Cruising off the coast of Brazil in late December 1812, lookouts in the USS Constitution sighted the tips of several masts piercing the western horizon. Her captain, William Bainbridge, headed eastward for a time to give himself some extra sea room, then came about to investigate.
Bainbridge had earned the sobriquet “Hard Luck Bill” because of several misfortunes that offset an otherwise promising career. He had been forced to surrender his first command when confronted by overwhelming odds during the Quasi-War with France, was humiliatingly compelled by the Dey of Algiers to sail his frigate, the USS George Washington, under Algerian colors to deliver tribute (including many animals) to the Sultan at Constantinople, and had run the USS Philadelphia aground off Tripoli, permitting her to be captured and his crew imprisoned.
As the Constitution closed the distance, it became apparent that she had encountered a large British frigate, HMS Java, and among the subdued but anxious chatter on the gun decks one could discern the anxious words “jinx,” “curse,” and the like.