James Courtney & Michael Meehan were crew members of the S.S. Watertown. They were cleaning a cargo tank on the oil tanker as it sailed from New York city to the Panama Canal in December of 1924. A freak accident occurred & the two men were overcome by gas fumes & died. Customary at the time, they were buried at sea on December 4th.
The next day, before dusk, the ship`s first mate reported seeing the faces of the dead men in the waves off the port side of the ship. They remained in the water for ten seconds, then faded. For several days thereafter, the phantom faces were seen in the water following the ship by several crew members.
Upon arrival to New Orleans, the ship`s captain, Keith Tracy, reported the strange events to his employers, The Cities Service Company & they suggested he take pictures the next time the faces appeared. The captain purchased a camera for the continuing voyage & when the faces appeared again, he snapped six photos & locked the camera in the ship`s safe.
When the film was processed by a commercial developer in New York city, five of the photos revealed nothing but sea foam. But the sixth showed the ghastly faces of the doomed sea men. The negative was examined by the Burns Detective Agency & determined to be real. The faces were never seen again.
In April 2010 research story was published by Blake Smith of The Fortean Times (www.forteantimes.com) that strongly suggests that this photo is a fake. It`s a long story, but also raises interesting evidence.
The photograph is a famous one. It’s included in just about any list
of top ghost photos. It has appeared in countless books, magazines and
newspaper articles. It crops up all over the Internet. It shows –
according to the story – the ghostly faces of two dead sailors looking
up from the waters of the Pacific from the side of an oil tanker.
The ship was the SS Watertown;
the sailors were a pair of ex-shipmates named Courtenay and Meehan who
had been buried at sea and continued to haunt their old vessel whenever
it ventured into the Pacific Ocean. They had been seen a number of
times, and the picture was taken in 1925. This photograph is often cited
as an example of an extremely rare occasion when someone saw a ghost,
took a photo and obtained a result that appeared to actually show the
same phenomenon – proof of the existence of ghosts!
I first saw
the photo in elementary school and it frightened me. I would nervously
skip past it in the many paranormal books I read at the time. Decades
later, in 2008, I decided to start investigating some of those nagging
cases that had scared me in my youth. Gef the talking mongoose, the
ghostly death-omen of Lord Dufferin and the Watertown photograph are all
part of a series of research projects I call “Things that scared the
crap out of me as a kid”. I’m a grown-up now, and a tenacious
investigator. What follows is a brief synopsis of my research and
HEREWARD CARRINGTON INVESTIGATES
The story originated with the oil company Cities Service (now CITGO), owners of the Watertown. The first published write-up of the case comes from the pages of their in-house magazine Service
in February 1934 and included the famous photo along with a rough
explanation of the story. No dates were mentioned, only the curious
phrase “about five years ago”. Unfortunately, no copies of this issue of
the publication are known to exist.
The case was first seriously investigated by paranormal investigator Hereward Carrington the same year. In his book Essays in the Occult,
he recounts his visit to the offices of Cities Service’s headquarters
in New York (a skyscraper now known as the AIG building) to discuss the Watertown
events, nine years after they had taken place. In addition to his
question and answer session with a Cities Service representative,
Carrington includes the full text of the original Service story,
but not a copy of the photo, even though at the time of his research an
enlarged copy of the photo was on display in the lobby.
Here is how Carrington (p129) introduces the story of the Watertown ghosts:
one case I saw, two spirit extras appear upon the plate, remarkably
clear, and recognized by many who knew the men in life. Skeptical
amateurs took the pictures with a camera and film provided them. No
other camera or film was aboard the vessel on which the picture was
taken so that no substitution was possible.”
“Camera and film
remained in the custody of the Captain of the vessel until she docked,
when they were immediately turned over to the officials of the company
and by them sent directly to the New York office, where the film was
developed by a commercial photographer.
“The phantom faces were
seen by a number of the crew for many days before the photographs were
taken. Their accounts invariably tallied. When photographs of these
faces were taken, they appeared upon the film in the spot corresponding
to that where they had been seen.”
The story now has a much more elaborate chain of custody for the photograph than the original version in Service
and includes more details. Carrington says, for instance, that the
ghosts floated about 1,000 yards off the side of the ship – surely a
preposterous distance for people to be reporting faces in the water. He
says of the first sightings, immediately following the burial at sea:
“No official record of all this was made, and no camera was aboard the
boat during this voyage.” When the Watertown returned to New
Orleans, the captain reported the sighting and events to “officials of
the company”. Carrington goes on to explain that the first mate procured
a camera and that an official of the company provided a single roll of
film which was locked up with the captain – and that the captain was
instructed to photograph the ghosts if they appeared again. The
phenomenon only occurred in the Pacific, and the next time the faces
were reported the captain got out the film, loaded the camera, shot six
exposures, and then kept the camera in his possession until the Watertown returned to New Orleans and the film was handed over.
the time Carrington did his research on the case in 1934, the story was
already nine years old and it seems that the details had evolved.
FATE AND FAKERY
The next big write-up on the Watertown ghosts comes in the November 1957 issue of Fate
magazine. The story is big on purple prose but short on detail, and it
doesn’t include a copy of the photo because the magazine was unable to
track one down.
This retelling caught the imagination of writer
and researcher Michael G Mann, and in December 1963 Mann’s detailed
follow-up to the 1957 story was also published in Fate.
investigation, he says, took him through the “large occult library
which belongs to Jonas Kover, an independent investigator in the areas
of UFOs and parapsychology”. There he found that the original story in Fate was “essentially the same” in its details as the version he dug up in R DeWitt Miller’s book Forgotten Mysteries. Miller’s narrative was probably the only source used to write the 1957 version of the Watertown
story. But Mann was not content with the answers from his “occult
library” and went to the New York office of Cities Service to see if
someone there could give him more details about the photo.
He met a company representative who provided him with a copy of the story that had appeared in the Service
company magazine. By the time of Mann’s investigation, nearly 40 years
had passed since the photograph was taken in 1925, and a potential lead –
the address of an engineer who served on the Watertown – proved a dead end. The real gain from Mann’s visit is that he was given a copy of the Watertown ghost photo, which he included with his article submission to Fate,
along with this explanation: “Captain Tracy’s photograph of his ghostly
shipmates accompanies this article. I have placed arrows in the
photograph to help point out the heads, in case some of the detail is
lost in their reproduction.”
It is this version of the
photograph that has since been so widely disseminated in paranormal
literature and on the Internet. Mann also corrected elements of the
story from the 1957 Fate version, such as the latitude and longitude coordinates where the photo was allegedly taken.
no longer had a copy of the photo – a large number of files being lost
in a flood some years back – but there was one other person who clearly –
at least at one time – had a copy of the photo: Michael G Mann. But was
he still alive?
I tried to locate Mann, but unfortunately he
had died in 2001. His obituary was included in the September 2001 issue
of Jim Moseley’s UFO-themed newsletter Saucer Smear. Mann
certainly investigated UFOs and other paranormal mysteries but,
according to Moseley, he was also something of a prankster and not above
faking UFO photographs. Moseley wrote that Mann investigated with a
friend named Jonas Kover – the Kover whose collection of occult books
Mann had mentioned in his article.
I contacted Jim Moseley and explained that I was investigating the Watertown
case. I explained that, while I didn’t know what the famous photo
really showed, the story predated Mann’s involvement by many, many
years, and that while Mann’s UFO work sounded – let’s say dubious – that
his Watertown article seemed sincere and well researched.
helped me get in contact with Mann’s widow. She was his second wife,
and the second called Marcea. After I’d spent a long time explaining why
I was cold-calling from Georgia to ask about a 40-year-old magazine
article she joked that her husband only married women named Marcea. It
was just a few days after the anniversary of his death, and his passing
was fresh on her mind. She wasn’t familiar with the story of the Watertown
and told me that the paranormal research part of Mike’s life predated
her time with him. In fact she had just mailed off all of his UFO files
to the International UFO Museum in Roswell.
“He was a good man,
always upbeat. But what a terrible time we had at the end. You may be in
luck, though,” she said. “I sent his papers but I haven’t sent his
photos yet. I can still go through them and see if what you’re looking
for is in there.”
We agreed that I would send her a copy of
Mike’s article and she would go through his records to see if he had any
that matched it. As of this writing, Marcea has not contacted me with
additional information or photos.
Mann’s old friend Jonas Kover is a retired journalist now. I contacted him and explained who I was and what I was researching.
“I don’t remember that one. By that time I was out of it,” he said.
“It?” I asked.
“I was done with flying saucers and that kind of stuff,” he replied.
article says that you had an extensive occult library that you let him
have access to,” I pointed out. “You don’t remember that?”
“Library? We didn’t have a library. We just had some books and agreed to leave them at Mike’s place.”
“So it wasn’t a big collection of research material that belonged to you?”
“Just some books at Mike’s place,” he said.
thanked Jonas for his time and wondered what all this might tell us
about the veracity of Mann’s story. When Mike said he had access to a
private occult library was he being deliberately deceptive, or just
trying to add a bit of mystery and gravitas to his tale?
Mann’s version of the Watertown
story included another intriguing detail. It states that “The facts of
this case were sworn to by Captain Keith Tracy and his assistant
engineer Monroe Atkins. The photographs were checked by the Burns
Detective Agency and the negatives retained by the owners of the ship.”
Burns Detective Agency was a long-time competitor to the Pinkerton
agency and had been bought by a company called Securitas, AB, in 2001. I
made several inquiries with Securitas at both regional and national
level, but they were unable to provide any corroborating evidence that
the Watertown case was ever investigated. But if the Burns Agency
had been involved, why hadn’t Carrington mentioned it? Could it be that
this detail was just a bit of folklore attached to the story to make it
sound more believable? This is certainly my hypothesis.
kept going back to the photo, trying to figure out whereabouts on the
ship it had been taken. Allegedly, it was shot from the catwalk. I
looked at numerous oil tanker photos, but what I really needed to see
was a photo of the Watertown itself. Searching for the ship on
the Internet just turned up the Mann photo again and again, variously
zoomed, cropped and tinted but useless for my purposes.
the National Archives, the index of which implied a treasure trove of
materials. Feeling optimistic, I sent an archivist agent in to get the
design documents and (hopefully) the deck logs. To my great
disappointment, it turned out that the Archives had destroyed many of
the mundane deck logs and similar materials from the merchant marine.
Neither did the various universities with archival material from the
Bethlehem shipping company (which built the Watertown) have those
documents. And while I found plenty of references to people with names
matching the sailors Courtenay and Meehan, none matched the approximate
death dates from the story.
My sister, a skilled library
sciences archivist, helped me track down a collection of dispositions
for various ships built by Bethlehem. A chart at one of these sites had
all of the ship’s measurements for the Watertown and her five sister ships built on the same design. After verifying that these ships were identical to the Watertown,
I was able to expand my search to include these vessels as stand-ins.
Eventually, I found and corresponded with a woman whose father had
served on the SS Baldhill. She provided me with a beautiful photo of a fully laden Baldhill in near perfect profile.
I now knew the measurements of the Watertown
well enough to figure out how far away the faces in the water were from
the ship – if I could pin down where the photo was taken. The problem
was that there was nowhere on the catwalk, lower or upper decks that had
the correct number of vertical stanchions, struts or whatever the dark
lines were in the Mann photo.
I scanned the photo of the Baldhill
into some editing software and used its measuring and analysis tools to
figure out how far it was from the lower deck near the catwalk to the
water, and also from the upper deck (which appeared to have further
features that looked somewhat like the point where the Mann photo was
taken) to the waterline. By my approximate calculations, it would be
about 14m to the water from the upper deck and 8m to the water from the
catwalk. The distance between the vertical posts appeared to be a
little wider than 75cm.
With these measurements, I had enough information to attempt a re-creation of the Watertown
photo. I got a couple of friends, Mike Harris and Andy Vetromile, to
come over, and I fixed some vertical posts on my deck to match the dark
stanchions in the Mann photo. I took a very large tape measure and
positioned and photographed Mike and Andy at the two intervals most
likely to be those shown in the photo.
The results were stunning. Even at 7.5m, the Watertown
ghosts weren’t just bigger than my friend’s heads – they were as big as
my friends! This was a strange conclusion, but it matched my
hypothesis. Even though Carrington remarked that the heads were somewhat
larger than in life, my results implied that the sheer size of the
ghostly heads would have been far more notable than their resemblance to
a pair of dead shipmates.
THE MYSTERY SOLVED?
this time, I contacted Joe Nickell, investigator with the Center for
Inquiry (CFI). Joe is one of the few people doing this kind of
investigative work full-time, and I wanted to talk to him about certain
aspects of Mann’s involvement in UFO research. While I was on the phone,
he asked me about what I was researching and I gave him a brief account
of the Watertown case. I was surprised to hear him say he wasn’t familiar with it.
Then, a few days later, I got a surprising email from Joe:
“I have looked at three published prints of the alleged 1924 SS Watertown photo revealing two “ghost” faces, supposedly those of sailors buried at sea. One print appeared in Fate (Dec 1963); another is in Melvyn Willin’s Ghosts Caught on Film (2007, p71) and is a high-contrast copy of the same picture; the third is in Reader’s Digest Mysteries of the Unexplained (1982, p173) and raises serious questions.
picture has a suspiciously hard edge to the (viewer’s) left side of the
face on the left, and this ruler-straight line (the edge of a rope)
extends all the way to the top of the (cropped) picture. This looks like
some form of photographic skullduggery (indicative of cutting and
pasting, or possibly masking in conjunction with an airbrush). We must
also note that the arrows on the suspect version are not the same as
those on the Fate picture; they are instead much larger (capable
of covering the others). Now, there is confusion in the picture credits
for this suspect version. There are sources for two pictures on that
page, whereas only the one photo appears. The one on the ‘left’ (i.e.,
the ‘ghost’ picture) is attributed to Culver Pictures, whereas one at
the ‘top’ (nonexistent) is assigned to Fate.
this evidence to photo expert and colleague Tom Flynn. He concurs with
this possible explanation: The suspect version was indeed faked, with
arrows affixed. A cropped portion of this appeared in the Reader’s Digest book. Later the Fate
version was made, whereupon larger arrows were used. The copying and
half-toning processes mostly obscured the evidence of fakery (although
the side of the face in the Fate version still looks unnaturally sharp-edged).
possibility is that a single face may have appeared as a simulacrum,
the other being deliberately added so there would be two faces to
represent the two dead sailors who were buried at sea. The least likely
explanation is that the photograph depicts genuine spirit images. The
photo does date from a time when bogus spirit photos were commonly
Dang! Joe had solved the case right out from under
me. I couldn’t believe it, but he sent me the blow-ups of the Culver
Studios photo from the Readers Digest and there was the evidence of trickery, quite easy to see in this clearer version.
I researched Culver Studios and they were already in business and doing commercial photography work at the time the Watertown
photo was taken. They are still doing business, and I contacted them to
see if they had an uncropped copy of the photo. Although the Reader’s Digest version
is clearer, it too is cropped. A representative from Culver got back to
me and said they were unfamiliar with the photo and didn’t have time to
go through their collection.
I tried to contact Readers Digest, but the Mysteries of the Unexplained group is no longer around and any editorial staff still alive proved unreachable.
It probably doesn’t matter. The important thing is that the highest resolution version of the Watertown
photo has clear evidence of tampering – which means it is of no value
as evidence for the veracity of ghosts. And what about Mann’s version?
Why did he add arrows when in all likelihood the copy he received from
Cities Services had arrows in the first place?
two factors – Mann’s photograph-hoaxing history and his wish to be
perceived as scholarly – it’s easy to imagine him seeing the obvious
traces of touching-up on the original photo and putting his own arrows
(many times larger than the originals) over the ones on the Cities
Service version to disguise the original’s alterations. Alternatively,
it could be that he just used bigger arrows because his copy of the
photo was not cropped and the tiny arrows seemed incongruously small
relative to the rest of the photo.
Regardless of motive, the
vertical line at the left of the centre face shows that something has
been altered in the photograph. And it is likely that this is where an
extra stanchion was pasted into the photo to help cover the trickery
used to create the face in the centre. Mann’s arrows combined with the
halftone that Fate used to print the picture made the fakery
difficult to detect in this, the more widely distributed version of the
photograph. It also explains the difficulty in finding a spot on the
ship photos which offers an exactly corresponding set of vertical
stanchions. That spot doesn’t exist, because this photo has at least one
extra misplaced post.
The Watertown case was fascinating
to investigate. I discovered that just because a photo is widely
accepted as ghost evidence, it doesn’t make it so. This case has details
which start off sketchy and get more and more detailed as the case gets
older. This is suspicious. I don’t mean that additional evidence can’t
be uncovered, but if the primary sources have few details and the
subsequent stories grow new ones, seemingly from nowhere, we should be
We don’t know the motive behind this particular
bit of hoaxing. It could be that a Cities Service executive commissioned
the photo and had it altered to fit the story he’d been told by the
crew of the Watertown. Or perhaps an overly enthusiastic
photographer was trying to improve on a real simulacrum effect on the
original film. Or maybe the photo was never even taken from the Watertown at all…
may never know. But for those who wish ghost photos to be real, this
hoax has been keeping their spirits afloat for nearly a century.
to my wife for helping me have the time to do the research, to Ben
Radford and Karen Stollznow for putting up with all my emails and
providing much encouragement, to Tom Flynn for his analysis of the photo
and to Joe Nickell for taking time to find a better photo and share his
findings. Very special thanks to Tim Binga for helping me with my
research, for treating my requests with unearned urgency and respect,
and for maintaining perhaps the best “occult library” in the country.
Hereward Carrington: Essays in the Occult, Kessinger Publishing, Whitefish, Montana, 2003.
Michael G Mann: “The Watertown’s Pursuing Ghosts”, Fate, Dec 1963, pp32–36.