Strange Rhode Island: The Haunted Mortar at Brown University

Rhode Island legend tells of a “dancing mortar” that could take on a life of its own. The item was housed at Brown University for a poeriod of time so that onlookers could experience the odd item up close and personal. Then…something strange happened: it disappeared.

More on the item, from Brown University:

The Museum of Natural History held such interesting specimens that even the New York Times mentions an enigmatic display. An article from August 15, 1885 reports on a “pet superstition among Block Islanders.” The spirit is described as an “eerie blaze” lasting fifteen minutes that appeared during an easterly storm. As the story goes, a ship known as the Palatine was bound for Philadelphia in 1752, carrying emigrants from Holland. During the passage, a mutiny occurred, and the captain was killed. The first mate and crew proceeded to starve the passengers and plundered their belongings. The ship was forced to dock at Block Island due to a strong winter storm. The Palatine was then plundered once again, this time by the settlers on the island, who eventually burned the ship to hide the traces of their looting. However, one woman passenger refused to leave her belongings, and she was burned with the ship. Ever since, a strange light has appeared at night before dark, easterly storms. The Dickens Family of Block Island donated a “mortar made from a lignum vitae block” of wood from the Palatine to Brown University, known as the “Dancing Mortar” because “it performed such fantastic freaks.”
The mortar was fashioned by the islanders for grinding corn. It is 14 inches high by 10 inches in diameter and holds four quarts. On the oaken floor of the old Dickens kitchen before the hearth, it would suddenly tumble over on its side, and rolling out into the apartment it would set itself up and break into a gentle heel-and-toe polka. Warming up with the excitement its movements would quicken, and higher and higher it would bound until it reached the rafters overhead. Then it would remain passive sometimes for weeks and months together. (NYT 1885)
Though the article dismisses the ghost story and the eerie light as an insular legend that can be scientifically explained by a gas that rises from the bottom of the ocean and ignites under certain conditions, no explanation is provided for the mysterious Dancing Mortar on display at Rhode Island Hall.

This week,’s Patrick Austin sits down with Michael Girard, editor at for the curious story of the dancing mortar, formerly housed at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Listen below to this interesting conversation now.

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