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What Happened to the Ghost Ship SS Ourang Medan?

In early February 1948, a strange and urgent Morse-code SOS, three dots, three dashes and three dots again, came from a Dutch cargo ship, the S.S. Ourang Medan that sailed through the Strait of Malacca. This strait was a much-used passage between the island of Dutch-governed Sumatra, Indonesia and British Malaya. Allegedly, in its vicinity Dutch and British listening posts and the U.S. vessel, Silver Star received the distress messages. The timing of the distress signal was curious, for the “sea was calm and the weather clear.” 

The Morse-code distress call came in once again. But, as a report about the event recalls, after a brief pause, a string of dots and lines were sent that shocked the stations receiving them. When deciphered, they spelt: “… All officers, including Captain dead, lying in the chartroom and on Bridge ….  Probably whole crew dead…” A series of frenzied gibberish dots and lines followed, before the closing message came in, simply stating “I die.” And then nothing more. Upon investigation of the ship, indeed, the entire crew was found deceased, supposedly with shocked expressions on their face. But the rescue parties could not identify anything that could have caused it. The mystery of the S.S. Ourang Medan became one of the greatest mysteries in nautical history, and to this day there has been no conclusive answer to what happened… or if it even happened.

The Incident

Now, I want to preface that this mystery and its documentation are shrouded in mysteries itself. But official CIA files declassified under the Freedom of Information Act show that even if the event didn’t happen, the CIA did acknowledge its rumours by replying, instead of dismissing letters asking about it. Okay, so what supposedly did happen? I’m going to go with one of the declassified letters sent to the CIA on December 5th, 1959, which was declassified by the CIA in 2003. 

The letter the CIA received, page 1

So, listening posts and nearby ships received the distress calls from the S.S. Ourang Medan. Following the strange distress calls a rescue mission was set up. Rescue ships from Dutch Sumatra and British Malaya quickly embarked on their search for the troubled vessel. One of the ships found the vessel, about 80 kilometres away from where they pinpointed it from the messages. Some sources stated the U.S. Ship Silver Star was closest, and reached the Ourang Medan as it lay motionless in the water. Other sources make a note of an unnamed ship investigating. The vessel circled the Ourang Medan multiple times, but could find no movement on-board and establishing contact seemed impossible. Its crew decided to board the ship. Using smaller boats, sailors went over to investigate the ship, laying still in the water. 

When the boarding party entered the Ourang Medan they stumbled upon a frightful scene. It was dead-silent, with the emphasis on the dead. The captain lay dead on the bridge, bodies of officers and sailors alike lay sprawled on deck and in the wheelhouse, chartroom and wardroom. Perhaps more shocking was what they found in the radio-shack. The party found the sailor that sent out the distress message. He was still sitting in his chair, slumped over the keys he used to send the distress signal. The men explored the rest of the ship and found bodies of the crew everywhere, from their cabins to the passageways and the engine compartment. Even the ship’s dog lay on board lifeless. Some reports state that although the weather was pleasantly warm and calm that day, the party that boarded the boat, reported it was considerably colder on deck.

A 1952 copy of the “Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council”, published by the United States Coast Guard, written four years after the incident, describes the state the dead sailors on the ship were in: “Their frozen faces were upturned to the sun, the mouths were gaping open and the eyes staring… the dead bodies resembled horrible caricatures. Yet the bodies seemed to bear no sign of injury or wounds.” And that is quite weird, because, well, other reports reiterate that there was no damage found on the ship nor any injuries on the crew. Due to the absence of superficial damage to the ship, it excluded a rogue submarine attack or a collision with something as a cause.

The letter the CIA received, page 2

The boarding party returned to their ship and decided the logical course of action was to tow the vessel to the nearest port and investigate the matter. But there wasn’t an extensive investigation. Upon assembling the tow, smoke emerged from a compartment of the ship below deck. Suddenly fire rapidly spread through the entire ship, making it impossible to extinguish.

The boarding party managed to escape the fire, but as they sailed away to a safe distance, an incredibly loud explosion occurred on the Ourang Medan. Following this, the ship rapidly sank with its crew and potential evidence of their deaths. Nobody has been able to retrieve the remains of the vessel or its crew to this day.


Because of the strange nature of the case surrounding the Ourang Medan, people have suggested some mysterious ‘secret’ caused it. Theories range from carbon monoxide poisoning, to the illegal shipping of poisonous material that started leaking, to a supernatural force. For example, the letter sent to the CIA in 1959 suggests that “the tragedy holds the answer to many aeroplane accidents and unsolved mysteries of the sea.” The writer, C.H. Marck writes about fiery spheres noticed by ships crews and captains, disappearing into, or rising up from the sea during the 18th and 19th centuries.

He remarks how old English chronicles and ancient books mention these fiery spheres, such as Roman soldiers reporting these sights. It’s a bit of a large jump from the Ourang Medan and the general hypothesis to some mysterious fiery spheres. That’s probably what the assistant to Allen Dulles, Director of the CIA, thought when he sent a reply simply stating “they acknowledge and thank” Marck for his letter and “although unable to answer” his questions, they think it’s “interesting and appreciate the concern in these matters.” In other words, they dismiss him in a profoundly polite way.

At first sight, a more likely course of events was that of the Ourang Medan smuggling illegal contraband, such as the explosive liquid nitroglycerine or sulphuric acid. It would also be somewhat of an explanation why the Ourang Medan didn’t appear in any shipping registers, or perhaps was removed from there. If it was a poisonous cargo-load that leaked during transit, perhaps the fumes killed off the entire crew. It could potentially explain the explosion as well, if the nitroglycerine leaked and had contact with its surroundings leading to an exothermic process. But if this was the case then the rescue party certainly didn’t notice any of it. 

Right, so carbon monoxide poisoning is another explanation. A simmering fire below deck could have emitted the poisonous gas slowly killing everyone on board. While this could also explain the fire and explosion, it is very unlikely for several reasons. To begin with, how is it possible the crew didn’t notice any smoke coming from below deck? It doesn’t explain the facial expressions or paleness of the bodies either. Generally, carbon monoxide poisoning is painless and causes a flushed face and red eyes. Not to mention that the crew above deck could not be poisoned by the carbon monoxide, as the gas flows away with enough ventilation. All in all none of the rational explanations seem satisfying… and perhaps that is because a very strong case can be made for the Ourang Medan tragedy never happening at all.

Missing details

Okay, so there are several details concerning the case that make it rather difficult to properly explain how the story reached the public and what might have happened to the ship and its crew. To begin at the beginning: the Dutch Cargo Vessel S.S. Ourang Medan wasn’t registered anywhere. I suppose you could say the S.S. Ourang Medan was a ghost ship before it became an actual ghost ship. 

There are some articles that claim the ship was registered in Sumatra, although none offer any credible registers. Not to mention that the Silver Star, although it did exist in 1948, was renamed the year before to SS Santa Cecilia and sailed mainly around Brazil, not the Pacific. Yet I suppose this could be explained if the Ourang Medan was used to smuggle contraband. If that was the case perhaps someone with influence simply ensured the ship was removed from registers to prevent a real investigation.

But another curious inconsistency in the story is about the date the Ourang Medan was discovered, but also about the date that it was published about. The letter to the CIA said it happened in February 1948. And Estelle, an author from the Skittish Library, really did the research on this one. She dug up every news article she could find, in various languages, documenting the dates the Ourang Medan popped up in articles. And that’s where the timeline gets very weird. So the Marine report I cited to describe the state of the crew on deck was published in 1952. Yet a British newspaper, the Yorkshire Evening Post, published about the Ourang Medan on November 21st 1940. That’s eight years before it supposedly happened. It’s the article on-screen right now. It detailed an eyewitness account by a merchant marine officer that supposedly was on the ship receiving the distress calls and was among the boarding party. The content of the distress call is different, but it’s certainly about the Ourang Medan. The location doesn’t exactly match up either: it reports that the ship was discovered to the south-east of the Solomon islands… way to the east of the Strait of Malacca.

Yorkshire Evening Post, November 21st, 1940.
The Daily Mirror, November 22nd, 1940.

The next day the Daily Mirror published their article about it. They write that the fire lasted for a day, before it finally sank the vessel. It published the firsthand account of this merchant marine officer just like the Yorkshire Evening Post. 

It took seven or eight years for the story to surface again. Between February 3rd and 28th 1948 the Dutch-Indonesian newspaper De Locomotief: Handels- en advertentieblad published multiple articles about the case. This story recollected the story of a U.S. ship receiving the distress message about the deceased crew, somewhere in June 1947 and locating the ship quite a bit to the south-east of the Marshall Islands. Now, the Marshall Islands are quite a long distance away from the Strait of Malacca, not to mention that there now are three different dates that the incident supposedly occurred on. 

But De Locomotief published another interesting detail: the source of the story. Because they didn’t have the 1952 Marine Report, obviously. The newspaper managed to interview a man that claimed he knew a missionary that spoke with a surviving German sailor of the Ourang Medan. After the tragedy, the sailor swam ashore on the Bokak atoll, where he told his story to a missionary on the island. This missionary reproduced the story to an Italian from Trieste, Silvio Scherli. According to Scherli, the ship was indeed smuggling sulphuric acid. When the fumes got out it overwhelmed the crew killing all of them. 

Article in De Locomotief

Two problems with this story, aside from the obvious reproduction of a story told to someone else. Firstly, the Bokak Atoll is uninhabited due to its lack of fresh water, so it is highly unlikely a missionary was present on the island. And secondly, although the 1948 article mentions Scherli by name, the 1940 English newspaper articles we discussed note that the story was written in Trieste, which happened to be Scherli’s hometown. And, well, Trieste is a beautiful city but it is on the other side of the world. It is nearly impossible two different witnesses reported it in that exact city. It is much more likely Scherli was behind both the 1940 and 1948 publications. There are some other inconsistencies between both stories of 1940 and 48. In 1940 a marine officer recalled the story, yet in 1948 it supposedly was recalled by a surviving crew member of the Ourang Medan.

The article in De Locomotief even emphasizes in closing that “they don’t have any other data on this mystery of the sea. The author, Silvio Scherli, assures them of the authenticity of the story.” In short, although it has been well over 80 years ago since this story was initially published in the newspaper, and over 60 years since the CIA acknowledged the case with a dismissive reply, any real credible answers are still missing. But it certainly makes for an interesting story, I’m sure you’ll agree. Thanks to the research on Skittish Library the earlier news articles surfaced. These support the notion that it is doubtful the Ourang Medan disaster happened. There are just too many inconsistencies that don’t add up. I’ll link the article in the description if you want to read some further about the event. 

But it wasn’t completely coincidental this happened around the Pacific area, because it definitely was an area for mysteries. Because to the south-east of the Marshall Islands lies Gardner Island. And this coral atoll supposedly is the final resting place of Amelia Earhart, who tragically disappeared in July 1937, as she was attempting to make a circumnavigational flight over the globe. I’ve created an entire video about that, if you’re interested.


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The Mysterious Disappearance of Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart was the first woman that successfully completed an intercontinental solo-flight. She established many speed- and distance records and the world still sees her as a pioneer in aviation. She disappeared during a flight over the Pacific Ocean. Official investigations concluded she died in a plane crash over the ocean, a simple crash-and-sink. Yet, the disappearance has been shrouded in mystery and has been fruitful ground for theories about her actual whereabouts. 

One of the most compelling reasons to consider she survived was that for days after her disappearance, supposedly radio-operators received distress signals on the same frequency that Amelia’s plane used, occasionally even able to disseminate her voice between the static. As such, the disappearance of Amelia Earhart became one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century… What happened to her? Did they simply crash and sink, or did they survive the crash somehow? Well, very recent research actually corroborates the claim that Amelia survived her plane crash, and died as a castaway… giving yet another twist to an already fascinating case.

Amelia Earhart

Earhart as a child

Amelia Earhart was born on the 24th of July 1897. Her childhood is described as a happy one. Both her parents let Amelia and her sister should be raised to be independent women, quite an exceptional stance during the late 19th and early 20th century. The fact she was free to explore what she wanted proved to be a blessing for the naturally adventurous Amelia. Because of her father’s work as a claims officer for the Rock Island Railroad. The family often moved house. Their mother homeschooled Amelia and her sister until she was 12. 

After going to public school and graduating high school, Amelia enrolled in nursery school and was deployed during the First World War to treat wounded soldiers.

After the war, a friend of Amelia’s took her to a so-called aviation fair. It completely changed Amelia’s life. She became infatuated with aviation and aeroplanes. Yet she did not yet pursue a career and started studying medical studies at Columbia University. Within two years she dropped out and moved back in with her parents that now lived in California. During this time she visited another aviation fair and was even allowed to join a short flight. This was the moment Amelia decided she wanted to pursue a career in aviation and started saving up money to start flying courses. Her parents supported her ambition, and as such, her aviation adventure began.

She cut short her hair, bought flying equipment such as a leather jacket and jumped into the flying. Other female pilots taught her. In 1921 she purchased a yellow Kinner Airster biplane, nicknamed ‘the Canary’. A year later she broke an altitude record for 4300 metres, securing the record for female pilots. And on the 5th of May 1923, Amelia became the 16th woman in the United States to acquire her pilot’s license.

Now, during all this time, the history of aviation, and especially the firsts of aviation didn’t exactly lay dormant. In 1927 Charles Lindbergh became the first man to fly over the Atlantic Ocean in his custom-built monoplane. Amelia was offered the opportunity to be the first woman to fly over the Atlantic Ocean. She did so, in 1928, accompanying pilot Wilmer Stultz and co-pilot Louis Gordon in their Fokker Trimotor. After nearly 21 hours the plane landed at Pwll, South Wales. It became a sensational headline.

She quickly rose to prominence, becoming a real celebrity. In the United States she attended many aviation congresses and gave speeches about the discipline. And during all of it, she continued flying planes. In 1931 she even broke a new altitude record in a Pitcairn PCA-2. That same year she married the publisher George Putnam. After Putnam proposed to her six times, that is.

In 1932 Amelia settled a new record: she became the first woman to fly the Atlantic Ocean from the United States to Great Britain. She flew the Lockheed Vega 5B, a high-wing monoplane airliner. With this action she captured worldwide attention. Three years later, she became the first person to fly from Hawaii to California. After this, she felt she was meany to do something more significant and basically wanted to explore and fly over the entire world. All in all, between 1930 and 35 she set 7 women’s speed and distance aviation records, using multiple aircraft.


Amelia started planning her round-the-world journey for nearly two years and a specific aeroplane, the Lockheed Electra 10E, was built for this exact purpose. The first attempt failed because of an uncontrolled ground-loop during take-off. The plane was badly damaged and required repairs. 

In June that same year Amelia announced she would fly east-ward and try to circumnavigate the globe. Together with aviator Fred Noonan she set off to cross the Pacific ocean. Okay, so this journey actually went very well. They departed from Miami, Florida on June 1st. They then crossed the Atlantic Ocean via South America, arriving in Africa. Here they stopped and refuelled and flew over the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. You can see the route they took on-screen, and as you can probably tell, they were nearly done. All that was left when they arrived in New Guinea was to cross the Pacific Ocean. 

During their flight on July 2nd, from New Guinea to the small Howard island, Amelia radioed several times that the plane was about to run out of fuel. The radio signal rapidly deteriorated until it was lost altogether. It seemed that the couple crashed into the Pacific Ocean, nearby the Nukumanu islands.

When there ceased to be radio contact a large-scale rescue mission was set up. Those involved in the rescue mission requested radio-amateurs and professional radio operators alike to monitor the radio frequency Amelia had been contacting radio operators on during her flight. Naval vessels were instructed to look out for her in the area actively. Now, because the Pacific Ocean is quite large to put it mildly, you wouldn’t expect any success with it. At least I wouldn’t. But what makes Amelia’s disappearance so curious is that, well, people listening to the frequency of Amelia’s aircraft actually received radio messages!

In total, 56 people had heard over 100 radio broadcasts on the frequency. Many of the radio broadcasts were unintelligible because of the poor connection, but some claim transmissions were clear enough to recognise the voice of Amelia. It seemed she, together with Noonan, was alive. On July 7th, five days after the disappearance, an amateur radio operator in Canada received the last transmission supposedly sent by Amelia. It transmitted the message ‘Can you read me? This is Amelia Earhart. Please come in’. Because of the low quality of the radio broadcasts, it was impossible, with 1937 technology, to determine the exact location from where they were sent. 

On the 19th of July that year, the US Navy decided to stop the search for Amelia and Noonan. It had been the most extensive, and expensive search and rescue mission in the history of the United States at that point. Amelia’s husband and others directly involved protested heavily. They felt the navy was taking the easy way out. Yet their complaints didn’t make a difference and the search was halted. Following this, Putnam set up a private rescue mission, but that too bore no results.

After the search mission was cancelled, people started to speculate about the fate of Amelia. Conspiracy theories even started to surface. Because it was during the 30s, right before the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War and eventual Second World War, many claimed the Japanese shot down her aircraft, suspecting it of espionage. Others claimed Amelia did, in fact, survive the crossing of the ocean, but when she reached her destination, she changed her identity and started a new life.

Although this theory had never been conclusively proven, in 2017, the History Channel released a documentary that claimed Amelia survived the flight. The photo you’re seeing right now is supposedly of Amelia sitting on a dock on the Marshall Islands. The picture was discovered in the National Archives in Washington. Apparently, the photo was taken in 1937 and Fred Noonan too stood among the people. The documentarians claim that the couple emergency-landed on the Marshall islands after running low on fuel, and were subsequently captured by the Japanese. Experts were not convinced, and pointed out the irregularities between the picture and the way Amelia looked. But actually, and this is pretty funny, a Japanese blogger, Kota Yamano, disproved the theory within 30 minutes. He found the exact same photograph in the Japanese national archives. It featured on page 44 of a travel story named ‘about the southern sea. The story was published nearly two years before Amelia and Noonan vanished, in October 1935.

The History Channel-theory definitely was one of the most recent and sensational ones. But besides the surfacing of many theories about Amelia’s and Noonan’s whereabouts over the years, none of the theories could be proven with certainty.

The planned route

Recent investigations (2016-2018)

The History Channel documentary wasn’t the most recent investigation into the matter, and it certainly wasn’t the most serious. In 2016 the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery published their hypothesis that Amelia survived the plane crash. They claimed it was more likely she, together with Noonan, crashed on or nearby an island and survived there for days, if not weeks. A two-year-long investigation followed.

  In 2018 results of this investigation into the fate of Amelia were published. Now, they based themselves on human remains found in 1940 on the Nikumaroro island. This island, also known as the Gardner island, lies somewhat secluded to the east of Papua New Guinea and Australia. The research claims that these bones were Amelia’s. They re-examined the measurements of several bones. In 1941 a study concluded the bones were male, and modern research now disputed these findings. So, why not just analyse the DNA of the bones? Well, the bones have been lost over the years. So basically, this new study bases itself on the reports from 1941, and they dispute their findings using modern technology.

The researchers do note that the remains may be from someone else. For example, in 1929, 11 people died in the vicinity of the island following a shipwreck. And because the bones themselves are lost there is no way to positively conclude the remains aren’t from a Pacific islander either. The bones do match Amelia’s body measurements, and from all documented persons that the remains could be from Amelia Earhart is the most likely, according to the report. 

More clues point towards Amelia and Noonan surviving the initial crash. In another study, conducted that same year, reports of several radio-operators were compared with results and research based on modern technology. It appeared that Amelia could very well have made the radio broadcasts from 1937 from her airplane. Those radios were generally used for short-distance communication which explains why many listeners only heard static or had awful connections. Yet the radio signals were, to a certain extent, workable in order to pinpoint the location from where they were sent. They pointed to Nikumaroro island. 

The hypothesis goes as follows. If the sea-tide lowered the motors of the airplane were able to generate electricity that powered the radio just enough to broadcast emergency signals. Researchers compared the time of day in radio reports of 1937 to the tides on the island, and they matched their hypothesis. According to the researchers, after a while, a strong sea current dragged the aircraft off the island into the sea. From then on it was impossible to send out emergency broadcasts. It doomed Amelia and Noonan, who probably passed away on the island shortly after.

Either way, whether the disappearance of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan was a simple crash-and-sink, or they ended up as castaways on a Pacific island, or perhaps they survived and remained in Japan or started a new life, one thing’s for sure. And that is that for over 80 years the disappearance of Amelia Earhart has boggled the minds of many, and we still don’t know for certain what happened to her.

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The Wow! Signal of 1977

During the 1950s over in Ohio, Professor of Electrical engineering and astronomy, Dr John D. Kraus, designed the Big Ear Radio Telescope. It was a prototype that cost 23000 dollars and preceded the building of the Big Ear Radio Observatory. Although the telescope was seated on the roofs of two university buildings, Kraus was eventually granted twenty acres of land to construct the radio observatory. 

The choice of land wasn’t completely random. Its remote location ensured a minimal risk of other interfering radio signals. Because the observatory wasn’t built to pick up radio signals from the earth, or satellites even. No, Dr Kraus hoped his observatory would manage to find proof of extraterrestrial life. 

The project was quite something. From 1956 to 1963 the observatory was constructed, mainly by students in order to reduce the costs. When the observatory, nicknamed ‘Big Ear’, was finally operational it was larger than three football fields. The Big Ear was equipped with two ‘ears’ if you will. On this photograph, you can see them. Generally, if radio signals were received by one ear, after several minutes, the other ear received them as well.

In order to potentially receive radio signals from extraterrestrial life, Kraus first had to map outer space for radio waves. It was quite the pioneering project and only after ten years, in 1973, was it completed. From then on they could ‘monitor’ these wavelengths, to detect radio transmissions that potentially originated from extraterrestrial entities.

It wasn’t until four years later that the Big Ear Radio Telescope detected a signal that was… unusual to say the least. The radio telescope received a powerful unidentified signal on August 15th 1977. Because of the technology used back then instead of acting on radio signals immediately, astronomers would look at a cluster of radio signals that had been picked up in the past couple of days. Usually, these were all somewhat predictable and the same. But astronomer Jerry Ehman, going over the documentation of the past couple of days noticed the unusual signal. The powerful narrowband radio signal, expressed as a string of code, captures his attention.

The signal contained signs of potential extraterrestrial origins, and certainly a source that wasn’t within our solar system. In total, the signal lasted 72 seconds. Because of how spectacular it was Ehman, circled it and wrote “Wow!” next to it. From then on the signal was known as the Wow! Signal. 

So why was this seemingly innocuous string of letters- and numbers so special? Well, several things about it are unusual. I am going to get into the technicalities for a short bit – so bear with me. Basically, the string of code, the 6EQUJ5, portrays the intensity of the signal. The graph you’re seeing right now visualizes that intensity. The numbers between 1 to 9 indicate the variation of intensity between 1.000 and 9.999, above 10 the intensity is indicated by a letter, in this case A for 10.0 to 10.999, B for 11.0 to 11.999 and so on. Right, so the strength of this signal had several values. Generally a .5 error margin is included: 6 being 6, E being 14.5, Q being 26.5, U being 30.5, J being 19.5 and 5 as 5.5. In the colour chart that is on-screen right now you can see the exceptional values. The short Wow! Signal burst is in the bottom left. 

Those strings of numbers don’t really say anything, until you know that when Big Ear received the peak of this signal’s intensity, namely U (between 30 and 31), it was the highest measured intensity by a radio telescope… ever. So, the intensity of this number is literally devoid of any dimension.

Because the Big Ear is a stationary telescope that scans space through the earth’s rotation, it observes a limited area. The maximum amount of time to observe an object was 72 seconds before the earth’s rotation moved the telescope away from it. Knowing this, it was hypothesised that any signal that lasted for exactly 72 seconds, would have a rising intensity for the first 36 seconds before it reached the core of the telescope, only to proportionately lose intensity the next 36 seconds. Both the length of the Wow! Signal, namely 72 seconds, as the trajectory of the signal’s intensity corresponded with the expectations of a signal of extraterrestrial origin.

Scientists have not been able to find the source of the signal. Since 1977 no such similar signal has been detected. It was received from a part of space where you wouldn’t expect any radio waves of the sort. What’s curious as well is that although the first ear received it, the second ear never confirmed the signal passed. This indicates that the signal was abruptly cancelled.

The SETI – Search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a term for scientific searches for intelligent extraterrestrial life. SETI has not been able to explain the source of the radio signal for the past 40 years. Now, the sole purpose of SETI is to identify signals such as this one, and the Wow! Signal is the only one of all those years of which the source has not been located. 

Now, there is an understandable reason for why after over 40 years nobody can say where the signal originated. It has only been detected once. So astronomers that investigate it, bump into the same problem over and over again. In the words of an astronomer: “image if you hear a sound in your basement one night, but you cannot find its source and it never appears again, then it’s near impossible to discover what made the sound.” And until another signal such as this one is detected its origin will most likely never be found.

Because there is no obvious source for the signal, many scientists theorise about its origins. The past four decades have seen many theories. Obviously, the most exciting one is that of extraterrestrial life that sent the powerful short signal. Yet other theories are perhaps a little bit more plausible. Many scientists claim that it is probably because of human interference that disturbed the activities of the radio telescope which led to the curious signal. Because of the contents of the signal: a strong radio signal on a very narrow frequency, which means that it has a specific wavelength. Generally, this is seen with electronic devices or fighter jets. Yet there are particular ways that signals from the earth can be filtered out from the signals Big Ear receives. And those filters have been used on the Wow! Signal… many times of the past years. And time and time again the signal proves that it did, in fact, originate in space.

In 2015 the scientists Paris and Evans published a new theory in an attempt to explain the origins of the Wow! Signal. A hydrogen cloud surrounding a comet could explain it. Back in 1977, the astronomers hadn’t detected any comets in the area that was scanned by Big Ear. It was in 2006, nearly 30 years later, when recalculating orbits of comets, it was determined two of them, the 266P/Christensen and the p/2008 Y2 (Gibbs) must have been in the area where the Wow! Signal originated.

Other scientists generally disagree with this theory because of two reasons. Firstly, comets are not known to produce signals with this type of intensity, nor on the wavelength that the signal was received on. And secondly, if it was a comet then the second ‘ear’ of Big Ear should have received the same signal after 70-odd seconds. That didn’t happen. And it’s impossible for a comet to disappear from Big Ear’s range within this timeframe. 

As for the Big Ear Radio Observatory, its scientists were included in the Guiness Book of Records thanks to their prolonged search for extraterrestrial life. The university sold the land the observatory was built on in 1983, and the land developers had different things in mind for it. In order to expand a nearby golf course and construct hundreds of homes they demolished the Big Ear Radio Observatory in 1998. And, well, other observatories around the world are still searching for unknown radio signals that could indicate extraterrestrial life, but so far none have been found. Well over 40 years after the Wow! Signal was received; it remains one of our closest encounters with potential extraterrestrial life. But fortunately for those curious about extraterrestrial life: SETI-telescopes are continuously scanning space for unusual radio signals. So if another Wow! Signal were to be transmitted, the modern technological improvements most likely would be able to determine where it came from.

A. Paris, E. Evans: Hydrogen Clouds from Comets 266/P Christensen and P/2008 Y2 (Gibbs) are Candidates for the Source of the 1977 “WOW” Signal. Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, Winter 2015

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The Notorious Abduction and Murder of Gerrit Jan Heijn

It was the early morning on the 9th of September 1987. A 45-year-old unemployed engineer drives a stolen Fiat from his home to Bloemendaal, a town 35 minutes away known for its villas. After all, Bloemendaal is the wealthiest place in the Netherlands. He wears a fake moustache, glasses and a beret. His coat is draped over a sawed-off gun that rests on his lap. When he reaches his destination, one of the villas in Bloemendaal, he parks his car on a nearby parking lot and takes up a position near the entrance of the estate. His target, Gerrit Jan Heijn own this villa. Nobody realises it yet, but one of the longest, most shocking and sensational abductions and murders in the history of the Netherlands is about to commence.

Gerrit Jan Heijn

The Abduction

Gerrit Jan Heijn was a Dutch businessman. Together with his brother Albert, he was the executive of Ahold, a Dutch international retailer. The company started in 1887, as the grandfather of Albert and Gerrit opened the first Albert Heijn grocery store. During the 1970s the company expanded internationally and under the management of Albert and Gerrit the company became a Dutch household name as the largest grocery chain in the Netherlands. It’s safe to say that the unparalleled success of the Heijn brothers led to them becoming some of the wealthiest individuals of the entire country. 

Back to that fateful early morning on the 9th of September. Gerrit Jan Heijn leaves his villa and wants to take his Audi to his dentist appointment. As he enters his car, the man runs from his hideout, opens the other car door and takes place on the passengers’ seat. He targets his rifle at Heijn, threatening him and telling him to start the car and drive. When Heijn passes the stolen Fiat the duo leave the Audi, take place in the smaller car and drive off. The man now orders Heijn to drive to woods in another Dutch province, nearly 2 hours away. When they arrive, they spend quite some time walking through the secluded Dutch nature, and Heijn is forced to record several tapes asking for ransom. At a certain point, Heijn attempts and fails to escape his captor when he tries to flag down a large truck that passes by a road. The truck doesn’t stop, and Heijn is again at the mercy of his captor.

At around 9:30 pm his captor orders him to drive towards Renkum, a municipality even further in the eastern Netherlands. He tells Heijn that in the woods nearby an accomplice will stand at the ready to take him over and guard him. The unsuspecting Heijn follows his captor into the woods. When they are at a secluded spot the captor brandishes his gun, quickly slips on the silencer and executes Heijn without warning. Heijn dies from a gunshot to the head. Following the execution, the captor callously secures Heijn’s glasses and cuts off his pinky finger. He deposes the finger in a thermos filled with ice and buries the body in a shallow grave he had dug prior to the abduction. Following the execution, the captor takes the small Fiat and drives back to Amsterdam, where he dumps it in the river IJ. 

Ferdi Elsas

Now, when the captor returns home the next morning, he has quite some explaining to do. He isn’t a solitary bachelor living a secluded life, but the unemployed engineer Ferdi Elsas, a married man with three children. He hadn’t told his wife about any of his plans or actions. Because he didn’t come home that night, his wife filed a missing person’s report. She subsequently withdraws the report upon his arrival. From that day onward he carries on with his life as if nothing odd happened.

Police investigation

Meanwhile, over at the Heijn family and the Ahold corporation, the situation is much more dramatic and chaotic. Nobody knows where Gerrit Jan Heijn is. His abandoned car was discovered near his villa and when he didn’t show up to his dentist appointment alarm bells started to go off. A massive police investigation and search mission was set up, with helicopters and sniffer dogs searching for Heijn. 

Newspaper article

When news leaks to the Dutch press that Heijn is missing, police receives multiple letters from people claiming they abducted Heijn and are demanding ransom. Many of these letters turn out to be fake, but one message stands out because a tape is attached to it. The recording is of  Heijn. In it, he is forced to request diamonds, other gems and cash of a total of 7.7 million guilders as ransom. Behavioural analysts and detectives agree that a sophisticated criminal organisation must be behind the abduction. Following the first letter, the police receive 13 more messages in the following weeks. In it, the “abductors” warn that the publicity the case receives will not benefit the health and safety of Heijn. The family Heijn and the police agree to answer the letters to the “abductors” via advertisements in public newspapers. Meanwhile, the police and justice department set up an information blockade: no information about the ongoing investigation and abduction will be shared outside a taskforce and the family. 

Through advertisements in Dutch newspapers, the family lets the abductors know they have the cash, but diamonds aren’t easy to acquire. The response they receive is a letter that says the ransom amount increases and to try harder. Furthermore, the glasses of Heijn are sent to the home address of his family, with an accompanying note saying as punishment Heijn won’t be able to read in captivity anymore. Little do the family know he has been dead for weeks by this point. The family reiterates that they cannot acquire diamonds this quickly. This time, in response, the cut-off pinky finger of Heijn is sent to their home address. In the accompanying letter, it reads “He won’t be able to play the piano for now, but the wound heals well.”

Police at the villa

Several requests by the family for a sign of life are ignored. Nevertheless, an appointment is made to deliver the ransom money. On the 12th of November, an Ahold employee will transport the funds and wait for a call by the abductors in the Okura Hotel in Amsterdam. The captor, Elsas, misses the calling deadline, however. He stays silent for 12 days before he calls the phone again. Elsas gives the location of where he wants the ransom dropped: under an overpass near the A12 highway. Three days later, on the 27th of November, the diamonds and cash are dropped at the location by the employee. On the site, he finds a note attached to a stone which directs him to an Albert Heijn grocery store. Further instructions will be given by phone over there. But when the employee reaches the store it is already closed, thus missing the deadline.

Now, as for the ransom cash and diamonds, the bills were marked, and a large police force was present monitoring all cars on the highway and nearby roads that could potentially pass by the dropping point to pick up the ransom. They use modern technology to try and identify the car the captors use so they can identify them and free Heijn. The thing is, the police were focused on the highway and the cars passing by, each one potentially containing the abductors. Meanwhile, Elsas came by bike. He used a small road to pass the tunnel, picked up the ransom bag, and cycled off. Yeah, very Dutch. Because nobody considered the abductors would come by bike Elsas managed to snatch the cash and diamonds and leave without the police noticing him. 

Gerrit Jan Heijn’s grave

The Capture

After the ransom cash and diamonds had been taken, the family and police didn’t hear anything for days. On the 30th of November and the 3rd of December, the wife of Heijn in a  public TV broadcast asked, in an emotional speech, for her husband to be returned safely. The ‘abductors’ send her a message saying that her husband will be home by Christmas. But following that message the communication channels go dead silent. The police weren’t making any progress with the case either and were still looking for clues and mistakes to track down the well-oiled criminal organisation they’re sure was behind this. 

In the end, Elsas got caught by a pretty amateurish mistake. In February 1988, during his daily grocery shopping, he paid with 250 euro bills, from the ransom. The police have marked these bills and when the bills reach the local bank, a bank clerk notifies the police. The location the bills were exchanged is traced to the local grocery store and the staff identify Elsas as the man that spent the bills. Because the police are confident he is, at most, a small player in a large criminal conspiracy they observe him for quite some time. It is not until the 6th of April 1988, when Elsas doesn’t lead the police to the suspected criminal organisation, that they decide to arrest him. During the early hours of that day, a police team raid his home and arrest Elsas, his wife and two guests that happened to stay over. That same afternoon Elsas confesses to the kidnapping of Heijn. 

The trial

The evidence linking him to the crime isn’t too difficult to discover. The murder weapon is found in the creek behind Elsas’ house and most of the cash is stored in the basement and under the carpet of his car. And, if that wasn’t enough, Elsas’ notes reveal that he planned the abduction in detail, and he never bothered to destroy his writings.

That same week Elsas led police to the grave of Heijn, in the woods in the east of the country. It turned out that while the entire abduction and uncertainty about Heijn’s fate had lasted for over 7 months, Heijn had been killed on the same day he was abducted. It took another couple of weeks before police actually believed Elsas wasn’t part of a larger criminal organisation. After a speedy trial, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison and forced psychiatrical treatment in December 1988.  

Thirteen years later, in 2001, he was released. He changed his name to Paul and moved to the eastern part of the country together with his wife. Over there, in August 2009, he was killed when he was run over by an excavator whilst taking a bike ride. And as for Ahold – well, Albert Heijn is still the largest grocery store chain in the Netherlands. But this abduction certainly is the blackest page in the history of both the family and the business.

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Is the Dyatlov Pass mystery finally solved?

In 1959 the Cold War approached its climax, Fidel Castro overthrew Cuban dictator Batista and started his tenure as Cuba’s prime minister and Hawaii and Alaska were admitted to the union. Over in the Soviet Union, that year a group of ten explorers decided to set out on a challenging hiking expedition in a freezing and mountainous area of Russia. When the expedition group failed to touch base after several weeks, a rescue mission was set up to try and find them. When the mission finally discovered what happened to the explorers, it horrified them. Although the weather reached sub-zero degrees, the members of the expedition were found, far apart in a secluded forest, near entirely unclothed, with severe internal fractures and one even had a bitten-off tongue. 

The investigators found no logical explanation for what happened to the explorers, as they were all experienced hikers and there’s no evidence anyone else was around during their deaths. It didn’t help the Soviet Union classified and sealed the official case files within weeks of conducting an ‘investigation’. The Dyatlov pass incident remains one of the most haunting unsolved mysteries in history, sparking over 75 conspiracy theories ranging from a KGB-testing gone wrong to UFOs. But earlier this year, in July, a prosecutor’s office finally published an official statement after a thorough investigation, in an attempt to explain what happened to the group of explorers that fateful day, over 60 years ago.

Igor Dyatlov

The Expedition

In January 1959, the Sverdlovsk Region tourist route commission approved a plan for a group of ten people, eight men and two women to embark on a hiking-expedition. Most of the members of the group were students or graduates of the Ural State Technical University. All of the expedition’s participants were in their 20s, except for their 38-year-old instructor Semyon Zolotarev. The 23-year-old Igor Alekseyevich Dyatlov led the expedition. He was a 5th-year radio-engineering student, well trained in these sort of expeditions just like his peers.

The goal of Dyatlov’s expedition was to reach the Ortoten, a mountain about ten kilometres north of the Холатчахль mountain. Now, this mountain’s name translates to as much as ‘dead mountain’. That name should give you an idea of the area the expedition was taking place in. The path towards their mountain was classified as a ‘category-3’ which was the official Soviet classification for the most challenging territory to traverse. In a little over two weeks, the group wanted to cover 300 kilometres on skis and climb their mountain. All of the participants were experienced skiers and hikers, had the necessary equipment and upon their return would receive the highest ski-certificate for their skill. In short, every member knew the do’s-and-don’ts better than the vast majority of people. 

On the 25th of January 1959, the group embarked on their journey. They took the train to И́вдель, a town in the northern province of Oblast Sverdlovsk. From there a truck brought them to Вижа́й. This last town was the most northern located populated settlement. From there on out the group was on their own, and they started the climb of the remote path that would lead them to the Ortoten. The climb would take well over two weeks, but after the third day one of the members of the group, Yuri Yudin, had to return because he got ill. As such, 9 members of the group continued their climb.

Because of diary entries and camera rolls that were discovered in the tent of the group we’re able to trace their final movements. On the 31st of January, 6 days after the start of the expedition, they reached the foot of their first mountain and prepared their climb to pass it. In a wooded valley they built a small storage hut to preserve food, water and gear they would need on their return. The next day, February 1st, they crossed the mountain pass. Because of worsening weather conditions and the lack of sight, the group somewhere along the route travelled the wrong direction resulting in them reaching the western side of the Холатчахль mountain. Once members of the group realised they were on the wrong side of the mountain, they decided to set up camp at the mountain pass they were at, about 300 metres from its peak. From then on there is no documentation of the group anymore. And for good reason, as a rescue mission would soon find out.

The Rescue Mission

At the homefront, only after a while did people start to realise the group hadn’t returned. Initially, Dyatlov let his sports association know that once the group returned to Вижа́й, they would send a telegram to confirm their safe return. Considering the expedition should take two weeks, the telegram was expected at latest at around February 12th. But because Yuri returned due to his illness and relayed a message from Dyatlov that there may be some delay, nobody was too worried when no message arrived by the 12th. After all, an expedition such as this often suffered from setbacks. 

Yet when the days went by, and nobody heard anything from the group, family members started to worry. It wasn’t until eight days later, on the 20th of February that the head of the Polytechnical institute assembled a rescue team consisting of voluntary students and teachers. Due to the harsh weather conditions they encountered, the police and even the army was involved in the search, which rapidly spiralled into a massive rescue mission. The realisation dawned on all those involved that the nine members of the expeditions probably were in grave danger. If they were alive, that is.

Over a month after Dyatlov’s group departed, on the 26th of February, part of the rescue mission discovered a heavily damaged tent at a mountain pass of the Холатчахль mountain. The tent was slashed open from the inside, and in it lied personal belongings such as documents, diaries, food and warm clothes. The rescuers discovered a trail of footprints leading towards the edge of a nearby forest. After 500-odd metres, the trail was covered with snow, yet upon closer inspection, they discovered the remainders of a fire and the bodies of two members of the mission – Krivosyenko and Dorosyenko. Both men lied beneath a large pine tree, wearing just their underwear and without any footwear. Now it goes without saying this was surprising in the least because it could get as cold as -40 degrees in the area. But the morbid surprises didn’t end there. Between the camp and the pine tree the bodies of 3 more members were discovered: that of Dyatlov, Kolmogorova and Slobodin. All 3 were barefoot as well and scarcely clothed. Because of the way the bodies were positioned it was assumed they were on their way back to the camp, but they were at a considerable distance from the tent, and far apart from each other.

It was apparent an incredible tragedy had happened to these explorers, and a criminal investigation into the fate of the group was launched. What puzzled the investigators and members of the rescue team for a long while though, was that there were four other members of the expedition. And they were nowhere to be found. In the background, the army and police searched for the other four missing members while the criminal investigation focused itself on the first five members of the group: how did they die and why were all of them scarcely clothed, considering the freezing weather? The post-mortem examination revealed none of the bodies had suffered mortal bodily harm and the coroner concluded they died of hypothermia and frostbite. The fact Slobodin had a small fracture in his skull which he suffered right before he died wasn’t necessarily something that was paid much attention to.

That was until the four additional members of the expedition were found, well over two months after the initial discovery of the abandoned camp and the first bodies. On the 4th of May, the remaining bodies were discovered under a 4-metre layer of snow in a ravine in the woods, about 75 metres away from the pine tree the first bodies were found. Now, this discovery and the post-mortem examination was not just unusual, but outright shocking. 

3 of the bodies showed signs of grievous bodily harm. The body of Thibeaux-Brignolle sustained severe skull fractures and the bodies of Dubinina and Solotarev showed signs of severe internal chest damage. One of the doctors performing the autopsy could only conclude that the injury sustained must have been caused by an extreme force, comparable to that of a severe car crash. In addition, Dubinina’s tongue was missing, seemingly bitten off. It was a bizarre discovery that put the case of missing students in a whole different light.

What perplexed the coroners was the fact there was no superficial damage to these bodies, though, just like the other 5 that were discovered. Not to mention the temperatures in the area reached -30 degrees and a strong wind only amplified that cold. The tents were cut open from the inside, so the group had left their tents voluntarily, perhaps because of something that made them. But why not put on any clothing? Those that wore clothing didn’t wear their own, but random pieces of clothes from their peers. And it made even less sense that one of the bodies was found wearing just one shoe. They were all experienced in the harsh weather conditions, the outskirts of the Soviet Union offered, so if anything that made the case even more bizarre.

(Conspiracy) theories

Following the retrieval of the bodies and thorough examination, no clear-cut explanation of what had happened was found. Understandably, several theories ranging from aliens to secret cold-war weaponry weren’t just thought up by conspiracy theorists, but considering the circumstances actually seemed like a reasonable explanation for what had happened.

Initially, it was thought the native population of the area, the Mansi-tribe, had perhaps attacked the group and killed them. The investigation did not find any evidence to support this, initially likely, theory. There were no footprints found except those from the explorers themselves and no superficial signs of violence were found on any of the bodies. The lack of other movements in the area also crossed off the theory that wild animals chased them. Forensics discovered large quantities of radioactive material on the clothes of several victims. An investigator on the case later claimed the area surrounding the mountain had higher-than-usual radiation levels, but the source was never found. Much later it was determined that the old faulty Soviet radiation detection equipment showed higher levels than there actually were.

It didn’t ease the minds of family and those investigating the case that in the aftermath of the event there were some serious abnormalities. To begin with, attendants of the funerals of the deceased stated the skin of them was rather orange and their hair completely turned grey. And the closest thing investigators had to eyewitness accounts, namely a group mountain climbers 50 kilometres south, claimed that on the night of the incident they saw curious orange spheres in the sky above the area the hikers died in. Residents of Ivdel, separate from each other, talked about orange spheres as well, and even meteorologists and soldiers reported seeing these unexplainable spheres. Other reports said there were large quantities of scrap in the area. It led to speculations about KGB- or army experiments, or even a Cold War incident people weren’t informed about.

The explanation for the near-total undressing of the explorers was accredited to so-called paradoxical undressing. There are multiple academic papers written about it, and this phenomenon occurs in around a quarter of all fatalities of hypothermia. When a person is disoriented and confused in an extremely cold environment, he might perceive the cold as extreme heat, leading them to undress, which only accelerates the setting in of hypothermia. 

Yet only 6 of the member’s deaths could conclusively be ascribed to hypothermia. Three others died of fatal wounds, not to mention that some of them weren’t fully undressed but actually wore different pieces of clothing from other members of the group. So they were conscious enough to dress up in the cold. According to one of the coroners, the fatal injuries were not inflicted by other humans because the impact that caused them was too strong.

And with that unsatisfying outcome, it was concluded all members of the group died by “a compelling, spontaneous natural force” and because there were no suspect parties to link the incident to, the case was closed soon after the post-mortem examinations were finished. You’re not wrong to think that the fact the case was closed in such haste with such a vague conclusion didn’t raise some eyebrows, but yeah, it was the Soviet Union after all and public criticism of the way state affairs were conducted wasn’t exactly encouraged. The case files were subsequently classified and weren’t released to the public until after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Again, a development that can only be described as very suspicious.

The group

Case closed (?)

It is such a strange and bewildering case without a satisfying explanation that it is hardly surprising it appealed to the imagination. For over 60 years the Dyatlov Pass Incident has been fruitful ground for conspiracy theories and hypothesis about the incident alike. When the case gained notoriourity in the 1990s after its files were declassified, numerous books were written and documentaries and films were made about it. In addition, over 75 theories arose, trying to explain what may have happened to the group. The most popular included a failed missile test, a nuclear explosion, UFOs or even a skirmish with foreign saboteurs. But no conclusive explanation was ever reached.

That is, until July 2020. Just a few months ago. The deputy head of the Urals Federal District directorate of the Prosecutor-General’s Office, Andrey Kuryakov, announced that Russian officials have concluded an avalanche caused the chaos leading up to the deaths of the explorers.

A sudden change in the weather caused this avalanche. In the official statement, Kuryakov explained the group initially wasn’t panicked, but left their tents and moved away from the avalanche. They reached a stone ridge that served as a natural avalanche breaker. They did everything right. But following the avalanche, the danger wasn’t over yet. Because of the blizzard that accompanied the avalanche, and the darkness of night, they were unable to see anything. It explains the burned up fire camp discovered by the rescue team. The group, unable to find their tents, went into a forest to hide from the wind and used a cedar tree to light a fire that kept them alive for 30-odd minutes. Two men of the group, the bodies that the rescue mission found first, were the first to die from frostbite and hypothermia.

Because time was running out the remainder of the group decided to split up into two. One of the groups, led by Dyatlov, tried to crawl to their tents in their own tracks. But outside of the forest away from the fire they rapidly froze to death in temperatures of 40 below zero. The second group tried to make a walk path but accidentally triggered a movement of snow which threw them into a ravine and buried them under several metres of snow. That’s how they suffered their internal fractures and bruising, it was caused by the fall and the weight of the snow on them. The explanation seems somewhat logical, but the families of the victims and the official Dyatlov group memorial fund refuse to accept this explanation. They think there’s more to it and certain details don’t add up. As such, this mysterious case, to some, remains open. Suppose we go with the theory of the avalanche and the unfortunate combination of circumstances. In that case, it is simply a very, very tragic event and a case of being at the wrong, remote place, at the wrong time.

As for Yuri, he was the only one to survive thanks to his illness and early return. He died in 2013, over 50 years after the Dyatlov pass incident, not sure of what had happened to his friends that fateful expedition.

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