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Saturday, September 23, 2023

The Marlborough Mystery and the Bones of the 23 Enigma

 In November of 1913, a ship called the Johnson made a gruesome discovery. While traveling past a cove off the coast of Chile, they spotted a derelict ship which appeared to be in good condition and the captain decided to investigate. Upon approaching the vessel, it quickly became apparent that the ship was in bad shape- a green moss was growing on the sails and masts, and the wood was rotting away. Most disturbing of all, the only people aboard were long dead- the captain, now little more than a skeleton, was found still clutching the helm's wheel! A few of the crew were also reduced to bones above deck, and though investigation proved difficult due to the unstable nature of the boat, the Johnson crew found more skeletons in the mess area. They also determined that the shipment of lumber was still intact, and they discovered the name of the vessel- Marlborough of Glasgow.

Upon landing in Lyttelton, New Zealand, the captain of the Johnson reported the discovery to learn that the Marlborough had left their port in 1890- 23 years earlier- with a crew of 23 men- never to be heard from again. The captain, named Hird, was bound for Glasgow and had last been seen in the Straits of Magellan. How had the men died? And when? Had they all died at once, leaving a literal skeleton crew to sail about for over two decades before coming to rest in the place they had been discovered? How had the ship not been dashed upon rocks or sunk during a storm in all those years?

These are the bones, as it were, of the Marlborough Mystery story. This version of events appears in FATE Magazine, written up by Vincent H. Gaddis in the March, 1951 issue. It would later be included in Frank Edwards' Strangest of All (1956), Brad Steiger's The Unknown (1966), and in Into the Strange by Warren Smith in 1968. (Many thanks to Dr. Jerrold Coe, whose wonderful blog is well worth perusal, for pointing me to these sources.) As with any mystery, and with many of the timeworn tales of Forteana or seafaring superstitions and legends, there are minor variations on the details. The major implications remain consistent, and the questions brought about by them are terrifying and mind-bending. If we are to entertain the mystery, taking the basic story for granted, we can imagine all sorts of fanciful explanations. Perhaps there was a time slip of some kind, or perhaps the dead sailors were cursed to be corporeal revenants, manning a vessel even as the flesh fell from their frames. No doubt some would speculate that aliens were involved, or point to some strange conspiracy related to Atlantis. Just as the fog rolls in over the sea, the questions overwhelm the mind. The imagined monsters hiding in the fog become grandiose, and without the visibility of the stars to guide a course we are stuck in place- not unlike the Marlborough.

The repetition of the number 23 is significant, particularly since it applies here to a lost boat. 23 seems to appear often in strange tales, and is hailed by Discordians as being particularly important. Robert Anton Wilson popularized the 23 Enigma in the 1970s, and credits its discovery to William S Burroughs in a 1977 issue of Fortean Times. Burroughs, he claimed, knew a man called Captain Clark who boasted about having 23 years of experience at sea without an accident. Upon setting sail, his ship crashed and killed everyone on board- a cruel twist of fate. While thinking about this later, he heard about the crash of an airliner- Flight 23- off the coast of Florida. The pilot was named Captain Clark.

The 23 Enigma, then, might be seen as an ominous one, though that is not always the case. 23 seems to be a number of mystery, of fate, and the interconnecting nature of things. Wilson would go on to include the Enigma in his works, notably as part of his journey into the Chapel Perilous in Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati. The 23rd letter of the Greek alphabet is Psi, which has applications in fields as nebulous as quantum mechanics, psychology, and of course in parapsychology, where "Psi" effects relate to all manner of ESP, psychokinesis, and other wild talents. 

Noticing the frequency of the number in relation to Odd Things is a wonderful example of synchronicity at play in the world, so long as you employ the "Maybe Logic" of RAW and interrogate your own Belief System (BS). Otherwise, madness is a danger, like Jim Carrey in the 2007 movie The Number 23 experiences. The mysteries of 23 are perhaps best left as an indicator, something to be noted peripherally- as synchronicity largely should be. These events and symbols often act as signs, directing you on a path, but are not themselves the path forward. One can easily lose sight of the forest for the synchronici-trees.

The author's own house marker

Having established the anomalous significance of the 23 years the Marlborough apparently drifted with only skeletons to pilot it, we can now pierce through the fog of the unknown and perhaps satisfy some of these concerns. Looking at newspaper articles from 1913, further discrepancies in the narrative appear. Two examples follow, from the New Smyrna Daily News (December 5, 1913) and The Star Tribune (December 14, 1913) respectively:

These two articles present very different versions of events, despite being published within ten days of each other and both allegedly derived from news "cabled in from New Zealand". These discrepancies also conflict with the later FATE Magazine article, most disappointing among them the number of crew members. Both earlier sources say the ship had left port with 33 crew members, not 23- and that 20-30 skeletons were found onboard. One of the two also notes that 3 passengers had been aboard the ship when it left port. The biggest difference between the two news sources cited above is that while The New Smyrna Daily News version presents it as one among thousands of mysteries of seafaring, The Star Tribune heavily implies that the crew were massacred and the cargo was looted by "the wild tribes of Patagonia".  This is inconsistent with other accounts in their description of Puntas Arenas, where the ship is alleged to have been found. It was conjectured that the ship would have drifted into the cove after the death of the crew precisely because it was a heavily trafficked area, and could not have gone undetected for the 23 years it was missing had it crashed there. Also, the area is described as one which was populated and visited by merchants- hardly fitting the racist depiction of "wild tribes" looting ships for cargo. The cargo in question is another great discrepancy between these early accounts and the later Fortean retellings- it wasn't lumber that the Marlborough carried, but rather mutton and wool!

In the 19th century shipping meat was risky business, and expensive. Refrigeration was accomplished by way of ice, which had to be naturally sourced. The Marlborough and its sister ship, the Dunedin, were among the earliest ships to utilize new methods of artificial refrigeration for such long-distance meat trade. The freezing plants in these early refrigerated "reefer" ships were well insulated and used methods of air cooling through rapid evaporation, with ammonia or ether creating the necessary chemical reaction. Given that the Dunedin also disappeared without a trace that same year, one wonders if perhaps a leak of vapors from these early cooling systems was the culprit for the death of the respective crews. Whatever the case, it doesn't explain how the skeletons of the Marlborough ended up where they did. 

 It might be helpful at this juncture to pause and consider again the number 23, our ship having entered a realm between light and shadow, between science and superstition. We could do worse than using The Twilight Zone as a way of contextualizing this story! Rod Serling's groundbreaking TV series had many episodes centered around ill-fated boats and planes. The most pertinent of these is Season 2, Episode 3- The Arrival. The above image is a still from 5 minutes and 23 seconds into the show, with a prominent "23" in the background. (This is Hangars 2 and 3, much like the season and episode number.) The story is about a plane that lands in an airport without a crew or any passengers onboard- and the hard-nosed investigator who has never failed to solve a case is determined to figure out how, and why. (Here the author implores you to find and watch this episode, if you're not familiar with it. It's just great and it's about to be spoiled.) In the process of investigating with staff members at the airport, he realizes that one of them reported the plane had blue seats for passengers, while another saw them as red. The case is thus solved: the DC-3 airliner before them doesn't exist at all. It is merely an illusion that only exists because they all agree that it does, but focusing on any details in particular reveals its illusory nature.

Such may well be the case with the 23, or 20, or 30 skeletons of the Marlborough and their final destination on the rocky shores of Puntas Arenas. The earliest known news source on this was The Straits Times out of Singapore- one wonders why it wouldn't have made the news first in New Zealand, since that's where the Johnson allegedly reported it and the last place Captain Hird (or Herd, depending on the source) was seen alive. The story of the skeletons of the Marlborough are largely thought to be a fiction, alongside other tales of it being found adrift elsewhere, or reports that the crew had survived. There are variations on the skeleton story going back to 1891, within a year of the ship's disappearance- and perhaps, the 23rd year of its voyage into the fateful waters of the Wyrd gave it the extra mystique needed to garner extra attention. With the rolling tides of passing decades, worn bare by distance in time and space the reported facts that remained beguiled and attracted readers of FATE, only to inspire more retellings yet. The Marlborough and its sister ship were lost to the sea, like so many other boats and planes, without a definite reason- and the Johnson may never have existed in the first place.

One wonders if Burroughs ever knew a man called Clark who captained a vessel into history, inspiring Robert Anton Wilson to write about the 23 Enigma. In a brief search for the "Flight 23" he claims to have heard about "sometime around 1960", one finds a crash in the Gulf of Mexico occurred on November 16th, 1959- piloted by a Captain Todd. His flight engineer was one George Clark. Was there actually a Flight 23 piloted by a Captain Clark? One wonders how much it really matters. This gets to the central nature of the 23 Enigma alluded to above; it is pure hubris to expect anything other than fluidity when we're concerning ourselves with truth and storytelling. The rising and falling of the waves may make one seasick, but the sense of adventure on the high seas and the mysteries obscured by the fog and the murky deep thrill and inspire us. As we sail, we may see Captain Clark on a boat or a plane going by; we may pass a ship crewed only by skeletons. We may see UFOs or sea serpents, for that matter. With the ocean spray in our faces, we venture into the unknown- determined to return to port with stories to tell.

23 Skidoo!