Weird News, Ghosts and the Paranormal.

Ghostly Pics: S.S. Watertown Ghosts

In December of 1924, James Courtney and Michael Meehan were killed by gas fumes aboard the ship S.S. Watertown. The two men, who were part of the ship’s crew, had been overcome by the fumes while they were cleaning a cargo tank on board the vessel.

The S.S. Watertown was in the middle of a journey between New York City and the Panama Canal at the time of the two deaths and the men were given a burial at sea off the Mexican coast.

However, the next day at dusk, and for several days there after, the crew claimed to see the faces of the two dead men in the waves in the water near the ship. When the ship came to port in New Orleans, the ship’s Captain, Keith Tracy bought a camera, hoping to capture the apparitions.

After setting off from New Orleans the faces appeared again, and Tracy took six photos of the ghosts before locking the camera and it’s film in a safe till the voyage’s end.

It was these events that spawned one the most famous ghost photos ever, and one of the most popular pictures proving that there was indeed life after death.

However, new research conducted in 2010 may make you change your mind about one of the most famous ghostly pics of all time…

Since then, the S.S. Watertown picture has done the rounds and is one of those pictures that a large number of people the world over has seen at least once in their lives. It used to be featured in all those true ghost story books we all used to read on Halloween as kids and has took on a life of it’s own.

The picture itself, which was the sixth and final exposure from the six shots Captain Tracy apparently took that day, shows the faces of two disembodied heads floating in water.

It is an odd picture, not only because it does indeed look like two faces in the waves of the Pacific Ocean, not only because the ‘ghosts’ do not appear in the traditional ghostly manner or form, but also because the photo itself was said to have been checked for trickery by the Burns Detective Agency, lending a bit more weight to the entire story.

However in 201o, nearly eighty-six years after the Watertown photograph had apparently originally been taken, an article appeared on the Fortean Times website by researcher/writer Blake Smith, who came to the conclusion that the infamous pic might have been faked after all.

S.S. Watertown

Smith’s methods appear to be through, as he traced the story back to the Cities Service’s  company magazine Service in February 1934. The article included the photo and stated that the mysterious incident had taken place about five years before that issue’s publication date.

Cities Service oil company even hung a blown up copy of the picture in their lobby (this company would later become Citgo, which still survives today in the United States) at one time.

The version of the Watertown photograph you usually see on the internet or in books is not from the 1934 issue of Service but a 1963 issue of Fate Magazine, which also published a piece on the photo in 1957 as well, but without an accompanying picture.

It is the 1963 pic that draws Smith’s ire in his research, as he claims that he cannot seem to find the exact spot on a similar ship where the photo might have been taken from on board. Smith used a profile picture of a ship named the S.S. Baldhill to try and figure out the photographer’s position on the deck.

From this data, Smith determined that the faces were most likely about fourteen meters form the upper deck where the pic was most likely taken from. Smith had some friends help him recreate the photo with these measurements and discovered that although the ghostly heads were said to be bigger then a normal human’s, the size of his friend’s heads at the same distance was even larger then the ones on the photo, leading to a bit of doubt in the pic’s credibility.

Smith also contacted Securitas, a security company that had bought the Burns Detective Agency which had vouched at some point for the photos authenticity. The company could find no record that Burns Detective Agency had ever investigated the S.S. Watertown matter nor the photo, although this could always be a case of lost records.

The photo was also brought under the scrutiny of Joe Nickell, Ph.D, a former stage magician and skeptic who investigates the unexplained. Smith later received an email from Nickell which contained this information:

Joe Nickell

“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.”

Smith then contacted Culver Photography which had been in business in 1924 and was told that they did not have time to search their archives for more information.

It was also discovered that the author of the 1963 Fate Magazine article, Michael G Mann, was a UFO/paranormal researcher who was not above faking a good UFO photo. Furthermore, in the Fate article Mann describes a wealth or research material that was available to him through his fellow journalist Jonas Kover.

Kover claims that he had no such materials, only a few books on the subject of the paranormal. It was Mann’s article which also first involved the Burns Detective Agency and is the source for the most reproduced copy of the image as well, leading Smith to believe that he may have exaggerated or flat out lied.

Mann had died in 2001, so there was no way of confronting him on the matter.

Also curious was the fact that although Smith could find plenty of records of the exact names of the two sailors that are believed to be the two ghostly faces, he could find no record of any deaths matching those circumstances reported in the Watertown tale.

Although all of this is hard to pin down let alone prove almost ninety years later, there does seem to be a lot of holes in the story and a few curious questions about the photograph as well.

Motives for the fake might be hard to figure out as well, as there does not seem to be any large monetary gains made from the photo by any party. However, if the picture really was displayed in the lobby of the Cities Service oil company, perhaps some free publicity was the reason behind it all.

The S.S. Watertown ghost photograph may be one of the most famous ghost pictures ever taken, but it might also be one of the longest running and most head scratching fakes ever produced.

What do you guys think? Is the Watertown photo proof of life after death, or an elaborate hoax?

Tell us in the poll and comments below!

(Via Fortean Times)

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5 responses

  1. I’d never heard of the whole floating head thing and never knew they were so common until I started reading Troy Taylor’s books. Fascinating.

    May 14, 2012 at 12:38 AM

    • It is.

      I just wish in this case that the facts did not seem to be so muddled as I think this is one of the greatest ghost pictures around…shame it might be fake after all.

      May 15, 2012 at 1:04 AM

  2. Gill

    I think you misunderstood the part about the size of the heads: ” the Watertown ghosts weren’t just bigger than my friend’s heads – they were as big as my friends!” – that is, the ghost faces were much, much larger than a normal sized human head from that distance..

    August 14, 2012 at 7:35 AM

  3. Bob

    Blake Smith seems to be grasping at straws, like most skeptics. And I wouldn’t trust Joe Nickel if he told me it was raining during a thunderstorm. The guy thinks EVERYTHING is a fake.

    June 9, 2013 at 11:09 AM

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Bob.

      I would love to represent every possible side of each case, so if you can give me some relevant information on what you stated I’d love to include it!

      June 11, 2013 at 12:50 AM

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