The Jersey Devil

I’m fascinated by the Pine Barrens and have been since I first learned about the place years ago. This huge expanse of forest smothers a large chunk of southern New Jersey and, within it, all manner of unnerving stories reside. Even the very name conjures up feelings of terror: endless trees amid which to become lost, enclosed isolation, a land still not fully tamed by human hands.

Of course, the main legend associated with this area is that of the Jersey Devil. Over the quarter-millennium that it has been reported, more than two thousand people have supposedly seen it. It has intimidated communities; caused havoc; and even snatched livestock, large dogs and children (according to some sources). It’s been blamed for all sorts of things: from crop failure to river pollution. It’s even been hailed as a harbinger of war. It has killed things.

People have speculated for years about whether the Devil is a cryptid, a supernatural creature, a hoax or simply a story that has been passed down for centuries and despite a raft of sightings we don’t seem to be any closer to a thoroughly definitive answer.

Frankly, it’s no surprise that the Devil defies nomenclature as almost everything about it, from its origin to its description, varies from report to report.  There are those that say the Devil is simply a story—a legend passed down by orators and writers, distorted and twisted by enthusiasm. Others ask how it can be a work of fiction when it has “terrorised towns and caused factories and schools to close down”.

But as you can explore, not all sources are to be trusted.

Towards the end of 2015, I wrote a couple of articles about the Devil, each with a slightly different theme, so if you’re interested click the links below and read away!

The Jersey Devil and the Big Problem with Paranormal Authors—Hayley Stevens’ Blog

Trouble with the Jersey Devil—Unexplained Mysteries.com

 

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Solved: The Last Photo of Charlie Noonan

A blog post I published last year called The Last Photo of Charlie Noonan has proved to be one of my most popular (along with The Cooper Falling Body Photograph and The Mystery of Elisa Lam and the Cecil Hotel). And I’m not surprised, as it features an eye-catchingly weird photograph with a chilling tale attached.

01_CharlieNoonan

Supposedly, early last century, folklorist Charlie Noonan travelled the US chasing down bizarre and mysterious tales. One of these jaunts involved an old woman who had been described to him as not quite human. Always escorted by a large dog, she lived alone and a disturbing sense of unease seemed to accompany encounters with her. Intrigued, Noonan set off to find her—and was never seen again.

Sometime later, Noonan’s missing-person story was printed in regional newspapers and, as look would have it, his camera (it still had his name on it) turned up in a pawn store. A single photograph was waiting to be developed from the film (see above).

This, apparently, was Charlie Noonan’s final photograph: a strange scene in which one can observe an angry dog beside a peculiar woman with eyes that seem to glow. It’s an unnerving photograph and its veracity and origin have been hotly debated. Well, I can reveal that it’s actually as some already suspected: a good ol’ fashioned fake.

It appears that the original was posted in late November, 2009 on a blog called Always Becoming. The subject of the photograph is a real woman, named Virginia Romero, a Tiwa Indian from Taos Pueblo, New Mexico:

“Virginia weighed all of 90 pounds and stood four and a half feet tall on days when she wasn’t hunched over with a bundle of some kind on her back. Her long black hair never left the tidy knot at the back of her head and on days when the task at hand was especially dirty and laborious – plastering with mud or tanning a hide – she wore a blue and white bandanna. Virginia spoke little English and rarely traveled beyond the reservation. From the moment this wiry workhorse of a woman woke up until she went to sleep, Virginia worked and she worked hard.”

The blog entry was about strong women and went on to describe more details of Virginia Romero’s life. This is the image that accompanied the text:

Noonan original pic

As you can see, our photo of Charlie Noonan is clearly copied from this, with some details erased, the dog and the glowing eyes added and the image reversed to confuse search engines. So there we have it. I’m sure, despite the proof here, most people will still continue to post the doctored photograph around the internet regardless, but it is not often that we get the luxury of confidently drawing a line under any of these stories and my sincere thanks go to the anonymous poster who got in touch to tell me about their research.

Case closed.

For real-life ghost stories and more research check out my Eerie Britain series—available as ebooks and a paperback.

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The Jersey Devil and the Big Problem with Paranormal Authors

I have a guest article up at Hayley Stevens’ excellent blog about the Jersey Devil and the how generally terrible ghost books’ research is. It’s an interesting topic and a great blog so go check it out.

Let’s start with North America’s Pine Barrens and its most infamous son—the Jersey Devil. This hybrid monster was supposedly an unwanted 13th child, cast to Satan by its witch mother and lurking amidst the trees ever since.

Over the summer, I began researching this story to assess whether I would want to include it in a new book. It’s a fascinating tale but I was soon reminded of the frustrations that often face those that delve into these old tales: plagiarism, embellishment and blind acceptance. These problems seem to affect this genre more than others but, puzzlingly, they are rarely written about…

Read the rest here.

Posted in Bizarre, Blogging, Books, Debunked?, Ebooks, Fiction, History, Hoax?, Legends, Paranormal, Strange Places, Urban Myth?, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Haunted Flat for Rent in Glasgow?

RightMove - Shadow CropThis was noticed by an eagle-eyed user of OcUK’s busy forum. Other than a particularly monstrous estate agent, I have no idea what could cause such an unnerving shadow. Leave your theories below!

For more real-life ghost stories check out my popular Eerie Britain series—available as ebooks and a paperback.

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Tips for Marketing and Promoting your Ebooks


EB1 2.0

I’ve been self-published through Amazon KDP for a few years now and been fortunate to have sold thousands of my ebooks, so people sometimes ask me how to go about marketing their own work. Thanks to my Eerie Britain books, I’ve learned a thing or two along the way so here are a few tips.

1 – Get Blog Reviews

Look for blogs that review ebooks appropriate to your genre and email them asking if they’d like a free copy for review. “Hi, I’ve been really enjoying your blog recently and got to wondering if you’d be interested in reviewing a copy of my recent ebook.” Not all will, and many might not even reply but some of them do and can become strong contacts for future collaborations. I’ve managed this three times (out of only about five goes). TOP TIP: the younger bloggers seem keener and often have very wide audiences.

2 – Wikipedia

If you already have a Wikipedia page then make sure you add your ebook projects for a bit of extra exposure. Anyone can edit Wikipedia and it sits high on the search engine returns.

3 – Good Reads

Get intimate with Good Reads—create an author profile and explore what you can do with the site. Many readers love the fact that authors are on there and want to communicate with you.

4 – Facebook

The same goes for Facebook: use it to create a page or community for (or related to) your product. I’ve had sales from doing just such a thing via my Eerie Britain Facebook community: some readers I’d been chatting to actually bought my paperback even though they’d already bought my ebooks, the lovely people. Be prepared to post good content regularly to keep people around.

5 – Sites to Familiarise Yourself With

I think they are all based in the US (I’m in the UK), but that might not affect you as much as it does me (as I have Britain in my title).

  1. Ereader News Today: http://www.ereadernewstoday.com/
  2. Kindle Nation: http://kindlenationdaily.com/
  3. Pixel of Ink: http://www.pixelofink.com
  4. Inspired Reads: http://www.inspiredreads.com
  5. Kindle Reader: http://kindlereader.blogspot.com/
  6. GoodReads: http://www.goodreads.com
  7. IndieReader: http://indiereader.com/author-promotional-opportunities/

6 – Get a blog going.

I bet you’ve started one somewhere but perhaps it’s now gathering dust. You don’t have to post thousands of words every day, but regular content builds the hits—this is the long game so think in terms of years. This blog is in its fourth year now and has totalled 75,000 hits so far with virtually no self-promotion of it. It’s been fun to build and gets more popular with each year on its own. Occasionally you’ll hit pay dirt, too: one of my off-the-cuff paranormal articles is the fifth return on the Google keyword search for it—and climbing. It did that on its own.

7 – Give away the first chapters of your ebooks on your blog.

The first chapter should be something of a hook anyway, so it’s a perfect thing to draw in potential readers—don’t forget the links to where your books are on sale.

8 – Guest blog.

Find blogs and websites that you like (doesn’t have to be about fiction) and offer guest articles to them for free. Just ask that your sign-off mentions your work. This is a great way for someone to get your links onto really busy websites. Besides the marketing advantages, the best thing about guest-blogging is that it can be fun as you can write whatever your heart desires as long as it’s appropriate to the blog. (If anyone would like to guest-blog here, you’re most welcome.)

9 – The Most Important Bit

If you want to properly market your ebooks, you need to get your head around it taking up a LARGE chunk of your work time. If you are, like I am at the moment (due to work and life circumstances), unwilling to dedicate that much to time to this facet of modern writing then you simply won’t get as popular as you might have been otherwise.

Have I missed anything?

Posted in Amazon KDP, Blogging, Books, Ebooks, Marketing, Self-Publishing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ghost Child Appears in Liverpool Orphanage Window

This is currently one of The Mirror’s most popular stories – probably due to it being published on Friday the 13th. I’ve seen a lot of supposed ghost photographs and, honestly, this is one of the worst. I can’t even make out the form. The photograph is from Google’s Street View library and shows the old Liverpool Seamen’s Orphan Institution building, a Grade II listed building that was more recently a hospital. It is now derelict and, of course, has attached to it many ghost stories with reports of shadow figures and a ghost child.

New Bitmap Image

“A concerned local raised the alarm, believing the image shows a child crying in the window of the red-bricked building.”

I think they’re grasping at straws.

  1. http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/liverpool-ghost-face-spooky-child-5160304
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newsham_Park_Hospital#Hauntings

For more real-life ghost stories check out my popular Eerie Britain series—available as ebooks and a paperback.

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The SS Ourang Medan: Death Ship (Updated)

Ghost_Ship_20

The Strait of Malacca has long borne the passage of trading ships. Over the centuries, most of these merchantmen reached their destinations safely, however, one day in the summer of 1947 (or 1948) a forbidding SOS message drifted across the Strait’s airwaves: “All officers including captain are dead lying in chartroom and bridge. Possibly whole crew dead.” This was followed by some indecipherable Morse Code chatter, probably more SOS signals, and then one final grisly message: “I die.”

The macabre distress call was picked up by other ships and international listening posts. Through triangulation, they identified the vessel as the Dutch freighter SS Ourang Medan and plotted its approximate position to within the Strait of Malacca. Of the two US merchant ships that heard the Ourang Medan’s grim message, Silver Star was the nearest and she raced to the aid of the stricken vessel.

Within a few hours, Silver Star arrived upon a hushed sight. The calm sea gently lapped at the Ourang Medan’s stationary hull and the crew was nowhere to be seen above decks. The American ship hailed the Dutch ship with whistles, calls and hand signals but there was no response. Nothing on board the eerie craft moved. A boarding party was quickly assembled, what they would discover would prove such an alarming sight that it has made the Ourang Medan into one of the strangest nautical mysteries of all time—eclipsing even the Marie Celeste in macabre detail (if not in infamy). (I’m fairly sure that Ourang Medan translates into English as ‘Man of Medan’—Medan being a city in Indonesia.)

pmmc front j

As Silver Star’s boarders discovered, the SOS message proved correct: every member of the ship’s crew lay dead. The crew’s corpses lay scattered in various places below deck. The captain was dead on the bridge and his officers in the wheelhouse, chartroom and wardroom were all dead too. More than this, all the corpses still had their eyes open and faces upturned, some with outstretched arms and expressions of sheer terror etched upon their features. As a May 1952 article in the rather official Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council put it: “there were dead men everywhere […] the frozen faces upturned to the sun with mouths gaping open and eyes staring, the dead bodies resembled horrible caricatures.” Silver Star’s boarding party noted that even the ship’s dog was dead, its face locked in a grimace that mirrored that of its masters. A trip to the communications room revealed the author of the SOS messages, also dead, his hand still on the Morse sending key, his eyes wide open and teeth bared. There was no sign of wounds or injuries on any of the bodies. The boarding party, according to one source, felt intense cold when on the lower decks.

The decision was made to tow the mysterious ship back to port but, before they could get under way, smoke began emanating from somewhere below deck (probably the number four hold). The boarding party hurriedly returned to Silver Star and barely had time to cut the lines and get to a safe distance before the baffling ship exploded with such force that she “lifted herself from the water and swiftly sank.” That’s the story, anyway.

Theories and Digging Deeper

So, what really happened to the SS Ourang Medan?

Speculators have said that pirates killed the crew and sabotaged the ship, although this doesn’t explain the peculiar grimaces and lack of obvious wounds on the corpses. Others have claimed that clouds of methane or other noxious natural gases could have bubbled up from fissures on the sea bed and engulfed the ship, poisoning all on board. Carbon monoxide could have leaked from the engine room, killing the crew, say others. Even more fantastical theories involving aliens and ghosts abound, with the strange manner of the sailors’ deaths pushing researchers into thinking supernatural foul play was the only explanation. Sadly, first-hand evidence of any aspects of the story is elusive.

Over the decades, several marine historians have sought to uncover the truth about the ship’s puzzling fate. Among these, Roy Bainton’s research stands out. He writes:

“Searching the Dutch shipping records in Amsterdam seemed only to deepen the mystery. There was no mention of the ship at all, and my enquiries to the maritime authorities in Singapore drew a blank.

“I was facing the distinct possibility that this was simply a hoary old fo’c’sle yarn… until Professor Theodor Siersdorfer of Essen, Germany entered the frame. He had read the plea [I placed] in Sea Breezes [a British magazine for old sailors] and I suddenly discovered that I was not alone; Siersdorfer had been on the case for 45 years.”

It seems that Siersdorfer furthered Bainton’s progress, providing the name of the Silver Star, amongst other things.

Bainton goes on to hypothesise that it was deadly gas, leaking from the cargo hold, that caused the crew’s demise. The development of such gasses was outlawed under the Geneva Convention and so perhaps shadowy governmental forces erased the Ourang Medan from the shipping registers—a cover up!

“What follows is pure speculation, but there is a tantalising, possible explanation as to her crew’s demise and her disappearance from the records. A fellow researcher, Otto Mielke mentions a mixed, lethal cargo on the Ourang Medan ‘Zyankali’ (potassium cyanide) and nitro-glycerine. How this mixture could have gone unrecorded is a mystery, as the controls on such lethal cargoes, even 50 years ago, would have ensured reams of paperwork.”

(Otto Mielke wrote about the case in his thirty-two page 1954 booklet called Das Totenschiff in der Südsee (The Deathship in the South Seas)—I haven’t been able to find an English translation.)

There’s a problem with the steamer, Silver Star. It did exist, but not quite as most articles tell us. It was actually named Silver Star Park, and seemed to be Canadian in origin. By the time of its supposed encounter with the Ourang Medan, it was more likely to be plying its trade in Brazilian waters and had been renamed the SS Santa Cecilia (becoming SS Ilha Grande in 1949). Here’s its entry in Lloyd’s Shipping Register:

ssp j

(There are two other possible candidates for our Silver Star, but, like this one, none of those are recorded as being anywhere near where the Ourang Medan was encountered.)

The Silver Star Park

The Silver Star Park

As for the Zyankali gas theory: Unit 731 was a secret research and development department within the Imperial Japanese Army that was dedicated to biological and chemical warfare. They used human beings in their experiments during the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War Two and thus were responsible for some of the most notorious war crimes carried out by Japanese personnel. Unit 731’s research methods were unremittingly appalling, including vivisections carried on living children—without anaesthetic. After the war ended, the US secretly granted immunity to the head of Unit 731 and its physicians in exchange for exclusive access to their findings so, revoltingly, their abhorrent crimes went almost entirely unpunished. Shiro Ishii, the department’s head moved to Maryland to work on bio-weapons research. Roy Bainton continues:

“So how was this deadly cargo moved around the South China Sea and through the Straits of Malacca during this troubled period? Not by air; the prospect of a cargo plane crashing with several tons of deadly gas on board was too horrendous to consider. No, you hired an insignificant old tramp steamer, preferably with a low paid foreign crew, stowed the cargo in disguised oil drums and, like all serious smugglers, hoped for the best, and a blind eye from authority. If we accept, due to the nature of her crew’s deaths, that she was carrying deadly gas or chemicals and if indeed she was a Dutch vessel had this news broken it would have been a major embarrassment for any government involved, especially in the light of the Geneva Convention. Hence the dead ends faced by any researcher. The story exists because, like the gases, it escaped.”

De Loco pic j

The first recording that I can find of this story seems to come from three 1948 articles printed in the Dutch newspaper De Locomotief: Samarangsch handels- en advertentie-blad (The Locomotive: Advertisement and Trade Paper). They seem to support the escaping lethal gas theory.

From the Wikipedia entry regarding them:

“The second and third article describe the experiences of the sole survivor of the Ourang Medan crew, who was found by a missionary and natives on Toangi (sic) atoll in the Marshall islands. The man, before perishing, tells the missionary that the ship was carrying a badly stowed cargo of sulphuric acid, and that most of the crew perished because of the poisonous fumes escaping from broken containers. According to the story, the Ourang Medan was sailing from an unnamed small Chinese port to Costa Rica, and deliberately avoiding the authorities.”

The paper insists that it knows nothing more about the case than what has been printed, and that it all came from an Italian man named Silvio Scherli, although my Dutch is pretty verschrikkelijk. If you want to read the original text I’ve found it online: link.

de loco article j

The article does include a tantalising photograph and the caption seems to insist it is of the Ourang Medan. If that’s true (it surely isn’t) it’s almost certainly the only photograph in existence of the doomed ship. The caption translates roughly as: “The burned wreck of Ourang Medan shortly before it sank to the bottom of the ocean, with its secrets.”

So who was Silvio Scherli? Details are scant, but it seems that he was told the account while living in Triest by a missionary. This missionary in turn heard it from the last surviving member of the Ourang Medan’s crew—a German—who had related the end of his ship just before expiring. He said an “unregistered cargo” had leaked chemical fumes and overcome the crew. His lifeboat had made it to “Toangi Island in the Marshalls”. Six others were in the boat, but the German was the only one left alive. He was taken to hospital but died soon after.

Toangi Island is also called Bokak Atoll and, while I can find reference to the presence of Catholic missionaries in the Marshall Islands in 1942 within a research paper concerning drift patterns from the Smithsonian Institution, I can’t find their actual mission.

Conclusion

The peculiar thing about the Ourang Medan case is that, on one side, you have a distinct lack of records: nothing in Lloyd’s Register, nothing in the Dictionary of Disasters at Sea 1824-1962, and probably no Silver Star that sailed the Strait of Malacca. Yet on the other hand we have the story retold in the US Coast Guard’s Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council—a queer place to be writing made-up fantasies. Who knows, possibly the ship’s name was spelled incorrectly, possibly it was purposefully erased from record, maybe it was a false name that it sailed under in the first place due to nefarious goings-on.

pmmc text jpg

The US Coast Guard’s Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council

As with many of these mysteries, it is unlikely that the truth will ever be uncovered. In some ways, though, it doesn’t really matter whether the whole thing is a good old yarn or not as the fascinating and gruesome nature of the tale serves its own purpose.

Perhaps it’s fitting to give the last word to the man who has plumbed the Ourang Medan’s depths more than any other man: Roy Bainton.

“I first heard this story as an Ordinary Seaman in the mess room on board an old tramp ship, the MV Port Halifax, whilst crossing the Pacific between Panama and Australia in 1960. Since then I’ve probably carried out more research into this frustrating yarn than anyone else, and I notice that whenever you Google the ship, my name comes up. But although I want to believe it all, (that’s the romantic side of being a writer) the more I dig the more phoney the whole thing begins to look, and I am amazed at the loose, sloppy re-interpretations of my research, tailored to please the credulous hordes who will allow no scepticism to spoil their Halloween spirit.”

So, there you go.

My Sources

Want more maritime weirdness? Try The SS Watertown’s Floating Faces.

For more real-life ghost stories check out my popular Eerie Britain series—available as ebooks and a paperback.

Posted in Bizarre, Debunked?, Hoax?, Maritime, Paranormal, Urban Myth?, Writing | 2 Comments