Forensic Science and the Creepy Legend of the Ourang Medan

Illustration from a novel The Ghost Ship by John Conroy Hutcheson. Image credit: Wikipedia

Illustration from a novel The Ghost Ship by John Conroy Hutcheson. Image credit: Wikipedia

According to legend, some time in the 1940’s a ship named the S.S. Ourang Medan sent a distress signal as it traveled through the South Pacific.  The S.O.S. said that the officers aboard were dead and rest of the crew were dying.  Another vessel answered the call and, when its crew boarded the Ourang Medan, they saw dead bodies lying all over the deck.  Since none of the corpses had any visible marks and there wasn’t any sign of blood, it was a mystery as to how so many sailors had perished.  The rescuers searched for possible survivors on the bridge and below deck but had to abandon ship when they heard an explosion.  A fire eventually burned the Ourang Medan entirely.

Many people doubt that the Ourang Medan existed or that its crew was mysteriously killed  because the legend of this ghost ship has a few versions with differing details.  But if the crew of this ship was slaughtered in some horrific manner, forensic science can offer some insight on the possible causes of death.

Theories for Cause of Death

If this happened, there are a few things, like poison and hazardous gases, that could kill suddenly and leave no marks or blood.

Fast-Acting Poison

Fast acting poisons like cyanide or strychnine can kill within minutes after ingestion without any outward signs of foul play.  Cyanide, in the form of salts or gas, causes death by interfering with the way cells process oxygen (cellular hypoxia).  This poison can cause seizures and death within minutes of ingestion or inhalation.

Strychnine also kills within minutes of swallowing thanks to violent convulsions that prevent respiration.  But this poison has a bitter taste and would be easily detected if ingested.

This theory means that this was either a suicide, a mass murder, or a murder-suicide.  If this was a suicide then there would not have been a distress call to begin with.  This also doesn’t explain the explosion.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Another theory put forward for the mass deaths onboard the Ourang Medan is carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a malfunction in the ship’s boiler system. Carbon monoxide is a odorless toxic gas that can kill if too much is inhaled.  Lethal amounts of the toxic gas can cause asphyxiation within minutes of inhalation.

Carbon monoxide poisoning would explain the deaths of the crew inside the ship, but this cause of death doesn’t make sense for the bodies outside on the deck.  Outdoor carbon monoxide poisoning is extremely rare because the gas needs to saturate the atmosphere.

Hazardous Materials 

Other people speculate that the vessel was transporting hazardous chemicals like nitroglycerin or some sort of nerve gas.  According to this version, when sea water breached the containers holding this material, a toxic gas was released that could have killed the crew.

There are many skeptics who doubt the veracity of this ghost ship legend because there are at least three versions that note different dates, locations, and describe the ship in different ways.

Report from the Yorkshire Post in 1940

Estelle Hargraves of the Skittish Library uncovered one of the earliest reports known to have been published about this gruesome ghost ship.  The article, “Mystery SOS From Death Ship,” is a first hand account from one of the merchant marine officers who claimed to have boarded the floating vessel.  It was reported by the Associated Press and published in the Yorkshire Post on November 21, 1940.

‘We were about 200 miles south-west of the Solomon Islands,’ said the officer, ‘when we intercepted the following signal, ‘SOS from the steamship Ourang Medan.  Beg ships with short wave wireless get touch doctor. urgent.’

‘With our short wave set we relayed the call for help.  Medical stations in Germany, Rome, and France replied.  We informed the Ourang Medan and asked her to transmit her request.

‘The Ourang Medan replied with its auxillary transmitter.  ‘Probable second officer dead.  Other members crew also killed.  Disregard medical consultation.  SOS urgent assistance warship…’

‘At the end of 16 hours we sighted a big ship on the horizon.  It flew no flag, was listing slightly to the starboard, and the propeller motionless.  From our bridge we could see it was the Ourang Medan…’

‘We launched two lifeboats with eight men in each and rowed across to the Ourang Medan and boarded her.’

‘Bodies of sailors were lying about on the deck.  We could find no sign of a wound on any of them.  Death seemed to have taken them by surprise at their posts.’

‘On the captain’s bridge we found the body of a second officer.  We counted 12 bodies, three of them of deck officers, but we reckoned the Ourang Medan  should have had a crew of about 40.’

‘The captain decided to search the officers’ quarters but we heard an explosion in the ship’s hold. A column of smoke belched from the second hatchway.’

Report from De locomotief: Samarangsch handels- en advertentie-blad in 1948

This article was published in the Dutch-Indonesian newspaper De locomotief: Samarangsch handels- en advertentie-blad three times between February 3rd and 28th of 1948.  The original story can be found here but Hargaves summarizes a portion of it:

“At some point around June 1947, a SOS message in Morse code was sent by the Dutch freighter ship, the Ourang Medan. The ship was in distress in a position 400 nautical miles south-east of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean… As received by the US ships the City of Baltimore and the Silver Star, the first message said “S.O.S. from Ourang Medan * * * we float. All officers including the Captain, dead in chartroom and on the bridge. Probably whole of crew dead * * *.” Some morse gibberish followed, and then the second, and final, message sent by a doomed radio operator was received. It simply said “I die.”  (Summary from Estelle Hargraves)

The crew from the Silver Star found the Ourang Medan crew in much the same way that the sailors from the earlier account did: corpses on the deck, eyes and mouths frozen open.  Again, nothing was found that would explain the deaths.  A fire erupted soon after the crew boarded and the ship exploded.

Report from The Proceedings from the Merchant Marine Council in 1952

Another version of the Ourgan Medan legend was written for The Proceedings from the Merchant Marine Council in 1952

“Perhaps one of the most perturbing sea dramas occurred in February 1948.  Radio silence was broken with an urgent S.O.S. from the S.S. Ourang Medan, a Dutch vessel, then proceeding through the Straits of Malacca.  The strange distress call, transmitted in Morse Code, eerily read, ‘S.O.S. from Ourang Medan * * * we float.  All officers, including the Captain, dead in chartroom and on the bridge.  Probably whole of crew dead * * *’  A few confused dots and dashes later two words came through clearly.  They were ‘I die.’  Then, nothing more.  Later the Ourang Medan was found adrift approximately 50 miles from her indicated position.  When the vessel which had stumbled across her sent a boat over to investigate, the sailors swarming aboard the Ourang Medan found a sight seldom seen.  There wasn’t a living person or creature on board.  There were dead men every where.  Bodies were strewn about the decks, in the passageways, in the charthouse, on the bridge.  Sprawled on their backs, the frozen faces upturned to the sun with mouths gaping open and eyes staring, the dead bodies resembled horrible caricatures.  Even the ship’s dog was found dead.  Yet, the bodies seemed to bear no sign of injury or wounds.  Then, when a fire was discovered in No.4 hold, she had to be abandoned.  A few minutes later an explosion followed and the Ourang Medan sank.”

Some people doubt this Dutch corpse ship existed because the vessel itself wasn’t listed on a register of merchant ships and, as Hargraves carefully points out, crucial details of the accounts vary.

Supposedly the S.S. Ourang Medan is not listed in the Lloyd’s Shipping Register, a list published annually of all merchant vessels weighing more than 100 gross tonnes.

There are three different years in which the ship was supposedly found: 1940, 1947, and 1948.  Each version also describes a different location where the vessel was discovered: near the Solomon Islands, the Marshall Islands, and the Straits of Malacca. Also, the Yorkshire Post story describes the Ourang Medan as a steamship, and the Dutch version says its freighter.

True or not, this story is definitely compelling, which is probably why it keeps getting retold.

Hargraves’ article is really informative and well-researched.  It’s definitely worth a read for anyone who wants to learn more about Ourang Medan.

 



Categories: Forensic Science, History

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