|The Flying Dutchman, 1907. Via NYPL Digital Gallery|
Creepy ghost stories seem virtually mandatory for the month of October. This spine-tingler appeared in the “Chicago Tribune” on April 21, 1907:
Deserted, without a living thing aboard, shunned by all seafaring men as a thing accursed, the Russian steamer Parrier lies at anchorage off Santa Monica, Cal. Haunted by some unknown terror, of which the men themselves will not speak, ruled by some strange, weird, unknown thing, the Parrier is likely to rust and rot at its anchorage before any crew can be found to man it. At Vladivostok and St. Petersburg the agents and the owners rave. Their ravings are useless. The Parrier is as much a wreck as it lies at anchorage in the calm, sunlit waters of the southern California bay as if it were pounding to pieces on the wildest shores of the arctic.
Terror rules—a terror which no man knows. Brave men have gone mad because of it, three captains have killed themselves, a dozen crews have deserted, a score of seamen have met awful deaths. The history of the Parrier is stranger, wilder, and more mysterious than the weirdest romance of the seas ever conceived by fiction writer. It is a story which landlubbers may read with smiles of incredulity or with sneers at the superstition of seafaring men, but the men who go down to the sea in ships understand.
All that is known is that the mysterious something that the sailors call “The Thing” rules aboard the Parrier. The Thing drives men mad. Sailors who face death as calmly as they face their grog, suddenly are seized with blind panic. The fear of death comes upon them. Panic runs riot. One after another the men are seized, until the whole crew is made with fright, insane with a terror that they do not understand, filled with frenzied desire to flee from something they cannot see or hear. That is when “The Thing” comes aboard. Some have leaped overboard, some have died in their berths from sheer fright, some have killed themselves, and some have been manhandled, mauled, clawed, bitten, and kicked to death by their frenzied fellows.
The tale of the Parrier is not a “Sea Wolf” story. It is not some wild freak of the imagination of some drug crazed novelist. It is a true story of the present day, of a modern steamer, manned by fairly intelligent men and educated officers.
The Parrier is a German built ship, owned by a Russian company. It was built at Kiel, in 1897, and delivered to the owners at Cronstadt late in the fall. The ship was in the Baltic until 1903, when it was sent to Vladivostok with a cargo of military supplies, at the time Russia was actively preparing for hostilities with Japan.
Until the ship left the Suez canal on its way east it was looked upon as an excellent ship, well officered, owned by men who believed in treating men well. Over half the crew was comprised of men who were not Russians, many of them being Scandinavians, with a few Portuguese and several Englishmen.
It is whispered among the sailors who know the history of the vessel that “The Thing” came aboard somewhere in the Indian ocean, on that voyage east. It is said that one night at Bombay, where the ship touched, there was a row ashore, and one of the petty officers, who was ashore with his men, killed a Lascar.
That may be all superstitious gossip. Indeed, the fact that a Lascar was killed in a shore row was not thought of until long afterwards, and probably it was remembered then only because the men were striving to discover some reason for “The Thing.”
The facts, as nearly as they can be gleaned from the sailors who recently deserted the Parrier, are as follows:
The steamer was running northward towards the China sea, with fair weather, and the men cheerful over the prospect of shore leave after the long run. They were to touch at Port Arthur, deliver part of the cargo there, and proceed to Vladivostok.
Two days out of Port Arthur “The Thing” came. It was a beautiful autumn night, with a new moon. The sea was calm. Shortly after 3 o’clock in the morning, without warning and without reason, terror came upon the ship. The first sign was a terrorized scream that startled the watch. In an instant the forecastle was in panic. Men, awakening from sound sleep, sat screaming in their bunks. Others leaped and fled to the decks. The officer in charge and the watch were astounded. Even fire, they knew, could not have started such a panic. A moment later the terror seized upon the men who had been awake. For twenty minutes frenzied men fought each other, ran wildly about, screaming, shouting, praying, and then sinking, helpless and panting, upon the decks. During the height of the terror Alec Govinski, a young sailor, screaming, cursing, and praying, rushed across the deck, leaped over the rail, and disappeared. Instantly quiet reigned. The men came from the trance in a second, weak and trembling, but no longer afraid. Boats were lowered, but Govinski had disappeared. There was no inquiry. Officers and men alike had felt the terror, and, beyond whispered, awestruck conversations, nothing was said. The ship touched Port Arthur and started northward. Three nights later “The Thing” came again, spreading the same insane terror through the crew.
Demoralization, a palsy of fear, fell upon the men. If they could have seen—if they could have heard—if they understood what it was, they would have faced it. But the unknown thing drove fear into their hearts.
Vladivostok was reached without trouble. A dozen of the men attempted to desert. Over half of them were recaptured. The ship’s officers were anxious to get south before the ice closed the harbor. The men were held close, and the ship sailed for Hongkong.
That voyage, according to reports, was one of the most awful ever taken by any ship. Night after night terror swept the ship from cabin to forecastle. Capt. Andrist, commanding, committed suicide three days before the vessel reached Hongkong, leaping overboard in an excess of terror. Two sailors killed themselves and one died of fright in his berth.
The moment the ship reached Hongkong every man aboard except the second officer, Hanson, a Swede, born in Finland, and five men, all Scandinavians, deserted. Hanson, who held a master’s certificate, stuck to the vessel because he saw the opportunity to secure command, and the Scandinavians remained with him because they were certain that “The Thing” would leave the ship under the new commander. Hansen was appointed to the command by the owners, and ordered to take a cargo to Sydney. He recruited a crew of Chinese, Lascars, and the riffraff of Hongkong, and sailed.
No record of that voyage ever was kept, except brief mention of deaths, suicides, murders, nights of terror, and days of quaking horror made in the log by Hanson, who, when one day out from Sydney, shot himself.
Again the crew deserted.
It was weeks before another crew could be secured, because the men who left the ship spread the story of the horror, and Capt. Govinski, who was sent from Hongkong, found the ship deserted and practically a derelict in the harbor. He managed to discharge cargo and to sail with half a crew for Hongkong, where he found enough firemen and engineers to complete the roll.
From that time on Capt. Govinski, who is said to have feared nothing, managed to keep the Parrier in commission, and, by frightful sacrifices of himself, to hold enough men aboard to carry out tramp commissions. His first mate, a Welshman named McIntyre, proved his able second, but even they at times were seized with the terror. Again and again practically the entire crew deserted, and it is said that but one man—Nels Nelson, a Swede—stuck to the ship, and returned to it after every wholesale desertion.
Twice Nelson left with the others, but hung around and returned when the new officers began recruiting the crew. He does not deny that he was as scared as the others of the terror, but after the first few attacks he generally was the sanest man aboard during the periods of insanity, and, besides, he was determined to solve the mystery if it was solvable. Again and again he questioned every man aboard as to their symptoms, inquired what it was that frightened them, and strove to analyze his own feelings when the sudden panic came upon him.
All he knows is that suddenly it seemed as if a gust of warm, stifling air would sweep the ship from end to end, bringing the madness, and that the stampede would last until some man died. The moment a maniac, driven wild by the horror, the speechless fear, leaped overboard or died, the spell passed and “The Thing” left the ship.
Two months ago, with a new crew recruited at Hongkong, the Parrier sailed for California points, bringing hemp and merchandise for San Francisco. It was not until after Honolulu was passed that “The Thing” came aboard. Then there was an awful repetition of the sickening panic and disgusting scenes, as strong men went mad with fright.
Three nights in succession the terror came—and three men died. On the fourth day Capt. Govinski went into his cabin and pistoled himself to death, and Mate Pademan assumed command. The men were near mutiny when they reached San Francisco, but they were held aboard. Nine managed to steal a boat and escape, and the others, sullen, murderous, and ready to take any chance to escape from the ship, sailed southward for Port Los Angeles, to deliver machinery, which was the last of the cargo.
The morning the vessel reached the bay at Santa Monica, about 2 o’clock, “The Thing” came again. Han Lui, a cook, leaped overboard.
The vessel reached anchorage about 10 in the morning. Without a word of consultation, without plotting, without even stopping to consider themselves, the men went ashore in a body and immediately scattered. Nelson, who had stuck to the ship so long, was one of the leaders.
Capt. Pademan, helpless, refused to pay the men, but despite that they went, rejoicing to escape.
Pademan came ashore later and cabled the owners.
Since then the Parrier has swung at anchorage, and the other boats give it a wide berth.
[Note: I have yet to find any other reference to this nightmare voyage, or proof that the “Parrier” even existed, which makes me suspect that the “Tribune” had an unusually imaginative novelist on its payroll. A curious postscript to the tale is that a virtually identical legend is told about another Russian ship, the “Ivan Vassili,” which was allegedly burned by her terror-stricken crew in 1907. Although the “Vassili” horror is presented as historical fact in many books dealing with the paranormal, there is an equal lack of evidence for its authenticity. The two stories are so similar in detail--even including similar surnames of crew members--that one was surely the inspiration for the other, but it is unknown to me whether they were based on some genuine “hoodoo ship,” or are entirely fictional.]