There is an island in the south pacific that has been described as everything from paradise to “evil” itself. It is the scene of legends of lost pirate treasure, a bloody double killing and stories of lost planes and ships that stand evocative of the Bermuda Triangle. But, just how did this tiny atoll south of Hawaii come by its reputation? And how many of these legends are based on truth?
Linked with the legend of the lost Inca Gold of the Esperanza, Palmyra Atoll lays one-third of the way between Hawaii and American Samoa. It is a place of outstanding natural beauty, uninhabited and unspoiled. With blue lagoons, coconut trees and white sandy beaches, any traveller could believe they had found paradise. However, Palmyra Atoll doesn’t have quite the history to match its perceived tranquillity. With murders, suicides and mysterious disappearances, these tiny islands might just deceive by their appearance.
Palmyra was first sighted by Westerners in 1798 when an American sea captain, Edmund Fanning, awoke with a sense of dread and foreboding. Headed onto the deck, the fearful captain ordered the ship to leave the area until it was light. In the morning, he discovered the dangerous, uncharted reefs ahead. In 1807, Captain Sawle of the American ship Palmyra, would resight the atoll and name it after his boat.
As explored in depth in the companion article Lost Treasure: The Inca Gold of the Esperanza, it was in 1816 that a Spanish privateer, the Esperanza, was alleged to have landed at the island. Already captured by pirates and now sinking, the crew were marooned for over a year. Forced to make off without their Peruvian plunder, all but one of the would-be thieves were lost at sea, sunk on the Spanish ship. The sole survivor was transported back to San Francisco and after telling his tale soon succumbed to his ordeal. The legend would go on to inspire many to seek out the treasure at the atoll, with not a single doubloon ever being found.
Legends surrounding Palmyra Atoll have only grown since the alleged sinking of the Esperanza. Many consider the island to be “cursed” with some saying that the place is “imbued with evil”. It was in 1855 for example that a US whaling ship ran aground at the atoll. Investigating from the mainland, sailors arrived to find that the entire boat had vanished without a trace. No debris or survivors were found. Likewise, following the US Navy’s occupation of the island during the Second World War, there were tales of a patrol plane simply falling from the sky over the islands, again without a single trace of the crew or wreckage ever being found. Another story tells of a second plane that veered off course immediately after take-off, vanishing from radar. Once more, nothing was recovered.
“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.”
Hal Horton, former us Navy officer, stationed on Palmyra from 1942 to 1944
The atmosphere on the island during the war was said to be strained, with soldiers suffering panic attacks and inexplicable feelings of impending doom, much like that noticed by Captain Edmund Fanning in 1798. The sense of oppression resulted in violent outbursts and even suicides amongst those stationed there. The curse of Palmyra Atoll would take a sinister turn in 1974 when it was the scene of a brutal double murder.
With dreams of travelling the world, wealthy San Diego couple Malcolm and Eleanor Graham lived a life of romance and adventure. Travelling aboard their boat, the Sea Wind, the husband and wife planned to stay for a few years at Palmyra, falling in love with the tropical paradise of so many legends. However, when the couple failed to contact friends and family back in the United States, the authorities decided to perform a high seas welfare check. They found the island deserted, with not a soul to be found.
While the mysterious legends of missing planes and treasure might very well be hot air, the disappearance of the Grahams was all too real.
Later that year in 1974, the Sea Wind sailed into Honolulu. However, it wasn’t Mr and Mrs Graham at the helm, but rather Duane “Buck” Walker and his girlfriend, Stephanie Sterns. The two were arrested and charged with theft. With no bodies or evidence of foul play, no case could be made to indict either one for murder.
Six years later, South African couple Sharon and Robert Jordan were holidaying on the island when the Jordans made a series of horrific discoveries. Exploring the jungle, they came across a derelict shack containing an extensive collection of newspaper clippings about the disappearance of Malcolm and Eleanor Graham. Perturbed but not overly worried, the duo continued their island adventure. However, a few days later they discovered a partially buried metal box submerged in one of the tranquil lagoons. Rusted, the large metal container was tied with thick wire. Perhaps hoping for a moment to have found the treasure, the couple opened the casket and discovered a skull, burned bones and a woman’s watch. It was Eleanor Graham.
Graham had either been shot or beaten to death before being dismembered and burned with an acetylene torch. The remains of Malcolm Graham were never found.
In 1977, three years after the murder but three years before the discovery of the body, Amanda Lane and four friends were sailing from Micronesia to Hawaii. They stopped at the atoll for a single night and found the main island occupied by what they called “hippies”. These others caused Lane and her friends to flee in fright after they began to spook the travellers by claiming that one of their party might endure a deadly fate on the atoll. Amanda came to believe that the “hippies” knew of the disappearance of the Grahams and were trying to scare the friends away to keep the paradise island to themselves, not knowing that Eleanor Graham’s remains laid in a lagoon not far away.
That same year, yachtsman Richard Taylor would spend some time on Palmyra and would report the same feelings of foreboding, not being quite able to place what it was about the place that made him feel uneasy. Perhaps it was the desolation, the loneliness, the sight of the endless sea. Whatever it was, the experienced Taylor hadn’t felt anything quite like what he experienced at the atoll.
“I had a foreboding feeling about the island. It was more than just the fact that it was a ghost-type island… I can’t put my finger on specifically why…”
Richard Taylor, yachtsman
Buck Walker was convicted for the murder of Eleanor Graham in 1985, being sentenced to life in prison. Stearns was acquitted after her defence successfully argued she’d had no knowledge of the killings. Giving evidence at the trial, yachtsman Norman Sanders, who had conducted geological experiments on Palmyra, said that the island was “hostile” and “forbidding”.
“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 vinyl rot anywhere else… Palmyra will always belong to itself, never to man. It is a very forbidding place.”
Norman Sanders, yachtsman
Coincidentally, in 1989, a sailboat by the name of Sea Dreamer was caught in a storm that forced her onto Palmyra Island. The vessel, travelling from San Diego to Hawaii, stayed a while before departing, never being seen again. All four members of the Graham Hughes family aboard are believed lost at sea. Readers will note the similarity between the Sea Dreamer and Sea Wind, the name Graham and the location of San Diego. However, coincidences can often be found in most things, and often we utilise them to build narratives that aren’t there. This, after all, is a dangerous stretch of water.
Such is that danger, mixed with the old tales of sea dogs, that the island has received a reputation for deception. While it may appear idyllic, Palmyra Atoll hides lurking dangers in the deadly seas and from even deadlier visitors. Whether this record is built on superstition or real-world events amplified through coincidence, the mysteries of this uninhabited paradise have caught the imaginations of sailors, treasure seekers and the public alike. Despite this reputation and the many myths associated with Palmyra, it would be unwise to pass an opportunity to walk the unspoiled shores of the island. As with all such trips, however, make sure you have flares and a radio handy. And keep one eye on the jungle, and the other on the sea.
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