One of the more fascinating oceanic tales is that of the strange encounter between the Ellen Austin and an abandoned vessel found adrift near the Bermuda Triangle. The Ellen Austin‘s captain sent two separate crews to bring the vessel to New York as a salvage prize, however both crews mysteriously vanished, and the derelict was lost forever.
What ship did the Ellen Austin encounter, and what became of her two missing prize crews? What is truth, what is fiction? Sometimes-Interesting has gathered the information and presents what is believed, and what is known.
In 1854 a three-mast schooner named the Ellen Austin was built in Damariscotta, Maine. It was built of white oak and measured 210 feet long. When the ship was completed for the Tucker family of Wiscasset, Maine, it weighed 1,812 tons.
In early 1855, the Ellen Austin sailed from Damariscotia, Maine to Savannah, Georgia. During the journey the crew encountered the Florence, a limping ship that was dismasted in a severe gale. Captain Wood and the crew of the Florence were rescued by the Ellen Austin, and brought to port at Savannah in April of 1855.
The following month the Ellen Austin departed Savannah, bound for Liverpool, with 2,397,817 pounds of cotton cargo. It was “the largest cargo of cotton ever cleared at that port.”
On February 19th, 1857 the New York Tribune announced “Brutality at Sea” whilst reporting gruesome details of abuse and torture employed by Captain Garrick and his crew during the ship’s November 1856 journey.
The report said Captain Garrick “knocked [Thomas Campbell] down with a heavy wire rope” and “then beat him over the back and shoulders, lacerating his body and also inflicted two severe wounds upon his head.”
The papers declared measures would be taken for the arrest of Captain William H. Garrick, his first mate, and boatswain; however the measures did not appear to stick, as a New York Tribune announcement in August of 1857 indicates that Garrick was still the captain of the Ellen Austin.
As for the ship herself, by March of 1857 she was back to shipping. At this time the Ellen Austin was operated by Hamilton & Graham.
Emigrants & Small Pox
In July of 1857 a case of small pox broke out on the Ellen Austin. The vessel departed Liverpool with 553 emigrants, but by the time they arrived in New York, the ship had to be sent directly to quarantine: Twelve passengers had become inflicted with illness.
By August of 1858 the Ellen Austin was back in New York. The next month she was underway on her return journey to Liverpool. In November of 1858 the Ellen Austin arrived in New York with an abandoned ship, the Chieftain, in tow.
In August of 1866 the Ellen Austin arrived in New York, and was now flying under the French flag. Routes changed in 1867, according to a June article in the Daily Milwaukee News. The article announced the arrival of the New York-based Ellen Austinin San Francisco.
In August of 1868 the Ellen Austin again arrived in San Francisco from New York. In October of 1868 the ship cleared San Francisco docks, bound for New York with 43,000 sacks of wheat. This journey was also notable as one of the first furnishedwith sailors from the Labor Exchange, an early sea-faring cross between a union and temporary employment agency. In the case of the Ellen Austin, each sailor was advanced two months’ wages in gold as he stepped on board.
On December 2nd, 1869, the Ellen Austinarrived in San Francisco from New York. In November of 1870 the schooner appeared on a damaged ship report. According to the report, the Ellen Austin passed Cape Horn on September 18th, 1870, then the equator on October 24th. During this journey the ship ran into a heavy gale and caused damage to the bulwarks, post quarter boat, and broke adrift spars which lashed the deck and caused the vessel to leak.
The Ellen Austin was repaired, and resumed her shipping lane. She cleared San Francisco ports in October of 1872, once again bound for New York. Days after her departure, the Ellen Austin again collided with another ship. This time she hit the Ann Humphreys, which lost its “foremast, main top mast, sails, and the whole of the gear attached, and also sustained considerable damage to port bow.”
By this time the the now elderly schooner was led by Captain A.J. Griffin and once again worked as a packet ship, this time for the Grinnell, Minturn & Co.‘sRed Swallowtail Line of London which ran between London and New York.
Here is where the legend of the Ellen Austin encounter comes into play. It was during its final journey as a packet ship, the Ellen Austin would have its reported mysterious sighting.
The Swallowtail Line schooner departed from London on December 5th, 1880, bound for New York. Several weeks into its journey, the Ellen Austin came across an unidentified schooner drifting just north of the Sargasso Sea, listless and “sailing an erratic path.”
Captain Baker of the Ellen Austin commanded his crew to follow and observe the derelict for two days, lest the the abandoned ship be a trap. After two days with no activity or movement from the mysterious vessel, the captain was convinced it was safe to proceed closer.
The Ellen Austin moved within hailing distance. When the ship still failed to respond, the captain gathered four of his men and rowed toward the abandoned ship.
Because there was no response to the hails, the men boarded the ship weapons drawn. The captain was first, and as he boarded he again hailed the missing crew.
Upon inspection, the vessel appeared to be shipshape and in reasonably well-maintained condition. Its sails were furled and tattered from exposure, but the vessel’s rigging was intact. There was no sign of any violence, nor was there any sign of a crew. The only things missing were the ship’s log and its nameplates, which for some reason had been removed from the bow.
Two of the Ellen Austin crewmen inspected the abandoned ship’s hold and reported it contained a well-packed shipment of mahogany. Captain Baker speculated the schooner had likely been sailing from Honduras – possibly bound for England or a Mediterranean port – before something must have convinced the crew to evacuate quickly.
The circumstances were indeed curious, however the captain was intrigued by the salvage opportunity of this otherwise fine ship.
“Board that ship! I want a crew of my BEST men to sail it to New York.”
Baker instructed his prize crew to follow the Ellen Austin and sail the derelict to New York.
Within hours Captain Baker’s prize crew had the vessel sorted and on its way. For the next two days things proceeded normal; the ships sailed on calm waters within earshot of each other. However on the third day the schooners were separated by a fierce Atlantic storm, a side-effect of the hurricane tearing through Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia at the time. Days of relentless pounding separated the ships, and contact was lost.
After two days the skies opened and the seas returned to calm. Visibility extended for miles, along with an odd quietness on the water – now as flat as a mirror. Absent from the horizon, however, was the other ship. The vessel and the captain’s prize crew had disappeared.
The Ellen Austin had been separated from the abandoned vessel for some time before it was spotted once again by Captain Baker’s lookout. Through his spyglass, the captain could barely see the sails of the derelict. For some reason it did not seem to be following course, instead drifting aimlessly once again.
Baker ordered his ship to change course so that it would intercept his salvage opportunity. Those on board the Ellen Austin knew something was wrong; the abandoned vessel was reportedly sailing so erratic, it took hours to catch up to her.
When the Ellen Austin closed in on the schooner, the captain and his men attempted to hail the ship, but no answer came. Baker assembled an inspection team and quickly rowed to the cryptic ship. Once again, the men boarded with guns drawn.
Of the prize crew, they found nothing. No one was on board. The cargo hold was still full and most everything else was in order – except there was no sign Baker’s prize crew had ever been on the ship. No food rations were missing. The bunks had not been slept in. And the new logbook, left by Captain Baker upon the vessel’s first discovery, had also disappeared.
It was as if the first encounter between the Ellen Austin and the derelict had never happened.
The crew of the Ellen Austin – now convinced the derelict was cursed – wished to abandon it at sea. The captain, however, was still keen to cash in on the potential salvage opportunity of a ship in good working order. Baker didn’t know what happened on board the other vessel, but he knew the likelihood of it happening again was unlikely.
The crew feared something evil was at play; Baker reasoned there was a rational explanation for the disappearance. To assuage fears the captain said to follow at a distance of no more than ten ship lengths, and he allowed the men to carry firearms.
The second crew was assembled and eventually convinced to undertake the daunting assignment. As the men readied the derelict for sailing back to New York, the weather again turned inclement. This time a dense fog settled across the water, lowering a cloud of thick mist reducing visibility to mere feet. Again, the Ellen Austin‘s lookout lost sight of the second ship.
On this day the seas were not treacherous, however such poor visibility separated the two vessels and brought the Ellen Austin to a standstill. For hours the men tried to peer through the fog, scanning the waters looking for any trace of the other ship. When the fog started to lift, the lookout was the first to shout “She’s gone!”
This time, Captain Baker listened to his crew.
As the legend goes, the Ellen Austin never witnessed the derelict or its second prize crew again. Captain Baker’s schooner continued on to New York, where it arrived somewhat late in February of 1881.
The Ellen Austin never resumed packet ship service. Later that year she was sold to German company and re-named the Meta. She would meet her fate just two years later; in 1883 she was reportedly wrecked along the American coast while under the command of Captain A.J. Griffin.
The Legend is Born
After 1883 the story of the Ellen Austin’s mysterious encounter similarly fell off the map. It would be more than two decades before a mention of the Ellen Austin ship would again make the news.
“Why she should be derelict, no man could say, since she was apparently in good condition.” The article notes the Ellen Austin parted company with the derelict twice, the second time neither ship nor crew were heard from again.
The story again emerged from the depths during a 1935 radio broadcast by a retired British Naval officer. Lieutenant Commander Rupert T. Gould (pictured) was an enigmatic radio personality known for his London-based radio show, on the air from 1934 until 1942.
It was during a broadcast on October 9th, 1935, Rupert Gould introduced the public to the fantastic tale of the Ellen Austin encounter over fifty years earlier. Gould reportedly first heard the story of the Ellen Austin from fellow seamen, and listed no other verifiable sources.
In addition to his telling of the events during his radio broadcast, he also wrote about the incident in his 1944 book The Stargazer Talks.
A discrepancy in the Gould version of the story is his claim the Ellen Austin was sailing for St. John’s, Newfoundland, rather than New York.
Yet another version of the story appeared in the September 2nd, 1977 edition of the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, which told of a British vessel named the Ellen Austin that “encountered an abandoned shipwhile en route from England to Newfoundland.” The only other reference to Newfoundland was the Gould version, which was likely the source for the 1977 re-print.
In 1979 the Alaska Daily Sitka Sentinel ran a blurb on the “Ellen Austin, an American vessel.” This version of the story also indicated the event occurred in 1881, and similarly listed two separate disappearances.
Separating Truth from Fiction
With so few documented details about the alleged encounter, mapping a proper account is extremely difficult if not impossible. Resources are limited to a handful of records from Lloyd’s of London, archived newspaper announcements, Rupert Gould’s re-telling, and repeated legend passed on from one sailor to another over time.
We can, however, break down the details and separate what we know from what we don’t. Can we find potential explanations for the story’s events, or was there amplification for effect? Let’s start with what we know.
Consistencies & Facts Reported
According to Lloyd’s of London records we know the ship existed, and at one time sailed under the command of Captain A. J. Griffin.
There are dozens of documented journeys for the Ellen Austin between London and New York, and later between New York and San Francisco.
The Ellen Austin was known to have suffered damage during squalls, at least twice she crashed into another ship, and she also once rescued a stranded crew on another ship.
The Ellen Austin left London on December 5th, 1880, bound for New York. A letter to Guildhall Library in England, where Lloyd’s Lists are maintained, and to the New York State Historical Society, revealed these particulars of the Ellen Austin and that its last sailing was under the American flag and Capt. A.J. Griffin.
Each version of the story seems to agree that the ghost ship was discovered in 1881, its log was missing, and the nameplates had been removed from the bow. Of the many pieces of information in the various versions of the story, these appear to be common to all.
The abandoned vessel’s cargo hold was full and untouched. Food on board was plentiful, munitions were stocked. No visible signs of violence or piracy.
The Ellen Austin did sail the sea lanes attributed to her in the story, and was frequently in a position north of the Sargasso Sea to encounter many derelicts that drifted out of the Bermuda Triangle. The Sargasso Sea is known to have circular currents which entrap ships; many have been well-documented.
The Ellen Austin did not reportedly arrive in New York until February 11, 1881 – an unusually long journey for the London to New York route. This supports the theories that additional time could have been spent in search for another ship. In addition, she had previously encountered several ships.
One account has the journey occurring in the winter of 1880-1881, yet another says the trip occurred in August of 1881. However we know by this time the Ellen Austin had already been renamed the Meta. Why didn’t the accounts from sailors indicate the updated name of the vessel? The reason is at the time, sailors often identified boats by their figureheads or beakheads, not by their names. Thus, name discrepancies alone do not necessarily invalidate the story.
It is also possible Rupert Gould got the year and name wrong in his version. If the encounter did occur during a summer 1881 journey from London to Newfoundland (as is told in Gould’s version), this does not eliminate the Meta where it would the Ellen Austin. Unfortunately we are unable to confirm if the Meta took such a journey; that year 18 vessels were named Meta, and Lloyd’s did not possess complete records for all.
It is generally believed that the derelict did not succumb to piracy or robbery; this is primarily due to the lack of violence, the ship’s stocked munitions, untouched food and drink, and full cargo hold.
The Sargasso Sea, which extends halfway across the Atlantic from Florida toward the continent of Africa, is a virtual maritime desert. Its seaweed (called “sargassum”) is so thick, the wind cannot raise any sort of sea. The only break in the sargassum comes from scores of ragged abandoned ships, which have collected over time.
But it has an explanation: The Sargasso is formed entirely by the action of circular currents. These currents slowly spin clockwise to direct ships and debris toward the center. The flotsam remains because there is no current to take the debris, seaweed, and ships back out.
[ Did You Know? The Sargasso Sea is the only sea on Earth which has no coastline. All other seas in the world are defined at least in part by land boundaries; the Sargasso is defined only by ocean currents. ]
Questions & Conflicting Information
We know the Ellen Austin was captained by A.J. Griffin from 1874 until 1883, and it sailed a London-New York route under the American flag, according to Lloyd’s of London. However Rupert Gould tells of the ship sailing under the British flag and led by Captain Baker, while sailing to Newfoundland.
The 1906 re-telling in the Daily Deadwood Pioneer Times version of the story (which pre-dates the Gould version by thirty years), told of the encounter occurring in 1891. However we know the vessel set sail on her final packet ship route in 1880, and another article claims the Ellen Austin was wrecked in 1883.
The story was reportedly re-told within the sailing community, from one seaman to the next, for generations before it reached Rupert Gould. How much was skewed by misreporting and multiple retellings? (Have you ever played the game telephone?) As with any second, third, or fourth-hand information, there is room for discrepancies.
Rupert Gould hosted an entertainment program of gripping stories, strange events, and world oddities. While he was not known to be a fabricator, he did court mysteries. It would not be out of the realm of reason to believe he would embroider for effect. Before Gould’s story. (For example, older versions of the tale lacked a second encounter between the Ellen Austin and the derelict.)
At the time, any captain would have had to account for a loss of crewmen, especially in a case of two sets of missing crewmen. Understanding this, the event would have had to occur in another year as there is no record of a casualty report with Lloyd’s in 1881.
Wikipedia offers that a check of Lloyd’s of London records proved the existence of the Meta, built in 1854 and re-named the Ellen Austin in 1880. This however conflicts with respected author Gian Quasar’s research, who discovered through his own contact to Lloyd’s of London that the ship was originally the Ellen Austin and was later re-named the Meta when sold to a German company. The Wikipedia entry also states there are no casualty listings for any vessel at that time that would support the claim that “a large number of missing men were placed on board a derelict ship that later disappeared.”
It is reasonable to assume the Captain’s best crew was piloting and navigating the Ellen Austin. The first prize crew who stayed behind to pilot the derelict after the first encounter would have been, at best, the Captain’s “B” team. When this group was lost, the second prize crew would have effectively been the “C” team. If the ship was lost for good, could lack of experience or other human error have played a factor?
If there was indeed an entire ship’s crew present to witness these two fantastic disappearances, why has there not been greater corroboration, news reporting, or publicity behind the story?
What do you think happened to the Ellen Austin during her encounter with the derelict ship? What became of her two prize crews?
1887: The Vincenzo Perotta was first spotted northeast of Bermuda on September 17th, 1887. She thereafter drifted 2,950 miles over 536 days to finally end up at Watling Island in the Bahamas. In that time 27 ships reported her, and each carried a tale of mystery to some foreign port.
1888-1889: The schooner W. L. White was abandoned in a blizzard off Delaware Bay, her crew having fled to the life boats. She drifted for eleven months, and during that period, she travelled over 6,800 miles in 310 days – sometimes carried by the current and wind. The W.L. White was reported no fewer than 45 times. She finally drove ashore on the island of Lewis, in the Hebrides.
1891: The drift of the American schooner Fannie E. Wolsten, lost in 1891, took four years to make a voyage estimated at nearly 10,000 miles. She was abandoned at the edge of the Gulf Stream, which helped carry her along its path. She was reported dozens of times, drifting in the Atlantic, before finally being seen close to the edge of the Sargasso Sea. The hope was that the Sargasso’s wilderness would suck her in and presumably be kept safe from everybody. But it was not to be: Two years later the Fannie E. Wolsten reappeared in the lanes of a major shipping channel off New Jersey. Then, she disappeared forever within a day’s sail of where she had been abandoned.
1895: The lumber-laden schooner Alma Cummings is believed to have drifted more than 5,000 miles in the Atlantic across 587 days. Her crew was taken off by a steamer when she was dismasted, which spewed water into her hull so freely her occupants thought she would disintegrate at once. Nobody believed the Alma Cummings would still be afloat 18 months later.