The most chilling maritime ghost story ever told.
Ourang Medan was a Dutch cargo ship that sailed the waters near Indonesia in the late 1940s. Do a bit of research, and you'll find that Ourang is
an obsolete shorthand of orangutan. Naming a ship is a creative endeavor, but
in this case the colloquial ape refers to man — Man from Medan.
Mary Celeste gets all the glory. Mary Celeste had no bodies. She
can be explained away by an alcohol leak and a sudden evacuation. Any skeptic
worth his salt can plunge right to the heart of Celeste. Not so with the
Man from Medan: the more you dig, the more confusing things get.
In June 1947, Ourang Medan broadcast a flurry of distress calls over the Straits of Malacca between Sumatra and Indonesia. Nearby ships at frequency heard thus:
"All officers including captain dead, lying in
chartroom and on bridge, probably whole crew dead... "
Next, a series of desperate SOS signals.
Response was swift.
The story becomes pretty apocryphal
at this point. Consult different sources, and you will find different info. In
a rare moment of humanity, Wikipedia
admits that its own article lacks verification.
Purportedly, respondents entered a
scene from a nightmare when they boarded Ourang Medan. Every single crew
member was dead. Their faces were twisted in agony and pointed skyward. Even
the dog was dead, face in a snarl. The rescue party was unable to find any sign
of physical injury or disease.
The messenger was slumped in his
chair, hand still on the telegraph button, grimacing.
Sources disagree on when the fire
Some say flames broke out in the
hold while the rescue party still looked for survivors. Others say that another
freighter managed to get a towing line attached to the doomed ship, and that
the Man from Medan exploded and sank before reaching landfall. Either way, it
burned up and met the ocean before anyone could get a corpse on land for an
Did I say this was a ghost story?
Naturally, people have blamed UFOs. Faces turned skyward and all that.
But they should know better. Like I said: the more you dig, the more confusing
Much of what we know about Ourang
Medan is thanks to marine historian Roy Bainton.
Scratch that — much of what we don't
know is thanks to marine historian Roy Bainton.
Bainton found that Dutch naval
records have nothing of an Ourang Medan. Men who have served decades on
the waves have never heard of it. That my two-decade-old copy of Childcraft Annual contains a more thorough exposition than Wikipedia bespeaks
the growing limp of our information age. But that's another writeup for another
Bainton had all but dismissed the
story as a folk tale until he stumbled into correspondence with German Theodor Siersdorfer, who'd been on the case for some four and a half decades.
Siersdorfer disclosed the names of two of the vessels that had intercepted Medan's
bizarre distress calls, the more important being Silver Star
— the crew of which had purportedly boarded the floating crypt.
Information on Silver Star is
scant, coming almost entirely from a short booklet (again, German) penned by
now-dead Otto Mielke: Das Totenschiff in der Südsee, or Death Ship in the South Sea.
Mielke provides detailed information about the tonnage, cargo, engine size, and
even the captain of Silver Star but becomes vague in describing her
relationsip with Ourang Medan, professing some general knowledge of Medan's
route and possible cargo but providing no verifiable details.
Apparently, Silver Star was
under new ownership at the time of the supposed Ourang Medan disaster;
she was named Santa Cecilia. If Mielke was bullshitting, he didn't do his homework.
If Ourang Medan was real, the
deaths and subsequent explosions may be explained by chemistry. One wandering
theory submits that the ship was carrying an illicit cargo of potassium
cyanide and nitroglycerine. I'll spare you the tedium of chemical equations by explaining that the relationship between seawater and
potassium cyanide and seawater and nitroglycerine is, respectively, poison gas
and fire. The cargo hold is breached, water mixes with the potassium etc; the
resulting gas generates a wave of excruciating death; subsequent combination of seawater with cartoonishly
unstable nitroglycerine creates the fire and/or explosion.
After World War II,
ethically unsound governments the world over engaged in merry trade of nerve gas
and other agents of biological warfare. The stuff was too dangerous to
transport by air: imagine a plane going down loaded with nerve gas. The vehicle
of choice was the tramp-steamer manned by sadly oblivious, low-paid crew.
---. The 1979 Childcraft Annual:
Story of the Sea. Childcraft International, Inc. 1979.
Bainton, Roy. "Cargo of
---. "Curse of the Ourang