A Tropical Beauty with a Rotten Heart
A long history of eerie occurrences near its shores, abandoned ships inexplicably drawn to it, flora and fauna that is an ever-present danger to man, and a horrific double murder make Palmyra Island Atoll one of the most haunted places in the world.
This is No. 3 in my continuing series, The 13 Most Haunted Places in the World, in which the virtual traveler can visit some of the creepiest and most notorious haunted locations across the globe!
5Â° 52 min N, 162Â° 6 min W
Palmyra Island is probably best known as the location of a gruesome double murder committed in 1974, but in fact, the island has a long history of bizarre and inexplicable events that has plagued it since its discovery in the 18th century.
Although nautical charts and official government surveys list it as an island, Palmyra is really a Pacific Ocean atoll – a mass of coral growth accumulated around the rim of a long-dead, primordial volcano – and typically having a circular of horseshoe shape. The Pacific is studded with hundreds of similar atolls connected to a network of undersea volcanoes and the ridges of the abysmal Mariana and Tonga trenches.
The Most Remote Place On Earth
Palmyra’s coordinates (5Â° 52 min N, 162Â° 6 min W) place it in almost the absolute center of the Pacific Ocean. It is 1000 nautical miles south-southwest of Hawaii and almost exactly between Hawaii and American Samoa. Palmyra is small – approximately one and a half miles long by a half mile wide – and nowhere near the major shipping lanes of America and the Pacific rim; it is probably the most remote place on earth, and one of the last few truly uninhabited islands in the world.
The Palmyra Murders
Learn more about the infamous 1974 double murders that took place on Palmyra Island. Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted Charles Manson and his "Family," provides the seminal account of the horrific crime and its aftermath.
Its Malevolence Goes Deep
Palmyra is also a place of contradictions: despite its beautiful, breezy, tropical appearance, Palmyra apparently has a rotten core. The interior of the island is a thick jungle of foliage where coconut palms and mangrove bushes thrive. There is a massive population of birds on the island, but the remainder of native species consists entirely of rock crabs, lizards, and insects. The coral reef and the many inviting, palm-shrouded lagoons are the breeding ground for gray and black tip sharks whose aggressiveness toward humans has been well-documented; swimming and even wading in the shallows has resulted in deadly consequences. There are many other species of fish to be found in the lagoons and on the reefs, but for the most part they are inedible to humans because of the high concentrations of ciguatera, a poison found on the coral reefs where the fish feed. Ingesting these contaminated fish can cause severe cramping, nausea and vomiting, blindness, and death. But these are only the obvious dangers; according to many who have visited Palmyra Island, its malevolence goes deep below its surface.
Murder Most Foul
Palmyra Island was catapulted to fame by the grisly murders of Mac and Muff Graham, a sailing couple from San Diego who chose Palmyra Island for an extended stay while sailing the Pacific Ocean in 1974. When they arrived at Palmyra they found that another couple had also set up residence there; this couple - ex-convict and fugitive Buck Walker and his girlfriend Stephanie Stearns - would later be arrested and tried for the horrible crime. Walker and Stearns had sailed from Hawaii to Palmyra in a run-down boat and with very little pre-planning. The couple, described as "hippies," struck up a tenuous friendship with the Grahams upon their arrival. According to statements Stearns later made to police, Walker killed the Grahams for their boat, the Sea Wind, and its supplies. Walker was later convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murders. Stearns was acquitted.
(Photo Right: Duane "Buck" Walker c. 1974)
Right Place at the Right Time
Walking the most remote beach in the world, at just the right moment.
In 1981, six years after the murders the skeletal remains of Muff Graham were found washed up on the shore of Palmyra by one-half of another sailing couple. Sharon Jordan, a South African who was visiting Palmyra with her husband, Robert, was walking along the beach after a storm when she came upon a human skull and other bones that appeared to have been dislodged from an old metal container. The remains were later identified as those of Muff Graham. The discovery was the result of an amazing series of circumstances in that Mrs. Jordan was walking on the shore of the most remote island in the world at exactly the most likely moment for the bones to be discovered; experts later testified at the trial of Walker and Stearns that the next tide would very definitely have washed the bones out to sea where they would have been lost forever.
(Photo Right: Vintage World War II Metal Box)
No Doubt What Had Taken Place
Also intriguing was the fact that, while exploring the interior of Palmyra Island, Sharon and Robert Jordan came upon a large collection of newspaper clippings about Mac and Muff Graham, their sailboat, and the circumstances of their disappearance apparently left by someone who was not only very interested in the story, but evidently wanted to convey the information to others who might visit Palmyra afterward. Being thus aware of the awful circumstances of the Grahams' deaths, the Jordans found the discovery of the bones even more unsettling. Robert Jordan was later quoted as saying, "Seeing the box lying there with the bones spewing out of it really left no doubt as to what had taken place." The coincidence, if it was coincidence, is inexplicable.
(Photo Right: Stephanie Stearns c. 1974)
Palmyra Island was discovered by accident in 1798.
The Ghosts of Mac and Muff Graham May Still Haunt Palmyra
The bones had their own story to tell. Studying the remains, experts were able to determine that Muff Graham had met a horrible end, that she had been shot or bludgeoned to death, dismembered, and then burned. Her remains were then placed in the metal container - probably of World War II vintage and found elsewhere on the island - and dumped into one of the island lagoons. Apparently the container had been secured with wire and when it was discovered the wire was found lying next to it on the beach. Mac Graham's remains have never been found. The whereabouts of his body, and the hints that the ghosts of both Mac and Muff Graham still haunt the island, have become an enduring part of Palmyra's mythology.
"It was not an island I enjoyed being on . . ."
Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted the murder trial of Walker and Stearns, later detailed the story of the murders in his book And the Sea Will Tell; the book later became a popular made-for-tv movie. While Bugliosi's book focuses on the Graham murders and the prosecution of Walker and Stearns, there are allusions made throughout, and also in court testimony, to a foreboding, even a malevolent feeling pervading the island.
Richard Taylor, a yachtsman who had visited Palmyra, testified at the trial: "I had a foreboding feeling about the island. It was more than just the fact that it was a ghost-type island . . . It seemed to be an unfriendly place . . . I can't put my finger on specifically why, but it was not an island that I enjoyed being on."
(Photo Right: Palmyra Island c. 1938)
A Very Forbidding Place
Another trial witness, Norman Sanders, a sailor and geologist who did research on Palmyra, stated: “The island is a very threatening place. It is a hostile place.” Sanders described for the court what he had written in his geological log about Palmyra: “. . . removed from time, the place where even vinyl rots. I have never seen vinyl rot anywhere else . . . It is a very forbidding place.”
The Graham murders are part of a long history of mysterious events associated with Palmyra Island. It was discovered by accident in 1798 by Capt. Edward Fanning and his American ship The Betsy. While en route to Asia, Fanning was awakened from a sound sleep three times over a night's watch; the final time he found himself fully clothed and making for the ship's deck. Fanning's foreboding was so overwhelming that he ordered the ship to heave to for the remainder of the night. In the new light of the next morning Fanning and his crew were able to see that a deadly reef lay dead ahead, and it was obvious to all that had they continued on that course through the night their ship would have run aground on the reef and all onboard would have died. The reef facing the Betsy that morning was the northern edge of the fierce coral reef surrounding Palymyra Island.
Fanning made note of the position of the island in his ship's log, but credit for discovery of the island went to another American mariner named Swale whose ship, the Palmyra, was blown off course and pushed into the island by a storm in 1802.
Legend of Inca Gold
Palmyra Island later figured prominently in the story of the Esperanza, a Spanish pirate ship loaded with gold and other plunder from the Inca temples of Peru. The ship came under attack by another pirate vessel and several members of the Esperanza's crew abandoned the ship, taking most of the portable treasure with them. Unfortunately, they ran aground of Palmyra's fearsome reefs. Other members of the vessel's crew were lucky enough to make it to the island. They were stranded on Palmyra for a year during which they allegedly buried the treasure under a palm tree before abandoning the place in crudely constructed rafts. One raft was allegedly rescued by an American whaling ship; the other rafts, and their crew, disappeared without a trace. The legend of buried gold on Palmyra has persisted since these events took place, around 1815.
Palmyra became privately owned when Judge Henry E. Cooper of Hawaii purchased it for $750.00. Cooper eventually sold the larger part of the island but kept one portion - Home Island - for himself, apparently because he believed the legend of the lost Peruvian treasure of the Esperanza, and thought Home Island the most likely place for the treasure to be buried. The Fullard-Leo family took possession of everything except Home Island in 1922 and held it until a jurisdiction conflict erupted in 1940 with the United States who wanted to assign it for use by the U.S. Navy ahead of hostilities in World War II. The Fullard-Leo family retained ownership of Palmyra, but the island was also developed into a naval air facility during the war because of its proximity to Japan. The island is littered with buildings and artifacts of the U.S. military presence and is dominated by the abandoned air strip U.S. forces constructed. These old military installations are some of the spookiest places on Palmyra.
(Photo Right: U.S. Marines, Palmyra Island c. 1942, Public Domain Image)
"We didn't get to the poor guy fast enough . . ."
Hal Horton, one of the Navy officers stationed on Palmyra during World War II is quoted in And the Sea Will Tell discussing the strange disappearance of planes near Palmyra, at least two of which were lost in broad daylight, and that pilots complained of equipment malfunctioning during landing and take-off from the island. Horton told Bugliosi: "We had some very bad luck on that island. Old salts in the Pacific called it the Palmyra curse . . ." Horton described Palmyra as so small that a plane flying over it at ten thousand feet on a cloudy day wouldn't even see it. "Once we heard a plane overhead . . . 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."
(Photo Right: Palmyra airstrip, still visible today. Public Domain Image)
Spooky, Sinister, Foreboding
Other witnesses at the murder trials supplied testimony very much like Horton's, and described the island as "spooky," "foreboding," and "sinister." One witness, a Mr. Tom Wolfe, testified that Palmyra reached out and touched him. While beach combing after a storm near his home on Puget Sound, Wolfe discovered a cylinder containing three copies of nautical charts showing details of Palmyra Island. Wolfe pulled the charts from the beach the day before he was to testify in the Graham murder trial. Wolfe spent several months on the island at the same time the Grahams, as well as Walker and Stearns were there. Just before leaving the island to sail for Samoa, Muff Graham asked Wolfe to mail some letters for her. In one of those letters, Muff told a friend, "I think this place is evil."
Muff Graham may have been right, because in the years since her murder Palmyra has apparently inspired other would-be killers and claimed other lives.
(Photo Right: Shipwreck in the waters near Palmyra Island. Public Domain image.
Deidre Hall and James Brolin as Muff and Mac Graham in the movie "And The Sea Will Tell"
Threatened and Stranded
A woman named Amanda Lane was sailing from Micronesia to Hawaii in 1977 when they stopped en route at Palmyra. They didn’t stay very long. According to Lane’s account she and her shipmates encountered a group of “hippies” who were apparently living there at the time. The hippies told the other group that they suspected one of their number had met a violent death on the island and alluded to “dangers.” Lane and her crew made a hasty departure, reflecting on the fact that the hippies must have been aware of the Graham murders and were hoping to scare them away.
Canadian yachtsman John Harrison and his two daughters were marooned on Palmyra for a month in 1981 after their sailboat was damaged during a storm. They survived by using up the stores on their yacht and supplementing with fish and coconuts, and some canned goods supplied by a reclusive man apparently living on the island at the time. They were ultimately rescued by plane.
The Lure of Palmyra
Palmyra Draws Seafarers With All the Allure of a Siren
In 1987, a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 plane sighted a sailboat drifting just off the southeastern tip of Palmyra. The boat had a broken mast and shredded sails, and there was no sign of life. When the vessel was boarded a few days later, the Coast Guard found the skeletal remains of a man, later identified as yachtsman Edward Manning who had been sailing the world on a three-year voyage. Apparently Manning’s last communication was to friends who related that Manning was anticipating a stop on an uninhabited island called Palmyra.
Another sailboat, the Sea Dreamer, traveling from San Diego to Hawaii was pushed off course by a storm, southward toward Palmyra Island. The crew – four members of the Graham Hughes family – stayed briefly on Palmyra and then departed for Hawaii as originally planned. The Sea Dreamer never made it to its destination, and an extensive search by the Coast Guard between Palmyra and Hawaii turned up nothing. Bugliosi points out that, eerily, the murdered couple, Mac and Muff Graham were also from San Diego and their vessel was named the Sea Wind.
If You Go . . .
Not many people I know own yachts or sailboats large enough to undertake a voyage to Palmyra Island, but this might not be the case for some of you. I suppose, then, that you would prepare for the journey as you would prepare for any other destination you intend to reach by boat, but with the very important caveat: CAUTION.
Be cautious in planning your route, cautious about who you tell or share your travel plans with, cautious enough to put in plenty of extra stores of food and water. You should be, or be traveling with someone who is, an expert mariner and navigator, because like the Great Sargasso Sea and the Bermuda Triangle, the waters around Palmyra do strange things to nautical equipment. You should also take appropriate measures to protect yourself; although I won't suggest how, it is important to remember that there is an awful lot of water between you and your destination at any given moment of a trip like this, and there's plenty enough material dangers to make the supernatural pale in comparison.
Then I suppose that if I reached Palmyra I'd be very, very wary of anyone who might already be there. The circumstances of Mac and Muff Graham should never be far from one's mind, and trusting anyone you might randomly meet in the "most remote place on earth" does not sound like a good idea from any perspective. There is such a thing as healthy paranoia, and trusting your gut.
As for how to get there, the nautical coordinates are provided at the beginning of this article.
Finally, there is a lot of history silted up on Palmyra, and enough weirdness has happened over the years to cause spirits to linger there, and ultimately this is not a nice thought when the sun goes down over the Pacific Ocean and pitch darkness descends over this infamous little sea speck. Be careful out there!
Sources: "And the Sea Will Tell," Vincent Bugliosi with Bruce B. Henderson, Ballantine (1991.
Curt Rowlett, www.StrangeMag.com