Saturday, April 25, 2020

The Journey of Death

“The emigrants gave a terrible account of the crossing of the Great Desert, lying west of the Colorado River. They described this region as scorching and sterile—a country of burning salt plains and shifting hills of sand, whose only signs of human visitation are the bones of animals and men scattered along the trails that cross it.”
-Bayard Taylor, pioneer traveler 1849

After the tragedy of the Donner Party in 1846, travelers became wary of traveling through the Sierra Nevada Mountains into California and began looking for an alternate southern route. They discovered a long, desolate passage that stretched from Ft. Yuma to San Diego. But although it was free of snow, it proved to be even more deadly. It was called El Camino del Diablo (the Devil’s Highway) and travel along it was referred to as the Journey of Death.
From this route came many stories, legends, and folklore including gunfights over buried treasure, lost mines that held untold riches, and murdering bandits. These tales of desperate men on the verge of starvation, dehydration and exposure to the elements almost always ended in death. And from those deaths came visits from the Other Side—spirits who wander the desert to this day.
Traveling across the barren sands, the most precious commodity was water. Cold water springs were rare throughout the Anza Borrego Desert. But one such respite, Yaqui Well, acquired a more sinister reputation.
In the early 1850s, three emigrants were making their way from Yuma to a new life out West. After some time without water, they came across the natural spring. Without thinking about the nature of the water or the state of their dehydration, the men pounced on the well. One man drank his full and reportedly told his companions, “Shoot me while I am happy, for I never expect to feel so good again”. His companions didn’t need to for shortly thereafter, the man fell down in incredible pain. Cramps caused his body to seize painfully. It was either the water itself or the speed in which the man drank. Either way, he died a horrible death.
Searching the body, his fellow companions found some gold nuggets in his pockets. Greed lit up their eyes as they circled each other around the well, looking for an opening. When one of the men stumbled, the other jumped on him and smothered him in the mud surrounding the water. An Indian watched the murder unfold from a nearby hill. The sole survivor ran off screaming into the desert, supposedly to look for the source of the gold, and was never seen again. The hot summer nights bring these three men together in death. Many travelers and outdoor enthusiasts tell of seeing three men dancing in the moonlight near the now-dry Yaqui Well. Seems they have finally found their water and their fate.
In 1857, the Butterfield Mail Company established a stagecoach route that ran from St. Louis to San Francisco, passing through the Anza-Borrego Desert. Stage stations were often the scenes of robberies, murder and other treachery. Two particular stagecoach stops are reputed to be haunted—the Carrizo Station with its phantom stagecoach and the infamous Vallecito Station.
The Carrizo Station story goes back many years, when the stages traveled regularly through the desert up until the Civil War. A coach carrying a strongbox of gold coin was traveling from El Paso to San Diego. In Yuma, the guard became ill and could not continue. Unable to secure a replacement, the driver carried on alone. Right before it arrived at the Carrizo Station, the coach was robbed and the driver fatally shot. The horses continued on with the dead man slumped over, still holding the reins. Campers staying near the ruins of the old station have reported seeing a stagecoach arrive in the middle of the night and continue on its journey, leaving actual wheel marks in the sand. The phantom stagecoach is a sort of modern-day Flying Dutchman, sailing on a sea of sand.
The Vallecito Station is even more notorious, boasting several spirits including a white horse that rides through the area, as well as that of a lady in a white dress. The horse is supposedly the favored mount of a bandit that was shot by one of his partners shortly after they had buried their loot from a stagecoach robbery. The bandit’s loyal steed still searches for its lost rider.
The Lady in White is a famous local story of the desert. In the 1850s, riding in a stagecoach bound for Sacramento, a young frail woman braved the long desert trek. She was taken ill sometime after leaving Yuma and finally perished in the small adobe that served as the Vallecito stage station. When her belongings were searched, they found a long white gown with hand-sewn lace and pearls—her wedding gown. She was placed in the gown and laid to rest in the small cemetery near the station. Many Park Rangers as well as campers in the area report seeing her apparition wandering the grounds, looking for her lost love.
The last story is one of my favorites and very well known to the residents of Anza-Borrego. The Ghost Lights of Borrego were first spotted in the late 1850s by stagecoach drivers and have continued steadily over the years. The lights have been seen dancing close to the desert floor, in the caves of the badlands as well as Goat Canyon, home of the famous trestle bridge. They are described flickering or burning fireballs of various colors that arch through the sky. Some of the earlier accounts describe lights that would rise into the air and explode, similar to fireworks. Witnesses I have spoken to claim that they make no noise as they travel across the desert sky and some believe they mark the location of hidden treasures. Some unfortunate explorers have blindly followed the lights and fallen into ravines or caves.
There is even an unverified story of a fatality attributed to these spectral globes. A train making its way through Goat Canyon in 1977 derailed when the engineer saw some lights on the tracks and mistook them for an oncoming train. The buckling train cars tumbled down the canyon, where they remain today. The most prevalent place to view these ghost lights is near Oriflamme Mountain, not far from the town of Borrego Springs.
On the lighter side of the odd and unexplained, stories circulated in the 1960s of an “Abominable Sandman of Borrego”, a Bigfoot-like creature. Alleged casts were made of the creature’s tracks left in the sand in 1964.
As these and other stories indicate, you need not spend the night in a spooky Victorian house or wander through a Gothic-looking cemetery for ghostly happenings. Our local desert offers bone-chilling tales that will keep you huddled in your tent or around the campfire until the rising of the sun. Don’t look too long into the dark evening of Anza-Borrego…for there is something undoubtedly looking back.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Nautical Nightmares

The crashing of the waves and the salty air remind me of my childhood growing up in San Diego. It also, unfortunately, reminds me of my time working on fishing boats as a young man. The cramped quarters, the long hours working the decks. The sounds and smells of the ocean also acts as a constant reminder of how merciless the ocean is. She gives and takes without any mercy, and sometimes the ships come back. I am, of course, talking about ghost ships. The story of ghost ships has been around for centuries from all parts of the world. A ghost ship is defined as either a paranormal occurrence in which a spectral ship has been spotted but this label has also been given to ships mysteriously found adrift in open water, completely devoid of crew. I find both of these phenomena intriguing and so wanted to cover them both.
The most famous ghost ship of all time is the Flying Dutchman. I never thought I would say thank you to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, but for many the Dutchman meant nothing until these films came out. And for sailors, the Dutchman is indeed very real, and feared. The oldest version of this story goes back to the 18th Century. The first time the Flying Dutchman is mentioned is by John MacDonald in 1790 in a book entitled Travels in various part of Europe, Asia and Africa during a series of thirty years and upward:
The weather was so stormy that the sailors said they saw the Flying Dutchman. The common story is that this Dutchman came to the Cape in distress of weather and wanted to get into harbour but could not get a pilot to conduct her and was lost and that ever since in very bad weather her vision appears.
Many more sources tell of the Dutch man-of-war that was lost off the Cape of Good Hope in bad weather and when other ships attempt the treacherous passage in similar conditions, they see the spectral ship in the distance. Sailors of the age speculated that the ghostly ship was caused by the crew themselves, guilty of a horrible crime, damned to sail until their penance is met.
The most famous sighting of the phantom ship was by Prince George of Wales, the prince who will become King George the V. In the 1880s, as a young man, George and his brother were serving onboard the HMS Inconstant, a steel hulled frigate that was the fastest war ship in the world at the time. This from the Prince’s log, dated July 11th, 1881:
July 11th. At 4 a.m. the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow, in the midst of which light the masts, spars and sails of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up on the port bow, where also the officer of the watch from the bridge clearly saw her, as did the quarterdeck midshipman, who was sent forward at once to the forecastle; but on arriving there was no vestige nor any sign whatever of any material ship was to be seen either near or right away to the horizon, the night being clear and the sea calm. Thirteen persons altogether saw her ... At 10.45 a.m. the ordinary seaman who had this morning reported the Flying Dutchman fell from the foretopmast crosstrees on to the topgallant forecastle and was smashed to atoms.
The Flying Dutchman may be one of the most famous ghost ships but it is hardly the only. On March 6th, 1878, a large Corvette named Eurydice started its three-month voyage from Portsmouth, England to the West Indies. The vessel didn’t get far for it was caught in a storm off the coast of the Isle of Wight, and it was there she capsized and sank. Of the 364 souls on board, only two survived. The others went down with the ship or froze in the stormy waves. One of the witnesses of this tragedy was a young Winston Churchill, whose family was living in the village of Ventor at the time. The ship was refloated the next September, but she was so badly damaged that she was broken up. The ship’s bell is preserved at St Paul’s Church, Gatten. Even the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a known Spiritualist, wrote a poem about her sinking entitled The Homecoming of the Eurydice.
After that, both sailors and visitors have reported seeing a three-mast ship matching the description of the doomed Eurydice with its gun ports open and then suddenly it would disappear from view. In the 1930s, a British submarine under the command of a Captain Lipscomb, reported that they had to make a drastic change in course to prevent striking the ghost ship. Again, under mysterious circumstances, the ship simply vanished.
On October 17th, 1998, Price Edward was filming a show called Crown and Country and he and some members of the film crew claimed to see the famous spectral vessel. Upon seeing it, he reportedly told everyone to wait until it got closer to the shore and then it vanished in the mist. Edward, upon being interviewed about the incident said, “I am quite convinced as far as ghosts are concerned that there are too many stories, coincidences, occurrences and strange happenings. There is something definitely out there, but what it is I don't really know.”
Of course, no nautical mystery would be complete with the most mysterious disappearance of all time, that of the crew of the Mary Celeste. On October 20, 1872, the Mary Celeste pulled into New York to receive 1,701 barrels of denatured alcohol. A few days later, the ship departed for Genoa, her crew spartan, consisting of only the captain and his wife and daughter and five crew members.
On December4th, the crew of a brigantine named Dei Gratia, also bound for Genoa, spotted a vessel acting erratically under the wind off the coast of Portugal. Signals were sent to the mysterious ship, yet none returned. The captain of the Dei Gratia, David Morehouse, sent two crewmen over to the unresponsive ship for answers. The ship was empty of all crew. It was then that the ship was determined to be the Mary Celeste by the name on her stern. Morehouse became very agitated. He knew the captain of the other vessel well and knew of his cargo and destination. Upon examination, it found the sails and rigging were in poor condition and the main hatch was closed but several small hatches were open. There was some water in the hold, but not an alarming amount for a ship that size. They located the ship’s log in the mate’s cabin and the last entry was 8 days earlier and their noted position then 400 nautical miles from where she was found. There were no signs of violence or any other ill fate of the crew but the sole lifeboat was missing. Morehouse divided his crew into two and his men boarded the Mary Celeste and guided her into Gibraltar, which was 600 nautical miles away.
In Gibraltar, there was a thorough examination done of the derelict ship. There was a theory of murder for they found a stain on one of the rails that may have been blood. There was even a suspicion that Morehouse ambushed the Mary Celeste and murdered the crew. Another theory surrounded the lifeboat. A possibility that the crew abandoned ship thinking the denatured alcohol on board was about to explode, but this was quickly dismissed, the captain was far too experienced to panic and abandon ship under those circumstances. Even the theory of a waterspout was considered yet eventually discarded. And to this day, no one truly knows what happened to the eight people on board the vessel and it will go down in the annals of history as the most famous account of disappearance on the high seas.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Into the Belly of the Beast

The year was 1764, a hard year for France. It had just lost the Seven Years War, which ended in 1763 with the Treaty of Paris, the King was deep in debt, and a horrific monster stalked the countryside of Southern France.
The first attack will be in the summer of 1764 when a young woman by the name of Marie Jeanne Valet ran into town claiming she was attacked by a massive creature. The only thing saving her were the cattle she was herding. The bulls in the herd attacked the beast, defending the herd, not once but twice. Marie claimed that it was a large creature, perhaps a wolf, larger than she had ever seen, and fierce enough to want to attack large cattle more than once. The Beast of Gevaudan was born.
Wolf attacks are uncommon now, but back then they were common and very deadly. Naturalists and biologists agree that almost all wolf attacks today are the result of an injured or starved animal, drifting from its instincts to attack a human that it perceives as weak. And wolves are pack animals, a solitary wolf on the hunt is extremely rare and a lone wolf is dangerous, because it has been cast out of the pack. As Rudyard Kipling noted in his novel, The Jungle Book, “The strength of the pack is the wolf, the strength of the wolf is the pack”. A solitary wolf is far from natural. To have one running around the countryside struck fear in the 18th Century farmers of Gevaudan.
The first victim though to be killed will be a 14-year-old Jeanne Boulet, who was attacked while tending to sheep under her care. Her death will be the first of many for the remainder of 1764. The remains of the victims were ghastly. The throat was always ripped out, sometimes completely decapitating the victim. Bodies ripped to pieces. The amount of people killed was staggering. The prey of this elusive and savage creature were always women or children attending their crops or animals. As I mentioned earlier, wolf attacks during this time was not uncommon but not this many, in an area which was only about 55 square miles. The description of the creature varied from the survivors, from the color of its fur, described as dark in color with a red strip, an unusual tail ending in a tuft and a white heart shape marking on its chest. The large shape and unusual coloring of the creature led many in the area to believe the creature was supernatural, a Loup-garou, or werewolf. Though horrific, it would have been ignored by the Royals of France, if it wasn’t for the press.
Newspapers at the time were all the rage. They contained all the gossip and current events of the world as you knew it in just a few pages. And it was under the eyes of the government. Due to the loss of the Seven Years War, the King was rather strapped for cash, and the last thing he needed was newspapers writing of the financial crisis and the humiliation the King suffered under Prussia and Britain. The King forbade any derogatory reporting on governing bodies, forcing the newspapers to focus their poisoned pens on something else, and the Beast was exactly what they needed. And in January, 1765, when eight young men were attacked and only survived by staying together as a group, the King took notice, and so did the newspapers. The King gave 650 livres to one of the young men and then decreed that the Beast would be hunted down by the State.
French Dragoons were sent in to protect villagers and to hunt the Beast. There were many unorthodox tactics used in trying to snare it. Some soldiers dressed as women, hoping that the creature would see them as a potential target. Other times, when human remains were discovered, they would poison the body, hoping the creature would return to feast some more on its victim. Several hunters of renown came to Gevaudan, and they all failed. Many wolves were killed, but nothing matching the description of the Beast.
In September 1765, Francois Antoine, one of the King’s hunters shot a large gray wolf using a large caliber musket. The wolf was over 5 and a half feet long and weighed over 130 lbs. Antoine wrote to the King, “"We declare by the present report signed from our hand, we never saw a big wolf that could be compared to this one. Hence, we believe this could be the fearsome beast that caused so much damage." The beast was stuffed and sent to Versailles and Antoine stayed in the area to hunt what he believed was the Beast’s mate and pups. He succeeded in killing both and went back to the King’s court where he received a large sum of money for his valiant work and the fame of killing the Beast of Gevaudan. Unless of course, he hadn’t.
Two months later, attacks continued, this only added to the supernatural aspect of the creature. Starting with two young boys who barely escaped. Once again, the body count stacked up, and in 18 months up to 35 were slaughtered. Finally, the creature was brought down by a local farmer named Jean Chastel using a musket and a combination of bullet and buckshot, of course made of silver. A traditionalist to the core. The creature was then sent to Versailles. The King and his court were not impressed. What arrived was a stinking mess, wet from its travel to the palace and decomposing poorly. After this, no more victims littered the countryside…well, no more than usual.
So, what really was the Beast? There is much speculation on the subject. A large rogue wolf? A mastiff? A National Geographic article on the subject believes it may have even been a young lion. I know this may sound absurd but during the 18th Century, nobles had menageries and private zoos and one may have escaped and judging by the description by some of the victims, completely plausible. One expert on the event believes it may simply be a pack of large wolves working together. Either way, the Beast of Gevaudan went down in the annals of history as a supernatural beast of terrifying power and ferocity, and if its descriptions are to be believed, was never really caught.