Welcome aboard. If you’ve heard of the Philadelphia Experiment before, I hope I can show you something new. If you have not heard of the Philadelphia Experiment before: buckle the hell up. Let’s get right to it.
Pictured above is the U.S.S. Eldridge (DE-173), a Cannon class Destroyer escort of the U.S. Navy. Launched in 1943, she served during the end of WWII, ferrying troops through the Mediterranean to battlefields in the north of Africa. After the war, she was sold to Greece, where she served as the H.S. Leon (D-54) until she was decommissioned in 1992 and finally scrapped off the Piraeus (where Socrates went to worship Thracian Bendis) in 1999.
Bendis isn’t related to the Philadelphia Experiment. OR IS SHE?!
The service history of the Eldridge is nothing spectacular. Aside from an (apparently fruitless) attack on what was probably a submarine (or maybe a dud mine), she wasn’t involved in any great battles. Indeed, by the official record, her service was about as uneventful as could be for an active WWII fighting vessel. The Eldridge would perhaps not be remembered in the general consciousness at all, if not for a strange mythology which developed, in the first place, from a series of strange letters; it is due to these letters that the appropriately Lovecraftian-sounding Eldridge entered the nomenclature of the curators of the bizarre and the downright creepy.
In January of 1956, science writer Morris K. Jessup received the first of these letters. The letters claimed that the Eldridge was involved in top-secret military experimentation involving invisibility, teleportation, and a host of physical and psychological disasters suffered by her crew. All of the letters were signed “Carl Allen“, but due to the writer’s tendency to switch between that moniker and “Carlos Miguel Allende” (the name generally preferred in secondary literature), the letters are somewhat confusingly referred to as the “Allende Letters.” The first letter was postmarked January 13, and it had been mailed in the stationary envelope of the Turner Hotel in Gainsville, Texas.
The letters are very strange, with many spelling errors, inconsistent capitalization, and scientific-sounding jargon as clear as mud. The reader should consider a big fat [sic] stamped across whatever I quote from the intractable Mr. Allende (I’ve also retained his extensive and somewhat confusing underlining; they’re not links). In the first letter (hilariously signed off “Very Disrespectfully Yours”) Allende seems appalled by Mr. Jessup’s promoting scientific investigation into a ‘unified field theory.’ This concept (also sometimes called a ‘grand unified theory’) aims to reconcile the classical physics employed and observed in objects of a certain scale with the quantum physics known to pertain to much smaller objects such as atoms and sub-atomic particles. The development of such a synthesis is one of the more important goals of modern physics. However, at least according to Allende, this goal had been reached as early as 1943 – with bizarre and terrible results. Scientists working with the Navy, Allende claimed, had found a way to employ the unified field theory to make a ship invisible. As he writes,
Alright! Alright! The “result” was complete invisibility of a ship, Destroyer type, and all of its crew, while at Sea (Oct. 1943) The Field was effective in an oblate spheroidal shape, extending one hundred yards (More or Less, due to Lunar position & Latitude) out from each beam of the ship […] Any person without that sphere could see Nothing save the clearly Defined shape of the Ships Hull in the water.
Allende claimed that he witnessed this phenomenon personally, while he was a crew member on board the S.S. Andrew Furuseth, a merchant-marine vessel (the Navy has no record of a Carlos Allende serving on this ship, and insists that the Furuseth and the Eldridge were never even in port together… but isn’t that just what they would say?) More experimentation produced further bizarre results, as Allende discusses in his second letter (this letter, which reached Jessup a few days after the first, may in fact be the third letter; the ‘first’ letter discussed above makes reference to an earlier letter, which was never received by Jessup and which has never been found.) Allende claims here that this new technology was capable not only of invisibility, but teleportation:
I wish to Mention that Somehow, also, The Experimental Ship Disappeared from its Philadelphia Dock and only a Very few Minutes Later appeared at its other Dock in the Norfolk, Newport News, Portsmouth area. This was distinctly AND clearly Identified as being that place BUT the ship then, again, Disappeared and Went Back to its Philadelphia Dock in only a Very few Minutes or Less. This was also noted in the newspapers But I forget what paper I read it in or When It happened. Probably Late in the experiments, may have been in 1946 after Experiments were discontinued, I can Not Say for Sure.
Allende, annoyingly, often refers to newspaper articles that don’t seem to exist, or describes them so vaguely that tracking them down is impossible. That said, what he describes in terms of the physical effects upon the ship itself is bizarre enough to solidify the Eldridge as the go-to name in wacky Naval shenanigans.
Or maybe #2, after that movie Down Periscope. Top-notch shenanigans.
However, this is only part of the story. The more light-hearted part. The truly dark shit is what happened to the crew.
In his letters (there were three received in all, the third postmarked May 25, 1956, and posted in Du Bois, Pennsylvania) Mr. Allende makes frequent reference to the adverse effects felt by the crew. These effects seem to be the main thrust of his passionate aversion to the unified field theory and the Navy’s tampering with That Which Should Not Be Tampered With. Allende goes into great detail regarding the maladies wreaked upon the crew, from simple insanity (“Half of the officers & the crew of that Ship are at Present, Mad as Hatters.”) to disastrous effects of a wholly otherworldly nature. Men found themselves fused to bulkheads, taking up the same space, their atoms grotesquely mingled with those of the ship itself. Men were frozen in place, jammed into some temporal rip or anomaly generated by the experimentation. Sometimes this was merely momentary (‘going blank and getting stuck’; apparently, this is “Not at all an unpleasant experence to Healthily Curious Sailors,” an attitude we should all adopt when it comes to Forteana) Sometimes, however, freezes lasted for days, weeks, and months at a time. Allende calls this a “deep freeze.” It is substantially less fun:
“Usually a “Deep Freeze” Man goes Mad, Stark Raving, Gibbering, Running MAD, if His “freeze” is far More than a Day in our time. I speak of TIME for DEEP “Frozen Men” are Not aware of Time as We know it. They are Like Semi-comatose person, who Live, breathe, Look & feel but still are unaware of So utterly Many things as to constitute a “Nether World” to them. A Man in an ordinary common Freeze is aware of Time, Sometimes acutely so. Yet They are Never aware of Time percisely as you or I are aware of it. The First “Deep Freeze” As I said took 6 months to Rectify.”
After the experiment, crew members would vanish without a trace, in full view of others, never to return. The effects of the experiment were long-lasting, with vanishings and freezes afflicting crew members decades after the fact. “A few,” he writes, “are even Yet confined to certain areas where they May receive trained Scientific aid when they, either, “Go Blank” or Go Blank” & Get Stuck.” And we hear all of this filtered through the obviously warped lens that is Allende himself, the mysterious source whose very writing gives us a frightening vision of his own tormented mind. Is Allende’s disjointed writing the effect of his being exposed to this unprecedented technology? Or, has he manufactured the event in the throes of an unrelated madness? Is Allende’s palpably troubled state the cause, or the effect, of this narrative? The strange thing here is that Allende makes no real claim to sanity; his madness is its own kind of proof that he’s telling the truth. Whether it happened or not, he’s crazy either way. And that doesn’t seem to bother him too much. Maybe he had to be crazy to make this up, or maybe he went crazy as an unexplained result of the experiment, or maybe he went crazy because of the things he saw:
“There are only a very few of the original Expierimental D-E’s Crew Left by Now, Sir. Most went insane, one just walked “throo” His quarters Wall in sight of His Wife & Child & 2 other crew Members (WAS NEVER SEEN AGAIN), two “Went into “The Flame,” I.E. They “Froze” & caught fire, while carrying common Small-Boat Compasses, one Man carried the compass & Caught fire, the other came for the “Laying on of Hands” as he was nearest but he too, took fire. THEY BURNED FOR 18 DAYS. The faith in “Hand Laying” Died When this Happened & Mens Minds Went by the scores. The experiment Was a Complete Success. The Men were Complete Failures.”
I’ve long held that “THEY BURNED FOR 18 DAYS” is one of the most frightening sentences ever crafted in the English language. Almost as creepy is Allende’s image of a tranquil, domestic family scene, perhaps a dinner with friends, abruptly rammed into the twilight zone when the head of the house gets up and, without a word, turns and walks right through the wall, never to be seen again. That this happened in the presence of other crew members testifies to the bizarre lingering effects of the experimentation; presumably, they too bore vestigial energies or complications from the event which somehow contributed to and increased the physical ‘fuzziness’ of the vanished father.
By ‘fuzziness’ here, I mean a kind of diffusibility, a sort of impermanence of the human form, the tendency to dissolve into materials, fall out of sight, to break apart and mingle with non-human objects. This kind of effect is the hallmark of the Philadelphia Experiment mythos. In this, Allende seized upon a kind of threat which had never before really been expressed – a new threat from a new weapon, in a new scientific and technological era. Before Allende’s time, humans could be worried about being blown apart, burned to ash, torn limb from limb, or dying from any number of terrible and crippling diseases. However, the thing undergoing that destruction or suffering remained a human. Even ‘complete’ destruction of a body means total dissolution into its composite elements, in a culture which has internalized the law of conservation of mass. People don’t just go away. They don’t just slide into an object and never, ever come out. That’s a kind of destruction that ties destruction of the body in with destruction of identity. It’s a deeply personal kind of danger; it destroys you by assaulting your ability to remain yourself, to remain a unitary thing with a permanent identity:
“WORSE & Not Mentioned When one or two of their Men, Visible within the field to all the others, just Walked into Nothingness, AND Nothing Could Be felt, of them, either when the “field” Was turned on OR off, THEY WERE JUST GONE!”
It’s worth noting, in this connection, that Allende is writing in the dawn of the atomic bomb, a weapon with the viscerally shocking ability to vaporize a human body and leave nothing but a shadow scorched into the ground. Moreover, the development of modern particle physics had fairly recently revealed that normal physical objects are mostly empty space; we really can slide right inside or through another object, at least in terms of space (we don’t, because the electrical charges of our atoms repel those of the things around us.) This new mode of scientific thinking is deeply startling in its own way. Allende is horrified by the atomic and subatomic world; his protest against a unified field theory is not Luddism, but a tremendous anxiety toward the apparent incoherence and unreliability found at the very roots of reality. He doesn’t want the predictable, everyday world dissolved and mingled with the quantum chaos, for that is what a unified field theory does.
Like a ancient gnostic, Allende contrasts a higher, ordered, permanent world with a lower, chaotic, potentially evil world. Those worlds must be kept separated; the worst fate would be to have “our” permanence unnaturally coupled with “its” chaos. Allende seems to suggest that humans have some kind of innate process to maintain our composition, to keep ourselves ‘in’ and everything else ‘out’, and that this is something we must actively engage in, a kind of defensive act, though we don’t notice it or know how it works. Something that happened on the Eldridge seems to have crippled the sailors’ ability to do that; and as the composing act is mysterious and isn’t performed intentionally, the reverse is also true: that the dissolving is equally mysterious and equally impervious to our attempts to control it. The new physics is tearing apart the boundaries between our world and a lower world; the lower world has in fact invaded without our ever having had a chance to defend ourselves. We, in the everyday world, lose our identity, when we realize that that other world is, and has been, the foundation of our own flesh all along. Maybe we’re not as good at holding ourselves together as we think we are. Maybe the lower world is much better at swallowing us up, at becoming us. After all, a unified cosmic theory won’t need a variable to explain your personality. It’s in there already.
That anxiety is, I think, why the Philadelphia Experiment mythos has such staying power, and these Allende letters still make one’s skin crawl (crawl into what?!) Taken on their own, the Allende letters give us a pretty damned creepy story, and what we’ve covered so far is fairly common knowledge among the conspiracy-inclined laity. However, those more than passingly familiar with the tale know that we’ve just crossed the ledge into this awe-inspiring pit of weirdness. The story of the Philadelphia Experiment goes much, much deeper.