History Thread: The Curse of the Ivan Vassili

Note: I haven’t done a Things That Are Not article in awhile, and wanted a break from the heavier military-political focus of recent threads. Prepare to be spooked!

Sailors and ocean travelers have always entertained and scared each other with horror tales. From the dreaded Flying Dutchman to Japan’s demonic tomokazuki, the mythscape of the Ocean swims with ghosts, spirits, monsters, curses and other unfathomable horrors. It’s doubtful that any but the most superstitious sailors believe these stories are true. Like all most myths, they provide a safe and harmless way of exorcizing fears and providing entertainment on long sea voyages. After all, a ghost ship that almost certainly doesn’t exist is less scary than a hurricane, gale waterspout. If they’re half-believed by the listener, so much the better.

The Ivan Vassili

Inevitably, some stories find their way to gullible landlubbers who aren’t in on the joke. Such is the case with the Ivan Vassili, a favorite of the “Unsolved Mysteries” genre for almost eighty years. The few serious researchers who’ve dug into this story find the usual stumbling blocks: secondhand sources, sensational newspaper columns, an endless pile of paranormal books that repeat the same tale, as if by rote. Yet one blogger found a tantalizing clue that suggests this story has existed longer than we’d expect.

According to myth, the Ivan Vassili was a three-funneled cargo ship constructed in 1897 and spent several uneventful years in service of the Russian government. Then, in 1903, the vessel undertook a transoceanic voyage from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok with a crate of military supplies.1 Somewhere in the Indian Ocean, however, “the crew sensed that something wasn’t just right about the ship”; an indefinable chill or dread, a feeling of foreboding that something was wrong spread among the crew.

Seaman Govinski, lost in the Fly of Despair

Just before arriving at Port Arthur, writes one author, “a deckhand suddenly let forth with an eerie scream.” On this demonic cue, the crew ran amok. For several minutes the ship devolved into a floating madhouse, with men running about wildly, screaming incoherently, smashing into bulkheads and slamming the walls, completely beyond reason or control. Finally, a sailor named Alec Govinski leaped into the ocean and drowned; with his death, the crew suddenly regained their senses and, after noticing their colleague’s disappearance completed their voyage as if nothing happened.

With variations, the terror seized the Vassili on every voyage for the next few years – sometimes, more than once. Each time the ship crossed into the Pacific, a fresh wave of terror washed over the ship; each time, the terror continued until a crewmember killed themselves. The implication being that this dread force – what Vincent Gaddis dubs “The Thing,” another author “The Octopus” – required a blood sacrifice each time it manifested. Sometimes it claimed more than one life, thinning the ranks of its crew. Eventually, the ship’s crew deserted the vessel; the company hired a new, unsuspecting crew who were, in turn, seized with the same madness on their maiden voyage.

Arriving in Port Arthur

After one particularly traumatic trip to Hong Kong, the entire crew deserted at once; the Russian consulate dispatched an armed detachment of sailors to prevent the vessel from being stolen. A hard-bitten Scandinavian named Christ Hanson took over as captain, loudly proclaiming his disbelief in ghosts. This skepticism only lasted a few days; after another burst of horror, the surviving crew found Hanson in his cabin, having shot himself in the head. After the vessel reached port, it took four months for the company to recruit a new crew.

The pattern continued itself until 1907. Another grueling voyage, spotted by a combination of desertions and further deaths (including the captain) left only man, an Australian named Harry Nelson, to guide the vessel into Vladivostok. There, Nelson and some confederates finally decided to rid the world of the Ivan Vassili. The vessel was set ablaze in Vladivostok Harbor, to the cheers of sailors and locals familiar with its dread history. As it sank, claims Richard Winer, “an eerie, bloodcurdling scream emanate[d] from the flooding hulk.” Leaving behind puzzled witnesses and a spinetingling mystery for the ages.

Captain Hanson, who likes a little sock over his ghostly tail

This scary saga gained popularity through books on nautical mysteries, from Vincent Gaddis’s Invisible Horizons (1965) to Richard Winer’s From the Devil’s Triangle to the Devil’s Jaw (1977). Neither of whom, it must be said, are credible sources. Famous for coining the phrase “Bermuda Triangle,” Gaddis was a freelance writer who wrote on subjects from UFOs to Native American myths to spontaneous human combustion. Gaddis’s books are among the better-written of their genre, but display an embarrassing credulity. Not content with dramatizing the Peshtigo Fire of 1871, he revives Ignatius Donnelly’s theory that the fires were caused by a low-flying comet. Gaddis’s books are littered with footnotes, which reference older works of Forteana and Fate Magazine – not exactly academic.

Winer gained fame for his book and documentary The Devil’s Triangle (1974), the latter featuring hilariously overwrought narration by Vincent Price. Winer jettisoned all standards for his follow-up – there’s not even a sham bibliography. He indiscriminately lists ocean mysteries (the Mary Celeste) and myths (the Flying Dutchman) alongside nonmysteries like the Honda Point Disaster of 1923, where seven destroyers ran aground in bad weather. Winer also asserts that Krakatoa’s 1883 eruption unleashed giant, man-eating octopuses upon the Earth, and warns that if Jimmy Carter sells the Panama Canal, “squirming masses of deadly sea snakes will infest the waters of the East Coast…few will survive to tell about it.”2

Americans in the occult-obsessed ’70s braved these swarms of Democrat snakes to buy Winer’s books; he and Gaddis were fixtures on the best-seller list, their books still lurking in libraries and secondhand shops.3 Parodying scholarly rigor, other mystery writers repeated their claims over and over, granting a specious credibility to the most bizarre stories. In this context, the Vassili‘s recent vintage and the sprinkling of details enhanced its surface credibility. What, if anything, underpins the tale? If the ship didn’t exist, can we at least discover where it came from?

Gaddis (left) and Winer

In 1983, paranormal writer Robert Sheaffer took a stab at salvaging the Vassili. Writing in the Skeptical Inquirer, Sheaffer leaned heavily on Gaddis’s account for clues. Gaddis cites a September 1942 issue of Coronet Magazine, which Sheaffer could not locate for his article, and a long-defunct 1940 publication called American Weekly, of which Gaddis possessed an original copy. Both articles, it turned out, were written by R. DeWitt Miller.

Miller was a prolific science fiction author, best known for his 1936 short story “The Master Shall Not Die,” published in book form as The Man Who Lived Forever. Between contributing to Marvel Science Stories4 and Astounding Science Fiction, he was a fabulist specializing in paranormal studies. There was a lacunae in occult interest between Charles Fort’s heyday in the ’20s and ’30s and the postwar flying saucer boom. Miller, however, published a collection of columns and articles in the war years, occasionally compiled into book form, that kept the genre alive.

One legend from the bowels of Reader’s Digest, Your Spookiness!

Miller’s article, published in April 1940, recounts the story of a British tramp steamer called the Stonepool, which experienced a particularly harrowing wartime adventure. Hounded by German U-boats and repeated mechanical failures, the vessel nonetheless survived a long across the North Atlantic with only minor damage.5 The Stonepool‘s tale was dramatic, but hardly paranormal; Miller, apparently, tried to goose the story by combining it with the Ivan Vassili‘s plight as “Proof That Hoodoos Ride Ships.” He did not record from whom he’d heard the story.

Sheaffer failed to uncover any earlier reference to the story, nor did Vassili turn up in reference books on ships of the era. As for Harry Nelson, the “sole survivor” who helped destroy the vessel which slaughtered his crewmates and presumably its source, there was no record of his existence. Sheaffer concluded that “a newsman appended a ghost story, tongue-in-cheek, to an otherwise not terribly dramatic account of jinxes at sea, and that credulous writers…have cited the supposed incident ever since.” Which, on the basis of his evidence, seems reasonable enough.

Decades later, however, a blogger named “Undine” discovered a new piece to the puzzle. Her site, “Strange Company,” offers a collection of vintage newspaper articles and historical oddities, usually presented with brief, wry commentary. In 2013 she uncovered an article from the April 21, 1907 Chicago Tribune, telling the story of an ill-fated ship named Parrier:

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.

Vassili meets Parrier

This story shades in some fresh details: the Parrier was built by a German company in Kiel, then sold to the Russian government. But these minor differences are outweighed by the similarities: the ill-fated Alec Govinski, along with the luckier Harry Nelson, all appeared in the Parrier‘s tale, as did the vessel’s fiery demise. Undine tried to research the story further, but found no additional references…until she stumbled across the voluminous tales of the Ivan Vassili. “The two stories are so similar in detail,” she writes, “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.”

Such is the difficulty of researching folklore. When a paranormal story has a kernel of truth, it’s usually possible to trace how it evolved. The Mary Celeste, in its most bare facts, presented a genuine mystery: a small brigantine was found adrift in December 1872 with its crew missing.6 The story became encrusted with beguiling details like an uneaten meal at the kitchen table,7 many invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novella “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement.” Doyle’s fiction was topped by a ream of false memoirs from “survivors” telling the Celeste‘s “true” story. Mundane explanations, from a sudden storm to an alcohol explosion, took a backseat to lurid speculation.

Or consider the “death ship” Ourang Medan, supposedly found in the Strait of Malacca in 1948 after sending an SOS. Its crew was mysteriously dead, uninjured and staring upwards as if at an “invading force.” Ufologist Morris Jessup records the crew’s “frozen faces…upturned to the sun, the mouths…gaping open and the eyes staring,” with even a dead dog, its mouth caught in mid-snarl, among the victims. Conveniently, the vessel exploded before it could be towed to port, leaving no evidence – only a mystery for writers like Jessup, Gaddis and Winer to recount in breathless horror.

The Ourang Medan’s crew meets their fate

Estelle of The Skittish Library concludes that the Medan saga was a quick-growing modern legend. The Medan debuted in British papers in 1940, reporting the vessel’s fate in the Solomon Islands with minimal embellishment. It resurfaced a decade later, moving from the Pacific to Indian Ocean, from 1940 to 1948, with a few lurid details (a garbled radio message crying “I DIE!!!”) added for spice.8Both stories came from an Italian conman named Scherli who claimed to be the only survivor; he is conspicuously absent from the standard legend, which instead suggests aliens, sea monsters or poison gas.

Several years ago, I traced how the sinking of the Raifuku Maru, a tragic but mundane maritime disaster, sunk with all hands in a storm in 1925. Its fate transformed into a Bermuda Triangle mystery through repetition of a dubious punchline (“Danger like dagger now!”) after the context receded from memory. But research by the present author seems to confirm Undine and Scheaffer’s results: there’s no connective tissue between the Parrier and the Ivan Vassili. All we have are two accounts, a quarter century apart, telling the same story with slight shades of difference. Presumably Miller read the Tribune article and appropriated it, changing the Parrier’s name to something more suitably Russian.

All this inclines one to banish the Ivan Vassili to the land of myth. Which doesn’t make the story any less entertaining. Long after transforming from a newspaper curio to a staple of paranormal lore, the Vassili continues to set the seven seas ablaze with fear.9