Ghosts and the Sea
Nautical Hauntings in New England
I am fortunate enough to live in a region of the United States richly steeped in tales of spectral sea captains, ghostly lighthouse keepers and phantom ships. Countless novels throughout generations have had their setting on New England's treacherous coastline and rocky shores, and not without good reason; it is where new lives began for most, but tragically ended for many. The region's history is inseparable and will forever be intertwined with the sea.
While I have an insatiable curiosity and interest in all things paranormal, maritime hauntings have always lured me the most and, apparently, I am not alone, as questions about watery ghosts are always among the first I am asked. Whether they admit it or not, everyone loves a good ghost story. While attitudes concerning the paranormal are now a bit more relaxed, I remember a day not so long ago during my years in law enforcement, sitting around a table eating lunch with four other officers. We were about as straight-laced as it gets, especially while in uniform. Ghosts? Not even on the radar, and not something talked about unless you wanted to risk a trip to the department-affiliated psychiatrist. Everyone was well-aware that that was a one-way trip, a trip that would inevitably lead to the same destination: no weapons, no duties and, eventually, no job. One of the officers, in a rare moment of letting his guard down, mentioned that he thought his house was haunted. After a moment of uncomfortable silence, the flood gates opened, and we all started talking about our paranormal experiences. Lunch ended, we got back to work and, predictably, the conversation and subject never again brought up. So, yeah, everyone loves a good ghost story...whether they admit it or not.
New England: More Seafaring Spooks per Square Inch!
Without a doubt, New England is drowning in water-related hauntings, and can lay claim to more ghosts of that variety than any other region of the country. Do I sound a bit smug and boastful? Well, like a wet t-shirt or jockey short contest, I say if you've got it, flaunt it. Ever try to find a lighthouse in Oklahoma? It's not happening. Ever heard of a ghost ship in Nebraska? Not unless it sets sail in a cornfield. Just as we cornered the market on witchcraft in the seaport town of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, the country looks to New England for eerie yarns of ghosts and the sea. And, like any good host, we never let them leave disappointed.
What's the Deal with Ghosts and Water?
There are several theories as to why there seems to be an increased incidence and magnitude of hauntings in and around the vicinity of large bodies of water, all of which seem a bit bizarre and far-fetched. There is obviously the common sense history of New England and its ties to the sea; whatever happened to the person to cause his/her demise happened here. However, that doesn't explain the increased incidence and quality of hauntings that we experience, so I will give you the least bizarre and far-fetched theory, and the one to which I personally subscribe: water amplification. All matter is energy, and ghosts are no exception. In fact, they may be energy in one of its purest forms. You often hear the anecdotal, "The hair stood-up on the back of my neck" when some claims to have seen a ghost, but it is more than just fear, it is a direct current (DC) electrical field in the immediate proximity caused by the manifestation. It is a strong static electrical charge, not unlike the way you would rub an inflated balloon on you head when you were a kid and it would make you hair stand on end. Water is an excellent conductor of electricity, and salt water even more so. Moving water also releases negatively-charged ions into the atmosphere, and some paranormal investigators have reported success using a negative ion generator in a room to help ghosts manifest. This perfect storm of proximity to the ocean and deep-rooted history may, indeed, be the reason New England is the undisputed capitol of nautical things that go bump in the night.
New England has more than its share of abandoned-yet-still-inhabited lighthouses, piers, wharfs and ships, but we tend to forget about our many forts, most dating back to the Revolutionary and Civil wars, when we think of haunted oceanside real estate. All were built along the shores of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island to help defend from attack by ship, and are amazingly active places to conduct a paranormal investigation. Locations such as the massive Fort Warren, located on Georges Island in Boston Harbor, said to be haunted by "The Lady in Black", Mrs. Andrew Lanier, wife of a Confederate soldier who was imprisoned there. As with many Civil War-era fortifications, many prisoners held there succumbed to disease and the extreme elements, and still roam its dark, underground corridors. Fort Constitution in Portsmouth, New Hampshire traces its history all the way back to the Revolutionary War, when it was in the hands of the British and known as Fort William and Mary. It's unique in that attached to the fort is an active U.S. Coast Guard base, and Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse is also on the grounds. Is it haunted? Yes, very much so, and I have never failed to get something on audio and video when investigating the grounds.
We also have long-forgotten towers that dot our coastal landscape, such as the eight-story Pulpit Rock Battery 951. Built in the early 1940s as part of the Portsmouth Harbor Defense Command, it still stands as an eerie silent sentinel on the shore of North Rye, New Hampshire. The Brackett Massacre, a forgotten, tragic incident that occurred on September 29, 1691, is memorialized in a small, overgrown wooded area along the coast of Rye, New Hampshire. There you will find a series of primitive stones marking the graves of the victims; a very creepy location, and one of many that I have personally investigated. Add to all of this the seemingly endless supply of haunted public buildings and private residences, whether directly located on the shore or not, that have strong maritime connections, and you start to understand why New England's reputation is well-deserved.
Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, which is an odd name because, due to a boundary dispute, it is actually located on Seavey Island which is now considered part of Kittery, Maine, can trace its ancestry back beyond 200 years. It was the last mainland stop for the crew of USS Escolar (SS-294) before their fateful voyage to the Pacific. There is an imposing, castle-like abandoned U.S. Naval Prison on the grounds, and I have attempted to gain permission for access. Unfortunately, due to structural safety concerns as well as asbestos-related issues, it is strictly, and understandably, off-limits. Still, the place is an awesome sight from a boat in Portsmouth Harbor.
Battleship Cove in Fall River, Massachusetts was the subject of my February 2012 edition of The Booo! Blog. Is it haunted? I'm not certain, but it does have all of the ingredients, and only further investigation will tell.
Isles of Shoals
Six miles off the rugged coasts of Maine and New Hampshire you will find the Isles of Shoals; nine small islands whose diminutive size belie their deep and disturbing history. It is a history rife with tales of shipwrecks, pirates, dirty deeds and, yes, even a famous, and still-debated, 1873 double homicide. There are a few small cemeteries on the islands as well.
Star Island, the second-largest in the group, is home to Oceanic Hotel, a beautiful place, but one that allows its guests to shower only a few times a week (true!) due to water rationing on the island. That's the bad news. The good news? The place is usually fairly desolate, so your chances of offending someone are slim. The hotel is owned by Star Island Corporation, which is affiliated with Unitarian Universalist Association/United Church of Christ. I'm not particularly religious but, as I've mentioned elsewhere on these pages, these folks are very open to the possibility of the paranormal, and do allow investigations. I can personally attest that, whether you visit for paranormal reasons or not, the place is amazing. And yes...it is haunted.
It Must Be Something In the Water
Sometimes paranormal activity and energy is not caused by what is on the shore, but what is in the water. For every site that we can go to and physically investigate, there are countless others mysteriously concealed just out of view, under the sea, sometimes not much more than a stone's throw off the coast of New England. Shipwrecks and other seafaring tragedies, often caused by our notorious nor'easters, silently wait below the surface. And the unfortunate tragedies and loss of life continue to the relatively recent past and even to today, such as the loss of the nuclear-powered submarine USS Thresher (SSN-593) on April 10, 1963. 129 crewmen and U.S. Navy personnel left from Portsmouth Navy Shipyard on a deep-diving test, never to be seen again. It was one of two major, tragic events that occurred in 1963, the other, of course, being the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Although I was very young at the time, I still remember the "We interrupt our regularly scheduled program..." television news reports for both. Thresher and her crew are still out there on eternal patrol, 220 miles off the coast of Boston. To this day, the wreck site is still monitored by the Navy for any leakage of radioactive material. So far, so good. And speaking of the Massachusetts Kennedy clan, they certainly are no strangers to tragedy, which is often referred to around here as the "Kennedy Curse". The 1969 drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne, who was a passenger in Ted Kennedy's car when it took a late-night dive off a narrow bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, a small island off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, is still shrouded in mystery and facts that don't add up. To this day, I know of no paranormal investigator or group that has visited the location. Perhaps we should and allow Mary Jo to tell us what really happened in her own words? What many fail to realize is that, for every well-known and investigated haunted locale in coastal New England, there are literally hundreds, such as Mary Jo's, that have been largely forgotten and ignored. Another victim of the so-called curse was John F. Kennedy, Jr., along with his wife and sister-in-law. The three plunged into the sea under unknown circumstances just a few miles off the coast of Martha's Vineyard on July 16, 1999. Fragments and debris from their Piper Saratoga II HP were subsequently found but, despite best efforts, their bodies never were.
There Once Was a Lighthouse In Nantucket...
...well, three of them, actually, and one is extremely haunted...but that's a story for another day. Stay tuned...