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Transcript for
Historical Ghost Investigations
Part II — Sinking the Watertown

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Blake Smith: Off the coast of Southern California, a small crew of the tanker ship Watertown were quiet, sombre, as they went about their work. Captain Tracy wasn’t a man of many words, but he’d done his best to comfort the crew when he put two of their shipmates into the deep waters. Seaman Courtney had been overcome by fumes and Meighan had tried to save him, but died in the process. At the memorial the day before, he gently reminded the men that the sea is an unforgiven mistress who covets the sailors. It was nearing sunset when the commotion started on the catwalk below. He sent a deck cadet down to see what was happening. A few minutes later the cadet was back shouting, “Captain! It’s Courtney and Meighan. Their faces are in the water and they’re following us!”


Blake: Welcome to MonsterTalk: The show that pours the water of science on the wicked witch of credulity. I’m Blake Smith and together with my intrepid co-hosts Dr. Karen Stollznow and Benjamin Radford, we examine the mystery of things that go bump in the night and try to find out what science and rational investigation can tell us about these topics.

Tonight we continue our two-part look at historical investigations by discussing the story of the Ghosts of the Watertown. Let’s jump right in.

[Voiceover: MonsterTalk!]

Blake: Okay, we’re going to pick up tonight and start on Part 2 of our historic ghost investigations and a reminder that the investigative techniques we are going to discuss are pertinent to monster hunting or ghost hunting or any kind of ghost investigation. When we talked last week, we covered Ben and Karen’s investigations and I’m going to talk a little bit about a case that I worked and then we’ll get into a little bit of the mechanics using Ben’s upcoming book as sort of a, uh, a primer for how people can do their own investigations using a lot more scientific method than you would be given if you had just used TV as a guideline.

Before we do that I want to mention that Dr. Brian Regal who was a previous guest on MonsterTalk, um, is going to be giving a speech or a talk called Evolution and Monsters at Keene University in New Jersey on Thursday, April 29th at 3:15 at the Carriage House in Liberty Hall. So, Dr. Regal was a great guest for us and I think if people are in the New Jersey area, they may enjoy going to hear him talk.

Alright, I guess I’ll just get started on the Watertown, um, if that’s okay with you guys.

Ben Radford: Blake, tell us about your Watertown investigation.

Karen Stollznow: No.

Blake: [Laughs] No, I don’t want to hear it! I do appreciate you guys listening to this again since you sort of followed through the whole investigative process.

Karen: We’ll pretend to have forgotten it all.

Blake: Oh, excellent. Well, that’s fine. I actually-

Ben: Who are you again?

Blake: I, I, uh I’m Dr. Atlantis.

Ben: Dr. Atlantis, yes. Okay.

Blake: You may recall my emails. Now, I do remember, I appreciate you guys listening and being a sounding board for my investigation, because, um, it’s really nice to get some outside opinions on how you’re doing your investigation, um, and it’s nice to have someone else to talk to about it. I’ll just say that. [Laughs]

Karen: It can be lonely work, can’t it?

Blake: It can be! So, just to start out, the Watertown is a case that I investigated as part of a series of investigations I’m calling “Things That Scared the Crap out of Me as a Kid.” Alright well, enough said. It’s an interesting case, and the reason that I found it interesting is because it’s one of the few times that people allegedly see a ghost, get a camera, take a picture, develop the photos and find pictures of the ghost. And, um, when I was a kid reading ghost books because I really was hooked on the paranormal section of the library in my school growing up, there were these photos in several of the paranormal books about uh, ghosts, of the Watertown ghosts. And it’s basically the story is that two of the crew men of this oil tanker, um, were overcome by fumes and died and had to be buried at sea off the coast of, somewhere between California and Mexico. They buried them at sea but then a few days later or maybe a day later depending on which version you hear, um, their faces became visible in the water off the side of the ship. And this continued all the way through until they passed through the Panama Canal and then it stopped and when they got back to their home port in Louisiana, the captain of the boat, or of the ship rather, Captain Keith Tracy made a report to the company, which was City Service, which is an oil company. According to the story, Captain Tracy was given a camera that he had locked up in the safe so that no one could tamper with it. And then the next time they went back to the area where the crewmen had been buried, sure enough, the faces appeared again. Captain Tracy got the camera out of the safe, took six photographs, put the camera back in the safe and left it in the safe until they got back again to port in Louisiana. And when he came back to port an officer of the company took the camera and transported to New York where it was developed by a professional photography company. And when the photo came out, five of the photos just showed water, but the sixth showed two faces in the water and everyone agreed that at least one of the faces did look like one of the dead crewmen.

Ben: Mmmm.

Blake: Whoo-ooo-ooh! [Mocking a ghostly Theremin noise]

Ben: What year was this?

Blake: Uh, 1924. So, that photo is all over the internet so when I got to looking into this case I thought, well, I’ll see if I can find a better copy of the photo because the one that’s out there is a really grainy uh, photo that doesn’t have a lot of detail in it. And I remember when I first started looking into it, I called you, Ben, and we were talking about it, and you picked up a book and looked and sure enough you saw the photo. And I tried to find the original source of the photo, and that’s a tricky idea if you’re doing an investigation like this because the ghost publication world, the world of ghost books, is a giant echo chamber and everybody repeats the ghost stories often using almost the same text and rarely do they include where they got their information so if you’re trying to track it down to the original source, um, it’s really hard.

Karen: And that’s going back to long ago as well.

Blake: Exactly. This case is what you might call a very very cold case.

Ben: A very dead case.

Blake: Yeah a very very dead case. It was tricky. I did eventually track it down to the first person to do a serious paranormal investigation. It was a guy named Hereward Carrington. And Carrington had done a lot of psychic investigations and I get the impression he was somewhat skeptical but a lot of his investigations he seemed to be a believer of psychic powers and maybe poltergeists, that kind of thing. He went to the offices of City Service which is the oil company in question. He talked to an executive there. And at the time the case was already more than 10 years old; I don’t have the numbers in front of me. But he asked about the original story which he had seen in, I believe, Fortune Magazine, which Fortune was actually a new magazine at that time. Uh, it had run a little blurb about it, and he also got a copy of it. Fortune had actually reprinted a story from City Services internal house magazine which was called Service. And it had basically run a little story which said, “Do You Believe in Ghosts?” and had told a little version of the story of the crewmen dying. And it had the photo. At the time that he did his investigation, Hereward Carrington, the people involved on the ship, the whole crew had already been split up and some of the people involved in the story were already dead so he wasn’t able to talk to any primary sources, but the officer of the company assured them that, um, it was absolutely a true story and that they had in their offices downstairs, they had taken the photo and blown it up and put it on the wall so that people could see it. It was quite a conversation piece. That was really the only research that had been done into the case for some time. And in the 50’s when a magazine came out called Fate, it’s still around, and it’s kind of a mystery mongering kind of publication, but it’ll run a sceptical article now and again.

Ben: If they have to.

Blake: If they- [laughs]

Ben: If there’s no room for anything else.

Blake: I talked to Joe Nickell about it and he had actually run some work in there and, you know, I think he had mixed feelings about it, but I believed they paid, which was somewhat different than a lot of the skeptical magazines. So, you know…

Ben: True enough.

Blake: It’s good to do; it’s like an outreach program that actually pays you. So… [Laughs]

Anyway, they had done an investigation and just sort of took a version, sort of a heavily fictionalized version of the story and ran it and said that they were unable to find a copy of the photo. Well, this copy of the magazine, this issue of Fate really stuck in the mind of a guy named Michael G. Mann. And Michael was a UFO fanatic, uh, who lived in New York. He had a UFO group with his Jonas Cover and they used to, uh, make fake UFO photos.

Karen: Never.

Blake: [Laughs] I know, it was probably the only people in that field who do that. Uh…

Ben: Imagine. We found the one people that ever done it.

Blake: So, I thought, well, okay, so he actually, his photo in Fate Magazine it turns out is the one that’s all over the internet. And at the time I was really trying to find out if I can get a copy of the photo that didn’t have those giant arrows on it, right? And, because these, the photo, we’ll put the photo in the show notes. But the photo has these big arrows and they point at the faces, but I mean, honestly, you don’t need the arrows to see the faces, so I always thought that was kind of odd, and I always wanted to see copy of the photo without the arrows and that was kind of like my crazy quest.

Ben: And focusing on the importance of going back to the original sources.

Blake: Exactly, because I wanted to see the primary, I wanted to see the photo, the original photo. I also wanted to know more about the crewmen that had died, because if the… When you’re looking at these cases, one of the things you might want to look at is, can you falsify the case, right? It’s tricky, but if you think about it, if there never were a crewman Meighan and, um, what’s the, I’m going to mess up their names… Courtney and Meighan. If Crewmen Courtney and Meighan never really died, if they didn’t die on December 4th, 1924 on that ship then they certainly couldn’t be the ghosts, right? So typically ships keep something called deck logs. So if someone dies or anything happens of significance on the ship, they would enter that information into the log books. So, I thought, well if I could just get the log books and check them for December 4th 1924, if no deaths are mentioned then case closed. You know. I don’t know what the photo is, but it’s not those two guys dead, right?

Ben: Exactly.

Blake: So, um, to that end, I did a lot of preliminary research and I hired an archivist to go to the national archives to pull all the records for the Watertown only to discover after she got there that the index for the archives, that is, the place where they keep all the information about what’s supposedly housed there wasn’t actually up to date versus what’s actually in the archives. In this case the records for the deck logs had all been destroyed as part of a documentation clean-up, I believe in the 70s. They were trying to save space and I guess this was before microfilm and digital archiving made it possible to store a lot more information in a smaller space, so there are no deck logs for the Watertown. And the Watertown herself is destroyed. She had been scrapped. And, in fact, at that point there was no photo of the Watertown except for the ghost photo available in the public domain. And honestly, in the archives I couldn’t find any either. So the Watertown had five sister ships, and all of them ended up doing time in the military. They were refitted with military services. But all of the ships had been scrapped by 1954, and one had been sunk by a torpedo in the war. Um, so I could find a few pictures of those, but I was kind of, uh, I was looking for the different ships and trying to find anybody who could tell me a little more, because I couldn’t even get the measurements of the ship. I got this idea in my head that there was something funny about the photo. When I kept looking at it, it seemed to me that, having been on a ship and served, almost anywhere you’re on the side of a ship, looking over the edge at the water, a face would be really small. But these photos, these faces in the picture, are really large. Or they seemed unusually large. Even back when Hereward Carrington talked about it, he mentioned that the faces were somewhat larger than in death. But he also said something else strange. He said they were noticed a thousand feet off the side of the ship, which is a crazy distance, I mean, that’s a crazy distance in general. But there were a lot of things about the story that were starting to seem a little weak. But I did track down Michael Mann’s, uh, widow. Um, and she agreed to go through his collection. She had a lot of his writings. She had sent all of his photos off to the UFO museum in Roswell, New Mexico where I suppose they could be viewed now, if you wanted to. If I can go back out there again, I’ll take the time and take a look at them.

Ben: Yeah. Come check it out.

Blake: Yeah, and um, Michael Mann’s write-up on the information he did on the ship, he also ended up going to City Service and doing another interview, and when he went there was actually more information about the ship than Hereward was able to find when it was only 10 years old, as a case. And that, to me, that has now become a sign that something is wrong. But, basically, a story should not get more detailed as time goes along. You have fewer lines of evidence if you think about it. In other words, if nobody’s found new evidence, if no one has found any additional details: a log book, another witness who’s come forward to give additional details… the story itself should not become more detailed. It shouldn’t evolve to gather more details, but that seems to be what happens in these sorts of cases. Um, those additional details can be very folkloric in nature. Like in this case, the story had evolved to the point that not only did the negatives get taken to a lab and everyone had been professional and verified there was no fraud, but also that the negatives were investigated by a detective agency and found to be without fraud. No names on the case, and I tried to contact a detective agency, and they had no records that they could talk about, and I don’t think that ever actually happened.

Ben: I was just going to say, it sounds very dubious to me, but…

Blake: Yeah, well, it’s like the investigation I did on Lord Dufferin’s ghosts, or ghost, that he was supposed to have seen. That one, there was a story that there was an elevator crash and then it was supposed to have been investigated by Scotland Yard and the French police, and of course it wasn’t because it never really happened. But that detail was supposed to add verisimilitude to the thing.

Karen: Yeah, like an urban legend.

Blake: Exactly like an urban legend. And again, I think these things sort of become sticky to folklore. It gloms on to them.

Karen: And where do you think these embellishments came from, in the Watertown story?

Blake: In the Watertown story, I’m pretty sure that the embellishments came from generations of people working at City Service who had to look at that ghost photo everyday. [Laughs]

Karen: It’s very iconic, isn’t it?

Ben: Yeah, because I gather there was like a marketing department or a public relations department that would talk to people about the case if they wanted to and I imagine the story just got handed down from one generation of copywriters to the next. Um, and that’s how that happened.

Ben: I’d be curious to know if that was one of the first ghost photos, or alleged ghost photos that happened outside of, say for example, spiritualism, séance or some intentional hoaxing like William Mumler. Um, obviously a lot of the early ghost photographs were portraits were done for sitters, you know, or there would be a double exposure or whatever else, but I would suspect that this was one of the first ones that was taken, or allegedly taken, outside of that setting or sort of, in, you know, in the wilderness or out on the high seas. I can’t think of any other earlier ones off the top of my head that was really in that category.

Karen: I agree, and this is certainly one of the cool ones before the days of orbs.

Blake: [Laughs]

Ben: Right.

Karen: This is much more impressive.

Ben: Back when there were cool ghost photos.

Karen: Yeah.

Blake: Yeah, I do find some of the older ghost photos to be more exciting. The ones that I’m really interested in are like the ones, um, I’m looking into the Wem Town Hall ghost photo, which is a much more modern case.

Karen: What about that spirit on the stairwell and the spirit in the back of the London cab?

Ben: Yeah.

Blake: The one in the back of the car, you mean, like where there’s an old man apparently in the back seat?

Karen and Ben: Yes.

Blake: Yeah, that’s a great photo. Um, if it is a face, which is always the question, it certainly looks like a face. There’s this whole phenomena of paradolia and so many things can appear to be a face. In the case of the Watertown ghost, even if I didn’t come to the conclusions I eventually came to, the photos themselves could arguably be just shapes in the water. They’re not definitively human shapes.

Ben: I don’t mean to interrupt, but you were talking about deciding how big the faces were.

Blake: Indeed. In fact, talking to you guys, you know. You kind of tried to dissuade me from that angle, and I appreciate that. It’s one of those things where I had an idea that these faces were too big, um, but it would be really tricky to prove it and maybe pointless, because, how big is a ghost if we don’t even know what a ghost is? Right?

Ben: Right.

Karen: [Chuckles]

Blake: I mean, I’ve just never heard of a ghost as large as the ghosts seemed to be in this photo.

Karen: Angels on a pinhead.

Blake: Right. You could have angels on a pinhead or in this case you could have ghosts that, the faces of which are probably something like seven feet tall. That’s….

Karen: Scary!

Blake: Right! Scary!

Ben: Giant ghosts!

Blake: I took, um, I did a lot of research on the case and what, in general the details of the various stories which did differ indicated that the photo was taken right near the catwalk, um, near the tower on the ship. But when I looked at the ship, what I actually did was I found one of the identical sister ships. Um, a very nice woman from a genealogy board, I found her discussing one of the other ships and she said she had a great photo that showed the ship perpendicular, where it was end to end and the camera looking straight at it. So you could see the entire length of the ship and from that you could make measurements. So, anyway, being able to get the ship in the end to end, I was able to make measurements and determine how far from the water the photographer would have been, probably. We know the ship would have been loaded if it was really taken when it was supposed to be, so I could take those measurements and then take a camera and using the same distances photograph two people’s heads and see how big they were. In this case, you know, they typically, obviously there’s not a lot of pictures from the Watertown. So, I mean, clearly it’s a small crew running this big oil tanker. It doesn’t take a lot of people to run an oil tanker. Even back then, apparently. But, they just apparently were not very much into taking photographs. At least, their relatives haven’t been forthcoming with putting crew pictures up on the internet, I’ll say that. Anyway, the bottom line is that, that experiment showed that these faces are ginourmous. And that’s a technical term. [Chuckles] I did this investigation and I wrote up my conclusions in Fortean Times. Uh, yeah, I, it’s actually in the current UK edition of Fortean Times and it will be in the May edition of the US version. And I don’t want to spoil the case because I think it’s a great write up. Well, I wrote it, didn’t I?

[Everyone laughs]

Ben: [mocking] It’s awesome! Just face it; it’s awesome!

Blake: Super awesome! There’s a lot more details in there. You know, the experiment photo I think shows that whatever the things in the water are, they’re not anything like a human-sized face. And I think it matters in this sense, because, like, you’ve talked about, you guys were talking about ‘how big is a ghost?’ But when you’re looking at ghosts, if you see a ghost that’s just a head floating in the water that’s seven friggin’ feet tall, I’m not going to say “Oh my. The face of my dead sea men is in the water.” I’m going to say, “Jiminy Christmas! There’s a seven foot tall head floating in the water!”

Ben: And what’s my sea men doing in the water?

Blake: Why is my sea man floating?

Karen: You know why.

Blake: I do. [Karen laughs] It’s like egg drop soup up there. It’s ridiculous! So in this particular case I have to give credit to you guys for helping me out. And Tim Binga at the Centre for Inquiry library. Wow. He’s got some great resources and he’s extremely generous.

Ben: How would you say that the Watertown fits into the milieu of ghost photographs?

Blake: I’m not quite done. I have to mention, if you ask Joe Nickell for help on a case, be prepared for Joe to come in and solve it. I just want to throw that out there.

Ben: Yes.

Blake: Cause, I asked Joe for some help and he, although I had done a lot of work on this case, and I feel like I knew where it was going, Joe was the one that provided it with the absolute positive solution. Thank you, Joe. I appreciate it because it saved me, uh… One of the other things about cases like this, it’s a historical case. If you become obsessed with solving it, it may turn out that you can’t. And you have to know when to walk away.

Karen: That doesn’t mean it’s paranormal though.

Blake: It does NOT mean it’s paranormal, but it absolutely could take over your life. And that doesn’t mean it’s a demon either. [Laughs]

Ben: Right.

Karen: Are you speaking from personal experience?

Blake: I’m just saying that you got to know when to stop. You got to know when to say, “I’m going to put this on hold and see if any other evidence comes up.” I’ll give you an example. In this case, two pieces of evidence, two lines of evidence I was looking into. I wanted to see if there were any issues of the original Service magazine because Service was the first place that the photo was ever published. I thought maybe if I could track that down, it might not have those giant arrows on it. It might just show an uncropped photo. And the second was that there was a magazine in Wisconsin, like a, like you would have an insert magazine in a newspaper. One of those glossy types. It had published the same story with the photo. In these two locations that I don’t really have access to, I don’t know what is in the boxes in the Oklahoma University’s City Service collection. They’ve got stuff in there. They said they don’t think they have that issue, but I wanted to go to Oklahoma and look, you know. But I can’t really afford to take off time and go to Oklahoma. If I ever find myself there, I will probably stop by and look. And the other is the, in the Minnesota library situation, I don’t know which issue, and so I don’t want to have to do a library exchange program where week after week I get one reel of the newspaper and go through the whole thing and see if the photo shows up, you know. Quite tedious, so it makes much more sense to go to Minnesota which I don’t have time or money to do. So, yeah, at some point you got to say I just can’t keep spending money on this.

Ben: Right.

Blake: I’ll have to wait until something else comes along.

Ben: Yeah, I think you’re exactly right. I mean, that’s one thing that I’ve often times found in my investigations, exactly as you said, you need to know when to put the plug on it. There will always be another potential source. There will always be another newspaper, contemporary newspaper you could look up. There’s always more to it and um, that’s one of the, in my experience, that’s one of the hardest parts, it’s knowing, you know, coming to, in my case, coming to the satisfaction of saying, I’m satisfied that this is enough, and just saying, you know what, I’m not going to travel to the ends of the earth, to you know, dot every I and cross every T if the bulk of the mystery is solved.

Blake: Right.

Karen: I don’t think there’s any shame in saying we don’t know either.

Blake: No, of course not, no. I mean, I’ve looked into it. I didn’t find the answer, but that doesn’t mean it’s paranormal. There’s a big difference between unexplained and paranormal. And those two words are tossed back and forth like they’re equal, and they’re not. One is saying ‘I don’t know the answer’ and the other is saying ‘the answer lies outside of science and what it can understand!’ [Makes ghostly ‘woo’ sound]

Karen: That’s not to say it’s inexplicable either. It’s just at this point in time there’s insufficient evidence.

Ben: Well, let me come back to the point about knowing when to stop. I mean, it’s important to recognize that in the context that we’re talking about, we’re talking about good skeptical investigation and as we’ve all seen from doing our own investigations, the point at which other people think that it’s either a mystery or non-mystery, um, is far earlier than the point in which, you know, you or I would say, ‘you know what, there’s no more we can do with this.’ So, in general I’ve found that the, and I hate to say this because it sounds arrogant, but it’s mostly true that the worst skeptical investigation is often ten times more thorough than the best believer investigation.

Karen: I think they would prematurely accept that something’s paranormal.

Ben: Mm-hmm.

Karen: And not proceed any further.

Ben: Right, and, ‘cause if, and in many ways it’s just a matter if you just throw up your arms and say, it’s a mystery, then hey, problem solved. [Chuckles]

Karen: To an extent, yes.

Ben: At any point down the line Blake could have said, “You know what? I give up on this; I’m not going to go any further. It’s a mystery.” But no, you keep going and you solve it as best you can. But again, I would put up, happily put up any of the research investigations that any of us have done against anything that anyone else has done. And you know, just see where the scholarship lies.

Blake: Right. And I think in this case it’s important to say, look, the claim was that this ghost photo is the proof that these faces appeared in the water. I mean, let’s be honest, I could never prove the faces did not appear in the water off the side of the Watertown. I can’t prove that. I can’t prove that they did. Even a ghost photo, even if it was a fantastic photo that didn’t have any questions about it, it still doesn’t prove that those were ghosts. Photos are terrible evidence for that kind of thing. But, you’ve got to go with what claim is worth investigation. And the one that I could investigate was, where did this photo come from, is this photo genuine, does it show any signs of tampering? Right, that’s the kind of line that I went down.

Karen: I think the most important thing that you did too was to look for new information. Whereas most other people who have supposedly investigated this story have just regurgitated.

Blake: Exactly, and they regurgitated the original investigation. Not even the newer one by Michael G. Mann. They took the old version and whatever little additional bits they needed to make it seem more authentic and that’s all they did. And that’s not an investigation; that’s telling a ghost story.

Karen: Retelling.

Blake: Yeah.

Ben: It it’s, yeah, it’s cutting and pasting. And that goes back to one of my long time pet peeves. I often wonder even today when I pick up books that were published recently on the paranormal, I invariably, especially with believer books, I invariably come up with case after case after case of subjects that either there’s no mention at all of any real skeptical investigation, uh, or if there is it’s this sort of glossed over perfunctory stuff. Blake, in this particular case, why do you think it was that most of the writers went back to the original one, the original investigation?

Blake: I think it was probably because the longer investigation appeared in a magazine, but the original investigations appeared in a book and it was probably easier for them to find Carrington’s book in the library than it was to find Michael G. Mann’s investigation in Fate Magazine.

Karen: So they just didn’t do their homework at all.

Blake: Exactly. The only psychical paranormal investigator who seemed to have dug deep was Scott Rogo and he looked at both Carrington’s and Michael Mann’s investigations in one of his books. Rogo, I think Rogo, if I understand his position was pretty much a believer but he certainly was a passionate and thorough investigator, or at least seemed he was, but then he died rather abruptly before he got to really get anywhere with his career. So it turns out that I found with Joe Nickell’s help absolutely falsifying evidence for the Watertown case. I feel like even before that I tied it down as being bloody unlikely to be a real ghost photo, but um, with…

Karen: Another technical term.

Blake: Yeah, with Joe’s help, we really absolutely put the nail in the coffin, or at least punctured the life boat that was keeping those guys afloat.

Ben: To my mind, the real question is how long will it be, if ever, if um, the final solution to the mystery makes it into ghost books? Um, that, to my mind, that’s one of the big issues, because I often come across investigations that either, you know, I’ve done or other people have done, or I just factually know were solved years, sometimes decades, earlier and I buy a book in you know, 2009, 2010, that apparently has never heard of it. So I certainly hope that, you know, that the writers who are researching this will include the definitive debunking.

Karen: They don’t like to give the ending to the story so if there is an answer, it just won’t be retold anymore.

Ben: Right. Well, yeah. You would think, I mean, it’s like… The example that jumps to my mind is the plesiosaur whale carcass that was brought up in ’74 or whatever it was, um, that was supposed to be, you know, this monster…

Blake: As we discussed with Glen Cuban in a previous episode of MonsterTalk.

Ben: Exactly. That’s another perfect example of where, again, that the solution to that mystery has been known at least 10, 20 years, I mean there’s no real mystery about it. And yet, it still appears in books of monsters.

Karen: In different forms too.

Blake: Exactly. So I actually talked to some of the people online who were interested in this story. For example, has a Top 10 Ghost Photo list and at least three of the ghost photos in that list, I’m interested in investigating or have already started investigations on, because I think they’re solvable and not necessarily paranormal.

Karen: Which ones?

Ben: Oh you don’t… Well, the Wem Town Hall I believe has a better solution than ‘It’s a ghost’. That’s the one where there was a town hall burning in the 80’s and a guy took some photos and one of the photos appears to show a girl’s face on the balcony in the middle of a blazing inferno. Um, and it does look like a ghost, or a girl or something. But I think there’s more to it than the current explanation. And Goddard’s squadron ghost photo, which allegedly shows a ghostly face appearing in a photo taken around the end of WWI at a British base and in the back row, like I say, there’s a ghostly face just sort of appearing there halfway between two people.

Karen: Yeah, I love that one. It’s so creepy.

Blake: It is a creepy thing, and um, the woman who is sort of the champion of the story has passed away, but she lived to be quite old and I talked to her neighbours who helped her try to, sort of promote the story and try to find an answer and they sent me some very good quality reproductions of the photo and a lot of news articles to go through. And I think that one has got a mundane explanation as well, but I want to get to the bottom of it. Um, there’s just several of these cases I’ve been looking into because, along those same lines as the Watertown, they’re interesting ghost photos. The one with the car, with the guy in the back of the car. I’d love to solve that one or at least find out more about the case. But when you’re going to do an investigation like this, you have to have leads and you have to have a very good plan and you have to figure out what it is you’re looking for, um. Ben, do you want to, kind of, talk about your book and how it deals with these sorts of issues?

Ben: To my mind, one of the first things you really need to do, and again, all of us have touched on this, is example all of the components of the claim. You know, figure out, what exactly is being claimed here? Are these faces being claimed to be of, you know, crew members? Or are they claimed to be of somebody, in the case of the Watertown, or someone back home, or the captain is still alive, or what exactly is the claim? Uh, and then, it’s often important to track down, again, who made the claim? What’s the provenance particularly if you’re talking about ghost photographs? Where’d it come from? Again, looking at earlier versions of the same photograph, um. Different variations, some of them have arrows, some of them don’t. Sometimes the arrows may be obscuring information that you want to see. As you said, it’s always important to go to the original source as much as you can. It’s the same principle for anything and particularly if we’re talking about like in photographs, I’m reminded of the Mansi photo of Champ, the Lake Champlain monster. You know, when Joe and I did that, we didn’t just, we weren’t just satisfied with the commonly available photograph of Champ that was, you know, that was published in 1981. I actually went to see the original photograph in a bank vault held by Sandra Mansi’s lawyer. And he very kindly let me examine the original photograph which apparently almost nobody had done before. In fact, I think I even sent you two guys a photograph of the photograph which almost nobody has seen, but it was really important to get to, get, you know, going back to the original, because often times all the photos that people see, especially in books and on the internet, are cropped, you know. Often times they’re cropped by half or more and so you’re just leaving out a whole lot of information that could potentially help solve the mystery. Um, and then you need to just look into the different levels. If you’re looking at a particular ghost location, for example, when Karen went to Waverly, it’s important to understand what’s being claimed at this particular location, who’s claiming it under what conditions? Um, but also, of course, it’s important to have a broader knowledge of ghost claims in general, because often times some of the claims, often times the claims will be virtually identical from place to place. So if you’re investigation a haunted house outside of Los Angeles, often times virtually identical claims will be made in a haunted cemetery, or a haunted factory in Louisiana or wherever else, and so there’s obviously clusters of claims that you examine, you bring to it. The more of these you do of course, the more experience you have. So, to my mind there’s really sort of, like, three different levels you have to bring to it. The first one is sort of seeing that the overall question in terms of what is the nature of ghosts, and what is claimed to be the nature of ghosts and how do we go about it, and then you sort of, you know, focus more closely on, um, on the, you know, ghost claims at that particular place, um. Again, what’s being claimed when, and then you go even further. Another level of focus to the very specific claims. So it’s one thing to say, you know, there are weird voices occurring, you know, on summer nights when the moon is full. The question then becomes, which particular summer night when the moon was full was that? Who was that? Who was there exactly? What did the voices allegedly say? Are there recordings of this, et cetera?

Blake: You want to find primary sources. Great if you can talk to a person, but even if you’re talking to a person, what they wrote immediately after seeing something or experiencing something is going to probably be better than what they remember about it later.

Karen: But it’s still anecdotal.

Blake: It’s still anecdotal, but still, if you’re just trying to get the details for whatever the claim is, you want to get as close to primary as possible. So I’m not sure I’d take the primary testimony of a woman 80 years after the incident versus what she wrote a day after seeing something. You know, you have to look at both, I guess, if you have the opportunity. But when you got to look at that primary resource, or talk to that person, you have to listen to every detail, because anything they say could be the little piece that you need to move forward in the case. Um, you know, maybe they say the name of a company, or you know, the name of, or, the month when something happened, or some detail about the weather, or something that can give you guidance to determine the next place to look or if the story is true. You know, you’re just like a detective trying to solve a murder case. You’re looking for whatever clues you can find and it’s really important to just go over those things again and again and make sure you really understand everything that’s being said or written.

Ben: Let me just quickly throw in, one thing that I find is very important that isn’t done nearly often enough, is reconciling a first person eye-witness account with a photograph. Often time what you find in these sorts of, in ghost researching, is that you will be presented with a photograph and a couple sentences about how mysterious the photograph is and nothing else. Or you’ll get a couple sentences or a paragraph of some weird eerie thing that was cited or whatever else. For every ghost photograph, there is an eye witness. There was somebody who was there. There was someone who snapped that photo. Now, as both of you know, a lot of times they claim they don’t see the ghostly until afterwards and of course, there are a variety of reasons for that.

Karen: [Unclear comment]

Ben: Right, or EP (SP?) for example. But for example, if they say that it’s much rarer but there are of course cases where people will say they saw a weird image and then they photographed it specifically for that purpose, in those cases it’s important to seek out both, again, the original best photograph you can, and also find out what exactly the conditions were. Because a lot of times when you just have a photograph you have no idea what the conditions were. Um, you have no data of who else was there, what time of day it was or anything else like that. So that’s something that I think often times gets over looked.

Blake: I want to address something you asked earlier, which is kind of an important issue. Which is, if you do these investigations and you come to conclusions, what do you do with the results? And how do you make those results known to the rest of the paranormal investigating world whether they be on the believer side or the skeptical side. It’s tricky. Um, when I was doing my investigation into the Ghost of Lord Dufferin, it turned out that the solution had already been found. And then, had already been found again by two very competent paranormal investigators about 50 years apart and then I did it again 20 years after that, so, AHEM!

Karen: [Chuckles] Incompetence.

Blake: We wasted the time! So let me just add this, this is very interesting. So at the time, briefly, the story was that the English diplomat Lord Dufferin had seen a ghost, but that’s a very short version.

Ben: Yes!

Blake: It doesn’t get much shorter than that.

Ben: No it doesn’t.

Blake: Um, the case had been written up by a guy named Camille Flammarion as a true story, this is a Frenchman. And a Skeptical French newspaper journalist named Paul Husee (SP?) decided to dig into the case. He had done a lot of investigations. In fact, the book copy that I was looking at online had been in Houdini’s personal collection. This was a guy that Houdini revered enough to pick up his book and put it in his investigative library. So Paul Husee (SP?) wrote a book in 1923, “Do the Dead Live?” And, I like this passage he wrote. Again this is 1923. He’s talking about Camille Flammarion who just without any skepticism whatsoever reprinted a story which was easily proven to not be true with just a little bit of work, just a tiny bit of work. In this case going down the street or making a phone call, or writing a letter to the people involved and discovering that the story was made up. So he writes, “Good heavens. But as someone looking over my shoulder remarked, if you were to make these same investigations in connection with the facts published as happening nowadays, you’d find the signs of invention. Thus, fifty years hence when a specialist in these matters publishes a new work of propaganda he will calmly collect all the ledges (?) including that of Lord Dufferin in order to make his book. And he would have to, otherwise, I mean, if the authors of these works were themselves to verify the authenticity of their narratives, the said works would remain merely notebooks of blank paper.” Which is pretty awesome. [Laughs]

Ben: Mmm hmm.

Karen: So beautifully written.

Blake: The thing is, he’s so right. And not only was he right, but fifty years hence people were reprinting the story of Lord Dufferin, the ghost story as true.

Karen: The interesting parts.

Blake: Yeah, the interesting parts. Not the fact that it had been debunked. You know, almost immediately by this guy. And then, those true stories were in turn investigated and proven to be untrue. And then again by me. What got me surprised, and this is where it all really, where I’m going with this, it was being reprinted on Wikipedia as true. Aha! So as outlined in Daniel Loxton’s “Where do we go from here?”, “What do we do next?” those essays, fix Wikipedia. Um, Wikipedia is the number one place people go to get information and there are lots and lots of paranormal entries out there. The trick is, I can’t go on to Wikipedia and write up an article and say, “I solved the Watertown Ghosts, they are not real, I just wanted to say that”, you know, or whatever. Even if I do it very nicely, that’s not how Wikipedia works. But because my research has now been published in Fortean Times someone besides me could go write an entry on the Watertown and explain that the ghosts were not real, explain why the ghosts were not real and put the photo there, and maybe that would help curtail some of this ridiculous echo chamber ghost story repetition. As a skeptic, I like the truth. Now that being said, as a fan of the paranormal, a paranormal enthusiast, however you want to put it, I enjoy a good ghost story. I like to be scared. I just happen to think that the…

Karen: You can differentiate.

Blake: Right, I can differentiate between a scary story and true story. Or a true scary story. But skeptics with very little effort can do these kinds of investigations, or even with more than a little effort can do these kinds of investigations if they’re careful. They can solve their own cases.

Karen: Yeah, well, these things have to be a team effort and I guess with these precedents there is the research that is often out there, or if you do your research thoroughly, you’ll find that the research exists, or can potentially be out there. It’s just a matter of what’s really regurgitated and it’s just a matter of digging deeper in everything.

Blake: Exactly. And I think we have, you know, there’s something like five or six thousand people who listen to MonsterTalk, hopefully that number will keep going up, but…

Karen: Haven’t they got anything better to do?

Blake: [Laughs]

Ben: Apparently not.

Blake: We established last week, they were sitting by a fire, listening to the show drinking tea, wearing a tinfoil dunce cap.

Karen: Or whiskey.

Blake: Right. Drinking whiskey, that’s right.

Karen: Smoking a cigar. [Laughs]

Blake: [laughs] All I’m saying is if they took the time to pick up a laptop and also fix Wikipedia, that would be a great way to spend an evening.

Ben: I think you’re exactly right. I mean, that’s always been one of the issues that I’ve had is that, and you know, you and I have discussed this earlier where, exactly as you point out, a lot of the skeptical resources are great. Skeptical Inquirer is a fine a magazine. And my upcoming book that you two are part of, and Dan Loxton’s and plenty of other places, but that’s not where the bulk of people go. They go to Wikipedia and unfortunately they often take that as quasi gospel. And yeah, I would love it if we had, you know, a small team of people who could devote an hour or two a week or even a month, I mean, there’s almost none of it going on now. Anything is better than nothing. If we had a couple people who could devote a little time here or there. You know, there could be enormous advances made in terms of bringing some skepticism and science to it. You know, I hope we can get some people in there to help out with that.

Blake: It’s a fantastic project. Anyone can do it. The barrier to entry is very low. You could take Skeptical Inquirer or Skeptic Magazine or any kind of written verifiable source and use that to fix Wikipedia and get rid of the nonsense that’s in there.

Ben: Well, one of the things that I’ve often felt that should be done is to, when you see new rehashes, for lack of a better word, of these sorts of cases would be to call them on it. You know, just in the past week, I mean, I’ve picked up two recent books that had information that I know for a fact was out of date on a variety of topics and a part of me sort of said, I ought to track down the author and send him a nasty email or call him and say, and just, or not nasty, just politely say, why isn’t there a skeptical point in this? I mean, it’s a sincere question. I honestly don’t know. Is it because you didn’t do your research and you haven’t seen the information, or did you just purposely ignore or leave it out? I’m genuinely curious why these sorts of things don’t get in there. And if the answer is simply mystery-mongering then fine, or not find, but that’s at least an answer. But if the answer is simply that the authors and the researchers didn’t do any actual research, that is, they just sort of copied and cut and paste, then at least if someone like one of us or one of our listeners contacts them and says look, I read your book, I read your recent article. You know, you should be aware that your material is out of date and there’s another perspective on this. They may or may not change it, but next time at least they won’t have the excuse that no one told them. They can’t say next time down that road that someone didn’t tell them. In fact, there was a case with the White Witch of Rose Hall which I discussed in the last episode, where after I solved that case, I contacted Jeff Ballenger, Jeff Ballenger of who’s written several books including a recent encyclopaedia of haunted places around the world and I contacted him with the results of my Rose Hall investigation. And sure enough I got his recent book, 2010 book, on the encyclopaedia of world places, uh, world haunted, the world’s most haunted places, and sure enough Rose Hall is there and there’s no mention of it. And I know for a fact that Ballenger knew of my research because specifically sent it to him. Um, and so you have to ask yourself, well why is that? If he was told two years ago, and…

Karen: You spoiled the story!

Ben: Well, okay then find. So I spoiled the story. Uh, but if you’re going to write a book that you’re claiming is accurate and is you know, is at least theoretically giving the whole perspective, then you should include something you know, if it’s been legitimately solved, then you should point that out. If his position is, well I don’t think it was solved to my satisfaction, then address that! Then say, you know, this was investigated in 2007 by this guy Ben Radford, but I think he’s wrong because this, this and this. That’s fine. I don’t have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is these mystery mongers who intentionally omit important skeptical information just to sell a book or they think that their audience is going to put the book down if they bring some skepticism to it.

Karen: They should acknowledge any research that’s out there. But I think, in that regard, we’ll find that historians are our best friends, really. People who are writing true history of these places of premises rather than ghost stories and folklore.

Blake: Skeptics and historians usually have much in common, especially us investigator types.

Ben: Absolutely.

Blake: Mmm hmm. Anything else you want to say about your book, or paranormal investigations in general?

Ben: It’s important to recognize that these sorts of investigations do require some level of skepticism to it, obviously, and also some proficiency. Particularly in ghost hunting, there is a perception that anybody can do it. Anybody can be a ghost hunter. Anybody can be a paranormal investigator. Because of course they see the TAPS crew on the Ghost Hunters TV show who are plumbers by day and ghost hunters on the weekends. And there’s nothing wrong with that except for the fact that they’re not bringing good science to it. And there’s this sort of democratisation of investigation in which there’s this perception again from TV and elsewhere that anybody, any student, housewife, pizza delivery boy, anybody else can go out and hunt for ghosts. And that’s true. You can. Same with communicating with spirits…

Karen: But can you do it well?

Ben: Exactly…

Blake: Can you solve the case? That’s the question.

Ben: Right. And that’s, to my mind, that’s really the issue. The issue is not, can you walk around an abandoned hospital with an EMF detector and flashlight. Of course you can. Anybody can do that. That’s not the issue. The issue is, are you getting, are you finding solutions? Are you finding scientific methodologies? Are you bringing critical thinking to it? Are you finding conclusive answers to these mysteries? And almost all the time, there are a couple of exceptions, but for the most part, a lot of these ghost hunters and these amateur paranormal investigators; they don’t come up with anything remotely resembling a conclusive answer. It’s always, well, you know, we did a stake-out and we got this weird photograph here that may or may not be a ghost, we should go look at it again sometime, and they move on.

Karen: Or they do draw conclusions which are erroneous.

Ben: Or the answer is, you know, it’s haunted and we’ll move on. Whereas if you look at the investigations that we do, and other people do as well, of the skeptical ones, often times you do have an answer. There is a solution. Um, so it’s not just sort of this open ended arbitrary question. No, we have a pretty good answer as to whether the Lord Dufferin story is true or not. We have a pretty good answer as to whether there are actually body chutes in the Waverly Sanitarium. We have pretty good answers as to whether there is a woman name Annie Palmer haunting Rose Hall in Jamaica.

Karen: And I think as we’ve said before that the excitement is in solving the mystery, not in the mystery itself. If we can.

Blake: And we have a pretty good answer about there were ghosts off the side of the Watertown and you can read about that in the current issue of Fortean Times magazine. [laughs]

Ben: Awesome!

Karen: Cool.

[Voiceover: MonsterTalk!]

Blake: Thanks for listening to another episode of MonsterTalk. I’m Blake Smith and in this episode we discussed historical ghost investigations and the basics of how to use scientific and logical methods to solve paranormal mysteries. My co-hosts are Dr. Karen Stollznow: blogger, investigator and one of the regular hosts of the Centre for Inquiry’s podcast, Point of Inquiry. And Benjamin Radford: journalist, investigator, and managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Ben’s upcoming book on scientific paranormal investigation is the basis for much of the material in this episode. Look for that and his upcoming book on the Chupacabra at My details write-up of the investigation of the Watertown ghosts is in the April UK edition and the May US edition of Fortean Times magazine. The article has some interesting photos of my recreation experiment and I hope you enjoy it. MonsterTalk is produced with the much needed assistance of Skeptic Magazine. Sure there are skeptics of the paranormal, but the happiness I get when I pick up an issue of Skeptic Magazine is magical.

The opening music for this episode was the naval hymn, Eternal Father, Strong to Save. It comes from, used by permission. The theme music for MonsterTalk is by Peach Stealing Monkeys, also used by permission. Thanks for listening.


[Promo for Skeptic Magazine]

Blake: Oh I’ll tackle Nessie. I’ll tackle her. She’ll put the ‘please’ in ‘plesiosaur’. [Laughs]

Karen: Don’t get him started!

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