“And so the beautiful Melanope rides daily in the stream, victim of the barnacle and the sea grass, while on her decks stalk the ghosts from the graves so widely scattered, from the homes so strangely sorrowed, from the loves so strangely won, so harshly lost.”
In a way, this an international ghost story, not strictly an American one. That’s because its ghost — possibly, ghosts — were said to haunt a well-traveled ship called the Melanope. The bark was built in Liverpool, England, in 1876 for the purpose of transporting immigrants to Australia. During its maiden voyage, a storm caused damage enough to send the Melanope back home, according to the Williamstown Chronicle, a newspaper published in Victoria, Australia.
The bad luck didn’t stop there, but the ship changed course for ghostly seas once the handsome, womanizing John Craigen took over as Captain — and once Elma Taylor purchased the Melanope. Craigen was already married, it seems, but Taylor was charming — and, well, wealthy enough to buy a ship. They sailed off together. Regarding the couple’s relationship, the San Francisco Call wrote, “It was declared that they had eloped; that they were not married at all, and even that each had fled from a legal family.” Nonetheless, the couple traveled the world together in their passenger-ship-turned-yacht.
But tragedy met them when they landed in Panama in 1900. Taylor contracted malaria and died. The heart-broken captain, also ailing, followed her shortly. That’s when scandal turned spectral. As that San Francisco Call article explains,
The sailors who remained with the ship after Miss Taylor died became superstitious and often in the gloom of nighttime at sea would declare that they saw by the dim light of the moon the faint shadow of the former mistress of the bark floating along in front as if trying to lead it far away from the material world.
By the next year, though, good luck seems to have come to the Melanope, as evidenced by a Saint Louis Republic article titled “SHIP ABOUT WHICH HANGS A MYSTERY: Hoodoo Seems to have Left Trim Little Craft that Sails the Pacific.” Calm seas were short-lived, though. In 1903, another San Francisco Call piece told of the ship’s steward drowning, even though the Melanope was docked.
That wasn’t the only dilemma to be faced by the new captain, a man named Wills (or Willis or Wells, depending on the source). In late 1906, the Melanope floundered off of Oregon’s Cape Blanco and had to be abandoned. Eyebrows were raised because Captain Wills had his wife and children on board at the time, suggesting he might have been overly eager to jump ship according to yet another San Francisco Call report.
Perhaps far worse, though, Captain Wills himself would become confused with the scandalous Captain Craigen a few years later. Or, rather, their ghosts would be confused. First Vermont’s Orleans County Monitor and then the Los Angeles Herald claimed that Mrs. Tinn, wife of the ship’s latest captain, convinced her husband to take a transfer due to the Melanope being haunted. However, now, the ghost is identified neither as Elma Taylor nor as John Craigen. Instead, “The ghost is supposed to be that of former skipper of the Melanope, the celebrated Captain Willis, who commanded the big ship some ten years ago.” The articles were both published in 1910, so “some ten years ago” would have been when Craigen was captain. In fact, Captain Wills was still very much among the living when these articles were published — he didn’t die until 1951.
Not only is the name wrong. In the Los Angeles Herald ghost report, the Craigen-Taylor steamy romance is now revised in such a way that the married captain is painted as a victim, having succumbed to the seduction of a vamp never named. “When he arrived in San Fancisco,” the article reads, “a rich widow fell in love with him. He told her he was married and sailed away for China. Arriving in Hong Kong, he found the widow awaiting him. She had bought the ship and its cargo and told him he now had to take her with him.” Apparently, he did take her with him, an act of infidelity that made him so distraught that, “rather than face his young wife in San Francisco, [he] blew his brains out.” A better ending than his dying of malaria, I guess. Adding to the confusion, earlier reports of Craigen’s abandoned wife say she lived in New Jersey, not San Francisco. And there’s an article in the Seattle Star that places her in Dover, England (where Taylor was from) while also reversing the order or Taylor and Craigen’s deaths.
The more one investigates the ghosts of the Melanope, the more misinformation one finds. Clearly, the ghost story had traveled far in the ten years from Taylor and Craigen’s deaths to Tinn’s assignment to the ship. While this reveals something about the period’s lackadaisical standards of journalism — titillation mattered more than the facts — the same might be said about almost any ghost story. Indeed, the saga of the haunted Melanope reminds us to be wary of ghost stories that have been told and retold over the years.
A final note. Appropriately, the Melanope now rests (and rusts) in a graveyard of ghost ships. It’s part of a breakwater in Comox Harbour, near Vancouver, British Columbia. You can read about it here. Let me know if you ever happen to visit it.
An American Ghost Gallery is a branch of my Spectral Edition project that focuses on ghosts chronicled in multiple newspaper articles. Click here to read more.