The Watertown Ghosts Photo Fully Revealed After Nearly A Century
When I was in elementary school, I was a voracious reader with a particular affection for spooky stories of ghosts and monsters. For a long time it was enough to read about these cases and feel the chill of mystery and the tingle of excitement that the supernatural might be real. In the 1990s I began to not just read these cases, but to try and get to the bottom of them. I wanted to find out if anything real was going on with these stories, and, in particular, I wanted to find out more about the cases that scared the crap out of me when I was a kid. Of that subset of tales, the strange photo of two ghostly faces in the water off the side of a ship called the SS Watertown in 1925 was one that particularly captured my curiosity.
The ghost story behind this ghost photo is that the oil tanker SS Watertown had a tragic accident in 1925 in which two crewmen named James Courtney and Michael Meehan were killed by accidental suffocation and buried at sea near the Panama Canal. After their burial, for days the crew saw the faces of the two dead sailors floating off the side of the ship. Eventually, photos were taken and one showed the faces of the two sailors. The ship was owned by Cities Services (now CITGO) and the photo was on display in their offices in New York City for years. The case was investigated by multiple paranormal enthusiasts and reprinted in many books on the topic. The details of the story have grown more complicated and confused as various writers added details or included unsubstantiated and anecdotal tidbits in their own retelling.
Around the same time that I was starting up the podcast MonsterTalk, I decided to turn my investigation skills onto the Watertown case to see if I could find anything new. That was 2008 and the story was from 1925 so I knew this would be a fairly cold case. All the principal players involved in the original story were dead. The company that owned the ship had changed ownership and names. The ship itself was gone. But I did manage to find out some really interesting details about the case, and (sadly?) confirmed that the photo was too good to be true. Someone definitely edited the photo using the techniques of 1925 and it cannot be trusted to show “real ghosts.” There were also other issues that raised suspicion. The photo showed faces off the side of the ship but they should be quite small considering the distance from the deck to the water, yet these faces would be enormous and nobody mentioned “giant ghost heads.”
I wrote up my findings for an article which appeared in Fortean Times magazine in issue #261 (April 2010). The photo had been manipulated. It was not plausible evidence for the existence of ghosts.
Yet… mysteries remained.
Two especially intriguing questions were unanswerable back in 2008. The first was directly relevant to the ghost story: Did two sailors really die? Or was that part of the story as phony as the ghost photo?
The second dangling thread was this: What did the whole photo look like? The photo has been reprinted hundreds of times, but it’s always a cropped photo with two big arrows pointing out the ghosts. The size of the arrows and the obviously visible faces seem a bit silly unless this is a smaller piece of a larger photo. But where is the full photo?
I have answers now to both of these questions! With the publication of this article and the companion discussion about the research on my podcast MonsterTalk, I’m prepared to call this case closed.
Did two sailors really die as described in the story? To answer that question back in 2008 would have been very difficult because it would have involved scouring microfiche or microfilm records of newspapers pages at a time. Thankfully, digital archives such as Newspapers.com have continued to add to their library of text-searchable material, and, intermittently, I go looking for details in old cases. In late 2020, one of these searches coincided with new additions to the archives and I found confirmation that this part of the story was true!
Meehan and Courtney, were working in an interior cofferdam when a jet was opened and suffocated them. This was a jet that released a gas, not liquid. A cofferdam in a ship is defined by Marineinsight.com as:
…An empty space provided in a ship so that compartments on each side have no common boundary; a cofferdam may be located vertically or horizontally. As a rule, a cofferdam shall be kept gas-tight and must be properly ventilated and of sufficient size to allow proper inspection, maintenance and safe evacuation.
But there is a hidden character who was removed from all the ghost stories who risked his own life (quite literally) to bring the two sailors out of their location. The Los Angeles Times describes how chief mate Kosti Taviola climbed three times through a 40-foot tube that was only 20 inches in diameter to pull the two incapacitated sailors out of their peril. Sadly, he was not fast enough and they were both dead by the time of retrieval. He himself was overcome by the fumes and it took half an hour to revive him. And the write-up includes this mysterious addition: “Five years before, to a day, according to the ship’s records, a man met his death in the same tank in the same manner.”
But what about the full photo of the Watertown ghosts? When I was originally doing research I saw that the photo had been reproduced in one of those glossy Sunday newspaper inserts. I didn’t even realize those had such a lengthy tradition in newspapers — but without knowing what date it was printed, it would require a lot of time in a library going through paper after paper. When I found the death notices for the two sailors I was suddenly filled with hope that perhaps the long-lost insert photo might be available? Would it be the uncropped photo? Could I find it?
Yes! I did find it and could not believe what it showed. It suddenly made much more sense that Cities Services would have wanted a copy of the photo on their corporate wall. Aside from the alleged ghosts, the photo shows a quite dramatic moment of high waves as the water splashes high over the center of the ship. I’m not sure I’d have had the courage to go out and try to get this photo myself had I been there. I was a sailor and when the water got rough my preferred spot was way down below deck where the rocking was diminished, or better yet — back on shore. But it’s a helluva photo, and allow me to introduce you to best (and only) copy of the uncropped photo of the Watertown “ghosts” I’ve ever seen. This story ran nationally, but this is from the Des Moines Register on February 10, 1935.
In case you have difficulty spotting the two faces in the full photo, here’s a version with arrows — but even this copy in the newspaper (if you look closely) is shown with a circle drawn around the region where the faces appear.
To get an idea of what you’re looking at, you can take a gander at the nearly identical sister ship of the SS Watertown, the SS Baldhill. While doing my original research in 2008/9, I got in touch with the daughter of someone who served on the Baldhill and she sent me this very detailed and helpful photo.
It seems based on the positioning of the dorade boxes in the Watertown photo, that the photograph was taken from the rear of the elevated section in the aft of the ship facing the forecastle. The “Fo’c’sle” (as sailors call it) is the raised section at the front of the ship where the steering and navigation take place. Dorade boxes are those “tuba” shaped tubes that allow for ventilation below deck without letting in water.
Ignore the numbers on the photo if you can. I was trying to count all the rails to determine where the photo was taken, but don’t attest to the accuracy of my count. The main thing is that the position of the Dorade boxes strongly suggests the photo was taken from the back of the ship facing the forecastle.
Are there more mysteries to be solved in this case? Sure — one can always dig deeper. I’d still like to know how the photo came to be associated with Culver Studios, the photography house narratively associated with the development. I’d also like to know if the hoaxing of the ghost faces was a joke, or a pious fraud. Regardless, it’s very gratifying to finally see the full photo at the heart of this ghostly legend after all these years. If I were a more patient man, I’d have sat on this discovery until the 100th anniversary of the tragedy. I am not that patient.
The podcast episode where I discuss this case with my co-host, Dr. Karen Stollznow, should be out this week. I’ll put a link here when that’s online.