1875~1876 (ca.): The Disturbed Watch

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 J.A. Mudd... but then he shared an even stranger story that was buried in his own past.

        Many years previous, and just a few days after Mudd had shipped out to sea as a midshipman, he received a packet of very old letters from home. 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 ranged from the early 1840's up to the American Civil War in the 1860's, when one of the two men died. And in a small grouping of just two or three of the letters, Mudd read a fascinating and weird tale written by the distant seaman cousin sometime in the early 1840's.

        The cousin had been the lieutenant on a ship working on the coast of Africa which encountered a seemingly phantom ship, three separate times. On the third occasion, the lieutenant was able to get a brief glimpse at the strange vessel through a spyglass just before it vanished, and noted that about half of the stern (front) windows seemed to be shot out, and that he could almost see into the cabin. The crew labeled the vessel as being the 'Flying Dutchman,' a legendary phantom ship associated with the Cape of Good Hope in Africa that is believed to bring ill fortune to those who see it. The lieutenant's ship then apparently had a string of purely bad luck, finally being sunk by a strong wind during the Mexican War of 1846-1848. [To read more of this matter, follow the 'See Also' link below!]

        Mudd spent the whole day reading the old letters, before he had to break for dinner and then attend to "Second Dog" watch duties, a naval reference to the watch between 6PM and 8PM. Mudd's ship was traveling the Pacific Ocean on the west coast of Central America. Mudd noted to the quartermaster, a sailor named Olsen, that they were lucky to have smooth sailing, as the area they were in had a reputation for rough seas, and they had run across those on a previous trip north through the area. Olsen noted that there was "strangely incessant" lightning.

        It was a boring job. Mudd found himself thinking about the letters he had just read through earlier and, given he was on a ship at night with lightning occasionally flashing, he found himself musing a lot about the story of the phantom ship written by his distant relative years before... and it was well past 6PM when he glanced to the starboard (left) of his ship and suddenly saw another ship on a coarse that was going to put it right in front of his ship, a collision about to happen!

        In the brief moment of panic, Mudd noted several things. First off, the ship was huge, and so close that he could have tossed his trumpet out onto it if he had so inclined. Second, its sails were full although there was no breeze to speak of. Third, it made no sound at all.

        Mudd couldn't utter a sound in his shock; he reached for something to hold onto, as the collision was a mere moment away... and then a bolt of lightning shot into the strange boat's hatch and out it's stern into the ocean, and the ship vanished. In the brief space that the bolt shot through the mysterious boat, Mudd saw that half of the stern (front) windows had been shot away; the internal galley of the ship was lit by the lightning, and he could see two figures sitting at a table across from one another, one a man. One not. The man was "dressed in such a strange garb of laces and velvet" that Mudd knew he could not be a modern sailor. As for the other figure, well... other than a later mention of "piercing eyes" and a "massive, slippery thing," Mudd had decided to never fully attempt to describe what it was he saw sitting across from the ancient sailor. It had been too disturbing for him to see.

        Mudd turned, and found quartermaster Olsen standing nearby. He asked if Olsen had seen the ship; but Olsen had seen only the lightning, and Mudd excused himself as just "seeing things," and dropped the topic. Mudd was starting to wonder if something was wrong with himself.

        It was half an hour or so later when Mudd saw the strange ship again, gliding by them quietly in the night with full sails... and Olsen yelled from somewhere just behind Mudd "Ship Ahoy!" In almost that same moment, lightning flashed again, and the ship was gone again. But this time Olsen had to admit he saw the vessel, for his cry had alerted the captain and the others. Mudd quickly quizzed Olsen about the ship; Olsen referred to it as "an old Dutchman saving oil," meaning it was not burning lights; when asked if he had seen the lightning hit it, as Mudd had again, Olsen said he saw the bolt off ahead of the ship.

        The watch was approaching eight o'clock, and Mudd would be relieved soon but, under the circumstances, it felt like it would take forever; Mudd just wanted to go hide somewhere and try to figure out what he had seen. If he was in fact seeing the Flying Dutchman, as his ancestor had, then was his ship cursed? Mudd looked off into the night to the starboard (left) of the ship; when, from the sea a little forward of his position, came "the most awful shriek a man could well listen to." He quickly imagined that one of the two figures he had seen in the cabin of the phantom ship had giving the cry...

        His speculation was broken as the whole ship became alive with the call of "Man Overboard!" As the deck lieutenant relieved him, Mudd quickly climbed into the life boat that was being launched. The tiny vessel rowed its way towards the light of a nearby buoy in the sea. Mudd thought the effort was useless, as he thought the cry had been that of a phantom; he was not surprised to find that no one was clinging to the buoy in the dark of the night. They started to circle the buoy in expanding rings, calling out for a response, until a signal from their ship called them back.

        Much to Mudd's surprise, a man had in fact fallen off his own ship. When he and the others returned, they were told that a sailor who had been doing his laundry had attempted to hang out his clothes to dry on the exterior of the ship when the platform he was standing on had failed and dropped him into the water. He had been able to cling to the line he had been hanging his clothes on as the ship had slowed to a stop; then the sailor had managed to get a hold on some iron fittings on the outside of the ship, from where he'd been pulled back on board after Mudd's lifeboat had been launched. It was said that this sailor was who had screamed, but Mudd wasn't entirely believing that.

        Olsen's call of 'ship ahoy' had to be noted in the logs, and was noted simply as a ship that passed in the night with no lights. Mudd was relieved when Olsen soon after was transferred to another ship; he liked him well enough, but felt that Olsen never quite treated him the same after the strange sightings.

More Details

        Upon checking old newspapers, I found that John A. Mudd (J. A. Mudd's fuller name) passed the courses at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, to earn a 'Cadet Midshipman' title around September 1875... so it's likely that the events described, if true, happened within a year of that time, as Mudd claimed the letters had arrived just a few days after he first sailed out as a midshipman.

        Though Mudd claimed the ship he saw was the 'Flying Dutchman,' he also knew that the Flying Dutchman is traditionally associated with the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, not with the coast of the Americas where he was located when his sighting occurred. Therefore, Mudd asserted that the Flying Dutchman had been reported "dozens and dozens" of times in the North Sea, and therefore "why not?" was his attitude to an appearance near America.

        But I myself have not found 'dozens and dozens' of reports of the Flying Dutchman, so it seems that either Mudd had heard many accounts from other sailors that were never recorded in print or, more likely, was associating other stories of phantom ships with the legend of the Flying Dutchman... but not every spooky ship on Earth must necessarily be the Flying Dutchman in particular, and that is true for Mudd's account as well.

        It should be noted that Mudd had written a number of essays that had actually won the Naval essay contests for the years 1906-1909; but all of these were very much about how the Navy should manage its money and supplies, topics directly related to Mudd's own paymaster duties. Far as I can tell, the article the account above comes from -- which Mudd titled "Spending the Second Dog with the Flying Dutchman" -- is the only thing Mudd had ever written that was on a different topic and of a personal nature.

        Given the circumstances of spending a day reading about his own ancestor's haunting encounter with a phantom ship near Africa, it would normally seem to be clear that Mudd had imagined his own encounter just a few hours later, especially since the ship he reported had the same defect he claimed the ship his ancestor has seen possessed, the missing stern windows. Except, of course, quartermaster Olsen also saw the ship on its second appearance. Olsen's call of "Ship Ahoy!" came before Mudd could tell Olsen there was another vessel there, so Olsen theoretically saw the strange ship all on his own and separate from Mudd's immediate imagination.

        So was it a ghost ship? Or was Mudd projecting his expectations in a way that another person could see it? It's an odd situation all around. Of course, Mudd may have invented the whole story as well... finding an account of the matter from Olsen would be helpful, or knowing what the name of the ship they were on so it's logs could be consulted would be nice. So there is more digging to do... but it's still an interesting account.

        By the way, if you want to know more about the strange account that was in the letters that Mudd received, follow the 'See Also' link below for "Three Strange Sea Encounters."