McKenna stopped. “Daddy’s. . . gone?” Mom hesitated. McKenna knew.
Mom told her that her father, Alan DiBiasi, died that morning of a heart attack on the golf course in Puerto Rico while entertaining his clients. McKenna’s world seemed to collapse as Mom sketched in the details. The girl became all but inconsolable.
As she came down the steps a few mornings later, she saw Mom standing by the front door. Through the picture window, she saw a FedEx truck pulling down the long driveway.
“Did we just have something delivered?” she asked her mom. Mom pointed to several boxes on the porch. Together, they brought them in. One package contained her father’s personal items such as his rings, watch, and wallet. Dad’s suitcase and golf clubs had been sent by the hotel in Puerto Rico.
A small package, wrapped in brown paper, sat on the porch by the front door. “What about this one?” asked McKenna.
Mom put her arms around her daughter and pulled the girl’s head against her shoulder. “Honey, said Mom. “The San Juan funeral home sent your father’s ashes to us.”
McKenna tried to be brave. “Oh Mommy,” she whispered. Then the tears fell.
Mom stood embracing her daughter while McKenna wept the inconsolable tears of grief. “What shall we do with the ashes, Honey?” she asked in her gentle North Carolina accent.
McKenna thought for a few moments. She had to swallow and make an effort to say, “Door County.” Mom nodded.
Mother and daughter packed up Dad’s car, a magnificent BMW convertible. McKenna had always relished the rich smell of the leather upholstery and the feel of the breeze in her hair, giggling with the joy of the fine automobile. Today, though, they drove in silence across the Wisconsin border, then through Milwaukee on their way to the peninsula known as Door County.
They pulled into the driveway of their summer home just before the glacial winter darkness enveloped the beach. The weather, bitter cold with a howling west wind, slashed through their winter coats and blue jeans as they climbed from the car. The steel gray waves on Lake Michigan boomed on the shore, hurling an icy spray into the air.
“Can you go through with this?” asked Mom before they started down the path.
“Yes,” McKenna nodded. “Let’s do it.”
McKenna and her mom, Anna, walked together to the beach, their hair whipping around their faces in the violent breeze. They opened the package and scattered the ashes on the shore of Lake Michigan. The powerful west wind blew the ashes out onto the lake where they vanished from sight.
Mother and daughter hugged while McKenna wept her goodbye to her father.
Anna took her to dinner at a restaurant though McKenna said she wasn’t hungry. Some barbequed chicken and a baked potato raised her spirits, and she and Mom split a piece of Door County cherry pie.
In the darkness as they were driving home, however, McKenna turned to her mother. “You aren’t as upset by daddy’s death as I am,” she said. The statement sounded like an accusation, harsher and nastier than she intended. She decided not to apologize, though.
Mom gave a little nod, not responding to the caustic tone in her daughter’s voice. She didn’t answer for several moments.
Mom’s reaction confirmed McKenna’s impression of the marriage her parents had lived with for eighteen years. McKenna had never thought her parents were in love, even though they stayed together. For example, Mom still went by her maiden name, Anna O’Neill.
Mom, though, didn’t rise to the fight. She stared down the interstate. She took her left hand off the steering wheel and ran her fingers through her long copper-colored hair.
When Mom spoke, she didn’t offer a direct response to her daughter’s observation. “Honey,” she said, choosing her words with care. “I know you’re heartbroken. I’d like to keep you out of school for a few days and take you to the ocean.”
McKenna was bewildered. “To the ocean?” said McKenna.
“Yes,” said Mom. “Remember, I grew up by the Atlantic. I always went to the shore when I was sad. Like when my parents died, I drove over to the ocean. I’d watch the waves, and listen to the wind and the calls of the gulls. Being there, listening to the rhythm of the sea, breathing in the fresh salt air always restored my perspective.”
“You want to go to North Carolina?” said McKenna, surprised. Mom had never once mentioned a desire to return to her home state. McKenna had never met her mother’s stepsisters. Those women had never wanted any association with her mother.
“No, not North Carolina,” said Mom. “I thought we might drive to New York and follow the coast to Maine. Say, Bar Harbor.” McKenna thought about her mother’s suggestion. Mom reached across the seat and stroked her daughter’s hair, which so resembled her own. Her mother’s gentle hands had always imparted comfort to her.
McKenna shrugged, but felt more excited than she allowed herself to show. A trip like this with Mom might be wonderful. “Okay,” she said.
They left the next day. Mom took a beautiful route to the coast, driving back roads to let her daughter see the scenery across Indiana and Ohio. They stayed overnight in a bed-and-breakfast in the Amish country of southeast Pennsylvania. They reached the coast the next day and drove up to Boston. Late on the third afternoon, Mom stopped for the night at a hotel in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
As they put their overnight bags in their room, Mom said, “Are you too tired for an ocean expedition after supper?”
McKenna shrugged. “No, that sounds great.”
“Look,” said Mom, holding out a brochure. “I picked this up downstairs. We can go with a local company on a nighttime trip to the Isle of Shoals.”
Mom read the folder. “It’s a chain of islands about ten miles out from Portsmouth. It’s going to be a beautiful night, with a full moon.”
McKenna grinned and nodded, excited about a trip on the open ocean. Mom called the charter company.
Mom and McKenna, bundled up against the cold, were the only passengers that evening on a cabin cruiser with Sue McCatty, a longtime resident of the coastal town. The full moon illuminated the calm ocean.
Though McKenna’s heart brimmed full of grief she none-theless loved the trip across the ten miles of ocean. Despite the chill, she stood outside for several minutes, the wind whipping her hair. The spray felt wonderful and she breathed deep, embracing the solace that the ocean can bring to the heart. She went back into the cabin, where Mom hugged her and smiled as the cabin cruiser knifed through the swells.
Sue took them first to the largest island, Star Island, then to a couple of the others. As she went, she told them stories of the islands, some of which belong to the state of Maine and others which belong to New Hampshire. “Tell you what,” said Sue. “Before we head back, let’s go over to White Island. We’ll look at the lighthouse and walk around the island. Maybe we’ll meet Martha.”
“Who?” said McKenna.
“A legend,” said Sue, with a mysterious grin. The enigmatic reply took McKenna aback and she and Mom exchanged glances. Mom looked amused.
Sue anchored the boat in shallow water on the east side of White Island, and lowered a small rubber raft. They rowed to a small beach and clambered ashore.
Sue illuminated a path with a powerful flashlight as they scrabbled together to the top of the island. She pointed to the land bridge on the northern side. “It connects White Island to that other island when the tide is low,” she said in her downeast twang. “It’s called Seavey Island. Over there--’’ she pointed to a small rocky island a mile or so to the northeast—“is Sugar Island.”
Sue told them about the efforts of local groups to save the famous lighthouse of White Island.
“I’m going to explore,” said McKenna. Mom and Sue agreed, and walked off.
McKenna found a spot on the southeast side of the island and sat, staring out at the sea. She listened to the boom of the waves as they crashed on the rocks of the island, sounding like cannon fire from a pirate ship. The howl of the wind might have been the cry of lost souls begging surcease of their agony.
However, she did feel a peace descend on her, as Mom had said it would. She licked her lips, enjoying the salt taste from the ocean spray that dampened her face. Then she remembered.
Oh Daddy, why did you have to die?
McKenna let go and sobbed with her grief, the first death she’d ever experienced. As her tears fell, she fumbled in her jeans for a handkerchief. As she pulled it out of her pocket, a quarter fell out and rolled away. McKenna followed the coin, which came to rest behind a rock beside the path. She knelt and moved the rock a little—
Her quarter lay on top of a shiny object, about an inch in diameter. McKenna picked it up. Even in the moonlight, she could see that she held a gold coin.
She couldn’t make out the markings well. Still she knew it had to be valuable--
“He will return,” said a whispery voice behind her.
Startled, McKenna gave a little scream and leapt to her feet. She turned to see a girl about her own age walking down the path toward her. “He will return,” the girl said again. McKenna saw that the moonlight created an aura around the girl.
The girl, slim, about five feet tall, wore a long blue woolen coat against the cold of the evening. McKenna stared at the girl’s beautiful red hair, which blew in the wind about her head. It looked a great deal like McKenna’s own hair.
The girl reached up and tucked her hair behind her ear. She strolled down the path, slow and unhurried.
“I’m sorry I screamed. You startled me,” said McKenna when her heart slowed a little. She managed a smile. “I didn’t think anyone else was here on the island. . .”
But the girl didn’t respond. She walked past McKenna and stared out to sea, looking to the southeast.
McKenna walked toward the girl. “Are you deaf?” she asked. When the girl didn’t respond, McKenna reached out to tap her shoulder.
Her hand touched nothing. It went right through the girl.
Visceral terror seized McKenna. She shivered, near panic with eerie dread.
She turned and clambered up the path to the top of the island. “Mom!” she yelled as she ran.
Anna, perhaps twenty yards away, turned at her daughter’s voice. She rushed to her daughter, followed by Sue. “What is it?” asked Mom, her soothing voice calming McKenna.
“A girl,” said McKenna, pointing. “But she’s—she’s not there.”
Sue turned and hurried to the top of the path. “No one is here, McKenna. It’s all right.”
Mom and McKenna joined Sue and looked down. Sue was right. The girl was nowhere to be seen. “What the. . .” said McKenna. She pointed, astonished. “She was standing right there.”
“Did the girl say something?” asked Sue.
“Yes,” said McKenna. “Twice she said, ‘he will return.’”
Sue broke into a broad grin. “Congratulations,” she said. “You’ve just met the most famous inhabitant of the island. I’m sorry she scared you.”
“What?” said McKenna.
“Oh, yes. You’ve met the Ghost of White Island. Her name is—or was—Martha Herring.”
McKenna, her heart still pounding, didn’t know what to say. Looking down, she realized that she was still clutching her handkerchief and the two coins. “Oh!” she said. She held the gold coin out to Sue.
Sue shone a flashlight on it. “Where did you find this?”
McKenna pointed out the rock on the path where she’d found the coin. “Is it valuable?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Sue. “I’m pretty sure it’s a Spanish Doubloon from a pirate’s treasure. See the cross? I imagine it was minted sometime around 1700 or so. They turn up once in a while on the beaches of the islands, but finding one on shore is unusual.”
“How do you think it got here?” asked McKenna.
“I imagine that it’s part of the treasure of a pirate named Sandy Gordon. He was Martha’s husband. The British Navy hanged him. Gordon marooned Martha on White Island to guard his treasure.”
“Why would she remain?” asked Mom.
“She made a promise,” said Sue. “It’s a legend. Come on. I’ll tell you as we head back to Portsmouth.”
They reached the inflatable. Sue turned to McKenna. “One other thing,” she said.
“What?” asked McKenna, still shaken by the encounter with the Ghost of White Island.
“‘You will return,’” said Sue.
The Atlantic Ocean, 1715
Rabbi Sholem Levin sat on the deck of the tiny ship Regent that was bearing him from his former home in Ireland to the new world. He still felt traces of the nausea of seasickness that had gripped him for the first few days of the voyage as the ship pitched up and down on the North Atlantic.
He was leaving his home in Ireland behind for good, but he felt no regret about it. The life of a Jew in England, in Scotland or in Ireland had been difficult.
Sholem sighed. His great-grandfather and his family and most of the Jews had been expelled from England. Vengeance had come upon them when Dr. Roderigo Lopez, a Spanish Jew, had been convicted—maybe by mistake--of trying to assassinate Queen Elizabeth in 1594, years before. Lopez was hanged and then drawn and quartered. The persecutions and expulsions of the Jews began, as if an entire race had been responsible.
Sholem hoped things would be better in the American colonies. Boston was the ship’s destination, but Sholem would be happy to settle anywhere in the New World. Plantations and businesses were thriving. People told him that a man could find work in the largest cities. In addition to his work as a rabbi, he was a superb carpenter.