Friday, October 31, 2014

The Mystery of the Death Ship Ourang Medan

For centuries, chilling stories of ghost ships like the Flying Dutchman and the Mary Celeste have been passed down from one generation of seafarers to the next. As eerie as these tales of abandoned ships are, there is another even more disturbing class of haunted vessels - those vessels found sailing the seas unguided by a human hand because every member of their unfortunate crews mysteriously perished.  This is the true story of just such a ship, the SS Ourang Medan.

The Straits of Malaka between Sumatra and Malaysia is a well traveled shipping lane used by ships from all nations. In February, 1948, a number of ships sailing in the Straits as well as two listening posts on the coasts picked up a disturbing SOS signal from an unknown ship. It obviously was not sent by a radio operator as the signal did not follow any of the normal seafaring protocols of ship identification and position. Evidently a crewman on the doomed ship had a rudimentary knowledge of Morse code and was sending in a slow and deliberate manner the last message that would ever be heard from the Ourang Medan. The message was as disturbing as it was simple. 

"All officers including captain are dead lying in chart room and bridge. Possibly whole crew dead." This was followed by a short line of undecipherable Morse code and then in clear and unmistakable code, a final and chilling message, "I die." Nothing but eerie silence followed. 

The British listening post which picked up the signal worked with the Dutch listening post who also heard the SOS and several American ships in the area to triangulate the source of the signal. It was finally deduced to have come from the Dutch freighter SS Ourang Medan. An American merchant ship, the Silver Star, was the closest ship to the last known position of the stricken vessel and the captain and crew quickly changed course and went to all ahead full in an effort to assist. Several hours later, the Silver Star's lookout spotted the Ourang Medan rising and falling with the swells of the Straits of Malaka. It didn't take long to come up beside the darkened vessel as her engines were silent, a sure sign for a ship at sea that something was very wrong. There was no sign of life on the Ourang Medan and nobody returned the hails from the Silver Star. A bording party was assembled from volunteers.

As soon as the Americans boarded, they found whoever had sent the distress message had not exaggerated. Bodies of the Dutch crew were laying all around the decks, the corpses all had faces twisted in horror and agony, the eyes wide open and staring, their outstretched arms seeming to be grasping at invisible assailants. Even stranger, all of the bodies were facing in the same direction as if something beyond horrible had come for them. Even the ship's guard dog was found dead, its menacing snarl frozen into a ghastly grimace.

As the boarding party searched further, the body of the captain was found on the bridge; the ship's officers were found lying around the wheelhouse and chart room, just as the distress signal had said. In the communications shack, the remains of a crewman was found, his dead fingers resting on the telegraph keys. All of the bodies had the same terrified expressions as those found on the open decks.

Going below to the engine room, more bodies were found. Stranger still, the outside temperature was a blistering 110 degrees, but in the boiler room, which is always the hottest part of a ship, the search party found themselves walking into an unnatural chill. Each of the men told of feeling uneasy and anxious, as if something evil was down there with them. After quickly examining the bodies, the men beat a hasty retreat from below decks.

The search team could clearly see the men of the Ourang Medan had all been in agony at the moment of death, but they found no evidence of physical injury or foul play and there was no damage to the ship. Clearly, something horrible had befallen the crew, but exactly what was a complete and total mystery.

After reporting their findings to the captain of the Silver Star, he decided to take the death ship under tow and deliver it to the nearest port for further examination. As soon as the tow line was attached however, an ominous column of smoke was observed rising from below decks in the Number 4 hold, the one nearest the boiler room. Several members of the boarding party ran back to investigate the smoke, but they were driven away by the unbearable heat from a raging inferno. The men quickly cut the tow line and had barely made it back aboard their own ship when the Ourang Medan exploded with such force that it "lifted herself clear above the water and then swiftly sank.

The watery grave which so quickly claimed the death ship sent the Ourang Medan directly into the realm of myth and legends and insured it would become one of the most mysterious sea tales of modern times. 

It is said we know more about space and planets and stars than we do of what lives below the waves of our own waters. What happened to the SS Ourang Medan? What did the seasoned crew see that terrified one and all to the point of death? What could be so horrible that even the dog seemingly died of fright? Whatever it was, we can only hope those poor agonized lost souls took it into the briny deep with them and we pray, there it will stay.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Spirits in the Capitol of Texas

Texas State Capitol Building, 2013
The State Capitol Building of Texas, constructed between 1882 and 1888, is located on 22 beautifully landscaped acres in downtown Austin. The current building replaced the original which was simply a log structure built in 1853. That building burned to the ground in 1881 and later that same year, the famous architect Elijah Myers won a nation-wide design contest for the new capitol building. He was paid the princely sum of $1,700 for his design. 

Construction began in February, 1882 and for the next 4 years, 1,000 men worked every day to complete the massive 360,000-square-foot building. The contractor was paid not with money, but with 3,000,000 acres of land. This land later became the largest ranch in the world, the famed XIT Ranch. When the capitol opened, it was the 7th largest building in the world and is still the largest state capitol in America. Covering 3 acres, standing 311 feet tall and made of "Sunset Red" granite quarried in Marble Falls, Texas, plus over 11,000 railroad cars of Texas limestone, the structure contains 392 rooms, 18 steel and concrete vaults, 924 windows, 404 doors and cost $3,744,600 of 1880's money to build. According to many, it also houses several spirits who roam the halls and grounds.

Shortly before the original log capitol building burned, a well-respected Indian scout was having a romantic rendezvous with his Indian maiden lover in one of the back rooms when her father, a bad-tempered Comanche chief found them. Bursting into the room, the outraged father killed the scout with a knife plunged into his heart. Grief-stricken, his distraught daughter pulled the knife from her dead lover's chest and before her father could stop her, plunged the knife into her own chest. Her father cried out and fell to the floor where he gently cradled her, but she died in his arms. Numerous witnesses have reported seeing the ghostly figures of the lovers as hand-in-hand they wander around the oak trees and stately grounds of the capitol. Wearing buckskin clothing and moccasins, they are seen walking along, but seem to be floating several inches above the ground and slowly disappear into thin air as the witness watches.

The "Goddess of Wisdom, Justice and Victory" which sits atop the 
dome of the Texas Capitol Building as workmen prepared to 

place her. (photo courtesy of Texas State Library & Archives)
In 1903, Robert Marshall Love, a Confederate veteran who had survived the Civil War, was serving as the state's Comptroller when he was shot and killed in his first-floor office by a disgruntled associate. Love was wearing a dark suit in the fashion of the era and top-hat when he was killed. His final words were, "I have no idea why he shot me. May the Lord bless him and forgive him. I cannot say more." The translucent figure of a man wearing an old-fashioned dark suit and top-hat has startled numerous government workers, visitors and state troopers as it paces up and down the hallway outside of the Comptroller's office.

On the 3rd floor in the office suite held by former House Speaker Pete Laney, the night cleaning crew has complained of a woman dressed in red who sometimes appears inside the office and then walks around a corner. When the crew goes to investigate, there is nobody there. Voices speaking in whispers, giggling and other mysterious sounds come from a secret stairwell behind that office. Research has shown the lady to be the lover of the man who occupied that office and the stairwell is where the couple often held "private meetings."

The Texas State Capitol Building during restoration, 1990.
(photo courtesy of Texas State Library & Archives)
On December 13, 1922, Ed Wheeler was painting the inside of the rotunda when he tragically fell 160 feet to his death. There are no reports of Ed wandering around the building, but interestingly, every now and then, a strong smell of fresh paint wafts through the air when there is no painting activity. It is speculated it could be Mr. Wheeler still trying to finish his painting job so he can finally go toward the light.

In the late 1970's, a newly hired Senate cook and waiter by the name of Tim Mateer was alone one evening while cleaning the reception room when he saw a lady pass by in the hall and go into a small room. Thinking she might be lost, he immediately followed her into the room she had entered, but there was no one there. Several days later, Mateer was walking through the Senate press conference room when he spotted a portrait of the lady he had seen, former Texas First Lady Fay Wright Stevenson, wife of Coke Stevenson when he was Lieutenant Governor and then Governor of Texas. Mrs. Stevenson had served as the hostess for many Senate functions during that time. She had died of cancer in 1942 and the small room Mateer had seen her enter had served as her office. 

Perhaps the most interesting story is about a certain window in the east wing of the building in a senate reception room. On February 6, 1983, a fire broke out in the apartment of William P. Hobby, the Lieutenant Governor. A 23-year-old man, a guest of Mr. Hobby, was asleep in the apartment when the fire broke out. He was trapped in a back room and several fireman were injured trying to rescue him while he screamed and banged on a window trying to get out. Unfortunately, the firemen were unsuccessful in their rescue attempts and the young man burned to death in excruciating pain. The unbroken window was left in place during the restoration work and still today, on foggy and high humidity mornings, even though the window has been repeatedly cleaned, the clear outline of hand prints appear in the condensation on the window.

Politics can be downright spooky, but Texas it seems, takes the term to a whole other level.