Monday, March 31, 2014

The Haunted and Cursed Great Eastern

A Skeptics View

Six years ago, I first read on a forum about the skeletal remains of two bodies that were found on the Great Eastern between its double hulls when it was being dismantled in 1889.

To make a point, a skeptical poster stated that the space between this ship’s double hulls was only 8 inches across--so how could two bodies have fit into this space?

The Great Eastern
I just laughed. In 1849 the Great Eastern was the largest ship the world had ever seen. It was over 700 feet in length. 

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who designed the Great Eastern, was one of the greatest engineer visionary of the 19th century. He collaborated with John Scott Russell, whose company built her over 3 years in a London shipyard.

The Great Eastern was the first ship to incorporate a double-skinned hull--today this feature is standard in large ships--it is a significant safety feature.

The ship’s two wrought iron hulls were each 9mm in thickness. The space between these two hulls was several feet in width.

Under construction
Here is a factual statement that backs up the distance between the inner and outer hulls.

“In 1862, an uncharted rock in Long Island Sound tore an 83-foot-long, 9-foot-wide, gash in its outer hall. But the inner hull held. And it steamed safely on into New York Harbor.”

The statement that the area that separated these two hulls was only 8 inches wide is ridiculous--especially for a ship the size of the Great Eastern. 

Some feel the inspection hatches in the ship’s inner hull would have provided an easy escape. Which debunks the myth that two skeleton’s were found.

It is true is that two riveters did actually disappear during the construction of the Great Eastern. 

Regardless, there were several reports of the ship being haunted after it was put into service.

The Accidental Deaths

The Great Eastern was built to hold 4,000 passengers and 400 crewmembers. This was twice the capacity of any ship of the time. But the vessel never reached its potential.

Early on, a series of accidents that resulted in deaths left the ship’s reputation in tatters. 

During the first attempt to launch the ship, the winch spun out of control, tossing the operators around violently. Four men were seriously injured, a fifth John Donavan, aged 74, died of severe internal injuries. To the humiliation of Brunel, the ship had moved only 3 feet.

Once on the water, riveters or as they were called--bashers continued to work on the ships’ double hull. The legend referred to above began when a riveter and his apprentice disappeared during this time. A story was spread that it was feared they had been enclosed between the 2 hulls. It was even mentioned a search had been instated, but they were not found.

I. K. Brunel
During the ship’s first sea trials off Hastings in 1859, the heater attached to the paddle engine boilers exploded on the forward deck. Six firemen died--painfully scalded by hot steam, others were seriously injured. Some workers jumped overboard and drowned. 

The captain of the ship, William Harrison, while sailing from Hythe to Southampton in the ship’s smaller boat hit a squall near Southampton dock gates. His boat capsized, he and 2 others were found dead--they drowned. One of the deceased was the purser’s 14-year-old son.

The ship quickly gained the reputation of being “cursed.” * On her first crossing to North America, the ship carried only 43 passengers.

The Haunting

Many of these passengers quickly regretted their decision to travel on the Great Eastern. During this voyage, they and crewmembers were startled to hear loud tapping, moans, and shouts coming from the ship’s hull.

During this first crossing, one seaman fell overboard into the thrashing paddle wheel and died.

Docked in New York
When the frightened passengers reached New York, they were relieved, but as the Great Eastern arrived, its paddlewheel sheered 5 feet off the dock. There were few docks at the time that could accommodate the Eastern’s size.

After this, the ship was thoroughly searched to try and find the source of the odd sounds. But nothing was found. 

It was now firmly believed that the Great Eastern was cursed. Plus, rumors started to circulate that the sounds heard were the ghosts of the two riveters that had been mistakenly sealed within the two hulls.

On its second crossing in 1861, the ship had 400 passengers aboard, but a hurricane hit the Eastern, now damaged it did not continue the passage--it limped back to Britain. 

After this, the loud tapping with the screams and moans continued to frighten the few passengers that did sail onboard the ship.

As mentioned above, in 1862, the ship once more experienced bad luck. A large rock gashed the bottom of her outer hull outside of New York Harbor. A crew of riveters was brought in to repair the damage. But hearing the odd noises for themselves and knowing the ship was considered haunted, they refused to continue their work.

After this, the ship was no longer used as a passenger ship. It was sold for a fraction of its worth.

In 1866, the ship made 5 trips carrying thousands of miles of coil inside her hull. This coil was used to lay the first successful transatlantic telegraph cable. It was considered the one success the Great Eastern achieved.

At Liverpool, waiting to be scrapped.
The Great Eastern was then put up for auction. In 1889, after 31 years in service and 33 deaths, she was sold to an English company for scrap. One more death occurred when two crewmembers dismantling her got into a fight. One man was hit over the head and died.

It took 200 men two years working 24/7 to dismantle the Great Eastern. During this time, several newspapers reported the discovery of two skeletons in the inner shell on the port side. This reinforced people’s belief that this ill-fated ship was haunted.

The Great Eastern was probably haunted but not by two enclosed bashers. Considering all the accidental deaths that occurred on board, it was perhaps one or more of these unfortunate souls that haunted the ship.

* It is said the ship’s designer Brunel succumbed to this curse. During the Great Easterns’ first year in service, he experienced two strokes and died in September of 1859.


MichaelT said...

According to a couple *books that I read about the Great Eastern, the double hull was built, one inside the other, (1) two feet and 10 inches apart and (2) three feet apart.

*(1) Dreams of Iron and Steel by Deborah Cadbury- C. 2004
(2) The Great Iron Ship by James Dugan- c. 1953

Virginia Lamkin said...

Thanks for the information.