ROLL OUT THE BARREL

The Mary Russell - the Ship of the Seven Murders

by Tom Slemen

Up in Blundellsands in the north-west of England, there stands an old Victorian house which overlooks the waters of Liverpool Bay. In the 1950s, a gang of workmen were charged with the task of converting the waterfront house into flats. Before the workmen started their job, the foreman started to inspect the run-down house. In the attic, he came across something unusual: the huge helm wheel of an old ship that had been mounted in front of the garret window. The bemused foreman surmised that the previous occupant of the house had been some sailor or captain, and as he playfully turned the wheel, he looked beyond the dusty attic window at the sea's horizon. One of the workers meanwhile, was examining an array of maps and charts that dotted the wall. These maps covered every part of the globe. More maritime items were uncovered in the attic that afternoon. A sextant, a finely-balanced compass, a small brass folding telescope - and a huge battered-looking trunk. The foreman expected the trunk to be locked, but the lid lifted open to reveal nothing but an old sword which resembled an 18th century naval cutlass. The foreman lifted the sword out of the trunk, and as he did, he and the labourer were startled by a strange, eerie noise. They heard an accordion playing in the house somewhere, accompanied by the cries of seagulls. As the foreman turned to the workman with a look of puzzlement, he saw the old ship's wheel spinning on its axis. The workman turned and witnessed this strange activity too, then backed out of the attic, saying, "I don't like this."
The foreman was more amazed than frightened, until events took an even stranger turn. Another weird noise also echoed throughout the attic, and it was just like the creaking sounds of a ship's timbers. Suddenly, the whole floor of the attic seemed to tilt and sway, and the two men thought the whole house was ready to collapse. With the helm spinning and the yells of the phantom seagulls, the foreman felt as if he was standing on the swaying deck of a ship at sea. He decided to run, but as he bolted for the door, something powerful yanked the old sword from his hand. The foreman glanced back, and saw the cutlass suspended in mid-air, as if hanging by an invisible thread.
Understandably, the foreman and his gang refused to work in the attic, and instead of converting it into a room, they left it the way it was and simply locked its door. When the landlord of the old house heard this, he took the foreman to court. All the same, even the landlord didn't like the spooky atmosphere in the attic, and never ventured up there alone. The landlord knew that in the 1860s, a demented sea-captain named William Stewart lived in the Blundellsands house, and, according to old rumours, that captain had been a cruel and twisted man who had committed some unspeakable act of evil on the premises. No one knew just what Captain Stewart had done, but the landlord had heard from his father that there had been a double murder in the house long ago.
In 1955, the Blundellsands dwelling was subdivided into six flats, which were occupied by 5 couples and an elderly spinster. In April 1955, the spinster, a Miss Jean Fleming, let out a scream one night at half past twelve. Two medical students and their girlfriends who were lodging at the house ran up to the third-floor flat to see what the matter was. They found Miss Fleming lying on the floor, unconscious. When the spinster came to, she said she had fainted after seeing a terrible apparition. The bodies of a naked man and woman were lying on her bed, dismembered and disembowelled. Their heads, arms and legs had been severed from their torsos, and the apparition had looked so real. Miss Fleming had even seen the blood soaking into her duvet. The spinster was so scared, she left the lodging house that night and stayed with a cousin in Kirkdale.
Everyone in the lodging house surmised that the confused old spinster had simply had a bad dream. But later that week, in the dead of night, something took place which turned the lodgers into shambling nervous wrecks. The time was 3.15 a.m., and a young couple on the ground floor were awakened by a loud bang which echoed down the stairway. It seemed to originate...in the attic. The couple listened intently, and they heard a succession of thumps on the stairs. Then the strains of an accordion playing some sort of sea-shanty drifted down the stairway. On the second floor, the medical students and their girlfriends were also awakened by the racket, and one of the girls got out of bed and looked through the keyhole. She let out a terrible scream, then rushed into the arms of her alarmed boyfriend, who was sitting up in bed.
"What's wrong? Who is it?" the student asked.
His girl hugged him and started to shake. She said a weird-looking man with wild staring eyes was on the landing outside, trying to carry a barrel down the stairs. The man wore a leather cap and a long black coat, and he had blood on his hands.
The student and his girl were so frightened, they refused to budge from that room until first light, and barricaded themselves in. Across the landing, the other medical student, a young man named Robert, had made the mistake of opening the door to see who was making all the noise. He got the clearest view of the strange man before slamming the door and locking it. Robert later described the man as outdated, with a black cap similar to the ones worn by the sea skippers in the 19th century. Robert had seen the bloody hands too, and had also noticed blood around the man's mouth, on his grizzled beard and moustache. The odd-looking stranger's glaring mad eyes had also sent a shiver down Robert's eyes.
The couple in the ground floor flat of the house never opened their door to see what all the commotion was about, but they noticed how the rumbling sound and strange music seemed to continue down into the cellar, where it came to an abrupt end. The lodgers soon realised that a ghost was at large in the house, and they contacted the landlord to tell him about the nerve-shattering episode. He visited the house, and instead of dismissing the claims, he seemed very jumpy and continually on edge. The landlord went up to the attic and found that the door had been forced open. He arranged for a new padlock to be fitted to the door, but in the following week, the sinister man in black gave a repeat performance, only this time, the terrified lodgers who were brave enough to peep through their keyholes saw that the seafaring shade was now pulling a trunk down the stairs. On this occasion, the heart-stopping ghost was heard to cackle and mutter to himself in a raspy voice as he made his way down to the cellar.
Enough was enough, and early next morning there was nothing short of a mass exodus from the haunted lodging house. All the lodgers had suffered enough sleepless nights living in dread of the disruptive phantom. The landlord begged them to stay but soon found himself alone in the house. As a last resort, a priest was invited into the house to exorcise the ghost, but even the holy man fled when he saw the blade of the old sword being thrust at him through the attic door. As the priest and the landlord flew down the stairs in a state of absolute panic, the sound of laughter reverberated through the house.
The landlord later died from a short illness, and the house was bought by a wealthy retired couple from Aintree named Joan and Freddie Osborne. A few days after the Osbornes moved into the Blundellsands house, they too heard the spooky sea shanty being played somewhere by an invisible accordion. Then, in June, 1958, Joan Osborne awoke in bed one night to see the menacing ghost of the bearded sea captain leaning over her. His wide insane-looking eyes gazed at her terrified face. Joan Osborne couldn't speak or even move with fear. The face of the ghost was spattered with droplets of blood, and he raised his arm. In his hand he brandished a long sword, ready to strike Joan with it. The woman managed to close her eyes. She suddenly regained the power to move, and she let out a scream, thinking some burglar was about to slay her in her bed.
Freddie, Joan's husband bolted upright from the bed and he actually saw the ghostly sea captain melt away into the darkness of the bedroom.
The Osbornes got in touch with a local historian friend named Ian MacCauley, who specialised in maritime history. They asked him to research the history of their newly-purchased house, and over two months, the local historian uncovered a disturbing tale of murder and madness which seemed to explain the ghostly phenomena.
MacCauley learned that in the 1860s, a Captain William Stewart bought the house now occupied by the Osbornes. Stewart had a streak of insanity which he had undoubtedly inherited from his grandfather, a captain who had murdered seven of his own crew on a ship called the Mary Russell in 1828. Stewart's grandfather had stood trial for murder, but had been found guilty and insane. After serving seven years at an asylum in Cork, he had been released to return to his hometown of Liverpool. Like his grandfather, William Stewart was also accused of murdering one of the crewmen on a ship named Seabird in 1859, but he was later acquitted. After a prosperous career importing rum and sugar from Barbados, Captain Stewart retired and married an Irish girl named Mary. The couple moved into the waterfront house at Blundellsands, and when Stewart learned that his old ship, the Seabird was being decommissioned, he salvaged the wheel of the vessel, along with sections of the deck. The floorboards of the deck were laid in the attic of the Stewart's new home and the helm was also mounted in front of the attic window. The ship's sextant and compass were also recovered by Stewart for sentimental reasons, and he kept them in a trunk, along with his trusty old spyglass and sword.
The neighbours of Captain Stewart nicknamed him "Jack Tar", and often sneered at the way the old seafarer went down to the waterfront promenade each morning to feed the seagulls. But what really amused the neighbours was the way William Stewart stood before his attic window, manipulating the ridiculous wheel of his imaginary ship as he gazed out at the distant horizon of Liverpool Bay.
Then Mary Stewart went missing. People asked William what had become of her, but the old seadog would always smile enigmatically and say, "Gone back across the Irish Sea no doubt."
When Mary hadn't been seen in over a month, the police were alerted by the neighbours of the retired captain, and he was taken into custody and quizzed. There was a thorough search of the house, and bloodstains were found on the mattress of the Stewarts double bed. Traces of blood were also found in a barrel and trunk in the cellar.
Stewart was asked to explain the bloodstains, but he gradually became incoherent and started to sing and laugh out loud. He was committed to an asylum for the criminally insane, and in 1870, just before he died, he made a startling deathbed confession. Stewart claimed that he had murdered his wife and her lover upon discovering them in his bed. On the night he discovered his wife was being unfaithful, a thunderstorm was raging, and Stewart was able to enter his house without being heard. In a fit of jealous rage, Stewart entered the bedroom, then impaled Mary and her lover with his old sword in one swift thrust through the man's lower back. He then hacked the screaming couple to death, dismembering their limbs in the process. Stewart was so enraged at the man who had been to bed with his beloved wife, he sliced off his ears and fried them in a pan before eating them. Stewart hid the body parts in a barrel and trunk he kept in his attic, but later transferred the containers downstairs to the cellar. The arms, legs, torsos and heads were gradually sawed up into small chunks which Stewart fed to the seagulls during his morning walks along the promenades of Blundellsands. The fragmented bones of the murder victims were simply tossed into the sea.
When the Osbornes had heard the story of the murderous Captain Stewart, they promptly left their new home and put it up for sale. That house is still standing today, and for some reason, it lies empty...

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