The Mystery of the Missing Keepers at the Flannan Isles Lighthouse

iStock.com/Westbury
iStock.com/Westbury

In December 1900, a boat called Hesperus set sail for the island of Eilean Mor, one of the seven islets (also known as the “Seven Hunters”) of the Flannan Isles off the coast of northwestern Scotland. Captain James Harvey was tasked with delivering a relief lighthouse keeper as part of a regular rotation. The journey was delayed a few days by bad weather, and when Harvey and his crew finally arrived, it was clear that something was awry. None of the normal preparations at the landing dock had been made, the flagstaff was bare, and none of the keepers came to greet the Hesperus. The keepers, as it turned out, weren’t on the island at all. All three of them had vanished.

Eilean Mor had its peculiarities. The island’s only permanent residents were sheep, and herders referred to it as “the other country,” believing it to be a place touched by something paranormal. Eilean Mor had long elicited a sort of fearful reverence in its visitors; the main draw to the remote location was a chapel built in the 7th century by St. Flannan. Even those who never prayed were moved to worship while on Eilean Mor. Superstitions and rituals—like circling the church’s ruins on your knees—were adopted by those passing through, and many considered Eilean Mor to have an indefinable aura that could not be ignored.

What the Hesperus crew did find at the lighthouse was a set of perplexing clues. The replacement keeper, Joseph Moore, was the first to investigate, and reported an all-encompassing sense of dread as he ascended the cliff toward the newly constructed lighthouse. Inside, the kitchen table contained plates of meat, potatoes, and pickles. The clock was stopped, and there was an overturned chair nearby. The lamp was ready for lighting, and two of the three oilskin coats belonging to Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Donald McArthur were gone. The gate and door were firmly shut.

These clues only led to more questions. Why would one of the keepers have gone out without his coat—and for that matter, why would all three have left together at all when the rules forbade it? Someone needed to man the post at all times, so something unusual must have drawn them out. When Moore returned with his report, Harvey had the island searched. The hunt came up empty. The captain then sent a telegram to the mainland:

A dreadful accident has happened at Flannans. The three Keepers, Ducat, Marshall and the occasional have disappeared from the island. On our arrival there this afternoon no sign of life was to be seen on the Island.

Fired a rocket but, as no response was made, managed to land Moore, who went up to the Station but found no Keepers there. The clocks were stopped and other signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago. Poor fellows they must been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane or something like that.

Night coming on, we could not wait to make something as to their fate.

I have left Moore, MacDonald, Buoymaster and two Seamen on the island to keep the light burning until you make other arrangements. Will not return to Oban until I hear from you. I have repeated this wire to Muirhead in case you are not at home. I will remain at the telegraph office tonight until it closes, if you wish to wire me.

Further investigations also led nowhere, though the lighthouse log book provided a new set of confounding details. On December 12, an entry from Marshall described “severe winds the likes of which I have never seen before in twenty years.” He wrote that Ducat had been quiet and McArthur had been crying, which would have been odd behavior for a man with a reputation as a tough and experienced seafarer. The next day, Marshall reported more storm details and wrote that all three of them had been praying—another odd bit of behavior from well-seasoned keepers in a brand-new, supposedly safe lighthouse. Strangest of all, there were no reported storms in the area on December 12th, 13, or 14—all should have been calm up until December 17. The last report in the book, from December 15, read: “Storm ended, sea calm. God is over all.”

Speculation ran wild. Was it something supernatural? Sea creatures? A case of madness and murder? A government operation? Foreign spies? Aliens? Ultimately, it was evidence outside the lighthouse that provided the most promising lead in explaining what had become of the three keepers. Over at the western landing platform, damage from the recent storms reached as high as 200 feet above sea level. Ropes that were usually affixed to a crate on a supply crane were littered about.

Robert Muirhead, superintendent of the Commissioners of Northern Lights, wrote in his official report:

I am of the opinion that the most likely explanation of this disappearance of the men is that they had all gone down on the afternoon of Saturday, 15 December to the proximity of the West landing, to secure the box with the mooring ropes, etc and that an unexpectedly large roller had come up on the island, and a large body of water going up higher than where they were and coming down upon them had swept them away with resistless force.

While this (or a similar approximation) seems possible, the explanation left considerable room for doubt. The lack of bodies, supposedly calm conditions, and sheer experience and know-how of the lighthouse keepers still hadn’t been accounted for, and never would be. In the years following, other keepers claimed to hear voices in the salty air screaming out the names of Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Donald McArthur.

In Mysterious Celtic Mythology in American Folklore, author Bob Curran writes: “For many local people, there was little doubt that they had been spirited into the otherworld.”

Could Gigantic Coconut Crabs Have Played a Part in Amelia Earhart’s Mysterious Disappearance? At Least One Scientist Thinks So

Getty Images
Getty Images

Amelia Earhart's disappearance during her attempt to fly around the world has captivated historians and conspiracy theorists for more than 80 years. One organization is now suggesting that her fate may have been sealed by giant crabs.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) believes that Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan may have landed their plane on Nikumaroro Island when they couldn't find their target, Howland Island, and that Nikumaroro's endemic crustaceans may have played a part in the ensuing mystery.

According to National Geographic, there are several clues supporting TIGHAR's theory. The large reef that hugs Nikumaroro’s coast makes it conducive to emergency aircraft landings. In 1940—just three years after Earhart’s disappearance—British colonists found 13 human bones beneath a ren tree on the island and shipped them to Fiji, where they were lost. The colony's administrator, Gerald Gallagher, sent a telegram back to England positing that it was Earhart’s skeleton. Then, in 2001, researchers uncovered U.S.-made artifacts around the ren tree including a jackknife, a woman’s compact, a zipper, and glass jars. The plot thickened even further in 2017, when four forensic bone-sniffing dogs all indicated that a human had indeed died at the site, though excavators failed to dig up any more evidence.

If those 13 bones beneath the ren tree did belong to the unfortunate castaway, where are the rest of her remains? Tom King, TIGHAR’s former chief archaeologist, thinks that coconut crabs can answer that question.

Nikumaroro is home to thousands of the colossal creatures, which can grow to a terrifying 3 feet across and weigh 9 pounds. They’re sometimes called robber crabs because of their penchant for absconding with objects that smell like food, and they’ll eat practically anything—coconuts, fruit, birds, rodents, other crabs, their own discarded body parts, and carrion.

It’s not unreasonable, then, to think that coconut crabs may have feasted on Earhart’s corpse and then taken her bones home with them. In one experiment to test the theory, TIGHAR researchers deposited a pig carcass on the island and filmed the aftermath. With the help of small strawberry hermit crabs, coconut crabs stripped the pig down to the bone in two weeks. After a year, some of the bones had been dragged 60 feet from the carcass’s original location, and some were never recovered at all.

King believes Earhart’s missing 193 bones could be hidden in the burrows of various coconut crabs. As in the pig experiment, crabs may have scattered some of Earhart’s bones dozens of feet away, but maybe not all of them—after all, the forensic dogs smelled bones near the ren tree that haven’t yet been located. Right now, TIGHAR is working with the Canine Forensics Foundation to further explore the area.

While we wait for more answers, dive into these other theories about Earhart’s disappearance.

[h/t National Geographic]

Campsite Killer: The Unsolved Mystery of the Lake Bodom Murders

Brett Taylor/iStock via Getty Images
Brett Taylor/iStock via Getty Images

The worst night of Nils Wilhelm Gustafsson’s life is one he doesn’t even remember. On June 4, 1960, Gustafsson, then 18, headed for a campground in Espoo, Finland, to spend time with his friends. The group included Seppo Antero Boisman; Boisman’s girlfriend, Anja Tuulikki Maki; and Gustafsson’s girlfriend, Maila Irmeli Bjorklund. The teenagers pitched a single tent on the shore of Lake Bodom and commenced a night of socializing and drinking. At some point in the evening, they retired to the tent.

The next morning, two boys hiking through the campgrounds on a bird-watching expedition noticed the tent from a distance. They weren’t close enough to see many details, but it was clear the tent had been torn and slashed. Nearby, a man with blond hair appeared to be walking away from the campsite.

The boys continued on, apparently thinking little of it. Later that morning, a local passed by the tent and was close enough to observe a shocking sight. Outside the tent lay Gustafsson and Bjorklund, bloodied and battered (by some accounts, Bjorklund was partly hidden inside the tent's fabric). Authorities found Boisman and Maki inside, their bodies displaying knife gashes and injuries consistent with being bludgeoned. Bjorklund, Boisman, and Maki were dead. Only Gustafsson had survived whatever assault had taken place. When police asked him what had happened, he could say only that a shadowy figure dressed in black with bright red eyes appeared and viciously attacked the group.

Months and years would pass, with police unable to garner any additional detail from the lone survivor of the horrific event. It was a case so sensational it became common knowledge among residents of Finland. Everyone knew of the Lake Bodom killings and how authorities were unable to locate the perpetrator. Children were cautioned not to be out after dark in case the killer was still lurking.

That all changed in March 2004. After nearly a half-century, DNA evidence prompted prosecuting attorneys to haul in a suspect they claimed had motive to commit the murders. The case had the backing of forensic science unavailable to investigators in 1960.

Their suspect was Nils Gustafsson.

 

Investigators hadn't suspected Gustafsson at the time of the murders. When Finnish police arrived at the crime scene, he was in bad shape, with a broken jaw, bruises, and a concussion. He couldn't remember anything other than his account of a supernatural figure, which seemed borne out of a state of shock.

Police tried to piece together what had transpired based on physical evidence. On June 4, the group had arrived at the campsite near Lake Bodom, a popular spot for camping and fishing located about 14 miles from Helsinki, on motorcycles. The bikes were still there when the authorities arrived, but the keys were missing. Gustafsson’s shoes were also thought to be lost, until investigators turned them up roughly a half-mile from the campsite. No murder weapon was found on the scene.

The most curious observation was how the killer had launched the assault. The teens had seemingly been knifed and clubbed while they were still inside the tent, with the killer slashing through the shelter in order to stab them. Gustafsson had been found on top of the tent. According to some version of events, so had Bjorklund, meaning she either crawled out of the tent or her body must have been moved between the time of the attack and when police arrived.

Finnish investigators examine the Lake Bodom crime scene in Espoo, Finland in June 1960
Finnish investigators examine the Lake Bodom crime scene in Espoo, Finland in June 1960.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The scene would have been mystifying under most circumstances. But investigators made their own jobs harder by failing to secure the area completely, and inviting search parties to look for clues. Their assistance meant the crime scene was disturbed, making evaluations for footprints or other evidence difficult.

With a paucity of physical evidence, the likelihood of finding a resolution did not seem promising. No arrests were made, and only a handful of suspects emerged in the years that followed. One person of interest was Karl Valdemar Gyllström, who ran a kiosk business on the campgrounds and was reputed to be an extremely irate man who often took issue with campers, presumably due to noise issues. Gyllström was said to have cut tent stakes out of spite and even threw rocks at visitors if he was in an especially foul mood. In the campfire lore that surrounded the crime, some believed Gyllström had simply snapped and brutally assaulted the Gustafsson party.

The surface of a lake is pictured
mukk/iStock via Getty Images

The theory gained momentum when Gyllström died by suicide in 1969. Supposedly, before dying he drunkenly confessed to the murders. As damning as that seemed, police declared Gyllström could not have committed the crime. According to his wife, he'd been in bed with her on the night of the attack (though some argue that it was a coerced alibi). The confession was purportedly false, though it’s not clear what may have prompted Gyllström to take responsibility for the killings.

Police had other leads, too. There was Pauli Luoma, who was said to be in the vicinity of the campsite, but his alibi for that night—being in another town—was confirmed. Pentti Soinenen was a crook who confessed to the murders while being held in jail on other charges. Little else linked him to the crime, however, and police considered it nothing more than jailhouse bragging.

Another suspect, the unfortunately named Hans Assmann, had more of a reason to seem suspicious. A physician named Jorma Palo insisted that at some point after the murders, Assmann had come into Helsinki Surgical Hospital with dirt under his fingernails and blood on his clothes. English-language accounts of the crime don’t specify why he was seeking treatment. But when police looked into it, they found Assmann had a credible alibi.

No one, it seemed, could be placed at the scene. No one other than the man who had managed to come out alive.

 

For decades, the Lake Bodom mystery sat unsolved. Meanwhile, DNA testing was growing into a viable way to re-examine both current and cold cases, first being used in the 1980s. But Finland, with just a single forensics lab serving the entire country, had little bandwidth to turn its attention to old investigations. The Lake Bodom murders weren't revisited until 2004, when a fresh look at Gustafsson's shoes became the focal point of a new round of accusations.

Themis, goddess of justice, against a background of red law books
djedzura/iStock via Getty Images

Forensic scientists at the country's National Bureau of Investigation crime lab tested the shoes and found blood from the victims. Remarkably, the shoes were missing any blood from Gustafsson himself. How he could have been attacked along with the others, yet only have their DNA on his shoes, was puzzling. The explanation, authorities believed, was that he had committed the attacks himself, then discarded his shoes before somehow assaulting himself to make it look like he had been maimed by a third party.

Investigators theorized that Gustafsson could have been compelled to murder the three because of some jealousy. Indeed, someone who was staying at a nearby campsite the evening of the murders testified in court that she saw Gustafsson and Boisman in a heated argument, with Gustafsson appearing to be heavily inebriated. Perhaps, investigators thought, Bjorklund had rejected his advances. Or maybe Gustafsson believed Boisman was making a pass at her. That would explain why Bjorklund had seemingly been stabbed and hit with more frequency than the others. The police hypothesized Gustafsson had been exiled from the tent, possibly after a fistfight with Boisman left him with a fractured jaw. He then returned in a rage, the theory went, swinging a knife through the tent until his friends were dead.

The district prosecutor in Espoo had enough faith in the story to bring charges against Gustafsson, with the potential for life in prison if he was convicted. In protesting his innocence, his lawyer, Riitta Leppiniemi, argued that Gustafsson’s blood had been inside the tent and that being pummeled at the hands of Boisman to the point of a broken jaw would have left him in no condition to violently murder three people. Leppiniemi also criticized the eyewitness testimony of the camper, who had stayed silent about the fight she had purportedly witnessed for 45 years for no discernible reason, and couldn’t remember certain key details.

During the 2005 trial, a police officer named Markku Tuominen claimed Gustafsson was candid after his arrest, and said, “What’s done is done,” predicting he’d get 15 years for the crime. But Gustafsson rejected that and stuck largely to the same story he’d been telling for decades. He couldn’t remember anything other than going fishing with Boisman and that there was no argument.

Lake Bodom in the winter is pictured
Felipe Tofani, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The court ultimately found that there was insufficient evidence to convict Gustafsson, citing that too much time had passed to compile an accurate picture of the event. Gustafsson was freed.

With nearly 60 years having passed since the events of June 1960, no answers appear to be forthcoming. The crime is still part of Finnish folklore. It inspired one heavy metal band to dub themselves Children of Bodom; the band even released a beer made of water from the lake. Some in Finland have tried to turn Gustafsson’s claim that he didn’t remember anything into an inadvertent confession. If he couldn’t remember what happened, how did he know he didn’t do it? But such logic is not for the purview of courtrooms.

Another question is why Gustafsson's shoes were left so far from the campsite. If he took them off to sleep, why not place them near the tent? And who was the blond man the boys saw walking away from what they later learned was the scene of the crime? (Assmann was blond; it's not entirely clear what hair color Gustafsson had at the time of the attacks.) And if Gustafsson had somehow worked up the nerve to stab himself in a staged attack, why wasn’t there a blood trail leading to wherever the knife was deposited or hidden?

The only clarity around the murders is that someone was successful in killing three people at the shore of Lake Bodom. Whether it was a man, woman, group, or something with glowing red eyes, they appear to have gotten away with it.

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