Started Sailing

Alcatraz Historic Guide Needs Help

by Sharlene
(Alcatraz Island)

I'm looking for information concerning the day-to-day life of a sailing vessel in 1873 so I can better understand a strange story about a mummified head that ended up on Alcatraz Island.

These are the details from the 1873 San Francisco newspapers. The bark Matthais Mayer (I think about 175 ft.) left England with coal, dropped it off in Ancon, Peru where it was to pick up sugar. But there was some dispute, and it didn't.

It needed ballast. Picked up sand. Offloaded the sand on the wharf in San Francisco, and bones and skulls poured out. This caused a big stir on shore! A mummified head with long black hair was collected to bring to the doctor on Alcatraz for his collection.

Further research showed me that in Ancon, Peru in 1873, there was almost a party atmosphere. A 4000 year old burial ground, complete with full mummies, jewelry, textiles etc was uncovered because of the new railroad line cut from Lima. Everyone was out there digging up buried treasure. In 1874 it was all collected by German scientists in a formal dig so it wouldn't be lost forever.

What I need to know is how the ballast would have been collected. Remember: the ship didn't expect to have to collect ballast. I forget the numbers: it was tons and tons however.

Strangely, I have been told two completely different scenerios by two experts who work at the Maritime Museum here.

One said the sailors would have hand dug and wheelbarrowed the sand and dumped it loose into the hold. In that case, they would have been well aware what they were collecting. They probably would have picked up "booty" of value (jewelry) and some bones and mummy parts considered of no value would have been dumped in with the mix. He said it would have been repeated on shore in SF. Obviously, in this case, they knew bones would show up on shore.

The other said the captain would have brokered a ballast company to dig it with a steam shovel, and it would have been bagged (he said in jute or paper (!) bags). On the SF wharf, the bags would have been offloaded for resale, and some bags may have broken to reveal skulls. In that case, the sailors would have been just as surprised as the bystanders. They are two very different scenerios, and tell two very different stories!

Can anyone venture a guess at the likely scenerio? How would this ballast business have been most likely carried out?

I would be most appreciative of your expertise!

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Jun 20, 2010
Sorry, have to speculate again.
by: Han

Dear Sharlene,

Or let's call it an educated guess?
Anyway, off-topic, this is only the second time I hear of a free person on Alcatraz, the first being Johnny Cash singing there.

On topic: I googled the ship's name (would maybe have helped to know the captain's name) and the trip but nothing but the pacific war came up, which broke out years later.

Considering I was the ship's captain, I would never have agreed to ballast it with loose (free) sand, for three very valid reasons:
* In a rough sea it would shift and cause serious danger of capsize;
* Sand attracts and holds water and if not thoroughly cleaned away could cause decay of the hull;
* No sailor (superstitious as they can make them)
would ever knowingly have sailed out with -parts of - skeletons on board.

Sand in paper bags (if they had paper strong enough then) would cause the same problems as described above, unless it could be kept dry - and who can be sure of that on a ship?

I would have taken stones, but having no choice would go for the second scenario: jute bags, which can be stacked to a solid mass. The trip must be short then, because jute doesn't last long in wet conditions.

Hope you're happy with this, if you have other difficult questions I like to know them.



Jun 21, 2010
No Cash, I'm Afraid...
by: Sharlene


Thanks so much. So, am I safe in saying that your opinion is that they would have bought the sand already in bags? And that most likely the bags would have been delivered to the ship and onloaded by the sailors?

What if the superstitious sailors had known they contained bones and mummy parts? Would they have been spooked enough to not want to sail out on that ship?

I realize this is a educated guess. But I'd love to hear your further conjecture.

As for Alcatraz and Johnny Cash... I'm sure the inmates would have loved it, but Alcatraz Federal prison was not the sort of place that would have hosted Johnny or anyone else. I know he sang at state prisons, most famously Folsom and San Quentin.

From the 1850's though around 1900, Alcatraz was the largest fortress west of the Mississippi, not a prison, though in later years its island nature made it perfect for keeping some military prisoners. And it did eventually develop into a military prison, which was then transferred to the federal government for a federal prison.

In 1873 the island was surrounded by walls to keep people out, not keep people in, and had 111 cannon and a brick fortress with a moat and drawbridges.

So it spent most of its life as a fortress. But generally no one wants to hear about that... it's all about the prison and Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly!

I'd still love to hear anyone else chime in on my story. And thanks again, Han!

Jun 22, 2010
Conjecture nr. 2
by: Han

Hi again Sharlene,

O.K., so I was wrong about Johnny. Altzheimer's, most probably.

Let's go back in time again. Then, as now, the merchant marine activities had two main actors: the fixed trade-lines, like the tea from China or wool from Austalia, and the tramps trading on (mostly) short trips with all kinds of merchandise. The lines had the best crews: reasonably educated, well trained and disciplined as compared with the adventurous crews on the tramps. The ship we're talking about was most probably a tramp. Maybe the captain had authority enough to get his crew to hand-handle the ballast, but they would inevitably have discovered the un-consigned and long-dead
ballast, and refused to go on. At least that's my guess, having known many sailors (though not in that era).
Conclusion: yes, indeed I think that the ballast was delivered in bags and that the crew knew nothing of their contents. I am even tempted to think that, had they known of the treasure-dig, they could have jumped ship to join the party!

I sure hope for you that someone else chimes in too, the more the merrier; but until now I've had no comments on my blabberings on this site, so I fear to be a lone wolf in this field of knowledge/conjecture.

Thanks for your info on this famous island of yours.
Are you a guide there, do you write a guide or are you a genuine historian somehow connected to Alcatraz? Please satisfy MY curiousity, it would be nice to meet another historian.

Till later,


Jun 23, 2010
Amateur Historian?
by: Sharlene

Han, Thanks again so much. I love the idea that the crew may have been horrified on the San Francisco dock to discovered they’d been plying the waves over a load of mummies and bones. (According to the articles I read, the crowd thought at first they were murderers, burying hiding their victims in the ballast.)

Before you pointed out the superstition part I’d imagined they’d partied at the dig as they filled ballast bags, keeping the best for themselves.

As for Alcatraz: it’s a National Park site, so generally at NPS sites, the people who do historical interpretation are Park Rangers and Park Service volunteers. But here we have a Night Tour that takes place after the rangers leave for the day. There’s a big staff, and amongst it are eight historical interpreters. We all work for the nonprofit that brings in the money to keep the parks going.

As far as I know, none of us have a degree in history. But our staff spends about 1/3 of its time doing research, often with primary sources such as former inmates, and we do a lot of digging in files after we get them released from the National Archives… we’re not just reading Alcatraz books. So from a history mystery standpoint it’s quite exciting. Then we develop our own unique historic programs on subjects of our own choosing, which we deliver daily to crowds of about 100+ at a time (5000 people a day visit Alcatraz). We also do other mundane duties related to keeping the program going.

I don’t feel I can call myself a historian, since I’m not professionally trained, but we are all doing a lot of exciting research here and adding to the knowledge of the island every day.

I love imagining about specific moments in history and what might have gone on. Thanks for adding to that.


Jun 24, 2010
by: Eric

Dear Sharlene and Han,

I'm intrigued by this story. At some point in my life I was a professional Archeological Field Technician, and as a hobby I've also spent many hours digging in archives doing historical research on various subjects.

Han's remarks make perfect sense to me. I think it is a well known fact that sailors were very superstitious; there are countless stories to back that up. So knowingly sailing with unknown mortal remains?

I agree with Han: very unlikely. As I know next to nothing about sailing, Han's conclusion that 'loose' ballast could cause technical troubles also makes sense. So packing it would make sense indeed. However, the bags must have had a considerable content volume-wise.

Skulls and especially femur bones are quite large to pack in paper or jute bags, assuming such bags would be small enough to be able to be carried by one person.

Since the story tells of mummified remains from South America, I expect the ballast to mainly consist of dry and loose sand.

So lets assume one person in those days would/could carry a 110 lb sack. If made out of paper or jute, such a relatively small bag would reveal that the content was not only sand. Rib bones would have easily stuck out for instance.

So maybe very large bags lifted by a crane (assuming the fabric or even paper could hold the weight of the bag's content)? Maybe wooden crates? Is there any evidence the ballast was indeed taken from Alcon?

A Question for Sharlene: do you have by any chance copies of the initial newspaper reports? Would love to read them... Eagerly awaiting further developments regarding this interesting story!

Best Wishes,

Eric van Dorland
The Netherlands

Jun 24, 2010
Transplanted Incas part 1
by: Sharlene

Eric! Thanks for jumping into the fray! Below is an article I've just found that was published "the day after;" it doesn't even mention Alcatraz. This reporter obviously had done his homework! This is from the Daily Alta California, Volume 25, Number 8630, 14 November 1873.

By the way: I'm putting it in two parts: I have overrun my allowed character count.


The Graves of Peru Converted Into Ballast-Remains More Than Three Hundred Years Old Discharged on the San Francisco Docks.

The German bark Matthais Meyer is now lying at Front-street wharf, discharging ballast.

Yesterday afternoon the men engaged in the work and the bystanders were startled at seeing skulls and bones of human beings being cast out amongst the sand. A large crowd soon collected, and many were the surmises and expressions of wonderment at the sight.

What was more peculiar was the condition in which those human remains were found. One of the skulls was still covered by the desiccated scalp, and from it flowed long, curly tresses. Another had a partial head of hair remaining. One was bleached white.

A soldier standing near took the skull with the long head of hair and said he would present it to one of the surgeons in the Army. Others seized upon legs of extinct beings, whose ample thighs had dwindled down to the proportions of the mummy. It would be easy to make a blood-curdling sensation out of this occurrence; but the facts are briefly told:

(Continue with Part 2)

Jun 24, 2010
Transplanted Incas part 2
by: Sharlene

The vessel has arrived from Ancon, Peru; this place is almost forty miles north of Callao, and is reached by the track of the railroad. During the course of construction of the railroad, while making cuts through the desert waste near the coast, a very large city of the dead was Invaded. There is no historical record of the time when these graves were made; old, older than the date of the Spanish Conquest. It never rains on the desert coast; the soil is strongly impregnated with nitrate of soda and other salts; everything organic dries up and is retained in the soil in a partial state of preservation.

Bodies of men, women and children, buried in the Desert sands centuries ago, are exhumed, and present the appearances of mummies. Corn on the cob is dug out of the graves in large quantities; also pieces of pottery, images, coins and symbolic letters to the spirit world, made of knotted twine and cord.

Some specimens of these relics were exhibited last Summer, to the Academy of Science in this city; among the specimens being the leg of a child, with all the bones encased in the dried skin, the toe-nails being in perfect preservation.

Ships and all vessels landing goods, lumber, etc., at Ancon and not succeeding in getting a cargo of sugar, must necessarily take in ballast, and the ballast is obtained from the old cemetery ground. This fact accounts for all the phenomena on the dock yesterday. It is a matter of peculiar interest; but there is nothing strange in the fact.
I'm still puzzled as to how all these pieces fell onto the dock, and how many there were. All articles describe enough bones to cause large crowds to gather -- but newspapers in those days were good at sensationalizing for the sake of sales. Still, this article seems quite logical and composed.

Any more thoughts? Love to hear them.

And thanks Eric and Han!

Jun 25, 2010
How about barrels?
by: Sharlene


Another thought. No mention has been made of the idea of barrels. Wasn't cargo generally put into barrels, which could be rolled up the gangplank and into the hold? They have the advantage of being wheel-like, making the weight issue less of a problem.

Would it be possible for them to have gotten barrels of sand for ballast? Would ships carry their own barrels for cargo, or did they buy their cargo already in barrels?

Would they have dumped the sand out of the barrels on the dock of San Francisco... perhaps to send it into the bay? None of the newspaper articles I read are clear about how the sand got onto the dock, rather than saying it was discharged. Is it the sort of thing that would be reused or resold? Hard to imagine...

So many questions. All I want to know is: How did these guys live their lives? Isn't that what the study of history is all about?

Eagerly awaiting further speculations, Sharlene

Jun 25, 2010
Questions, questions... and no definite answers.
by: Han

Hi Sharlene and Eric (nice to see you tuned in!),

The possibilities concerning the most efficient way to transport dry sand containing human remains seem to multiply (thank you both), but are, in my humble opinion, limited in reality.

I agree with Eric's reasoning re the size of the bags to be handled, but only as far as they had to be carried one by one. Bigger bags could have been used, tied together in netting; sailors have always been great improvisators, so the use of block and tackle rigged from a yardarm to hoist a ton or more at one time from the quay into the hold or vice versa is very feasible. And, jute can be produced in several grades of strength.

Bigger bags could also have been made out of worn sails, considerable quantities of which were stacked on board for repairs, body-bags etc. This material, canvas, is very strong, but the sailmaker wouldn't have liked this kind of use.

Big crates, as suggested by Eric, have to be very strong (30 ft³ of sand weighs about 7000 lb.) and need special care when hoisted. Besides, strong crates are relatively expensive, which goes even more for barrels, as proposed by Sharlene. Besides other disadvantages, barrels were, in those times, no longer used for the storage of dry goods, and the use of empty wine- or beer-barrels, in particular with desiccants in the dry sand, would have them rendered useless.
By the way, did you know that the barrel is a Gaul invention? The Romans got to know them when battling my favourite Asterix, and spread the use of them.

Anyway, whatever was holding the sand burst, showing it's contents; it needs only one bag in a net, swinging from the hold against something sharp and hard (a corner of a shed, a wagon?) and all hell breaks loose.

The newspaper-article seems sober enough, it all sounds quite likely to me.

With this I think to have sketched the (in my view) most probable scenario. If someone else is capable of painting a more colourful picture, please be my guest and we'll discuss it at any length needed; I still learn every day.

PS: Dear Eric, when I first read your posting I saw you gave your mail-address, now it's gone presumably because Alex has removed it for the same reason I mention it here: this forum is meant as a place to learn for all.

Jun 25, 2010
by: Alex

Han, you caught me out! This has been a very interesting read.

Sharlene, I have been to Alcatraz in San Francisco. Its a great place to visit! Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us!

Best Regards,

Jun 26, 2010
Mummies and Conflagrations
by: Sharlene

Hello All, I'm delighted at all that I've learned here. Sounds like I'm about a hundred years off on the barrel idea; and the breadth of superstition among sailors at this time was a surprise to me. And yes, Han, I can see it the way you propose. A break in the netting or large bag, and down pour the bones onto the dock. I can see why it would have caused quite a stir.

I noticed on the same page as the article I quoted, there was news about how someone had overturned their teapot (they must have also meant the fire under it) and started a wharf on fire, which spread rapidly toward a large ship which could not get untied quickly enough, but at the last second the fire was extinguished.

Yet, all this was reported in just three sentences buried in the shipping news without even its own headline.

Goodness, life was ever so much more exciting back then, at least in the big city. Mummies, conflagrations: carry on!

Thanks to all for everything. Please chime in if you think of more.

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