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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.

After that:

"I die."

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 started.

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 examination.

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 things get.

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 day.

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 Death."

---. "Curse of the Ourang Medan."