The Vanishing of Orion Williamson

The deep south is home to a passel of legends, folklore, and ghost stories. There are dozens told by my ancestors alone, some of which they purported to have witnessed. Others are passed down from family to family or neighbor to neighbor.

The following is a story I recall one of my Alabama relatives talking about years ago. This is, without a doubt, one of the strangest and most perplexing stories I’ve ever heard.

Orion Williamson was a farmer who lived in Selma, Alabama. On a July afternoon in 1854, he sat on his front porch with his wife and son. Mr. Williamson got up in order to move his horses to the shade.

At the same time, a neighbor, Armour Wren, and his son James passed by. Orion stopped to pick up a small stick, then continued to walk in ankle-deep grass. He waved to his neighbors, took another step, and vanished into thin air.

A young colt in a field, perhaps much like the one where Orion Williamson took his last step. (Image courtesy of Pixabay.)

The Williamsons and the Wrens rushed to the place where Orion disappeared to search for any sign of him. They found nothing. It’s reported most of the grass in that spot was gone as well. After searching in vain, the family called for help. A search party of approximately three hundred men combed every inch of the field. Bloodhounds joined the search, which continued into the night. Still, there was no sign of Orion Williamson.

As the news spread, more volunteers and a team of geologists came to the scene. They dug up the field to determine if the ground was unstable or if there was anything unusual. They found solid rock a few feet below the surface. There were no holes and no evidence of a cave-in.

No one could explain the strange event. Mrs. Williamson claimed she and her son could hear Orion’s voice calling for help several weeks afterward. They would rush into the field but found nothing. The voice grew fainter and fainter, faded into a whisper, and then was no more.

After all the searches proved futile, a judge declared Orion Williamson dead.

The German scientist, Maximillian Hern believed Mr. Williamson walked into a spot of “universal ether.” Hern believed these places lasted only a few seconds but could destroy all matter within them.

Another scientist theorized Orion walked into a magnetic field that disintegrated his atomic structure, sending him into another dimension.

Williamson’s story drew the attention of the writer, Ambrose Bierce. Bierce interviewed individuals who were involved in the search. He later wrote “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field,” which was first published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1888. His account varies slightly, but with the same outcome. Williamson waved to his neighbor, took a step, then vanished. Ironically, Bierce disappeared in Mexico in 1914 but he didn’t evaporate into thin air.

Today, there is still no logical explanation for Williamson’s disappearance. Needless to say, this is one of the strangest stories I’ve ever heard.

I wrote and scheduled this post several months ago. Shortly afterward, I read Marlena Smith’s post on her Lore and Curiosities blog. If you’re interested in reading it, click this link.

The Alaska Triangle

Most everyone has heard of the Bermuda Triangle—an area of the Atlantic Ocean where numerous ships and planes have mysteriously disappeared. I wrote a blog post about five planes, known as Flight 19, that vanished there in 1945.

However, did you know there is a similar phenomenon in Alaska? It seems there are also many mysterious happenings in our largest and northernmost state.

The Alaska Triangle is located in a vast and largely untouched wilderness. It stretches from Anchorage, southeast to Juneau, then to the north coast city of Utqiagvik (formerly known as Barrow). The area has some of North America’s most unforgiving wilderness.

The Alaskan Wilderness area near Denali National Park (Public Domain)

In October 1972, a small private plane carrying House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, Alaskan Congressman Nick Begich, an aide named Russell Brown, and bush pilot Don Jonz vanished on a flight from Anchorage to Juneau.

An extended search consisting of fifty civilian planes, forty military aircraft, and dozens of boats searched a 32,000 square mile area. They found no trace of the plane, wreckage, or debris.

Strangely, this wasn’t the first disappearance in the triangle. In 1950, a military aircraft with forty-four passengers disappeared without a trace. In 1990 a Cessna carrying four passengers vanished.

These mysterious disappearances are strangely typical of this area, and they aren’t uncommon. Since 1988 more than 16,000 people have vanished there. This amounts to an annual rate of about four missing persons for every 1,000 people in Alaska. More than twice the national average.

An aerial view of Denali’s summit. Creative Commons photo by unagiinu via Wikimedia Commons

There are many theories for these unexplained vanishings—everything from aliens, to swirling energy vortexes, and even a shape-shifting demon known in Tlingit Indian lore as Kushtaka. Some attribute the vanishings to cryptids that supposedly live in the area.

A more scientific explanation is geography and climate. Alaska is also known for extreme weather conditions, including avalanches. While it’s easy to imagine hikers wandering off trail and succumbing to the elements, how do you explain the disappearance of aircraft?

Again, science has an explanation. The state’s massive glaciers contain giant holes, hidden caves, and crevices large enough to swallow a plane.

But isn’t it more intriguing to consider the other possibilities?

The Flannan Lighthouse Keepers

I love lighthouses. For centuries, these towering structures marked dangerous coastlines, hazardous shoals, and guided ships to safe harbors. With cheaper and more sophisticated navigational systems, few lighthouses are in use these days.

A lighthouse was the setting of my short story, The Keeper’s House which is included in the anthology Macabre Sanctuary. Two friends take a weekend trip to a historic lighthouse where they encounter a wooden-legged man who dresses in Victorian-era clothing. Is he a ghost? What is his interest in the keeper’s house?

There is a true event involving a lighthouse that’s more inexplicable than my fictional story.

The Flannan Isles Lighthouse stands on the highest point of Eileen Mòr in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of mainland Scotland. It’s best known for the mysterious disappearance of three of its keepers, James Ducat, Thomas Marshall, and William MacArthur.

The Flannan Lighthouse. Photo by Marc Calhoun, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

On December 15, 1900, the steamer Archtor passed by the lighthouse on a voyage from Philadelphia to Leith, a port area near Edinburgh. The ship’s captain noted that the light was not operational. When they docked on December 18, Captain Holman passed the news along, which eventually reached the Northern Lighthouse Board.

The board dispatched a relief vessel, the Hesperus to investigate. Because of adverse weather, the ship didn’t reach the lighthouse until December 26. Captain Harvie sounded his horn and sent up a flare, hoping to alert the three men, but there was no response.

Off-duty keeper Joseph Moore disembarked the ship and climbed 160 steep steps to the lighthouse. When he reached the compound, he found the entrance gate and main door closed. Upon entering the living quarters, he discovered the clock on the kitchen wall had stopped. The table was set for a meal, and a chair had been toppled over.

Moore returned to the eastern landing to report his findings. Harvie sent the first mate and another sailor to help look for the men. They found a set of oilskins, indicating one keeper left the lighthouse without them. They found no sign of the men on the island.

Captain Harvie left the three men on the island to attend to the light. He sent a telegram to the Northern Lighthouse Board.

“A dreadful accident has happened at the Flannans. The three keepers, Ducat, Marshall, and the Occasional have disappeared from the Island… The clocks were stopped, and other signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago. Poor fellows, they must have been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane.”

On Eilean Mòr, the men scoured every corner of the island for clues that might lead to the fate of the keepers. Everything on the east landing was intact, however, there was evidence of considerable storm damage on the west landing. A box was broken, and its contents were strewn about, iron railings were bent, and the iron railway by the path was wrenched out of its concrete. A rock weighing more than a ton had been displaced.

The Board’s superintendent, Robert Muirhead, arrived on the island on December 29 to investigate. After examining the left behind oilskin, he concluded it belonged to William MacArthur. He speculated Marshall and Ducat headed out into the storm to secure equipment. When they didn’t return, Muirhead surmised MacArthur went out to find them. He believed an enormous wave rushed up above the face of the rock, then swept them away.

However, speculation arose—including the idea of a giant sea monster swallowing the men or a huge seabird whisking them away.

More doubt surfaced when a supposed logbook surfaced in which Marshall wrote of the great storm but stated all the men survived. There is no evidence that this logbook ever existed.

Others theorized MacArthur, an ill-tempered man, started a fight and the three of them fell to their deaths. Others speculated he murdered the others, disposed of their bodies into the sea, then threw himself off the cliff. There was no evidence to prove either of these theories.

It’s unlikely anyone will discover the exact reason for the demise of Marshall, Ducat, and MacArthur. But by whatever means the men met their fate on that December night, the Flannan Isles Mystery is one of the most baffling in Scottish maritime history.

The Fate of The USS Cyclops

Two years ago I wrote about the mysterious disappearance of Flight 19 in 1945 near the Bermuda Triangle. This month’s Mystery Monday post takes us back to the Atlantic for another strange occurrence.

In March 1918, the biggest ship in the United States Navy vanished without a trace. The collier USS Cyclops was on a voyage between the West Indies and Baltimore with Lieutenant Commander George Worley serving as the ship’s captain.

USS Cyclops on the Hudson River (Public Domain)

The last known message from the ship said, “Weather fair, All well.” But sometime after March 4, 1918, the ship vanished without even an SOS. The deaths of the 306 crew and passengers remains the largest single loss of lives in the history of the United States Navy that didn’t involve combat. Here’s what we do know.

  • At the time of her disappearance, the 550-foot-long vessel carried 11,000 tons of manganese ore. She was reportedly overweight as her capacity was only 8000 tons.
  • The ship left Rio de Janeiro on February 16, 1918, with a stop in Salvador two days later. She left for Baltimore with no additional stops scheduled.
  • Before leaving port, Commander Worley submitted a report the starboard engine had a cracked cylinder and wasn’t operative. This report confirmed by a survey board which recommended the ship return to the United States.
  • The ship made an unscheduled stop in Barbados because the water was over the Plimsoll line, indicated it was overloaded. Investigations in Rio proved the ship had been loaded and properly secured.
  • After setting sail for Baltimore on March 4, the ship was rumored to have been sighted by a molasses tanker, the Amoico near Virginia. This was denied by the Amoico’s captain. Because the Cyclops wasn’t due in Baltimore until March 13, it was unlikely to have been near Virginia on the 9th as that would have put her only one day from making port.
  • On March 10, the day after the purported sighting, a violent storm swept through the Virginia Capes area.

Some suggested the combination of the storm, overload, and engine failure caused the ship to sink. An extensive Naval investigation concluded, “Many theories have been advanced, but none that satisfactorily account for her disappearance.”

That summation was written before two of Cyclops‘s sister ships, Proteus and Nereus, vanished at sea during World War II. Both ships were transporting heavy loads of metallic ore similar to that which was loaded on Cyclops during her fatal voyage. In both cases, their loss was theorized to have been the result of catastrophic structural failure. A more outlandish theory attributes all three vessels’ disappearances to the Bermuda Triangle.

Some believe an enemy submarine was responsible for the sinking of the Cyclops, but German authorities denied any knowledge of the vessel.

Others suggest Captain Worley, who was born Johan Frederick Wichmann in Sandstedt, Hanover, Germany conspired with the enemy to hand the ship over. After the end of WWI, German records were checked to ascertain the fate of the ship, but nothing was found.

Near the time the search was called off a telegram received by the State Department from Charles Livingston, the United States consul in Barbados.

Department’s 15th. Confidential. Master CYCLOPS stated that required six hundred tons coal having sufficient on board to reach Bermuda. Engines very poor condition. Not sufficient funds and therefore requested payment by me. Unusually reticent. I have ascertained he took here ton fresh meat, ton flour, thousand pounds vegetables, paying therefore 775 dollars. From different sources gather the following: he had plenty of coal, alleged inferior, took coal to mix, probably had more than fifteen hundred tons. Master alluded to by others as damned Dutchman, apparently disliked by other officers. Rumored disturbances en route hither, men confined and one executed; also had some prisoners from the fleet in Brazilian waters, one life sentence. United States Consul-General Gottschalk passenger, 231 crew exclusive of officers and passengers. Have names of crew but not of all the officers and passengers. Many Germanic names appear. Number telegraphic or wireless messages addressed to master or in care of ship were delivered at this port. All telegrams for Barbados on file head office St. Thomas. I have to suggest scrutiny there. While not having any definite grounds I fear fate worse than sinking though possibly based on instinctive dislike felt towards master.

On June 1, 1918, assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt declared Cyclops officially lost and all hands deceased. One hundred four years later, the fate of the ship and her crew is still unknown.

The Disappearance of Agatha Christie #MysteryMonday

Hey, everyone. It’s time for the last Mystery Monday post of 2021. This month’s story is about one of my favorite authors.

A young Agatha Christie (Public Domain)

Agatha Christie is known for her sixty-six detective novels, fourteen short-story collections, and the world’s longest-running play, The Mousetrap. Her books have sold over a billion copies, making her the best-selling novelist of all time.

Several of her books were made into movies, including Murder on The Orient Express. I enjoyed the 1974 film with its all-star cast including Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Albert Finney, and Jacqueline Bisset. (I was highly disappointed in the 2017 remake. The only positive thing I can say about it is Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the murderer Ratchett.) But enough about that.

Agatha Christie was born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller in 1890 in Torquay, Devon United Kingdom into a wealthy upper-middle-class family. Her American-born father home schooled her, something highly unusual at that time. Agatha’s mother was an excellent storyteller and didn’t want her daughter to learn to read until she was eight. Being the only child at home (and bored) Agatha taught herself to read at the age of five.

Agatha married British military officer and businessman Col. Archibald Christie in 1914. But after twelve years together, their marriage began to fall apart. Archie Christie was involved with another woman, Nancy Neal. He asked Agatha for a divorce.

On December 3, 1926, Archie left their home saying he was going to a weekend house party, most likely a rendezvous with his mistress. Between 9:30 and 11:00 that night, Agatha left the house. According to maids, she was visibly upset and carried a small travel bag and her fur coat. She left a note for her secretary asking that all her weekend appointments be canceled.

The following morning, Agatha’s car was located an hour’s drive from her home. It had gone off the side of the road, but there was no sign of the famous author. Several eyewitnesses said they encountered Agatha before she disappeared. One man, Earnest Cross, said she seemed upset and wore only a thin dress despite the cold weather. He claimed she drove in the opposite direction from Newlands Corner, the village where her car was found.

Two railroad porters also spoke with Agatha outside the station and thought that she had boarded a train.

Eleven days after Agatha Christie was reported missing, she was located at an elegant spa, two-hundred miles from her home. She had registered under the last name Neal, the same name as Archie’s mistress. The chief inspector notified Archie and brought him to the spa.

Archie and Agatha soon left. They never commented about her mysterious disappearance. The press concluded Agatha had suffered from amnesia.

Others, including author Gillian Gill, think otherwise. “I believe that Christie had a definitive and terrible fight with her husband. It drove her over the edge. She had been depressed, now she becomes on some level psychotic. She is not herself. She takes on another identity. She wanders off. She gets on the train. She takes another name. She goes into this hotel and she lives another life. That’s very, very, very rare, but it’s known. It’s documented in the annals of psychology. And we know that Agatha Christie was an unusual woman.”

Still others, including author Gwen Robyns believe it was a publicity stunt. “I think she plotted and planned it from the start. She would use the media to push the only thing she knew, which was revenge, mystery, and the possibility of murder. She checked in to this hotel under the name Neal, her husband’s girlfriend’s name. I think it’s just madly funny. I think she took endless delight in the fact that the police shadowed Archie. He couldn’t go anywhere because they suspected him of murdering her. And I think she took marvelous delight in reading this in the papers. Again, I think in a sort of revenge and twisted up sort of way, she was thinking it was very funny.”

Not long afterward Agatha and Archie separated and divorced. He married Nancy Neal in 1928. Two years later, Agatha married archaeologist Max Mallowan. They remained married until her death in 1976. Agatha, a 1979 movie starring Vanessa Redgrave, Dustin Hoffman, and Timothy Dalton was based on the famous author’s mysterious disappearance.