In its early days, Australia had two main newspapers. One was The Argus.
On Friday, July 9th, 1909, The Argus told of a message in a bottle found in Singapore. It was signed by two men, Palmerston and Flenn, who asked the finder to send help, as they were “lost in one of the New Guinea islands”.
The brief message simply read:
June 18–Come and help us. We are lost in one of the New Guinea Islands, 30deg. 5min. Palmerston and Flenn.
Naturally, the government officials who received word of this message (including the Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin) were concerned about Palmerston and Flenn.
Prime Minister Deakin and Parliament immediately discussed rescuing the two men. Believe it or not, this was such a high priority it made news again the very next day. Here’s the story covering rescue discussions from Saturday, July 10th, 1909:
Now, by 1909, Australia had gained its independence from Britain (1901). Britain had also transferred administrative powers over southeastern New Guinea to Australia (1906). This map shows the portion of Papua New Guinea (in red) that was controlled by Australia at the time:
But Palmerston and Flenn claimed to be lost in “one of the New Guinea islands”. That could be the mainland, outlined above, or it could any of these islands:
So these guys could have been lost on any one of a zillion tiny islands! Or on any of the bigger New Guinea islands, like New Britain or New Ireland or Bougainville Island.
Luckily, Palmerston and Flenn included partial coordinates: 30deg. 5min.
But…if I drop a pin right in the middle of those islands they claimed to be lost in, I get these coordinates:
7deg, 6min South
151deg, 36min East
That’s nowhere close to the coordinates in the message. So why on earth were government officials anxious to send a war ship in search of these men? That may be the biggest mystery of all.
Nevertheless, concern for these men grew.
All of a sudden, a Melbourne resident came forward with a confession: She had thrown a fake message in a bottle as a joke in that area just a few days before. She was worried that all this hubub was her fault. Mystery solved. Right?
As The Argus points out, the woman did not send the “Palmerston and Flenn” message. The woman claims her message said: “May 24. We are wrecked on Elephant Island. Come to our rescue.” But this is nothing like the original message: “June 18–Come and help us. We are lost in one of the New Guinea Islands, 30deg. 5min. Palmerston and Flenn.” Besides, Elephant Island is off the coast of Antarctica, not Australia.
Here’s the story, from Tuesday, July 13th, 1909:
The woman behind the “Elephant Island” message was ruled out. She did not send Palmerston and Flenn’s message in a bottle.
That meant Palmerston and Flenn could still be out there. It’s possible that their call for help was real.
Crazily, this is where the trail goes cold. There are no further news stories, no further record of what happened. Did Prime Minister Deakin and Parliament send a ship to look for Palmerston and Flenn? Were Palmerston and Flenn ever confirmed to be real? To be missing? There was simply no answer.
I believe I can prove this message in a bottle was a hoax.
First: The coordinates Palmerston and Flenn gave in their message do not match the area–not remotely. Also, they gave only one coordinate, and we do not know if it was latitude or longitude. Not the kind of mistake seaworthy sailors would make.
Second: Bless their hearts, Palmerston and Flenn… There’s just no way their message could have reached Singapore if they sent it from the New Guinea islands. According to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, the currents in that area are notoriously hard to track. But with today’s technology, we have a rough idea of how they work, and it’s like this:
As you can see, the currents flow south past Singapore.
Remember, Singapore is west of New Guinea:
In order for the bottle to make it from the New Guinea islands to Singapore, it would have to travel west–and that’s just not possible.
Third: Hoax messages were extremely popular during this time. Remember how the one woman who actually tried to fess up to writing the “Palmerston and Flenn” message was actually the author of a completely different hoax?! That’s how popular message in a bottle hoaxes were in the 19th century.
Bottom line? This message in a bottle was a hoax. I’m sure it was “real” in the sense that it was found. But Palmerston and Flenn? Poor guys–they were just figments of someone’s imagination.