31 Oct 2018

Delve into several hair-raising tales from our collection

by Victoria Syrett, Archives Assistant

Ghost ships, sometimes also called phantom ships, are vessels with no living crew aboard. These may be real derelict ships found adrift with their crew missing, such as the 19th century HMS Resolute, or fictional and folkloric ones, like the apocryphal Octavius.

Below you can read two extracted from one of our books in the library, “The Phantom Ship” by R. L. Hadfield, published in 1937 (RMG ID: PBB4629). Hopefully that will leave you with icy fingers crawling up your spine. 

The legend of the Octavius

On August 1775 at midnight with the winds howling past snow peaked ice bergs, the Octavius aimlessly drifting off the coast of Greenland within two miles of the whaleship the Herald.  Come afternoon the next day, after a violent storm that broke apart the ice, Captain Warrens of the Herald spotted the Octavius and in his excitement climbed on board. He first came to a cabin and with a tremor running through him, found a man sitting at a desk with green damp mould touching the man’s cheek and forehead, a pen in his hand and a log book before him. The last words on the unfinished page read:

“11th November 1762; we have now been enclosed in the ice seventy days. The fire went out yesterday, and our master has been trying ever since to kindle it again without success. His wife died yesterday. There is not relief…” 

The next cabin held the body of a young woman in the bed and a man on the floor with flint and steel in his hands as if he was still trying to light the fire. The rest of the crew were found frozen in the beds and a small dog crouched at the bottom of the gang-way stairs.


HMS 'Erebus' passing through the chain of bergs, 1842 (BHC3654)

The Cursed Squando

Back in 1890, the Norwegian ship, Squando, docked itself off the Embarcadero in San Francisco. It was said the Captain and first mate got on well, right up to the point when the Captain’s wife came on board. No one knows exactly what happened between these three but sadly this was to be the first mates last voyage. In a violent hatred, the Captain and his wife not only murdered the man but hacked off his head. The murderous couple then tossed the headless corpse into the San Francisco Bay and kept the head in a locker under the Captain’s bunk. Soon after, the headless corpse of the first mate was discovered in the San Francisco Bay and the Captain and his wife were captured and executed.

The story of the ship doesn’t finish there. The owners of the ship found a new captain and crew, however within a month, four crew members mutinied and killed their captain. The next two captains met with similar fates, one dying from poison from a cut on his hand the other during a violent squall at night.

By 1893, the entire crew, fed up with the cursed nature of the ship, deserted it in Bathurst, New Brunswick. The ship's reputation as a haunted and cursed vessel made it impossible for the owners to hire a new crew, and even unable to keep the night watchmen.

It’s easy to scoff at ghost stories during the day but when the wind picks up howling through the deserted creaking ship, through the loose rigging, the groans of the deck and the shifting shadows, it is another matter entirely. One night watchman made his quarters in the captain’s cabin but upon lighting the lantern felt something firmly grip his sleeve. He glanced down and saw a hand, covered in blood. In gripping fear he traced the arm to its body halting at the dripping neck where the head should have been. A noise caused the watchman to slowly turn to the locker under the bunk as it opened and a round gory head rolled out to his feet. The watchman snatched up the lantern and rushed out the door spending the rest of the night on the deck.  The story was the same for the next six night watchmen, all hired and quitting over the next few weeks. The ship owners eventually dismantled the ship selling off the material. 


Ice Bergs near Kosoak, Life Boat Cove (From a sketch by Dr Kane) (PAD6466)

However, the cursed ship Squando wouldn't relent. Now, occasionally on fog shrouded nights, you can still make out the ghostly outline of the ship sailing off the Embarcadero along the San Francisco coastline.