Haunted Ghost Ship of the Damned

“I love deadlines. I like the ‘whooshing’ sound they make as they fly by”—Douglas Adams


I guess every Halloween needs a good horror story, so how about this one: Once upon a time there was an article about a haunted ship that got eaten when the author’s computer inexplicably freaked out. Its screen went all blue and pixelly, then it restarted itself, thereby obliterating the document that its owner had been working on and causing him to have to rewrite it from scratch. Oh, the horror! Oh, the profanity!

So yeah, this was the story that I meant to post on Halloween before it was eaten by a demon-possessed computer, but no worries. I’ll just screw around with the “date posted” and make it look like it was put up on Halloween, which is kind of pointless now that I’ve told you about it, but I’m going to do it anyway. That’s my Halloween trick, because this story is certainly no treat.

Hopefully, that’s a joke.

Like most scary stories, this one may not be true. It has appeared in a number of books of supposedly true ghost stories written by people who apparently thought it was real, so who knows? In any case, it’s a good story, and what more can you ask for the week after…I mean on Halloween? This was posted on Halloween. Look at the date if you don’t believe me. Also, it appears to have been the inspiration for an episode of the original Star Trek series, so it has that going for it.

The Ivan Vassili...allegedly
The Ivan Vassili…allegedly

The Ivan Vassili was a Russian freighter built in 1897 in St. Petersburg. For the first several years of its existence, its sole purpose was to haul freight back and forth across the Baltic Sea. There was nothing at all unusual about it and no one ever reported anything out of the ordinary taking place on board.

This all changed in 1903 when Russia started gearing up for a war with Japan and the ship was sent to Vladivostok carrying a cargo of military supplies. This was an extremely long trip which involved sailing all the way around South Africa and across the Indian Ocean to get to the other side of the country. Along the way, they made a stop for fuel in Zanzibar and appear to have inadvertently picked up an extra passenger there.

Shortly after leaving port, the crew began to get edgy. They could sense an unsettling presence on the ship, but they weren’t sure what to make of it. Some of the men felt like something was watching them and felt a chill whenever the thing was around. A few days later, several of the men reported seeing this “whatever it was” on the deck of the ship. Some reports say that it was a luminous, indistinct human shape, while others claim that it was an amorphous black cloud that was disorienting to look at, perhaps because it seemed to absorb the light around it like some kind of living black hole. That last part is what makes me think that this story may have some truth to it because this is a fairly consistent description of the rarely reported but not unheard of critter usually referred to as a black entity.* This was also how it was portrayed in that episode of Star Trek, albeit in a much more colorful form, for whatever that’s worth.

These things are also reported to instill absolute terror in those who encounter them, and so it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that a day or two later, one of the crewman startled the rest of his shipmates by awakening them in the middle of the night with blood-curdling screams that sent them all into a panic. Like most macho tough guys who aren’t used to being on the verge of wetting their pants in fear, these guys didn’t handle the situation very well. Their first instinct in such cases is usually to start throwing punches, but with no tangible enemy to fight, they resorted to punching each other instead. The testosterone fueled insanity concluded with one of the sailors throwing himself overboard and drowning. Over the next couple of days, things returned to normal, but it didn’t last.

Three days later, the same thing happened again. The men suddenly went berserk and attacked each other until the madness suddenly passed and they all collapsed in a state of exhaustion. They soon discovered that another of their shipmates had thrown himself overboard.

When they reached Vladivostok, some of the sailors attempted to desert, but they were rounded up and returned to the ship and placed under armed guard. After unloading their cargo, the ship set sail for Hong Kong with a less than enthusiastic crew. It didn’t take long before the whole thing happened all over again and another crewman committed suicide. Then, just as they were about to reach Hong Kong, the captain threw himself overboard without all of the fuss and mayhem of the previous victims.

Day of the Dove title shotOnce they reached Hong Kong, virtually the entire crew abandoned ship and, no longer being on Russian soil, there was nothing that the new captain could do about it. So they hired a new crew and set out for Sydney to pick up a shipment of wool. The trip was surprisingly uneventful until the night before they reached Sydney when the new captain unexpectedly took his revolver and blew his brains out.

In Sydney, the whole crew except for one man deserted the ship, which seems kind of odd considering that it was virtually an entirely new crew, most of whom had not experienced any of the previous horrors. Certainly the captain killing himself wasn’t a pleasant experience for them, but it hardly seems a reason to abandon your post and forfeit your pay in a foreign country. I guess that the stories that the few remaining members of the original crew had spread around spooked them all off.

The one remaining crewman found a new captain in Sydney to command the vessel, but by then word had gotten around about the cursed ship and it took them four months to put together a new crew. They then set out for their new destination of San Francisco with a shipment of hemp (really, even back then?). After about a week at sea, the insanity set in again with the crew going nuts and attacking each other. Two crewmen went so bonkers that they had to be confined below deck. They were both found dead the next morning. The following day, the newest captain also decided to put a bullet in his brain.

This pattern kept repeating, with the men being driven to the point of hysterical terror and attacking each other until one of them committed suicide, which seemed to placate the evil presence and the fear would pass. The few investigators of the paranormal who have encountered these things have generally concluded that they somehow feed off of negative emotions, mostly fear, and tend to bugger off for a while once their hunger has been satisfied. But they almost always come back. Once they’ve found a place that they like, they tend to stick around.

The best defense against them is probably to try to ignore them as much as possible. If one of these things ever comes after me, I’m going to name him Fred and sing him Beatles songs. That’s how Captain Kirk and the Klingons got rid of their unwanted guest on the Enterprise…sort of.

So by this time, the whole crew had had enough. They turned the ship around and went back to Vladivostok and this time they all walked away. No amount of money offered by the ship’s owners was enough to entice a new crew, and so it just sat there anchored in the bay until one night in 1907 when some of the sailors in Vladivostok decided that the only way to rid themselves of this evil was to set the ship on fire. They rowed out to it in small boats and set it ablaze, drinking, singing and laughing as they watched it burn. It was still smoldering the following morning when it finally turned on its side and sank beneath the waves. Witnesses supposedly heard an eerie scream coming from the ship just as it went under.

There’s a story of another Russian ship called the Farrier that suffered an almost identical fate. If you’d like to know more about that, just read the previous story again and mentally substitute the name Farrier everywhere you see Ivan Vassili. The dates, destinations, cargo and even some of the names of crew members are either very similar or, in some instances, exactly the same. The story of the Farrier was printed in a 1907 issue of the Chicago Tribune, but no one seems to know for sure where it came from. Apparently, either some writer there made it up or he had heard the story of the Ivan Vassili and decided to put his own personal spin on it. In this version of the story, the crew made it to San Francisco but abandoned the ship there. According to the Tribune article, it still (as of 1907) sat derelict in the San Francisco Bay, which we now know is highly unlikely. So which came first, the Ivan Vassili or the Parrier, and is either one of these tales even slightly based on actual events? The stories are so ridiculously similar that there is absolutely no way that both of these ships actually existed.

Sources not close to me claim that there is no record of a ship called Parrier ever docking anywhere in California. Likewise, I could find no record of a man named Ivan Vassili that the other ship might have been named after. Both Ivan and Vassili are common Russian names, so there have probably been hundreds of Ivan Vassilis at least, but none of them seem to have left their fingerprints anywhere on history. Some think that both legends could have been inspired by Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In the novel, Dracula sails on a Russian ship called the Demeter bound for Dracula on board the DemeterEngland. On the way, members of the crew start disappearing and the ship is eventually found run aground with no one on board. The only body found is that of the deceased captain, which is chained to the wheel and wearing a large crucifix. There is only his log to fill investigators in on what transpired during the voyage. Dracula was first published in 1897, the same year that the Ivan Vassili and the Parrier were said to have been launched. Some think that this might not be an accident.

So that’s the tale of the Ivan Vassili, which probably never happened but is, nevertheless, a great story. Anyway, happy Halloween everybody, because today is definitely Halloween. Now begins my daunting quest to come up with a Thanksgiving themed tale of the preternatural in the next three weeks, but that’s okay. If I don’t find one until next April, I can always just backdate it. Who’s gonna know the difference?


*In honor of H.P. Lovecraft, I suggest that we name these creatures “shoggoths,” although I doubt that this will ever catch on – partly because they’re so rare, but mostly because nobody listens to me.

and all the devils are here




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