At the end of 1924, an oil tanker called the SS Watertown sailed from California toward the Panama Canal en route to New Orleans and New York. Although the crew didn’t know it, the tanker’s name would end up being linked to one of the most curious and spooky seafaring legends since the Marie Celeste.
The voyage was all going as expected until two of the crew, James Courtney and Michael Meehan, were ordered to go and clean a cargo tank down in the ship’s hold. Somehow, fumes overcame both men and they died before help could reach them. Their deaths were ruled accidental.
On the 4th of December, the Watertown’s Captain Keith Tracy, ordered the two dead men to be buried at sea, their bodies being consigned to the deep after the appropriate service was held. But that wasn’t the last the crew would see of the pair for, the very next day, “the entire ship was thrown into an uproar” when the first mate reported seeing Courtney’s and Meehan’s face in the waters off the port side of the ship. Reportedly, the two apparitions could be seen for about ten seconds, wordlessly bobbing about in the Pacific’s choppy waters before dissipating into nothingness. Similar reports from other crew members continued over the following days, and were said to be consistent and corroborated. It seems as though Courtney and Meehan couldn’t leave the Watertown be.
When the ship arrived in New Orleans, the company that owned it, Cities Service, listened to the Captain’s curious tale and suggested that he try to photograph the faces. When the Watertown left to continue its journey, the faces of Courtney and Meehan reappeared as they had done previously. Tracy (or another crew member) managed to take six photographs of the spooky visions. The camera and film were then locked away in the ship’s safe.
Tracy handed the unprocessed film over to the company’s New York office who had it developed. Nothing untoward showed up on five of the six exposures. The sixth would become one of the most reprinted ghost photographs in the world (and, I’d like to add here, one of the iconic images that scared the pants off me as a child) for it seemed to have captured the eerie, sunken features of two men in the water, “remarkably clear, and recognized by many who knew the men in life”—as Courtney and Meehan.
Normally, most articles on the story of the haunting of the SS Watertown stop here, but there’s actually a whole other layer to this story.
While the ship’s haunting story and photograph was first published in the Cities Service company magazine Service, much of the original details were brought to a wider audience by the investigation of the paranormal enthusiast Hereward Carrington. But, by the time Carrington did his research on the case in 1934, the already-sketchy story was getting on to being a decade old. Then, in 1963, writer and researcher Michael G. Mann, decided to dig a little deeper in an article for Fate magazine. It’s thanks to him, and his visit to Citigo’s (as the company was now named) headquarters that we have the infamous photo in print today. He also found out the latitude and longitude of the place where the photograph was taken during the voyage, although this detail currently escapes me. According to Mann, The photograph was checked for fraud by the Burns Detective Agency and given a clean bill of health.
The photograph has been a main-stay of paranormal books and websites. Sadly though, as I’ve found to be a very common in this genre, almost all the writers just regurgitate (or even plagiarise*) earlier works on this subject—hardly any engage in independent research of any kind. In the case of the SS Watertown, though, one man has. His name is Blake Smith.
While no picture of the actual SS Watertown seems to exist, recent writer Blake Smith’s excellent research (the kind of thing almost always lacking from these stories), has brought to light the details of one of her sisterships: the SS Baldhill. He began to investigate how genuine the photo might be:
“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.”
In an experiment, Smith used the dimensions of the Baldhill to recreate the Watertown photograph with a couple of friends. Apparently, the faces in the snap can be seen between “the second and third stations on the catwalk” in roughly the same spot that the men’s bodies had been lowered overboard during their burial at sea. Smith continues:
“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.”
So, not everything is as cut-and-dried here as first meets the eye.
If Blake Smith’s experiment and research are to be believed, and the authenticity of what we see in the photograph is in doubt, what could be the possible explanation for its content? Of course, photograph manipulation software didn’t exist back then, but that didn’t stop creative minds from manufacturing ‘spirit photography’ using techniques like double exposure—something which had been a money-maker during the Victorian era thanks to the ignorance surrounding the new technology of cameras and the general public’s fascination with death, so a fraud cannot be entirely ruled out. What Cities Service might have gained from such fakery is in doubt though, considering they seemed to keep the story relatively unpublished.
Captain Tracy might have concocted the story for a number of reasons, ranging from malice to boredom, but as I’ve stated earlier, sailors are a superstitious and wary bunch—would the crew all have gone along with such a macabre hoax? Even at the Captain’s behest, I’m not sure they would, especially when Courtney and Meehan might have been their pals.
Mann could certainly have, if not faked the photograph entirely, tampered with it, adding the second face to make the story link in better, and the arrows to cover up the signs of tinkering. The single original face might even have been simple pareidolia—a freak formation of the ever-moving Pacific waters that was captured on camera purely by chance and misidentified as a human face by the Captain or crew. Sadly, the photograph’s negative seems to have been lost forever, so we might never know.
One face or two, another explanation could even have been sunlight reflecting off the ship’s side during certain recurrent weather conditions, projecting light onto the water now and then, this to be spotted and misinterpreted as having supernatural properties.
Whatever the truth, the story remains a fascinating one.
The SS Watertown had its name changed and the crew was moved to other ships, possibly in an attempt to wipe the slate clean.
For more research into real-life cases please check out my ebooks.
Want more weird spooky death-ship stuff to read about? Then check out the freaky goings-on aboard the SS Ourang Medan.