The Bogus Count and Hamlet’s Ghost

Hamlet’s Ghost at Surabaya, Indonesia, 1868. Photo Courtesy: Walter B Woodbury Photograph Collection, Robert S. Cox Special Collections and University Archives Research Center, UMass Amherst Libraries.

Some things you just can’t make up.    This is the story of the bogus Count von Attems and Hamlet’s Ghost.

In May 1868 a dashing young man stepped ashore in Sydney claiming to be Count Ignaz Von Attems, a blood relative of Archduke Albert of Austria.   The Von Attems family could trace their aristocratic lineage back to the 12th Century, and to Australia’s class-conscious and pretentious squattocracy, he was a man to be feted.

Von Attems knew how the game was played for he was already a master far beyond his 25 years might suggest.   He dressed extravagantly, splashed money around with abandon, hinted at a lavish monthly stipend and courted attention.   He was a man to be seen and more importantly to many in colonial society, a man to be seen with.

No social engagement would be complete without the attendance of the aristocratic Count.  He would often dress in the full uniform of an Austrian cavalry officer, complete with sword, even when wandering about town.

But, after spending just four weeks in Sydney he departed for Brisbane, promising to return once he had done a spot of hunting in the new colony to the north.  

“The Gallant Count Von Attems” newspaper article from the 1940s. Source: Trove.

His reception in Brisbane was no less exuberant. 

The Colonial Secretary hosted a champagne lunch in Von Attem’s honour attended by the colony’s leading citizens, for no other reason than he had deigned to visit their humble domain.

As in Sydney, he borrowed heavily on lines of credit with the colonial banks and convinced local merchants and new acquaintances to cover his debts, usually claiming his monthly allowance had yet to catch up with him.

By now, Count Von Attems, or Curt Oswald Schmulz as he was better known to his family back in Austria, had perfected his craft.   He was charismatic, urbane, and exceedingly generous with “his” money.    He was everything one would expect from a well-bred aristocrat.

The man dressed in white is likely Curt Schmulz AKA Count von Attems on board Hamlet’s Ghost at Surabaya 1868. Walter B Woodbury Photograph Collection, Robert S. Cox Special Collections and University Archives Research Center, UMass Amherst Libraries.

Born to a middle-class family in Saxony, the young Schmulz had attended a Commercial Academy and worked in what today would be an accounting firm as he completed his studies.  

He also began to cultivate a lifestyle he could not quite afford.   Unfortunately, by the time he had turned 20 he had amassed debts neither he nor his father could pay.

He quietly left Europe and headed to the United States which was then embroiled in the Civil War.   He joined the Union Army and seemingly served with some distinction for when he mustered out at the end of hostilities in 1865 he had risen to the rank of Captain.

For the next two years or so he travelled through South America, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.   He held fake letters of introduction and drew on bogus lines of credit with banks far from where he currently was.   No doubt his earlier employment at the counting house stood him in good stead.  He never stayed in any one city for long and assumed the personas of many different people real and imagined.   He also became adept at putting on the airs of the European aristocrat.  

When he left Sydney he had no intention of returning.     To do so would have courted disaster, for it would only be a matter of time before his elaborate scam caught up with him.   On leaving Brisbane, he planned instead, to make for Batavia in the Dutch East Indies (present day Indonesia).   

And, one day he found the ideal vessel to carry him north.   He purchased a luxurious pleasure craft enigmatically named Hamlet’s Ghost.

It had a story just as interesting as the bogus Count’s.   A clue to its origin, for students of Shakespeare, can be found in the yacht’s name.    Hamlet’s Ghost had once been the whaling schooner, Prince of Denmark.

Example of an 1860s whaling Schooner.

The Prince of Denmark had run aground on one of the Chesterfield Islands far out in the Coral Sea during a heavy storm in 1863.   To escape the island the captain had his men build a boat from the remains of his ship.     Captain Bennett and his crew of Solomon Islanders then sailed it to Moreton Bay where he sold the vessel and continued on to Sydney.

It first saw service as a lighter transferring cargo from ships to shore.  Then, three years later George Harris, a well heeled merchant, purchased the craft.   He had it remodelled into a fine pleasure yacht he could use to cruise the Brisbane River and Moreton Bay.

Hamlet’s Ghost was a schooner-rigged vessel of about 8-10 tons with an elliptical stern and an overhanging bow.   The hull was sheathed in cedar and copper-plated to ward off seaworms.   She had a spacious cabin amidships with a large skylight to provide full headroom and plenty of light. 

“The vessel’s cabin is splendidly fitted up,” wrote one reporter. “The panellings are of grained maple mounted with gold mouldings, and a large pier glass fills up one end of the cabin.” 

Hamlet’s Ghost at Surabaya, 1868. Photo courtesy: Walter B Woodbury Photograph Collection, Robert S. Cox Special Collections and University Archives Research Center, UMass Amherst Libraries.

She also carried on deck three brass swivel guns to ward off any threats in remote or dangerous waters.

It was perfect.   Count Von Attems purchased it for £500 and said he intended to cruise along the Queensland coast, perhaps, as far as Cleveland Bay (present-day Townsville) before returning to port.    He crewed it with a captain, chief officer, three seamen, a cook/steward and a manservant. 

Three weeks after arriving he bid Brisbane “Auf Wiedersehen,” leaving another mountain of debt in his wake.

Von Attems did not leave Brisbane too soon, for a month later a warrant for his arrest had reached the stunned city.   By then he was rounding Cape York Peninsula but not before some drama enveloped the small schooner.      

By the time he had reached Somerset on Cape York the captain had had enough of the arrogant Count. An argument escalated to the point where both men brandished their pistols about before some order was restored.  

The Captain and the steward left the yacht at Somerset but the rest of the crew were induced to remain by the promise of more money. They then set off for the Dutch East Indies.

Count Von Attems, AKA Curt Schmulz’s, luck finally ran out at Surabaya.   There he was arrested after he passed a couple of fraudulent bank bills.   While waiting his day in court Von Attems escaped the prison hospital and almost managed to flee the East Indies before being recaptured.

He was tried, found guilty and served 10 years in a Batavia prison for his crimes. Hamlet’s Ghost was reportedly sold for £100 and never returned to Queensland.

Original post edited to include photos of Hamlet’s Ghost, 5 Mar 2022.

(C) Copyright Tales from the quarterdeck / C.J. Ison 2021.

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