WRECK ON THE MISSISSIPPI
The shocking voyage of the U.S.S. Schadenfreude
As a Natural Philosopher schooled in science and familiar with ailments of the human mind, it was no surprise to be roused from my house before dawn by a detachment of Iowa Graybeards from the Prisoner of War Camp on Rock Island under Colonel Atkinson's command. The captured Confederates soldiers tend to be a nervous and superstitious lot, and I am often called to the camp to consul the poor men who snap under the strain of their wretched state. Many know full well they dwell upon ground particularly sacred to the Indians where much blood has been spilled since Fort Armb was first erected. These sorry wretches conjure baffling mysteries and visions in the river. I have usually solved many of their "baffling mysteries" at the water's edge with little more than some extra food and a blanket; but none of my previous work prepared me for this particular investigation.
We tethered our horses off the road and made our way on foot along the Mississippi Slough which separates the big island from the main bank on the Illinois side. We were led by the little Negro boy who had made the initial discovery. It was very dark, the moon had set and the sun stubbornly refused to rise. Ahead, I could make out voices and was cheered by the lights of many lanterns. My cheer would not last long. As we stepped from the tangled trees into the light of the assembled soldiers, I saw seated among them a wild-eyed individual frantically clutching some small idol made of dark stone. He was being questioned by Colonel Atkinson himself, and I could tell by the colonel's posture that his answers were not well accepted. A few yards behind in the water lay the dark hulk of a stern-wheeled steam boat.
Number 74, the tinclad U.S.S. Schadenfreude following her entry into the U.S. Navy's Mississippi Fleet In Pittsburg, PA, 1861.
In the darkness, I could not make out her name or her markings, but could easily discern that the craft was in sorry shape. It looked as though it had encountered one of those terrible iron-clad gunboats and had been lucky to limp away from the meeting still afloat and went aground in the shallows. Great wrents were torn in her tin-armored side plates, her paddles hung in tatters, and her twin funnels were both bent and crumpled.
I drew nearer and saw dead men twisted by horrible agonies lay scattered about her deck; some missing limbs and others with yawning punctures in their torsos. I immediately guessed there had been a boiler explosion, but such a calamity would have doubtlessly left much less of the ship intact. I could not imagine how the grisly carnage before me came to pass.
I turned my attention to the derelict man and his statue. Colonel Atkinson greeted me and explained the fellow was a U. S. Navy Sailor named Gus Johansen. He was the only living man found on board the ship. The current count of the dead on board was thirty-three, which left another thirty-nine men, mostly rebel prisoners, missing. These missing Confederates were being transferred from Camp Chase in Ohio to the camp at Rock Island. Johansen was a crewman aboard tin-clad #74, the USS Schadenfreude. She sailed fully loaded from Cairo, Illinois on June 10th. Along with the forty prisoners were several passengers-a group of twelve men and a woman, all of whom had German accents and claimed to be diplomats.
Colonel Atkinson explained Johansen insisted he overheard the Germans discussing plans for an expedition to the swamps surrounding the City of New Orleans. Although the war rages on, it is becoming safer for travel down the Mississippi to Southern Cities since the successes of General Grant and General Banks. Such a journey sounded not entirely out of the realm of plausibility. But the Colonel said Johansen clung to a very strange story about the events which led to this disaster, and asked me to have a talk with this disturbed fellow. I approached the wretch, who stammered and clutched the black thing in his arms like a mother clings to her dying child. I asked the soldiers to withdraw and offered him some cognac from my flask. In this relative privacy, he calmed somewhat, and showed me the thing in his arms.
"Them Germans brung it!" he hissed. "They wanted to travel south...to voodoo country...to the swamplands!"
It was absolutely hideous. I can find no easy words to describe its features. That it was intended to resemble a human form, I have no doubt, but it was a nightmarish bastardization of Man. It had no neck, and its head split open into a wide fish-like mouth. Around this apperture, nine bulbous eyes and six nostrils circled, all covered by weird wrinkled flaps. Metal rods, like whiskers, extended from the sides of its head and I noted that it had pronounced gills. The arms of the figure ended not in hands, as such, but wide, spiney fins with hooked claws. The trunk or body of the thing ended not in a tail, but in a mass of intertwined tentacles covered with what might have been either suckers or more eyes-it was impossible to tell; I was overcome with revulsion at the sight.
The entire base of the statue was incised with angular characters with which I was wholly a stranger. I know of no heathen religion, primitive or modern, that worships such a grotesque diety, and can not conceive of a museum in the world where such a disgusting fetish might be brazenly displayed. Only through a great effort of will did I keep from snatching the thing up and tossing it as far as I could into the river. Instead, I asked him to tell me his tale from the beginning.
"We put out late in the day, and I waited while the guard finished locking the prisoners in chains in the hold before I went forward to mark the depth as we sailed upriver. The sun was going down and it was real quiet. By my reckoning, we were about eight miles north of Keokuk. As I passed the passenger quarters, I heard a strange rhythmic chanting coming from inside. I speak German, that's how I knew what they were saying when they discussed their plans, but this chant was no language I ever heard afore. I looked through the window and saw them all gathered around this idol. The woman was leading their chant, and they had a white cloth laid out under it. There was gold lettering on it but it was something nearly unpronounceable."
Johansen went on to tell that this strange group was engaged in some kind of invocation, and that they constantly returned to the repetition of a single phrase. As best he could recall, the phrase went something like:
"Sarganatanas, open the locks! Sarganatanas, transport us now to the deepest of waters! Nannjhizzeedha! Serpent of the Deep! Open the Door that we may enter !"
"Then all around the ship rose a deep fog, and it was very queer," he said. "It stank of dead fish and was of a purplish cast. I could see no sign of the shore on either side, and Captain Ecker sounded the horn for fear of a crash with another ship. We slowed the engines to a stop, and dropped anchor. But though I knew this part of the river was shallow, the chain played out 12 fathoms and the anchor never hit bottom! The chanting Germans got louder and panic spread through the crew. The prisoners in the hold grew fearful, and wanted to know why the ship had stopped. Then along our port beam, there came a sickening thud. I thought we must have run aground, but it happened again and again. I looked over the side and saw hundreds of the largest fish as must live in the world! Huge unblinking eyes, each as large as dinner plates, looked up at me! Those fish kept ramming the sides of the boat as though they meant to smash it to pieces.
The prisoners hollered like mad to unshackle them, but we were all too frightened to move. Captain Ecker pounded on the German's room to warn them but the door was locked and barred. They took no notice of our shouting and chanted even louder. The fog closed in thicker around us, and all the time the dark air grew as cold as a winter night!
Then, a long snake-like thing covered in scales rose up at our bow. It had a head like a monstrous cat, with nine inch teeth. It lashed out at our engineer and took off his arm in a single bite. We all began shooting, but it had no effect. The prisoners started shouting that we was taking on water and they were scared they'd drown if not released. Captain Ecker sent me below to unlock the chains. Those Rebel boys were made of stern stuff, and charged on deck. Two jumped overboard to escape but the fish got them. The rest stayed and fought bravely. But, it was a hopeless one-sided battle. Most of the crew were killed or eaten whole by the beast.
I knew the Germans had summoned it! So I fired my pistol through the porthole at the wicked celebrants until I'd killed four of them, including the woman. The others broke out of the room and dove overboard. But I never heard a splash.
"Though the river creatures withdrew, the air remained icy, and neither the bottom nor the banks of the river could be found. She was listing badly and the paddle was busted-up. We remaining five drifted for days, surrounded by the dead, going mad in the fog. I knew that the idol was connected to our fate. The others wanted to destroy it or throw it overboard, but I knew that if it were lost, we would be lost forever. Yes, they tried to take it from me. Yes, I killed them, too."
I motioned for the guards and he was taken away. I reported to Colonel Atkinson that I had no idea how the badly mauled and crippled ship slipped upriver unnoticed over one hundred miles past citites and towns, finally navigating past watchful sentries into the tricky shallows to come to rest here. I did not entirely concur with his tangled assessment that Johansen had turned traitor and murdered his captain, shipmates, and passengers to allow the prisoners to escape. But, unable to come up with a plausible case to support any other theory, I fell silent. The poor man was to be sentenced to hang. Before sentence could be carried out, however, Gus Johansen was murdered in his cell and the mysterious idol stolen from the Military Compound. How this happened is no more easily explained than the arrival of the derelict ship in the first place.
I remain intrigued by the description of this German hermetic order and their chants, as well as the planned expedition to New Orleans. I also noted with interest that Johansen's descriptions of the river monsters match exactly Marquette's accounts of giant catfish and an aquatic monster with "the head of a tiger, a sharp nose like that of a wildcat, with whiskers and straight erect ears; the head was gray and the neck quite black." The explorer had seen this creature in the same area of the river in 1673 when he first discovered the Mississippi. The Indians called it "Saarganataanas, Keeper of the Deep".
(The journals and writings of Prof. G.G. Angel are currently on display at the B. Lavatsky Museum in Hopkins Grove, IA.)
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