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 findings.
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:
“In 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.
By 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.
Mann’s 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.
Fate 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.
Jim 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.
“The 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.
I 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.”
The 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.
I 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.
I tried 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?
Around 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.
“That 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.
“I presented 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).
“One 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 produced.”
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?
Combining those 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 extremely wary.
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…
We 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.
Thanks 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.