The Cursed Paradise of Palmyra Atoll
There are many places in this world that are pervaded by paranormal phenomena, curses, and strange goings on. Houses, buildings, even roads and bridges are all said to become haunted, cursed, or exhibit a certain infusion of the supernatural, but what of an entire island? Can a whole island be cursed? One seemingly idyllic island paradise in the North Pacific is known for its quaint beauty, but perhaps even more well-known as being a cursed place imbued with evil.
Although most commonly referred to as Palmyra Island, it is in actuality an atoll, or a ring formed by coral formations growing along the rim of an ancient sunken volcano. Palmyra Atoll is located in the equatorial North Pacific, lying about 1,000 miles due south of Hawaii and approximately half way between the Hawaiian Islands and American Samoa. It is a remote place with no permanent inhabitants, untouched and largely overgrown with extremely dense vegetation. The entire atoll measures a mere mile and a half wide and a mile and a half long. The tiny atoll has a rich diversity of wildlife, and is home to a vibrant, thriving coral reef system.
So far, Palmyra may sound like an ideal island wonderland to go to and get away from it all. However, despite its pristine beauty, Palmyra has also long been said to be a remarkably malevolent place, and ground zero for a wide variety supernatural events, curious mysteries, and unexplainable happenings.
Even the very discovery of the island is surrounded by an air of the paranormal. The atoll was originally discovered in 1798 by an American sea captain by the name of Edmond Fanning, who was en route to Asia aboard his ship Betsy. The story goes that Fanning awoke several times during the night due to a strong and undeniable sense of impending doom. Growing increasingly disturbed by these vivid and seemingly psychic premonitions, the captain eventually went out on deck just in time to spot a dangerous reef directly ahead, which he just managed to avoid. The reef was the northern edge of Palmyra Atoll. Fanning logged the discovery, but due to failing to report the find in a timely manner, another captain by the name of Swale was credited with finding the island when his ship, the Palmyra, was dashed upon the island’s reefs in 1802. It was Swale’s ship that gives the atoll its name to this day.
After the atoll’s discovery, Palmyra quickly gained a reputation for being a place of strangeness and menace. Passing boats reported that ghostly lights could be seen flittering about on the then totally uninhabited island, and the surrounding seas were said to be infested with vicious sharks and mysterious sea monsters. The perilous reefs around Palmyra were also notorious for wrecking ships. Those who avoided such fates often spoke of how the reefs almost seemed to spontaneously jut forth from the sea where there was nothing moments before. The reefs of Palmyra atoll were sometimes whispered about as almost some sort of willful and malignant, sentient thing.
Mysterious tales of wrecks upon the atoll and their survivors abound. One such case occurred in 1870, when an American ship, the Angel, crashed against one of Palmyra’s reefs. A group of survivors apparently managed to make it to shore, but would never live to tell the tale. When another ship later made a brief stop at the island, the bodies of the Angel’s crew were found strewn haphazardly about the island. All had been violently killed, yet the exact causes and perpetrator of the brutal murders remain unknown.
One of the most famous of Palmyra’s shipwrecks is the Spanish pirate ship, the Esperanza, which was smashed upon the reefs of the island while carrying vast amounts of silver and gold looted from the Incas in Peru. Survivors of the wreck managed to load some of the treasure onto rafts and make it to the island. After remaining stranded on Palmyra for a year with no sign of rescue, the haggard survivors buried their treasure and made a desperate bid to escape on their rafts. Most were never heard from again. Only a single, sole survivor managed to get rescued by a whaling ship upon which he died of pneumonia without ever divulging the location of the loot. The hidden treasure of Incan silver and gold reportedly remains on Palmyra to this day.
Survivors of such wrecks who managed to make it to shore on Palmyra and live long enough to recount their stories claimed that the forests were home to shadowy beasts that watched from the cover of trees and that the trees themselves seemed to whisper and creak in unsettling ways. The sea and lagoon of the island were no less unpleasant and un-welcoming. The sea life was said to be poisonous to eat, and there was a staggering number of highly aggressive sharks prowling the waters there. Many who survived the wrecks of their ships were ravaged by sharks before they could make it to land, and it was said that it was unsafe to so much as wade in the lagoon.
Those stranded on the island also told of being beset with a heavy, almost unbearable feeling of dread and general foreboding during their time there. The very air itself was described as carrying some unidentifiable sense of doom that would become progressively more acute the longer one stayed. This strange, stifling sense of unknown terror infusing the place is incidentally a consistently reported feature of Palmyra, and many modern day accounts describe it as well. One yachtsman who conducted geological surveys of the island had this to say about Palmyra:
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.”
According to another yachtsman, Richard Taylor, who spent some time on the island in 1977:
I had a foreboding feeling about the island. It was more than just the fact that it was a ghost-type island. It was more than that. It seemed to be an unfriendly place to be. I’ve been on a number of atolls, but Palmyra was different. I can’t put my finger on specifically why, but it was not an island that I enjoyed being on. I think other people have had difficulties on that island.
Yet another seaman who spent several weeks on Palmyra claimed:
There was something definitely off about the place. I had the feeling I did not belong there. I had the unmistakeable sense that the island did not want me there, if that makes sense. I felt somehow threatened, and as the days went by I had the growing feeling that I had to get out of there as soon as I could before something bad happened to me.
In addition to wrecks, the vicinity of Palmyra also became notorious for ships vanishing without a trace, and there are may instances of ships entering the atoll’s waters never to be heard from again. Other ships, such as a whaling ship in 1855, were reportedly wrecked on the the atoll’s treacherous reefs only for further investigation to turn up no debris or survivors, as if they had just been swallowed by the island itself.
During World War II, Palmyra was used by the U.S. as a naval facility and as a staging area for air raids against Japan. The Navy also used the atoll as a refueling station for long range air patrols and passing submarines. During these years on Palmyra, Navy personnel were to experience firsthand the mysterious powers of the atoll. It was said that many of the soldiers stationed there were apt to be overcome by a mysterious and irrational feeling of fear. This acute sense of inexplicable dread was at times so overpowering that some personnel insisted they be allowed off the island. Still others were prone to sudden, violent outbursts, and it was reported that fights and even murders were known to occur. Still other sailors were seized by potent panic attacks or committed suicide under mysterious circumstances.
In addition to this roiling wave of fear and aggression amongst the men, there were other bizarre occurrences. In one instance, a patrol plane went down over the island, leaving a trail of smoke as it fell from the sky. A rescue team was mounted and made its way to where the plane was estimated to have gone down, yet they found nothing. In fact, an ensuing thorough search of the entire island turned up absolutely no trace of the missing plane or its crew, not even so much as a scrap of metal or a bolt. One of the commanding officers at the time said it was “like they’d dropped off the edge of the earth.”
On another occasion, a plane took off and mysteriously changed direction after climbing a few hundred feet, flying south when it was supposed to go north. It was broad daylight and clear conditions, with an experienced crew, so no one was sure just how such a thing could happen. The plane flew off while ignoring all attempts to signal it and was never seen again. Yet another plane came in for a routine landing and suddenly, for no discernible reason, plunged into the sea. The survivors were subsequently devoured by sharks before they could be rescued. A former Navy officer who was stationed on Palmyra from 1942 to 1944 had this to say about his time there:
We had some very bad luck on that island. Old salts in the Pacific called it the Palmyra curse.
After World War II, Palmyra remained uninhabited, yet bizarre happenings and experiences associated with it would certainly not abate. Perhaps the most infamous incident that occurred on the island is the 1974 mysterious and grisly double murder of a couple visiting the island. It is a murder case steeped in high strangeness that remains unsolved to this day.
The story starts with the couple 43 year-old Malcolm “Mac” Graham III and 41 year-old Eleanor LaVerne Graham, who Malcolm called “Muff.” The two had the romantic notion of outfitting their boat, the Sea Wind, and sailing it around the world. Mac informed Muff that on the way, he wished to stop by an island called Palmyra and stay there for about two years before continuing on their voyage. Upon researching Palmyra, Muff became aware of the island’s dark history and told Mac that she did not want to go there. However, Mac was determined to do so and so eventually Muff begrudgingly agreed to go there and stay for the two years just as Mac had planned. The two set sail on June 24, 1974, from Hilo’s Radio Bay, Hawaii, loaded with enough provisions to last them several years. They would never return.
In the meantime, another couple, a Buck Walker and Stephanie Stearns, were making their own plans to visit Palmyra. Buck had been in trouble with the law for years and was due to be brought up on drug charges. He decided to take his girlfriend Stearns along with him to escape to the deserted island of Palmyra, where they could stay for a couple of years before heading back to civilization to turn himself in. They spent their life savings buying and fixing up an old run-down boat, and headed out on June 1st, 1974 from Kauai, Hawaii along with their three dogs. The couple ran into many difficulties on the way. They got lost en route, which put them a week behind schedule, and were woefully short on provisions. Nevertheless, the couple eventually made it to Palmyra although they were practically out of food and the dogs were starving by the time they arrived. Upon reaching the island, the two were shocked to discover that the place was home to a fairly good number of other people who were similarly escaping from society.
The Grahams also had their fair share of problems on the way to their presumed island paradise. They were set upon by storms that threatened to capsize their boat, but largely due to Mac’s familiarity with the sea they were able to safely arrive at Palmyra on July 1, 1974. Like Buck Walker, Mac Graham was similarly surprised and disappointed by the amount of people camping out on their supposedly “deserted island,” yet made efforts to introduce himself to everyone there. It was at this time they met Walker and Stearns.
To say that Mac and Buck did not get along would be an understatement. The two immediately disliked each other, a situation which was only made worse by heated disputes over Buck’s dogs, who were known to threaten or attack both the Grahams and others on the island. It was further compounded by the odd feeling of resentment that practically everyone on the island had towards everyone else. The people there were prone to unprovoked outbursts and disputes were known to erupt at a moment’s notice. The island’s ever present, invasive air of foreboding had apparently not waned.
This undercurrent of aggression did not help the situation with Mac and Buck. By august of 1974, the seething mutual hatred shared by the two had reached critical mass. Muff was terrified of Walker, and begged Mac to let them cut short their plans and get out of there, but Mac insisted on staying. Mac still refused to leave even after the others had all departed the island, and only Mac and Muff and Buck and Stearns remained. This would turn out to be a deadly mistake.
Several months later, friends of the Grahams became concerned when radio contact from the couple suddenly stopped and nothing was heard for several days. A family friend had someone fly over the island to see what was going on. The pilot, meteorological researcher Martin Vitousek, made several flybys of the island and reported it to be totally deserted. There was no sign of any people there and no trace of the Grahams’ boat, the Sea Wind. It was as if they had never been there at all. Authorities were notified of the missing couple, and in October, 1974, Buck Walker and Stephanie Stearn were arrested after docking at Ala Wai Harbor in Hawaii in a boat the bore a striking resemblance to the Grahams’ boat. When it was determined that it was indeed the Sea Wind, the couple were charged with boat theft. However, there was still no clue as to what had happened to the Grahams themselves. It was a mystery that wouldn’t reveal itself until 6 years later.
In 1981, a couple of sailors from South Africa, Sharon and Robert Jordan, stopped at Palmyra Island to have an extended stay of their own. Upon arriving at Palmyra, the Jordans found an old building in the jungle that turned out to be a veritable shrine of the murder of the Grahams. There, laid out on a table, was a pile of newspaper clippings all pertaining to the mysterious disappearance of the missing couple. It was uncertain who had left the clippings all the way out there in the middle of the jungle on this remote island, but it was certainly creepy. Sharon Jordan later said that at the moment they found those clippings she had had a premonition that she would find one of the missing bodies there. This was a premonition that would turn out to be true.
A few days later, Sharon was walking along a beach on her way to an area of Palmyra known as Strawn Island when she came across a vintage World War II metal container of some sort that had washed up after a storm. Right next to the container, apparently having spilled out of it, was a skull and pile of scattered human bones as well as a woman’s watch, all of which would later prove to be those of Muff Graham. The find itself has an air of mystery about it, as it was extremely unlikely that Sharon would have been walking down that exact stretch of beach at that exact moment when the container had become dislodged from the bottom where it had been hidden and had just happened to have washed up on shore at that precise time. It becomes even eerier when one considers that experts later claimed that the bones would have certainly washed out to sea at the next high tide which was scheduled to occur a mere 20 minutes after Sharon made the find.
The remains showed that Muff had been dead for around 7 years and had been killed and disposed of in quite a grisly manner. She had first been either shot or beaten to death, after which her body had been dismembered and burned with what was apparently a acetylene torch and then stuffed into the container, which was subsequently tossed into a lagoon where it remained at the bottom for all those years. The mystery gets even deeper since it was unclear just why the metal container had happened to float up from the bottom at that exact time after it had managed to stay submerged for 6 years. In addition, the sturdy wire that had sealed the container and would have normally been very difficult to get off had inexplicably come off on its own, and was found next to the container in the exact shape that it had assumed when wrapped around it.
The finding of Muff’s body was enough to arrest and charge Stearns and Buck Walker with murder. Walker, who was still doing time for boat theft, was accused of murder and sentenced to life in prison, yet Stearns was eventually acquitted due to a lack of evidence pointing to her direct involvement in the heinous act. It was surmised that the Grahams had likely been killed for their boat and the extensive and luxurious provisions they had brought with them. No one was ever charged with the murder of Mac Graham as his body was never found, and its whereabouts remain an enduring enigma to this day. When authorities were searching for Mac’s remains, Walker made the ominous and taunting statement “go ahead and search. You’ll never find him.” Although Mac Graham is no doubt long dead, he is still officially listed as a missing person.
The mysteries surrounding the case do not end there. At the murder trial, one of the witnesses was Tom Wolfe, a yachtsman who had stayed on the island at the time when both Walker, Stearn, and the Grahams had all been living there. Wolfe explained that one month before the murder trial, he had gone out for a walk along the beach of the Puget Sound outside of his Washington home. The previous day there had been a storm, so a variety of debris had been strewn along the beach. There amongst the various useless flotsam, Wolfe found a cardboard mailing tube. Curious as to what such a tube was doing out on the beach, he opened it and much to his surprise found it contained three copies of a Palmyra Island detail chart. It was a bizarre find that seems to go beyond mere coincidence and into the realm of supernatural synchronicity. Wolfe later said:
Finding that damn chart was eerie [and] I’m not the superstitious type, but I’ll admit, it really shook me. It was as if Palmyra, the island itself, had reached out and touched me from three thousand miles away.
Spooky stuff to be sure. Perhaps even spookier are the stories that seem to suggest that Muff Graham may have had some sort of psychic foretelling of her own doom. One such premonition came in the form of letters that Wolfe had agreed to send for her to family and friends. One of the letters expressed Muff’s feeling that Palmyra was “evil.” It also came to light later on that Muff had frequented a spiritualist who had warned her that the journey held something terrible in store for them. In addition, a friend later claimed that Muff had once broken down to tears before leaving on her journey with Mac and had expressed her certainty that she would not be coming back. The friend explained that when Muff said goodbye before their trip to Palmyra, she had the air of someone who was saying goodbye forever.
Buck Walker was eventually paroled in 2007 and weirdly wrote an account of sorts about the events in which he claimed he had killed Mac in self defense. Walker claimed he had had an affair with Muff, after which Mac had gone insane with jealousy, killed his wife, and then come for Buck. Walker claimed he had had no other choice but to kill Mac, who he described as having become a mindless killer by that point. Buck Walker died in 2010, so it is unlikely we will ever know how much truth this version of events holds.
The probable double murder of Mac and Muff Graham and the perpetrator’s death did not mark the end of Palmyra’s curse. The years since continue to bring us odd stories from the atoll from time to time. In 1987, a fishing vessel alerted the Coast Guard to a sailboat that was drifting about aimlessly near Palmyra. Aerial flybys seemed to suggest that the boat was abandoned, and its masts and sails appeared to be broken and ripped up. Upon boarding the vessel, guardsmen found the skeletal remains of the boat’s occupant, a mister Manning Edward. The cause of death was not determined and remains a mystery.
In 1977, another yacht claimed to have come to the island for a short stay and found it to be overrun by a bizarre cult of what were described as “hippies.” The hippies apparently threatened the visitors with violence, after which the yacht beat a hasty retreat. A subsequent visit to Palmyra found no evidence of any hippie cult like the one described nor anyone else on the island for that matter.
In another incident, a man by the name of Graham Hughes and four members of his family set out for Hawaii from San Diego in 1989 aboard their sailboat Sea Dreamer. On the way, the boat was allegedly thrown off course by a storm and ended up at Palmyra Island. The family stayed there briefly before heading out again and vanishing from the face of the earth. Extensive searches for the family along the route from Palmyra to Hawaii turned up not one single trace of what fate had befallen them. Rather bizarrely, the man’s first name in this case was Graham, whereas the 1974 murder victim’s last name was Graham, and both families were originally from San Diego. Even the names of their boats, the Sea Wind and the Sea Dreamer, have a certain similarity about them. Is all of this coincidence, or sinister synchronicity?
Theories abound on what is going on on Palmyra Atoll. Some say it is haunted by the souls of sailors shipwrecked on its jagged reefs long ago. Still others think this is a land with one foot into some parallel dimension, pushing at whatever thin membrane separates us from an entirely unknown reality. Then there are those that say Palmyra is something all together different, that it is a living entity possessed of its own dark will.
Nowadays, there is no known permanent population on Palmyra. The only known residents are the occasional climate scientists that are sometimes stationed on the atoll. For the most part, Palmyra remains a seemingly tranquil, beautiful island paradise hidden away from the rest of the world. However, looks can be deceiving. Knowing the island’s menacing history, it is hard to look at this postcard perfect island getaway and not feel that there is a quality of insidious evil lurking just behind its quaint veneer. Perhaps it is better that Palmyra remain uninhabited, for it seems to be a dangerous place that lies in some realm beyond our understanding and perhaps even our reality. Perhaps that yachtsman said it best when he once proclaimed that “Palmyra will always belong to itself, never to man.”