Maritime criminal stories and other peculiar tales

A fascinating register of Swedish shipwrecks is available in Europeana. This is the story of one of the ships named in the register – the S/S Energi.  By Göran Ekberg,  Curator – Archaeology Unit, Swedish National Maritime Museums.

S/S Energi

S/S Energi, unknown photographer, 1942, Swedish National Maritime Museum

At the end of September 1950, a very powerful explosion occurred in the lower part of the nearly 60-metre long steamer,  S/S Energi. The ship, which was on her way from Luleå in the north of Sweden, to Rotterdam in The Netherlands, carried a cargo of sulphur pyrite. It started to sink aft-first, just three minutes after the explosion. Six of the 16 crew members were able to hang on to a lifeboat floating upside-down and were rescued ten hours later. The other ten died.

This was not the end of the story.

Immediately after the loss of the ship, suspicions were raised about possible sabotage. In hearings after the accident, the surviving crew members told of a course of events that did not fit with the theory that the ship collided with a mine, which was a common explanation for losses at sea after the Second World War. However, the police investigation found no evidence of a criminal act and the subsequent maritime inquiry established that the reason for the accident was indeed collision with a mine. The insurance company paid more than 750,000 Swedish kronor (approximately 70,000 euros) to the owner of the ship. In the following years, both the accident and the wreck were forgotten…

But this was still not the end of the story.

Fifteen years later, a woman turned up to speak to the homicide squad at the National Criminal Investigation Department, saying that she knew that the ship S/S  Energi was deliberately sunk so that the owners could get the insurance money. It turned out that the woman had been in a relationship with one of the men involved in the sinking, but now the relationship had ended and she wanted revenge. With this new information, the police department reopened the case. At the same time, it came to the investigators’ knowledge that an extortion letter had been sent to the owner of the shipping company. In the letter, the extortioner demanded 30,000 kronor (approximately 3,000 euros) not to reveal the truth.

The new investigation unearthed interesting results. Shortly before the accident, the steward on S/S Energi had bought 20 kilos of dynamite, 100 percussion caps and lots of fuse cord. The police also found a letter dated a few years before the accident, in which the owner of S/S Energi urged a former captain of the ship to sink the vessel. According to his wife, the captain responded very strongly to the letter, saying ‘I am a sailor not a murderer, if he wants to sink his ship he will have to do it himself”. The letter made the captain so angry and disappointed that he signed off the ship and destroyed the letter. The captain died shortly before the trial but his wife testified about the episode in court.

When the investigators interrogated the steward, he confessed that he had been involved in the sinking. Following his confession, three other people were arrested – one crew member and two of the shipping company’s owners. In the trial, the steward and one of the owners were sentenced to 8 years in prison on the charge of murder. The other owner was sentenced to four years in prison and the other crew member walked free.

This story, together with many other gruesome and intriguing stories, can be read about in a database run by The National Heritage Board in Sweden. The database, Fornsök, includes information about more than 1.7 million wrecks and ruins in nearly 600,000 places in Sweden, both on land and in water. The information comes from field inventories and archaeological excavations. The database is updated regularly with information about new remains and newly uncovered information.

Fornsök - Swedish shipwrecks database

Search Fornsök, the Swedish national shipwrecks database

In total there are around 20,000 maritime objects included in the database. 17,000 of these are about ship losses, and of these, 3,500 wrecks have been found and given an exact position. This information is collected from the general public, from the military, from recreational divers and from archaeological excavations since the beginning of the 1960s. The National Maritime Museum started to digitise its wreck register in 1995 and it was included in Fornsök in 2008.

The wreck of the  S/S Energi is still out there somewhere waiting to be found.

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