The Myth of the Ourang Medan Ghost Ship, 1940
The story of the ghost ship the Ourang Medan has never been as famous as that of the Marie Celeste, despite being more gruesome in its details. The entire crew, ship’s dog included, were found dead with their mouths open and their eyes staring, and yet there was no sign of what had been responsible for their deaths, bar some desperate SOS messages sent during the tragedy. It’s a mystery in more ways than one – not only has much time been spent trying to unpick what might have happened on board via many, ever-more fanciful, theories, but there’s a large school of thought that says the story is actually pure fiction.
Nothing’s been conclusively proved either way, except….I think I’ve found some evidence that will change this story for good. As far as I’m concerned, I think my new information proves that it’s merely a modern fabrication, an urban legend, or whatever the nautical equivalent of that would be.
There are a lot of interesting blogs detailing what is known of the story or, rather, what is not known. There’s Seeks Ghosts, and M. B. Forde’s site too. There’s a lot of differing details and speculation, so I’m going to tell the story as it appears on Wikipedia.
The story first appeared in the Dutch-Indonesian newspaper, The Locomotive, or De locomotief: Samarangsch handels- en advertentie-blad in instalments between 3-28 February 1948 and is, in brief, this.
At some point around June 1947, a SOS message in Morse code was sent by the Dutch freighter ship, the Ourang Medan. The ship was in distress in a position 400 nautical miles south-east of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean, and the messages were both cryptic and chilling. As received by the US ships the City of Baltimore and the Silver Star, the first message said “S.O.S. from Ourang Medan * * * we float. All officers including the Captain, dead in chartroom and on the bridge. Probably whole of crew dead * * *.” Some morse gibberish followed, and then the second, and final, message sent by a doomed radio operator was received. It simply said “I die.”
The Silver Star located the Ourang Medan and its crew boarded the ship, which appeared to have suffered no damage. They found the crew were dead to a man, and all the corpses lay on their backs in the aforementioned manner – eyes staring, mouth open as if screaming, looking as if they were “horrible caricatures” of themselves. The crew of the Silver Star found nothing that explained the situation and planned to hook up the ship to tow it into the nearest port. But before they could do this, a fire broke out in one of the cargo holds and the would-be rescuers evacuated back to their own ship. Shortly afterwards, they saw the Ourang Medan explode and sink into the water, never to be seen again.
Other, later, versions of the story conclude that the date was actually February 1948, and the position of the ghost ship was instead in the Straits of Malacca, in Indonesian waters. The tale had apparently originated from a surviving German crew member of the Ourang who swam ashore to Toangi atoll in the Marshall Islands. There, he told his story to a missionary, who in turn told it to Silvio Scherli of Trieste, Italy.
Mr Scherli was the source of the story in the Dutch newspaper. The reason the crew member gave for the mystery was that the ship had been carrying an illicit load of sulphuric acid, and fumes escaping from broken containers had overpowered the crew. There have since been many other theories about what other top secret cargo the ship may have been carrying instead – being not long after the end of the Second World War, a cargo of poisonous gases has been suggested.
There are a few issues with the story – not least that there is no official registration for a ship named the Ourang Medan and, while the Silver Star did exist, by 1948 it was renamed the SS Santa Cecilia and more often to be seen around Brazil, not the Strait of Malacca.
Following the 1948 Dutch articles, there appeared the earliest known English reference to the story, published by the United States Coast Guard in the May 1952 issue of the Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council. The original narrator Silvio Scherli also apparently wrote a report on it for the Trieste “Export Trade” publication of September 28, 1959.
1952 was the earliest known mention of the story in English – that is, until now.
If the incident occurred in 1947-48, the first reporting of it was in 1948, and the first mention in English was in the US in 1952 – then how come I’ve found British newspaper articles on the subject from 1940? Written at least 7 years before the tragedy was even supposed to have happened. Peculiar, eh?
I’ve found mentions in two UK newspapers – The Yorkshire Post and The Daily Mirror, dating from subsequent days in November 1940. Here they are:
From the Yorkshire Evening Post, 21st November 1940:
And The Daily Mirror, 22nd November 1940:
The full pages, just to show they are indeed from 1940 –
These articles are available on the endlessly fascinating British Newspaper Archive, if you want to check yourself.
The details in both reports are the same, although it’s more expanded in The Yorkshire Post. The reason for this is that they’re both from the same source – The Associated Press. As the AP says, it’s “the world’s oldest and largest newsgathering organization.” If it originated there, I would speculate that there must be an awful lot more newspapers in the world who reported this story in November 1940.
Many details are the same as the 1948 version, with notable exceptions. There’s nothing of the lurid details of how the dead crew looked; the ship is a steamship, not a freighter; and the location has changed again. In this first report, the ship was found south-east of the Solomon Islands.
See how they’re a very long way away from each other, although admittedly in a sparsely populated region? In 1940, it’s the Solomon Islands, in 1948 it’s suddenly 1300 miles north in the Marshall Islands, and finally it’s located a whole 4000 miles further west in the Strait of Malacca. I think it would be hard to have been so mistaken as to where this ship was found.
Significantly, the SOS messages are markedly different. This is very interesting.
The first says “SOS from the steamship Ourang Medan. Beg ships with shortwave wireless get touch doctor. Urgent.” The second – “Probable second officer dead. Other members crew also killed. Disregard medical consultation. SOS urgent assistance warship.” The article says the ship then gave her position and ended with the final, incomplete, message “crew has…”
I suppose there was no need to mention warships the next time the story was dusted off, in post-war 1948.
Another notable difference is that the story claims to come directly from a merchant marine officer from the rescuing ship. Not a washed-up survivor from the sunken ship telling his story to a missionary. That rescuing ship wasn’t named here, and for that matter it wasn’t named in the 1948 version either. The detail of the Silver Star was thrown in later down the line, on its journey from newspaper report to legend.
BUT, and I think this is the crux of the story, we have the same detail that the information comes from Trieste, and was dated that very Thursday morning as well – in other words, that same day it appeared in the evening paper.
Trieste is the crucial link, as we can therefore assume that Silvio Scherli of Trieste is the same person involved in this story, as he was in the later version. If he was the source of the 1940 story, then there’s simply no way he could have truthfully reported on the matter in 1948, describing it as a new incident. It could be the case that there was another source of the story in Trieste in 1940 – perhaps someone who told it to Silvio? If the story came from Indonesia, say, then the sources could be numerous. But Trieste seems too specific, and too distant, to have many witnesses or other people who knew about this story from far away. The Associated Press archives, or other newspaper stories which blossomed from their reports, might be the key here.
The Locomotive stated clearly that the entirety of its information came from Scherli – it ended its series with a very sceptical “This is the last part of our story about the mystery of the Ourang Medan. We must repeat that we don’t have any other data on this ‘mystery of the sea’. Nor can we answer the many unanswered questions in the story. It may seem obvious that this is a thrilling romance of the sea. On the other hand, the author, Silvio Scherli, assures us of the authenticity of the story.”
What’s that I can smell? Is it a broken casket of sulphuric acid, or is it somebody’s pants on fire?
It seems a likely theory that this “romance of the sea” began and ended with Mr Scherli. And if so, perhaps he got the taste for embellishing his story as the years went on – adding the staring eyes and gaping mouths and changing the location. Ourang Medan translates as “Man from Medan” in Indonesian or Malay and perhaps the city of Medan in Indonesia, which is directly adjacent to the Malacca Strait, may have belatedly felt like a more suitable location for a ship bearing its name.
It’s an area where mysteries could, and obviously did, thrive – in fact the Marshall Islands have also been proposed as the site where Amelia Earhart crash-landed.
In the end, my theory is that Silvio didn’t get quite the notoriety he sought the first time round, the news buried by the events of the ongoing world war. Perhaps he sat on it until the war ended, world news quietened down, and tried again. But maybe there’s more still to be found in how this story got off the ground.
Either way, don’t believe everything you read in the papers.