1842, September 10~November 11: Three Strange Sea Encounters

In the September-October 1915 issue of the United States Naval Institute Proceedings, a strange story buried in old family letters was shared by pay director John A. Mudd. Mudd stated that he had received the packet of letters from home just a few days after he had shipped out to sea as a midshipman. The letters were the back and forth correspondence between a member of Mudd's family and a cousin who had joined the navy -- which is probably why someone thought it might be of interest to Mudd.

        The letters were very old, ranging from the early 1840's up to the American Civil War in the 1860's, when one of the two men died. Just the age of the letters made them interesting, filled with details of a life long ago... but the contents of just two or three of the oldest of the letters contained a story that Mudd felt a need to share with his naval comrades. Mudd didn't publish his account of the tale until many years after he had first read the letters; and there is a reason for that, but first, the tale from the letters.

       The unnamed 'cousin' of the letters was a lieutenant in the Navy, stationed on the African coast at the time he wrote. The lieutenant's ship, described as a "brig-of-war," was returning home from a run down south when the crew sighted a ship they took to be a slaver (a ship laden with slaves). Shortly after this vessel was first seen, they lost sight of the ship as a "sudden, furious squall that in those seas have stripped many a ship to its deck" blew up, and they wondered if the other ship had either been sunk, or blown out of view past the horizon. The sailing master was shaken by what they had seen, for he claimed the strange vessel had been pressing forward with her sails full against the wind... no one else had noticed this, if true, for the sighting had been so short. The doctor, we are told, kept an eye on the sailing master.

        Two nights later, the lieutenant's ship was in the midst of a lightening storm when out of the darkness a huge sailing vessel appeared and passed the lieutenant's ship. There were no lights aboard, and no sound came from the strange ship as it sailed forward against the wind. A bolt of lightning flashed down which "seemed to pierce the high, strange barque as it vanished under the cloak of night." The sailing master, who had been standing near the lieutenant when the mysterious vessel passed, came down with a bad fever that night and told the doctor their ship was doomed... because that's what it meant when you saw the Flying Dutchman.

        The 'Flying Dutchman,' you see, is a legendary ghost ship associated with Africa's Cape of Good Hope, and believed to be doomed to sail until the end of the world. It is said that it is only seen in storms (sometimes it's said it brings the storms), and it is believed that those who see the ghost ship are doomed. It's likely the sailing master felt their whole ship was doomed simply because of how many of the crew saw the strange vessel.

        One week later, the unknown ship appeared on the horizon again, sailing into a gentle breeze... the lieutenant was on watch at the time, and swung his spy glass around to get a better look. Just as he got the ship within his view, a sudden and frightful gust of storm "seemed to slap the strange thing off the face of the ocean;" the storm never touched the lieutenant's ship. In his momentary glimpse of the mysterious ship, the lieutenant saw that half of the stern (forward) windows seemed to have been shot out, and he could almost see into the cabin... but then it was gone.

Strange Advice

        It would seem that by the third time the strange vessel was seen the crew were in general agreement that if it was not the actual Flying Dutchman, that it still presented them with a bad supernatural omen. According to the lieutenant's letters, the ship's purser told that his great uncle had been part of an English squadron in the last century that had set out for the Cape of Good Hope with each ship loaded with one cannonball made of silver, for it was believed that silver shot could touch and harm even a ghost; and the purser further claimed that the squadron had in fact encountered the Flying Dutchman on their mission.

        The frigate called Splice fired its silver cannonball on the phantom ship, but in the crew's haste to fire they only managed to smash part of the stern of the Flying Dutchman... which seems to coincide nicely with what the lieutenant claimed to see. Based on this family story, the purser urged the crew to allow him to make a silver ball from the dollars in the strong chest. It is not said if he was allowed to or not; but the lieutenant's ship did not encounter its strange pursuer again, so such a cannonball would not have been used.

         Mudd states that the letters then tell of continuing ill luck attached to the lieutenant's ship -- mostly stating there was a mutiny that was suppressed, for which three men were hung by their necks from the yard-arms. This ill luck, Mudd asserts, lasted from the time of the strange sightings until "an unusual gust" knocked the brig over sideways enough that it had to be abandoned before it sunk to the bottom in the Gulf of Mexico during the Mexican War.

Missing Details

        Much to my surprise -- and suspicion -- it was very easy to identify the ship that Mudd chose not to name in his article. Only one known Brig-of-War both capsized due to a sudden change of weather in the first year of the Mexican War, and had to hang three mutineers earlier in its career... the USS Somers.

USS Somers... and hangings.
The USS Somers, ca. 1843... look under the flag. [Larger version here]

        The USS Somers was launched on April 16, 1842, and later capsized while chasing another boat on December 8, 1846. She was initially deployed to Puerto Rico for a 'shakedown cruise,' returning to New York afterwards. On September 10, 1842, the USS Somers was sent to the Atlantic coast of Africa to deliver messages to another ship. Having constantly missed the other ship at various African ports, the USS Somers left Africa for the Virgin Islands on November 11, 1842. The 'mutiny' mentioned by Mudd was a series of events that started around November 25 of the same year, after the ship left Africa... so, given that the above strange events are reported as happening around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, we can narrow the date range the events may have happened to the time the ship was there: sometime around September 10 to November 11, 1842.

        Though Mudd chose not to name what vessel his distant cousin was supposedly on it is undoubtable that most of his readers, being associated with the Navy, would likely know what ship Mudd was describing due to the exact two details that let me know what ship it was. There have been very few actual mutinies in American history and the mutiny on the USS Somers (and the subsequent trials) were both well-known and infamous in their reputation. The families of the sailors who were hanged were not allowed to bring civil suits against the captain of the ship, leaving a general distrust of the whole matter in public opinion.

        This is all because the USS Somers was acting as an experimental school to train naval apprentices, so a number of less experienced sailors were serving on board when it made it's trip to Africa. It was a group of these lesser experience sailors who were accused of planning a mutiny and chained, and three of which were eventually killed for having supposedly trying to recruit others for the mutiny... not for actually performing a mutiny, which never happened. The families of the sailors that were executed were denied the chance to take the ship's captain, name, to civil court, which left a overall bad feeling and suspicion in the public eye about how the matter was handles. The 'Somers Affair' -- as newspapers dubbed it -- eventually led to the establishment of the first U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, USA, with the intention of fully training new naval recruits before they were sent out on ships, precisely because one of the vagaries of the supposed 'plot to mutiny' may have simply been that the sailors accused didn't act the way the captain felt they should if they were proper sailors.

        Because of this contentious history, the story of the 'mutiny' would still have been known and told of as part of general Naval schooling when Mudd published his strange account of the sightings in 1915... which means that if Mudd wanted to make up a spooky story of a cursed ship, then the USS Somers was a good choice. While it's quite possible that Mudd is not merely inventing the story, it's very odd that he would not simply name the ship if it's history was so obvious to his audience; perhaps by not actually naming it, Mudd couldn't readily be accused of lying about the ship's history. So I have to be a bit suspicious of the story as it stands at the moment. Still, there are other details that can be tracked down that might take this suspicion off the story, such as an earlier accounting of the sightings (which I'll keep digging for), and a possible family relation between Mudd and a lieutenant serving during the African voyage in 1842.

        This is the first -- and so far only -- assertion I've ever run across claiming that silver can be used against phantoms of any sort! I've done a little digging backwards, and can't find any other mention of this idea, so it seems to be unique to this account. It's also oddly suspicious that Mudd's ancestor happened to have someone aboard his ship who claimed to have known who caused the damage seen on the phantom vessel.

        The account does have the important distinction of actually reporting the 'Flying Dutchman' as appearing at the Cape of Good Hope, which is the proper reported range of the phantom ship. In many accounts, the name 'Flying Dutchman' is simply used to describe any possible phantom ship worldwide; so while these may be phantom ships, they are not likely to be the 'Flying Dutchman,' due to not being at the Cape of Good Hope.

        Oh, and the reason Mudd didn't publish an account of the letters' story earlier? Because the same day he first read the tale, he claims that something happened that scared him so badly that it was years before he could describe both the tale from the letters and his own experience... to learn more, follow the link to "The Disturbed Watch" in the See Also links below!