Can an entire island also be haunted or cursed?
g a book by Vincent Bugliosi titled And the Sea Will Tell, the true story of a double murder that took place on isolated Palmyra Island in
While that book primarily focuses on the murders that occurred there during that time period, my internal radar was significantly aroused by the continuous allusions made by the authors and others who had been to the island regarding the "Palmyra Curse". According to this tale, although Palmyra appears to be a tropical island paradise like something out of the movieSouth Pacific, there also seems to be a supernatural pattern of disaster and near-disaster associated with the place. While many people who have ventured to Palmyra have described it as nothing short of a true paradise here on Earth, quite a few sailors who visited the island in the time before and after the murders took place have commented on the sense of "something not being quite right" on Palmyra and speak in cloaked terms of a malevolent aura and a foreshadowing of doom that the island seems to possess. Listen to Richard Taylor, a yachtsman who spent time on Palmyra in And Norman Sanders, another yachtsman who conducted geological experiments on Palmyra and who testified at the double murder trial, had this to say about the island:
Palmyra is one of the last uninhabited islands in the Pacific. The island is a very threatening place. It is a hostile place. I wrote in my log: "Palmyra, a world removed from time, the place where even vinyl rots. I have never seen vinylrot anywhere else."
He also wrote that "Palmyra will always belong to itself, never to man. It is a very forbidding place."
It seems that many of these experienced and adventurous sailing people ventured to Palmyra expecting to find an island nirvana, but like Fletcher Christian and the mutineers of HMS Bounty who found that life on Pitcairn Island deteriorated into a grim struggle for survival, so perhaps did their romantic notions about Palmyra soon fall apart.
The murders that took place there are but one of a long list of calamities, disasters and synchronicities that have been associated with Palmyra since its discovery in the late 17th Century. (And speaking of synchronicity, an article by Kristan Lawson entitled The Mysterious Appearance and Disappearance of Maria Laxara appeared in Strange Magazine, Issue 16 and discusses another mysterious island, Maria Laxara, which apparently has a habit of "vanishing".
Interestingly, a reproduction of a rare nautical map that accompanied the Lawson article in that issue of Strange Magazine, also shows the location of the equally enigmatic Palmyra Island near the bottom of the illustration).
Although officially listed as an island, Palmyra is actually an atoll. The difference between an atoll and an island is that an atoll is formed by the growth of coral around the rim of an ancient ocean volcano that has sunk below the surface of the sea over eons of geologic time, giving the classic atoll a circular or horseshoe shape. Hundreds of such atolls dot the massive area that is the Pacific ocean. (Perhaps the most famous of these is Bikini Atoll where the U.S. Navy tested nuclear weapons in the 1950s). In proximity are the legendary deep trenches of the Pacific: the Mariana and Tonga abyss, incredibly some seven miles deep and the epicenter of many earthquakes. The trenches also parallel strings of volcanic activity in the Pacific.
Palmyra island's coordinates are 5 degrees, 52 minutes North, 162 degrees, 6 minutes West, placing it near the very center of the Pacific ocean or about 1000 nautical miles south-southwest of Hawaii in the North Pacific Ocean, or about one-half of the way from Hawaii to American Samoa. The island measures approximately a mile and a half in length by a half mile wide. My early research for additional information on Palmyra yielded a description of the island from a United States government geographical survey that lends much to the image of the atoll as a remote and desolate 1977
Lying six degrees above the equator, [Palmyra consists of] about fifty islets covered with dense vegetation, coconut trees, and balsa-like trees up to 30 meters tall . . . the west lagoon is entered by a channel which will only accommodate vessels drawing 4 meters or less of water; much of the road, the landing strip and many causeways built during [World War II] are unserviceable and overgrownOn a nautical chart, Palmyra is but a tiny speck in the middle of the mass of blue that represents the Pacific Ocean. The island lies well off of the major shipping lanes for vessels plying the Asian/American run and is geographically perhaps one of the remotest places on earth and one of the last few truly uninhabited islands left in the world. Local fauna consists of mosquitoes and other insects, lizards, land and coconut crabs, a huge bird population, palm and coconut trees and mangrove bushes. The interior is thick jungle. The coral reef and lagoons at Palmyra are also a breeding ground for gray and blacktip reef sharks whose aggressiveness is well known throughout the Pacific. This has been noted by every person who has ever ventured to the island, sometimes with fatal consequences. (Many visitors to the island found that swimming and even wading in the island's lagoons was completely out of the question because of the large shark population and their aggressive nature).
efs and in the lagoons, many of them are inedible and poisonous because of ciguatera, a type of algae that grows on coral and which some reef fish contain in their flesh. (Eating a fish contaminated with ciguatoxins can cause severe abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, temporary blindness and even death).Palmyra Island was discovered "by accident" one night in 1798 by American sea captain Edmond Fanning while his ship the Betsy was in transit to Asia. The tale of the discovery of Palmyra is one of a psychic nature. Captain Fanning, alone in his cabin at night, was disturbed from sleep three times by such a weird premonition of danger (whether through the sixth sense that has kept many a seafaring man alive or something that can be directly attributed to Palmyra itself) that he finally went out onto the deck and shouted for the helmsman to heave to in the darkness. Dawn the next day revealed a dangerous reef lying dead ahead of the Betsy that would have ripped the entire bottom of the ship out and sent her to the bottom. As it turned out, this was the northern edge of the coral reef that surrounds Palmyra Island. A Fate magazine article of 1953 discusses this incident:He (Captain Fanning) retired at 9 p.m. as usual with conditions normal, but awoke from a sound sleep between nine and ten (o'clock) to find himself on the upper steps of the companionway. This worried him, since he had never walked in his sleep before. After a little conversation with the first mate, who was pacing the deck, he returned to his berth. He slept less than half an hour, awoke again, and found himself once more at the head of the companionway. This time he had more conversation with the mate and returned again to his berth. Then for a third time he awoke, finding himself in the same position, but fully clothed. This so disturbed Fanning that he was convinced that it was (in his words) some kind of supernatural intervention and determined to lay the ship to for the rest of the night. The other officers and crew were surprised and evidently thought his mind (was) off balance. Leaving orders that he should be called at daybreak, he retired again and this time slept soundly. In the morning they came about and resumed their (same) course, but had not sailed far when they discovered breakers (one mile) ahead. The helm was instantly put (over) and the roaring of the breakers was heard distinctly less than a mile away. All on board were impressed, realizing that had they been running free for another half hour, not one would have been alive by sunrise. (5)Although Captain Fanning noted the position of the island in the ship's log, he failed to make a timely report and the official credit for discovery went to another American captain named Swale whose ship, the Palmyra, was blown off course in a storm that pushed it onto the island in 1802.In 1816, the Esperanza, a Spanish pirate ship loaded with gold and silver plunder from the Inca temples in Peru, came under attack from another vessel and a fierce battle ensued. Several crewmembers that managed to survive the fight sailed off with the treasure only to wreck on a nearby reef. As the ship was sinking, they managed to transfer the treasure to an island, named Palmyra, located beyond the reef. Stranded there for a year, they supposedly buried the Inca gold under a tree on Palmyra and then sailed off on rafts they had built. One raft was later rescued by an American whaling ship with only a single survivor left onboard who soon succumbed from exposure and pneumonia. The other raft was never heard from again. (This bit of historical data sounds a little like the Oak Island saga, in which treasure hunters have attempted for years to reach a supposed buried treasure in a pit located under a tree. Theories as to who constructed the pit and what type of treasure it contains also include the rumor of pirate activity and Inca/Maya treasure).In 1855, a whaling ship was reported wrecked on Palmyra's dangerous reefs, but attempts to locate the ship and its crew turned up nothing.In 1911, ownership of the island was granted to Judge Henry E. Cooper of Hawaii from a purchase price of $750.00. He eventually sold all but one small islet on Palmyra (Home Island), apparently believing the rumor that priceless Inca artifacts of gold and silver, part of the pirate plunder of the Esperanza, were still buried there under a tree. With the exception of Home Island, possession of the rest of Palmyra eventually fell, in 1922, to the Fullard-Leo family, who in 1940 became embroiled in a legal skirmish with the United States over ownership. The United States wanted jurisdiction of Palmyra assigned to the Department of the Navy in anticipation of World War II in the Pacific.Although the private-ownership status of Palmyra was eventually resolved in favor of the Fullard-Leo family, the island was still used as a naval air facility during World War II in the Pacific. Palmyra also became a base of operations for air attacks against Japan. As a result, American military relics can be found in abundance there. Old gun emplacements, ammunition and fuel dumps, abandoned war equipment, machine-gun bunkers, underground tunnels and buildings, as well as what is left of the old landing strip, lend a timeless and ghostly feeling to the place.Primarily, Palmyra functioned as a refueling station during World War II for long-range air patrols and extended submarine missions against Japan in the Pacific. The island itself was attacked only once when, on December 24, 1941, a Japanese submarine surfaced offshore and began shelling the beach and a dredging barge with its deck gun. A five-inch gun battery on the island drove the submarine off.Hal Horton, a former Navy officer was stationed on Palmyra from 1942 to 1944 and had this to say about the island:Once one of our patrol planes went down near the island. We searched and searched but didn't find so much as a bolt or piece of metal. It was weird. Like they'd dropped off the edge of the earth. Another time, a plane took off from the runway, climbed to a couple hundred feet, and turned in the wrong direction. They were supposed to go north and they went south instead. It was broad daylight. We never could figure it out. There were two men aboard that plane. We never saw them again. We had some very bad luck on that island. Old salts in the Pacific called it the Palmyra curse. [The island] . . . is very small. You [could] fly over it at ten thousand feet and not see it if there [were] a few clouds in the sky. Once we heard a plane overhead trying to find us, but he crashed in the drink before he could find the runway. We didn't get to the poor guy fast enough. Sharks found him first.In 1974, the grisly double murder of a sailing couple that became the subject of the book And the Sea Will Tell took place on Palmyra. The evidence at the subsequent trial for murder showed that Mac and Muff Graham of San Diego, who had ventured to Palmyra for an extended stay of up to a year, were probably killed for their expensive sailboat, the Sea Wind, and the large quantity of food stores it contained. (The murderer was an ex-convict and fugitive named Buck Walker who, along with his girlfriend Stephanie Stearns, had also taken up residence on the island. Walker and Stearns, described by some as "hippie types", had sailed from Hawaii to Palmyra on a small and very poorly outfitted boat. Walker was later tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of the Grahams, while Stearns was acquitted, a verdict that remains controversial to this day).It was a full six years after the murders that the skeletal remains of Muff Graham were discovered washed ashore on Palmyra by South African sailors Sharon and Robert Jordan during their own extended stay on the island in 1981. Although the Jordans had heard stories from other yachting people about the murders of the Grahams, they had never connected the event to almyra atoll until they discovered a stack of old newspaper clippings about the missing couple laid out on a table in a building in the jungle, apparently left behind by someone attracted to the island because of the notoriety of the murders (and who seemingly wanted to let others know about them, too).During the course of my updating the original website version of this story for the Labyrinth13 book, I was contacted by Sharon Jordan and she agreed to be interviewed by me via email from her home in South Africa. We discussed many aspects of her extended stay on Palmyra. Concerning the murder of the Grahams, she wrote:When we arrived at Palmyra we discovered that someone had left a huge pile of newspaper clippings all about the Grahams, their sailboat, their sinister disappearance, etc. The one really strange thing was that I knew with absolute certainty that I would find the remains of at least one of the Grahams. And I did.Indeed, she did. Days later, while out beach combing, Sharon found a human skull and other bones that had apparently fallen out of a metal box of World War II vintage that had washed up on the beach after a storm. The bones were later determined to have belonged to murder victim Muff Graham. (Sharon Jordan's discovery of Muff Graham's skeletal remains is in itself a long shot at the odds in that Sharon just happened to be walking along that particular stretch of one of the earth's most isolated beaches at what experts later determined was most likely the only time that the bones would ever be exposed. Evidence at the murder trial showed that the next tide would have most certainly washed the bones back out to sea to disappear forever).I also corresponded with Rob Jordan about his experiences on Palmyra. In one of his emails to me, he wrote:When first seeing the box lying there with the bones spewing out of it -- it really left no doubt as to what had taken place. That instant, gut feeling, was overwhelming. One of those situations where you know you could analyze it to death -- but you knew, without a doubt, what had gone down. I'm sure Sharon can tell you exactly the sequence of events -- she is fastidiously precise in such issues. The condition of the remains suggested that Muff Graham had been either shot or bludgeoned to death, her body dismembered, and then burned with an acetylene torch.Her body was then placed in a small metal storage container that had been removed from one of the old military rescue boats on the island and then finally dumped into the lagoon.Just what forces actually caused the container with Muff Graham's remains to surface is still a mystery. Vincent Bugliosi, author of And the Sea Will Tell, noted how the average human body, even when confined inside a container, usually floats to the surface in about ten days. Strangely, the container holding Muff Graham's body seems to have stayed submerged for almost seven years. (Sharon Jordan told me that she felt that it was possible that her and Rob Jordan's raising of a submerged boat from the bottom of Palmyras lagoon -- the same boat from which the two missing containers had been lifted -- might have somehow caused a disturbance that allowed the container to break free from the bottom). It is also a mystery as to how the heavy wire that had been wrapped around the lid of the container to hold it shut came loose. Sharon Jordan found the wire lying next to the container still bent in the exact shape of the box that it was once wrapped around
Mac Graham's remains have never been recovered and are believed to have been hidden in a second missing container, perhaps somewhere on or near the island. That fact that Mac is still missing remains as one of the more enduring mysteries of Palmyra).In the hope of obtaining new information regarding the mystery of what actually happened to Mac Graham's body, I corresponded with author Vincent Bugliosi. He very kindly answered my questions about some of the lingering mysteries associated with Palmyra and the murders that occurred there. In response to my question as to what he believes may have happened to Mac Graham's body, Mr. Bugliosi replied that he did not think that an adequate search had ever been undertaken -- due mainly to the atoll's high shark population -- and that Mac's body was either still hidden somewhere in Palmyras lagoon or had been washed out to sea.John Bryden, a witness at the murder trial, was a rugged outdoor adventurer who had spent fourteen months on Palmyra prior to the murders, trying to start a coconut plantation without success. Appearing not to be the type of individual who could be easily frightened, he nonetheless testified at the trial that there were times when (Palmyra) felt like a foreboding place. It sometimes felt a little bit spooky. (Tom Wolfe, a yachtsman who was on Palmyra just before the murders, testified at four different criminal trials in relation to the crime. Just one month prior to the trial, Wolfe had an experience that is either a further bit of testimony from the realm of synchronicity or a part of the strange residual power that affects those who have had contact with Palmyra: one morning, after a brutal storm had hit the coast along his beachfront home located on the Puget Sound in Washington, Wolfe went out for a walk along the shore to see what kind of flotsam the storm may have deposited on the beach. A mere forty feet from his house, he spotted a cylindrical object washed up on some rocks. Uncovering the object, he was astonished to discover that it was a cardboard mailing tube containing three copies of the Palmyra Island detail chart! Recounting this story later to one of the defense attorneys in the trial, Wolfe could only wonder at what strange forces could have caused the Palmyra chart to wash up literally on his doorstep on the eve of his scheduled testimony during a critical stage of the trial. He noted that "finding that damn chart was eerie [and] I'm not the superstitious type, but I'll admit, it really shook me. It was as if Palmyra, the island itself, had reached out and touched me from three thousand miles away." (If not a supernatural occurrence, one would have to wonder what the astronomical odds were of such a thing happening. In my correspondence with Tom, he told me that he still has those charts today, slightly warped with some bits of seaweed clinging to the outer edges).I was able to interview Tom Wolfe while preparing the final version of this story. Tom was at Palmyra for a little less than a week and just days before the Grahams were murdered. He would get to know Mac and Muff Graham personally, as well as both Buck Walker and Stephanie Stearns (in fact, Wolfe was attacked and bitten by one of Walker's pit bulls his first morning on the island). During dinner aboard the Grahams' boat on Wolfe's final evening on the island, Muff confided to Wolfe that she lived in fear of Buck Walker.Prior to sailing away from Palmyra for the island of Samoa, Tom agreed to mail some letters for Muff that she had written to her friends and family in which she may have uncannily foretold of her own demise. In one of those letters, Muff wrote to friends making the comment that "I think this place is evil."And the list of strange things that occur in connection with Palmyra keeps growing; like the Sirens of Greek mythology whose sweet singing lured sailors to their deaths on rocky coasts, Palmyra also seems to beckon:
- In 1977, sailor Amanda Lane and four friends, while sailing to Hawaii from Micronesia, made a stop at Palmyra only to be frightened off the island after just a single night by a group of strange "hippies" who had taken up residence there. According to Lane, she and her group fled in fear from the island after the hippies told them a weird story about the possible deathly fate that might have befallen one member of their group, a tale that Amanda and crew took to be a sort of veiled threat of violence and that the hippies might have been trying to imply that it was not wise of them to stay for very long on Palmyra. Years later, Amanda came to believe that the hippies might have been fully aware of the fate that had befallen the Grahams and may have been trying to take advantage of that notoriety in order to have Palmyra all to themselves.
- In 1981, John Harrison, a Canadian yachtsman, along with his two daughters, were marooned on Palmyra after their sailboat was struck by a typhoon and de-masted. With the help of fuel air-dropped to them by the Coast Guard, Harrison and his daughters managed to motor their disabled vessel to Palmyra. There they subsisted on fish, coconuts and what they had salvaged from their vessel, supplementing this diet with canned goods supplied by Palmyra's only permanent resident at the time, self-appointed caretaker and island hermit, Ray Landrum.
- They remained on Palmyra for over a month while a somewhat bizarre legal entanglement and the foot dragging of both the United States and Canadian governments ensued over who should be responsible for assisting the three castaways. They were eventually rescued by plane after spending days clearing the old runway on the island.
- In 1987, after acting on a tip from a fishing vessel, a Coast Guard C-130 aircraft sighted a sailboat just southeast of Palmyra. An aerial inspection revealed no sign of life
- on board the drifting sailboat and Coast Guard personnel noted that the mast was broken off and that the sails were torn and shredded. A week after the sighting, the vessel was boarded by Coast Guardsmen. who found the skeletal remains of owner Manning Edward onboard. The cause of death was undetermined. But prior to leaving on his extended three-year voyage through the Pacific, Manning had spoken excitedly about his plan to visit an uninhabited island called Palmyra.
- In 1989, another sailboat named the Sea Dreamer, in transit from San Diego to Hawaii was caught in a storm that pushed her far off course to the south, and onto Palmyra Island. After a brief stay on the island, the boat again departed for Hawaii and then disappeared. An extensive search by the Coast Guard between Palmyra and Hawaii and even along the coast of the United States failed to turn up any trace of the Sea Dreamer and the four members of the Graham Hughes family that were her crew. (Again in the spirit of synchronicity, you will recall that the murdered couple, Mac and Muff Graham, were also from San Diego and their vessel was named the Sea Wind). (17)A last eerie note: Apparently Muff Graham may have had a premonition of her own death before she even left for Palmyra. In And the Sea Will Tell, the authors noted that Muff Graham often frequented a spiritualist from whom she sought advice. In a visit that took place just one week prior to her departure for Palmyra, the spiritualist warned Muff that something terrible would happen to her and Mac if she made the journey.Additionally, Muff's friend, Marie Jamieson, was completely convinced that Muff had ESP abilities and was able to "receive vibes" of a psychic nature. In one incident that occurred just prior to her departure for Palmyra, Muff, while trying to give Marie a farewell gift of a porcelain figurine of the Virgin Mary, discovered that the figure had a huge crack in its forehead (as would Muff's own skull when it was later discovered on Palmyra). She (Muff) was suddenly overwhelmed with a feeling of intense dread and holding the broken statue, tearfully told her friend, "Look at her . . . Look at what's happened to her . . . Don't you see? The hole in her head," and then finally "I'm not coming back . . .Mac and I will never see you again." Marie would later tell her husband that when Muff was telling her goodbye, she (Marie) sensed that Muff was actually telling her goodbye forever.Whether all of the above data, when considered in its entirety, simply points toward a series of meaningful coincidences or indicates actual supernatural occurrences, it still seems to me that Palmyra atoll is and always will be a truly enigmatic place, especially when one contrasts its pristine beauty in comparison to the alleged curse.Remembering the words of Norman Sanders, I can't help but agree that Palmyra not only "will always belong to itself, never to man," but that as the final word on the subject, that is the way things should be.Palmyra, 900 miles southeast of Johnston, also figured in the early development of a safe plane route to the southern theater of war. But before the atoll faded from the action reports it too got a taste of the gunfire of a Japanese submarine. At dawn on 24 December an enemy raider surfaced 3,000 yards south of the main island and began firing on the dredge Sacramentowhich was anchored in the lagoon and clearly visible between two of Palmyra's numerous tiny islets. Only one hit was registered before the fire of the 5-inch battery drove the submarine under. Damage to the dredge was minor and no one was injured. Colonel Pickett's command at Pearl Harbor had organized strong reinforcements for Palmyra and these arrived before the end of December. Lieutenant Colonel Bert A. Bone, Commanding Officer of the 1st Defense Battalion, arrived with the additional men, guns, and equipment to assume command of the defense force. On 2 March the official designation of the Marine garrison on Palmyra was changed to 1st Defense Battalion and former 1st Battalion men at other bases were absorbed by local commands. The Marine Detachment at Johnston became a separate unit. After these submarine attacks of December, Palmyra and Johnston drop from the pages of an operational history. The atolls had served their purpose well; they guarded a vulnerable flank of the Hawaiian Islands at a time when such protection was a necessity. While the scene of active fighting shifted westward the garrisons remained alert, and when conditions permitted it many of the men who had served out the first hectic days of the war on these lonely specks in the ocean moved on to the beachheads of the South and Central Pacific
Larry Carlini-s father (Joe Carlini) is a world war two vet, he spent about 18 months duty on palmyra island. He was in the USMC First Defense Battalion, anti aircraft gunner, a pearl harbor survivor, stationed at the Naval air station in Pearl, during the Jap surprize attack Dec 7 1941. He was in the Marine corps barracks. Shortly after the attack on Dec 7, he was sent to Palmyra with and was in anti aircraft 5 in. guns on the island. he has many stories, the only combat he saw there was a jap sub sank a civilian dredge being used to dredge the harbor, or something like that
. He says there was an airstrip that F4F Grumman wildcats flew from every day to protect the island.My dad, Wilson Reed, was in San Diego when Pearl Harbor was bombed. He was in C company 1st Marines 2nd Division, C company was detached and sent to Palmyra in Late January '42. He stayed there until March '43. He was in the PX as well as manning machine guns. He told me one story of a Marine who was killed using a power saw, he was placed in a block of cement and buried at sea. He said that during the battle of Midway, 8 planes came in from Pearl Harbor an crashed on landing. They were on radio black out so they couldn't tell Pearl about the wrecks. That night he said Tokoyo Rose talked about the damaged planes. He figured a jap sub was off shore watching them. Ed Madl was also on Palmyra with dad. They stayed close all these years. Dad died May 15, 2001. If you are interested go to the Nature Conservency web site and look up Palmyra, they have lots of photos take on an expidetion last May.