History Thread: The Case of the Phony Sea Specters

I did not have time for a detailed write-up this week but I came across a fascinating article investigating (and debunking) one of the most famous ghost photographs of all time: the ghosts of the SS Watertown. If, like me, you spent any amount of time consuming paranormal books, documentaries and such as a kid you’ve seen the spooky photograph in the header; I know it scared the bejesus out of me when I first saw it on the History Channel, back when they were…you know what, the History Channel has never been good. And my high school library had a copy of Vincent Gaddis’s Invisible Horizons which featured the photo on its cover – there’s no escape from these damned ghosts!

For those unfamiliar with the tale: in January 1925 two sailors, James Courtney and Michael Meehan, onboard the oil tanker Watertown died in a maritime accident. They were buried at sea. Soon afterwards, the two men’s ghosts began appearing alongside the ship, as if swimming, their faces clearly visible and recognizable. The unnerved crew couldn’t get any landlubbers to believe their story, so the Captain took a series of photographs the next time they appeared. Five showed nothing; the sixth showed the spooky heads. As a kicker, some versions of the tale claim that the Watertown’s company, City Services (later CITGO) even hung a blown-up picture of the ghost heads in their company headquarters.

A skeptic could easily come to the conclusion that the above photograph was merely pareidolia, the common phenomenon of seeing patterns in indistinct shapes. I’ve always been amused by the claim, repeated by Gaddis and others, that the two sailors “looked exactly as they did in life” and thus were easily recognized by their former shipmates. This makes me wonder if Meehan and Courtney were featureless blobs completely lacking eyes, hair and teeth in life, and if so that raises questions about how nobody found this bizarre before they died.

Paranormal researcher Blake Smith spent over a decade researching this most famous of ghost photographs. For an article in the Fortean Times (no longer online, sadly) he tried tracing the photograph’s provenance, finding that it had first appeared in a short write-up in City Services’ in-house magazine in the mid-’30s where it was found by psychic researcher Hereward Carrington. The standard photograph originated in a 1963 issue of Fate Magazine, which printed an obviously cropped and edited (did the sailors carry giant arrows with them in real life!?!) version of the photo produced by ufologist and frequent hoaxer Michael G. Mann. That alone stoked Smith’s suspicions but he could not find more from Mann’s family, who claimed that he had renounced paranormal beliefs later in life and threw away his collection of photographs.

Smith did some elementary photographic research with the help of CSICOP director Joe Nickell. Nickell, a photographic expert, spied signs of tampering in the photograph – visible on the more indistinct left face are sharp edges suggesting it was cut and pasted into place, possibly even reproduced from his Ghost Brother on the right. The arrows conveniently hid further evidence of tampering. Smith also sought out the Watertown‘s sister ship to scale the photograph properly, and determined that the faces must have been 5-10 feet tall to appear as they did in the picture. Since the standard story makes no claim that Courtney and Meehan were bald, thirty foot tall zombies in life, Smith understandably concluded the photograph was a hoax.

Smith returned to the subject a number of years later. He dug up a few newspaper articles confirming that the non-paranormal part of the story was true: Courtney and Meehan indeed died in a gruesome accident, apparently trying to clean out the vessel’s exhaust system when they were trapped and overwhelmed by fumes, dying despite a crewmate’s efforts to save them. He also found the first newspaper appearance of their ghosts, a decade after the sailors’ deaths…indeed, the uncropped photograph without obvious signs of tampering.

Quite a striking photograph, showing the Watertown weathering a gale. If CITGO did indeed keep this photograph on their wall it’s more understandable, as a dramatic picture of life at sea. But…where are the ghosts? Why, they’re hiding in the upper right hand corner, tucked unobtrusively away in the sea mist. This reproduction helpfully circles the two faces, which are even more blobby and indistinct than the original photograph. Dude on the left just looks like a lump of water and seafoam. Dude on the right still looks kind of like a face, but not amazingly so.

Smith found evidence that even in this photograph, the more distinct right face was probably edited in. He couldn’t tell if this were “a joke or a pious fraud”; he notes that the original City Services write-up was rather tongue-in-cheek, a sort of “DO YOU BELIEVE IN GHOSTS?” gag tale probably created by an imaginative employee tasked with filling column inches in the company newsletter. We’ve all been there, though not all of us conjured spirits. But if even the original photograph were hoaxed, that means the more famous, cropped and even more altered photograph was a hoax within a hoax. On some level, you’ve gotta admire that degree of dedication to bullshit.