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Saturday, December 25, 2021

Decemystery (2021) 25: Eliza Battle

 

Each year, I always do a story involving a ship of some sort. This year, however, I came very close to not doing so. I was feeling really unmotivated and most of the mysterious ships I could find were either over done (The Kaz II and Sarah Joe for example), or simply weren’t interesting (like the MV Kairali). Luckily, at the last minute, I came across one: the Eliza Battle. I’d actually heard of this story a few years back, but totally forgotten about it. When I was skimming through the Wikipedia page on it, my eyes lit up; it was perfect. So come along, board the S.S. Vertigo once more and enjoy the beautiful, crystal-clear ocean once again. It’s time to head on over to Alabama and cover a ghost ship on fire!

The Story


As is the case with any story about a boat, let’s start things off by going over the Eliza Battle herself. She was a luxurious boat for her time. A wooden paddle steamer, the ship could be considered something of a public yacht for that era. By today’s standards, the ship would be deemed a safety hazard should even one person decide to light up a cigarette, but for her time: she was one of the best ships you could sail upon should you have more than a few dollars to spare!


Okay, maybe that’s underestimating what “wealth” was like in the mid-1800s, but let’s just run with it. Moving onwards: I’m not sure exactly how long it took to build her. What I do know is that the Eliza Battle first took sail at some point in 1852; Wikipedia states she was “launched in New Albany, Indiana”. After that, the ship went south to Alabama, typically sailing between Columbus, Mississippi and her home of Mobile, Alabama to deliver cargo and what have you. These trips were along the Tombigbee River, which flows between the aforementioned two states.


Cargo in the form of various goods weren’t the only things to be transported by the Eliza Battle though. Nay, during her life, the ship saw a great many people sail upon her; wealthy individuals even the 13th President of the United States, Millard Fillmore, traveled on the ship. A rather fitting number given what happened to the boat. His little voyage aboard the ship took place on April 7, 1854. 


All things considered: the Eliza Battle was quite a prestigious ship. For all I snark about it being a safety hazard and whatnot, the ship truly was something that the common man would likely not see themselves on. It’s honestly a shame there aren’t many photos of it so we could admire just how far the concept of “luxury” has come since the 1850s. The best I can find is the image below; it’s certainly a marvelous ship. I wonder what the interior looked like.



Though with that, we now know what our ship was in life. Now let’s get to what could be considered the action—the really morbid action. At some point towards the end of February, in 1858, the Eliza Battle departed from Columbus, Mississippi, with her destination being the usual: Mobile, Alabama. She was being captained by S. Graham Stone, and Daniel Epps served as the pilot. During the voyage, the ship made a few stops; Wikipedia states them to be Pickensville, Alabama, Gainesville, Alabama, and Demopolis, Alabama. After the stop in Demopolis, the ship had quite a hefty load aboard her. There were a whopping 1,200 bales of cotton and a lot of passengers. The number varies from source to source; some say that there were 56 passengers and 45 crew members, while others say there were 60 passengers. It’s possible the latter number is rounding, but it’s a bit irritating in my eyes.


My opinion doesn’t really matter in the long run though. So getting back on track: all was going more or less smoothly. While the Eliza Battle sailed along the Tombigbee River, disaster struck. At around 2:00 A.M., on March 1, 1858, the crew discovered that the cotton bales had caught fire. Exactly what triggered the fire isn’t known, though Wikipedia (through an article by the New York Times) states that it was “partially attributed to the strong winds” that were being experienced during the trip.


That explanation is, as far as I can tell, the “official” one. An article on MSN about the event has a little section dedicated to the “legends” and it mentions that there are other explanations for what triggered the fire. Their source is a website called riverboatdaves.com, which has two letters that were published in the Birmingham News, which I’ll make a brief note of now (since they ultimately aren’t the point of this story).


Reportedly, there was an article in 1942 by the Birmingham News that stated a man (whose name isn’t known) confessed on his deathbed that he and a friend of his caused the fire. This man claimed that he and his friend robbed the boat and then presumably destroyed an oil-burning lamp on one of the many cotton bales so they could cover their tracks. This seems like an interesting way to make an escape when the ship would have still been sailing, but you do you.


Another theory posits that a group of professional gamblers caused the fire as an act of revenge; Captain Stone had reportedly caught them in the act and then “pulled” them off the ship. Quite the gamble on the captain’s part, amirite fellas?


The third and final theory that’s put forward is the one that’s deemed the most “plausible”. It posits that one of the ship’s passengers was smoking a cigar and flicked it, believing that it would land into the river. Alas, it landed on one of the cotton bales.


At least, that’s what I’m thinking the theory is. The wording in the letter makes it seem like he threw it directly on a cotton bale, but said passenger thought he was throwing it into the river. I don’t know if the letter writer is insinuating that the passenger was drunk, or if I’m just misreading it badly. Here’s the actual wording:


The most plausible account is that a merrymaking passenger threw a cigar sub on a bale of cotton thinking he was tossing into the river and the fire resulted. 


Maybe I’m giving too much credit to a person from the 1850s who was smoking a cigar by assuming they wouldn’t callously throw it onto something flammable. Ehh, whatever. I personally think it was robbers. I just have a funny little feeling they’d do something like this.


Anyways, let’s move on. Whatever the case may have been, the winds that terrible night were certainly responsible for the fire spreading as rapidly as it did. In fact, it spread so fast that the majority of those on board the Eliza Battle weren’t able to even reach the lifeboats (though some crafty folks took refuge by using the cotton bales and used them to float to safety). For those who weren’t so lucky to get a free trip aboard the MV Cotton Bale, they were left with only one choice: jump into the river itself. That wouldn’t be too bad if it wasn’t for one little fact: the water was extremely cold. At the time of the fire, the temperature outside was roughly 40 degrees Fahrenheit (a little over 4 degrees Celsius). That, coupled with the wind, and you have a recipe for hypothermia!


The survivors of the tragedy were later saved by a ship called the Magnolia, which unfortunately I have no information on. Still, those on board her—along with some locals—aided in the rescue. Meanwhile, the deceased were said to have perished from either drowning or exposure. I find this a bit odd since I can’t imagine that everyone on board escaped the fire itself, but I don’t believe the specifics of where the fire originated—or how quickly those on the ship got off—are available. If they are, let me know; I’d appreciate it immensely.


The Eliza Battle herself eventually docked (by which I mean it just stopped moving because it likely ran aground a bit) at a location called Kemp’s Landing. Although the amount of time between the ship catching fire and sinking, I think it’s safe to say that it wasn’t that long. Most of the boat was eaten by the blaze. Nowadays, you could say the ship was like the S.S. Activision-Blizzard; she went up in flames and sank in a blaze of shame.


Topical humor is great and makes me relevant, right folks? No? You say it makes me look like a fool? Major content creator jokes lied to me!


My woefully bad attempts at being topical aside, there’s one fascinating aspect to this story that needs to be mentioned. In spite of the fire consuming the Eliza Battle, the entire ship wasn’t destroyed. Amazingly, the hull is still intact all these years later, now rests at the bottom of the river—which is 28 feet (8.5 meters). I don’t know if it’s easily visible since I don’t know much about the Tombigbee River and how visible it is (I can’t imagine it’s that clear given it seems to flood quite often during the winter), but it’s still really fascinating. Part of me wonders if any remains have survived—even if it’s something as small as a tooth.


In total, more than half of those on board lost their lives. I’ve seen the death toll be as “low” as 30 and as high as 90. Whatever the true number was is likely to never been actually known, but one thing is for certain. The disaster of the Eliza Battle was the worst to ever occur on the Tombigbee River.


With that, we come to the end of the Eliza Battle’s story—but not the end of the story as a whole. While there is definitely a mystery as to how the fire began, there really isn’t much to go off of. We only have an anonymous confession, and there’s only so much we can work with there. However, there is one other strange little mystery surrounding the ship that’s made it famous all these years later.


That fame comes from a very popular legend in Alabama that the Eliza Battle can be seen as a ghost ship on the Tombigbee River. This legend is best documented in Kathryn Tucker Windham’s book Thirteen Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey. For those curious: Jeffrey is the name of a ghost that Kathryn claims resided in her home when she was young. Anyways, within the pages of the book, the Eliza Battle is referred to as the “Phantom Steamboat of the Tombigbee”, and its legend is quite the tale to hear. Of course, I can’t verbally tell you what it is, so it is instead quite the tale to read. Second best is still second best, right? Right.


I personally don’t own Kathryn’s book, so all I can really do is go off of what I’ve read about the book. Though from what I know, the legend states that one can see the Eliza Battle on cold and/or windy, winter nights. The ship itself isn’t really that hard to spot; it’s apparently an inferno, completely consumed in fire. This brightness of the fire is apparently so great that one can easily make out the name of the ship on its sides. There are also some who claim that music can be heard playing from it. I like to imagine that the song playing is Franz Ferdinand’s This Fire.


That joke just got me a one-way ticket to Hell.


Well, now that I’ve sealed my fate, let’s continue. The ship is typically seen where the catastrophe itself occurred (nothing exactly unique there; that’s common with a lot of ghosts/ghost cars/ghost ships/ghost planes/ghost animals/whatever other kinds of ghosts I’m forgetting). Apparently, besides the music and ghostliness of the boat, all it’ll do is sail before vanishing. Nothing exactly spectacular, though rivermen and sailors began to say that the arrival of the Eliza Battle was actually a warning of an impending disaster; those who were to sail along the river were doomed to meet a tragic fate.


Scary stuff—in my eyes at least. Though it’s just a legend. However, legends almost always originate from somewhere, and that means that someone had to have first told the tale of the Eliza Battle returning as a ghost ship. And if we’re to believe that the legend became so great that the ship can find itself listed on Booboone and Listverse as one of the scariest ghost ships ever, then surely many have seen it, right? Well…


I can’t find any first-hand stories.


No, I’m not joking. I tried and tried to find at least one personal encounter from someone, but every single website or blog I went to all had more or less the exact same thing written: people now consider the appearance of the Eliza Battle—the “Burning Boat”—to be a bad omen/harbinger of disaster. It’s like the ship equivalent of Mothman—or rather, Mothman is the cryptid equivalent to the Eliza Battle (given West Virginia’s most iconic legend wasw first seen 108 years after the Eliza Battle sank).


The closest I can get to anything unique in the way of information as to who has seen the Eliza Battle comes from a blog by the name of seeksghosts. The article in question was on the Eliza Battle, and was posted on August 22, 2011. It’s a decent little write-up that covers the basics of the story in what I can imagine is an easier read than my long-winded rambling. But anyways, someone named “Unknown” (I don’t know if their account was deleted or what) left a comment on December 7, 2012. It reads as follows:


I run a tug that transits the area of this disaster. I always get a strange feeling when I'm passing through this part of the river. Have been told by several other boast that they have heard music in this area. One guy told me he has people standing on the river banks a night in the trees waving for help


This was the only real first-hand account I could find about the ship, and it’s really nothing special in my opinion. Though given that paranormal lore tends to state that the site of a tragedy can sometimes leave behind an energy that leads to a feeling of foreboding or impending doom, I think it’s worth mentioning.


Beyond that, the only other thing I would deem “special” was a video entitled The 1858 "Eliza Battle" Sinking: A Famous American Ghost Ship, which was posted to YouTube by a lady named Stephanie Hoover. She’s apparently a non-fiction author who’s written stuff on historical true crime among other topics. Her video, which has very few views, mentions that there have been “scores of witnesses” who’ve seen the ship. Evidently, these “scores of witnesses” have never personally told their story of seeing the ship, or their testimonies have been lost to time. While I don’t doubt Ms. Hoover, it’s just frustrating not being able to find any specific encounters since it makes a story about a frigging ghost ship feel incomplete.


That said, Ms. Hoover’s video does include a bit more of a description as to what those who say they’ve seen the ship actually, well, saw. The description begins at 6:37 for those interested; otherwise, the gist of it is that the ship attempts to land at the riverbank and that there are horrific screams coming from the ship as people plead for someone to help them escape the sailing inferno. Honestly, it’s rather terrifying to envision such a sight and I can’t imagine how I would feel if I saw it for myself.


Also, for those who think that maybe I missed a video on YouTube or something, I can only find one other video on the ship. The second video is from Southern Gothic The Podcast, and is entitled The Eliza Battle's Final Voyage. Once again, the video doesn’t contain any specific encounters, but it does state that people have reportedly seen the ship “rise up” out of the water itself. So it isn’t like the ship just appears like any normal ghost. No, the ship has its own cinematic entrance where she rises up and then begins to sail as music and screams fill the air. That’s pretty dang intense.


Alas, with that now said, the story of the Eliza Battle comes to an end. Without any specific witness reports to go off of, we can only get what amounts to a local legend; stories that have likely been molded together to form a general description of what those from over 150 years ago saw. So that begs the question: is the Eliza Battle still attempting to finish her journey down the Tombigbee River, or is it all merely a legend? Well, let’s discuss the theories to find out just that!


Theories


1. ‘Tis but a legend


For our first theory, we have the idea that the whole thing is simply a legend; a tale formed in the wake of a terrible disaster that came about after someone said they saw the ship, and that encounter was passed down from one person to another. From there, the story spread and thus, the legend of the Phantom Steamboat of the Tombigbee was born.


This is probably the most popular theory; a lot of state legends are born in the aftermath of something tragic or are born from simple campfire stories. Then there are the ones that I can’t be asked to trace back the origin of, though whatever. My point is: the story of the Eliza Battle was born after its tragedy, and given the exceptionally horrific nature of it, the idea of it becoming a ghost ship isn’t that abnormal. We’ve discussed in the past the stories of the Phantom Fleet of the Great Lakes; a series of ghost ships seen after they vanished while sailing the Great Lakes.


So yeah, very little else to add here. The idea simply that it’s a legend; one that’s been kept alive for over a century because of the notoriety of the event that gave birth to it. Sorry if you were expecting more from this.


2. She be a real ghost ship


After reading the story for myself, I have to say that I can all but hear and see a sailor entering a tavern or bar while it’s pouring outside. He sits down and begins to tell the bartender—and/or whoever is near him—about how he saw a flaming ship while sailing and how he knows now that either he or the poor sap who sails next is doomed to die the moment they begin their next voyage.


Indeed, the second theory is that the Eliza Battle is in fact a real ghost ship (in the most literal sense), and she still sails the Tombigbee River. As stated above, this isn’t something truly novel. A lot of ships that go missing—or are found completely abandoned—usually get legends based around them. This can be anything from other ghost ships raiding the ship and taking the crew prisoner (or at least their souls) to extraterrestrials abducting the crew (and sometimes the entire ship—for whatever reason).


Alas, if you’re looking for evidence to back this theory up, you’re out of luck. Given the lack of sightings, photos, or anything of that sort: this theory hinges entirely on the word of the legend itself. So much like the legend of, say, Skinned Tom, we’re left with only the word of Alabaman ancestors. Eh, could be worse. We could be trusting the word of H.H. Holmes.


“Trust me bro, my hotel won’t kill you.”


Aight bruv.


3. John Carter did it


This is the real reason he went to Mars; the law finally caught up to him, and in a last-ditch effort: he summoned aliens that took him to the Red Planet. That coward; he simply couldn’t face justice!


My Take


Honestly, I’m more than open to the idea of ghost ships. There are plenty of stories out there that have made me raise an eyebrow and wonder exactly what on Earth happened when a mysterious ship was seen; one that was said to have sunk many years/decades prior. However, with this case, I find it hard to believe—and that’s almost entirely because I can’t find any first-hand accounts. Everything appears to just be “people claim to have seen it on days of this specific kind”. That’s really hard for me to buy into because any Joe Schmo can claim to see something creepy on a specific day.


For example, I’m sure that I can convince some folks that on dark, stormy nights, if you go into a certain forest near where I live and wait out there with an oil lamp, the Devil will appear and offer you a gift most desirable in exchange for your soul.


That isn’t to say that the Eliza Battle’s legend is rooted solely on the grounds of people wanting to scare people. It definitely came about because of the tragedy that befell it; I simply don’t believe the stories of its supposed return on those cold, windy winter nights. If I could find first-hand accounts from a few people that gave interesting details, I would be more inclined to go, “though maybe…” However, as it stands: I’m gonna dismiss this story as nothing more than a legend.


However, with that said, I do want to say that I believe that—in spite of the lack of first-hand stories of the Eliza Battle, it’s definitely worth being considered one of the most famous ghost ships out there. Although the legend itself may not be the most grandiose, there’s something about the image of the deceased passengers screaming for help, the music still playing, and the general sight of a ship that’s more a raging inferno than vessel designed to sail on water that gives me chills. It’s striking and downright horrific.


So, in my personal opinion, I consider it worthy of being ranked alongside the likes of the Flying Dutchman, Mary Celeste, S.S. Ourang Medan, MV Joyita, Carroll A. Deering, and the aforementioned Phantom Fleet of the Great Lakes. Also, the first and second hyperlinked stories seriously need to be rewritten; they’re from 2018 and are not only really lacking in detail, they’re also very shameless in how copycatty they are with their sources. Shame on Past Me; you weren’t the writer you are today. You were a plagiarist who wrote half-baked write-ups. If I could give you a piece of my mind, I would. Unfortunately, all I can do is scold you by writing this little self-addressed scolding.


Oh well, whatever. If you do opt to read them; please don’t judge me too harshly. I’m more than aware of how awful my older work is, and how little I add to the stories in question. I do desperately want to rewrite the story of the S.S. Ourang Medan the most of everything I wrote between 2018 and 2019; I hope to revisit it next year.


Anyways, yeah, I simply think the Eliza Battle was a legend born from the tragedy of the ship itself. Apologies for the rambling too.


Conclusion


With that, this write-up has docked at the Port of Limitless Possibilities; please exit the S.S. Vertigo in an orderly manner and remember to not fall into the shark-infested waters. They really like human meat for some reason and have laser beams attached to their heads.


Also, should you decide to go sailing yourself: remember to always be alert when out on the waters, dear reader. You never know what you’ll encounter within the thick fog. So stay happy, stay healthy, and stay safe from flaming ghost ships. I also hope to see you tonight when this year’s bonus entry goes up; it’s gonna be really fun!

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