Listen to an Exclusive Interview with Joe Wojie (below)
The sun fell behind the buildings of West Philly as Joe Wojie stood in the shadow of the Seaport Museum on Penn’s Landing. At 7:30, the World History professor gathered the hors d’oeuvres for the evening Grim Philly Cruise and walked to the pier where Patriot waited. Captain Bill, Captain Walt Bohn, and Walt’s son Chaz welcomed guests aboard with easy smiles and hearty handshakes.
The boat filled with passengers eager to hear Joe’s grim stories of Philly, the city’s sinister side that people talk about in hushed voices and only when the sun goes down and shadows lengthen from corners to permeate the light. The Patriot slipped passed shipping yards and abandoned ships, old customs houses and drilling stations that arose eerily from the Delaware surrounded by the milky glow of lights. All the while, Joe shared secrets of the corrupt, of criminals known and unknown, of the brutal slave trade, of pirates on the Delaware.
“Weren’t there female pirates, too?” one traveler—Elizabeth Terenchin—asked. “I learned that some women pirates were considered part of the crew and earned equal shares!”
“@#&% yes!” Joe exclaimed, in his typical irreverent way. He warns his guests up front that his tales are laced with expletives. “But not all pirates felt that way about women. Blackbeard killed them and tossed them overboard. Other pirate captains would beat the men who brought them, and then either imprison or kill the women, too.”
The sun sank and Patriot turned north. “This is the Walt Whitman Bridge, right?” a passenger gestured his rum-laced cocktail.
Joe passed the question to Harry Kyriakodis, another Grim Philly guide. “It is the Walt, the first bridge in the country to be named after a poet. There was controversy, because the Catholic Diocese of Camden didn’t think Whitman—whose work they considered objectionable, basically because he was gay—should be honored. The Delaware Port Authority stayed out of the controversy and went ahead with naming it in honor of a New Jersey famous person.”
The other (Captain) Walt poured drinks at the cash bar while Chaz played tunes, allowing time for the grim details of the disturbing legends to settle. A breeze blew, stirring ghosts of memories that lay buried in the depths of the Delaware. Joe’s words had resurrected them, beckoned their spirits to float alongside the boat and peer at the passengers who pondered the details.
“As we pull beside this battleship of New Jersey,” Joe said, “let me talk a little about the New Jersey Devil. There were more than a thousand sightings in 1909. People of Haddonfield, Collingswood, Camden reported seeing a red-skinned creature with wrinkled skin, feathery wings, and horns.”
Joe shared further particulars, regaling the thirty-three passengers who felt comfortable enough to chime in with their knowledge and questions as well.
Suddenly, Patriot was dwarfed by 62, the battleship. Its gray flanks glowed eerily in the lights the water swallowed. “The ship’s first commission was in World War I,” Captain Walt took over, “and its last was in the Persian Gulf.”
The ship’s weaponry, some of which could deliver 5,000 rounds per second, stood silent and seemingly harmless. “It could go back into service,” the captain continued, “but it would take about a year to outfit.” The grim crept into the spaces between Captain Walt’s words as he let them echo across the Delaware. The passengers stared up and up and up at the massive armaments on the colossal ship, realizing but not voicing what those weapons were built to do.
Music played, Walt poured, passengers drank, asked questions of the guides and crew, shared creepy stories of their own. Too soon, the two-hour cruise ended, and under a sky lit by a peculiar orange glow, Captain Bill docked at Penn’s Landing, and the passengers, enthusiastically unsettled, thanked Grim Professor Joe and the captains.
“I know they’ll be back,” Joe grinned. “I’ve had a lot of repeat business already, people who are excited to bring their friends. I look forward to that, enjoy building a rapport with my guests.”
To be Joe’s guest on his Grim Philly’s Riverboat Cruise: Pirates, Rum Runners, and the Jersey Devil
By Staff Writer: Jann Simmons Andiamo