haunted whaleboat
O CAPTAIN! the author reenacts a spectral visitation.

Something Blubbery This Way Comes

There's a pipe-smoking ghost aboard the whaleship Morgan! Or maybe not. Either way, the high-tech hunt to catch this spook is a wicked blast.

haunted whaleboat
Mary Roach

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ONE OF THE MORE DISTINCTIVE WAYS TO DIE in the 19th century was to get knocked into the sea by a dangling sheet of blubber. Blubber—or whale fat, which was melted down to oil and was pretty much the whole point of whaling—was stripped off its owner by floating the corpse alongside the ship and peeling it like an orange. As the blubber and skin were pulled from the body, they were hoisted high over the deck and cut into massive 12-foot-long chunks that were lowered through the hatch of the blubber room, to be cut down some more. Though the decks were slick with oil and the fat swung wildly when seas were rough, blubber-related deaths were an uncommon occurrence.

Which makes ghosts of blubber-processing crewmen pretty rare. Nonetheless, people have been saying they’ve seen one in the blubber room of the Charles W. Morgan. The Morgan, the last wooden whaling ship in existence, is berthed at Mystic Seaport, a maritime museum in the form of a make-believe whaling port—Williamsburg by the sea—in Mystic, Connecticut. For months, tales of a blubber-room spook have been rivaling Ken Lay for dead-guy press coverage. Fox News aired a story about him, as did CNN and the CBS Evening News. Tonight, a crew from Good Morning, America and a reporter-photographer team from The Boston Globe are showing up.

The draw—along with the alleged ghost, of course—is the loaded-for-bear presence of the group of energetic ghostbusters who started the whole thing. The Morgan mystery comes to us courtesy of the Rhode Island Paranormal Research Group (TRIPRG—the T standing for “The”), a club of after-hours ectoplasm enthusiasts who volunteer to check out mysterious happenings at people’s homes and other locales. The group’s founder and director, 49-year-old Andrew Laird, and seven TRIPRG members are descending upon the Morgan to try and document the greasy wraith with their technology-laden kit. The media will be here to watch them, and the MysticSeaport public-relations department will be here to watch the media.

TRIPRG says they’ve received some 40 letters and e-mails from tourists describing spooky experiences belowdecks on the Morgan. Three of the correspondents—writing independently from Tucson, Arizona; Albany, New York; and London within a span of a few weeks—described seeing a six-foot-tall ghost in 19th-century clothing, hanging around and smoking a pipe in the blubber room. Why visitors to a Connecticut tourist attraction would report their experiences to a Rhode Island ghostbusting group is an additional mystery (like most states, Connecticut has its own spirit-tracking outfits), as is TRIPRG’s refusal to share the letters with the media.

I spent a year covering paranormal research for my last book, Spook, and I know better than to expect anything solid to come of TRIPRG’s outing. But, like most people who know better, I still harbor a nagging desire to see or hear a ghost. Because if you see one, then maybe one day you’ll be one, and that’s a nicer prospect than just being dead.

WITH OR WITHOUT the pipe guy, Mystic Seaport is a ghost town this morning. It’s early on a rainy June day, during a summer when gas prices have put a notable damper on family outings to Mystic. (The name, which lends a puzzling New Age cast to the town’s more resolutely unmystical undertakings—e.g., Mystic Tile & Carpet—comes from the Pequot word missi-tuk, meaning a type of river.)

I’ve been wandering the gravel streets, talking to staffers dressed as coopers and captains’ wives. I’m hearing about ghosts, but not much about the Morgan. The staff will tell you that the Joseph Conrad, another of the museum’s ships, is also haunted, as is the historic Buckingham House and the Membership building, where the late Mildred Mallory, perhaps an early feng shui buff, occasionally rearranges items in the lounge.

The Morgan, my final stop, is a glorious, black-flanked, three-masted sailing ship, just over 100 feet long. She slept 30, in the way a prison cell in South America might sleep 30. Twenty-two bunks are crammed into the tiny crew’s quarters, or forecastle (pronounced fock-sull), one deck down and right next to the blubber room, at the bow of the ship. The captain and his mates dined and slept in the relatively luxurious but still cramped captain’s quarters, at the other end. The top deck housed the kitchen and an outdoor stove for boiling down blubber, while the bottom deck, or hold, was for storage.

Right now, the blubber room is quiet. Fifty feet long and half as wide, it’s empty except for some atmospheric casks, an anchor chain, and a lighted plaque that names various Mystic Seaport donors. I’m down here with staff interpreter Steve Purdy, who fills me in on what took place in this room. Basically, as he puts it, “the dividing of the blubber up.” The fat was lowered from the deck above and cut into boilable strips. A whaling ship stayed at sea until the hold and much of the blubber room were filled with barrels of whale oil—up to 2,000 of them. Since a sperm whale yielded, on average, 40 to 50 barrels, and months could pass between kills, it was not uncommon for a whaling ship to be at sea for three or four years.

It’s awfully cramped in here, which makes me wonder about the six-foot ghost, because the ceiling beams of the blubber room are just over five feet high. When I ask Purdy about this, he seems perplexed. “I guess he was like this bendy ghost,” he says.

IT’S 7 P.M.—ghostbusting time. Andrew Laird is the first buster up the gangplank. He’s built like the magician Penn Gillette: six foot five, conspicuously larger through the middle than on either end. Laird weighs 300 pounds, he tells us, and struggles with diabetes. “I’ve lost 80 pounds,” he says, unpacking a video monitor from its case and setting it on the captain’s table. That’s an impressive amount of fat to lose. I find myself calculating yield. Eighty pounds of blubber means around nine gallons of oil. If a barrel holds 31.5 gallons…

Laird and his 46-year-old colleague Gene Miller, a social worker by day, spend the next two hours setting up. Modern ghostbusting is a high-tech affair bearing little resemblance to the old-school methods used by Scooby and the gang. (In a nod to his Saturday-morning counterparts, Miller owns a pug named Lady Scooby Deaux but does not bring her along on cases.)

Laird believes the reason we can’t see or hear dead people is that they exist and communicate in wavelengths outside the spectra of human sight and hearing: infrared and ultraviolet light, infrasound, ultrasound, etc. So he and his crew set up cameras and microphones that detect energy in these wavelengths. For this case, Laird sets up four infrared video cameras: in the blubber room, on deck, in the hold, and in the forecastle. The cameras will be wired to a closed-circuit TV with a four-way split-screen monitor, the one set up on the captain’s table. This will allow Laird and the eight journalists and cameramen on hand to observe what’s going on all over the ship.

At the moment, that isn’t happening. What’s happening is a scene reminiscent of what happens when ordinary people try to disconnect the VCR and hook up the DVD. Jacks going in, jacks yanked out. Intermittent cursing. Laird has been ghostbusting for 20 years, but you don’t get a sense of that from watching him.

“I got two screens jumpin’ up and down,” he says in the flat nasal accent of Rhode Island. “And I got two of the same picture.” He leans over and yells down the length of the ship. “Hey, what’s goin’ on with the camera in the fock… the fore… the front of the ship?”

Not wishing to distract him, the Globe reporter asks Gene Miller whether Laird prefers to go by Andy or Andrew. “It’s Dr. Andrew Laird,” states Miller.

Laird looks up from his pasta of wires. “Andy’s fine,” he says. Laird is a likable, humble, if not especially scientific sort of guy. “It’s just an honorary doctorate,” he says of his degree. “It’s from… I forget where it’s from.”

Laird got into ghosts during college. A friend dragged him along to an abandoned insane asylum, which he insisted was haunted. Laird dropped the skepticism when a dead lunatic appeared from out of nowhere and just as quickly disappeared. Ghostbusting doesn’t pay—it costs, big time—so he earns his living elsewise. These days he works as a freelance photographer.

While Laird and Miller grapple with the electronics, four female TRIPRG “sensitives”—including Miller’s smoky-voiced wife, Steph—wander the ship, gathering psychic impressions and checking for “cold spots,” which they interpret as a sort of invisible spirit-world calling card. Most of them also carry TriField Natural Electromagnetic Meters and/or handheld gauss meters, both of which measure electric and magnetic fields. They wear headlamps and carry their gear in canvas tool aprons. Paranormal “investigators” resemble utility-company employees on a field call, until you talk to them.

The Globe reporter asks Miller what a gauss meter measures. Miller thinks for a minute. “Andy?”

Laird answers without looking up. “It’s like when a car pulls away, it leaves a residue, a smog,” he says. “Our theory is that when a ghost uses up energy, that’s what it leaves behind, an electromagnetic smog… Sonuvabitch, now we lost the blubber room!” At the end of the evening, gauss-meter “hits” will be one of the things mentioned by Laird as an indication of paranormal activity on the ship.

Several days later, I call a company that manufactures gauss meters and ask what sorts of things could make the needle jump on a 19th-century whaling ship. I learn that iron carries residual magnetism and that simply moving the meter past, say, the anchor chain or the windlass, each of which has its own magnetic field, could register a hit. The man I speak with is the president of the company, but he won’t let me use his name, or its name, for fear that being associated with a paranormal organization could hurt business.

The makers of the EMF meter that TRIPRG members use, Salt Lake City–based AlphaLab, take a more pragmatic approach: They’ve actually marketed their TriField Natural EMF meter as a “ghost detector.” I ask their production vice president, an unflappable guy named Joseph Hicks, if he thinks the meters actually detect ghosts. “Who knows?” he says. “Maybe they do.”

TWO HOURS INTO the setup routine, Laird’s face and neck are wet with perspiration. We could all use a cold spot. There are 18 (live) people on the middle deck right now, plus the combined heat of two video monitors, two television cameras and the lighting they require, two computers, a sound boom, and four infrared/UV cameras. All of which are producing electric and magnetic fields, meaning that the ghostbusters may be detecting more busters than ghosts.

The sensitives are in the forecastle, getting psychically tuned for their séance, which they call a “sit-down.” Gary Wynn, a producer with Good Morning, America, has been eager for this portion of the evening to begin, because now there’ll be something to film besides people fiddling with equipment.

Wynn is over six feet tall and carries a bulky TV camera. Every time he stands up or comes down the steep, narrow staircase to the captain’s quarters, he hits his camera or his head or both. While we wait for the sensitives to be wired with microphones, Laird tells a story for the GMA camera. He recalls that the first time he visited the Morgan, he saw a man up on deck, leaning on the rails and looking out at the water. Thinking this was a security guard, Laird crossed the deck to talk to him. When he got there, the man had vanished. Laird believes it was a ghost.

“I can’t prove it,” he says, with camera lights blanching his face. “It’s just a feelin’ I got.”

The GMA soundman attaches a mike to one of the sensitives. He bends over and leans in to the collar of her T-shirt. “Check!” he says to her neck. All in a row, the sensitives head toward the forecastle. Although the sightings were reported in the blubber room, the feeling among the sensitives is that there will be a higher concentration of energy in the sleeping quarters.

Wynn’s forehead collides with a crossbeam. “Mike!” he hollers to his cameraman. “Do me a favor.”

“What do you need, buddy?”

“Get me a fuckin’ helmet.”

The forecastle of a whaling ship is a claustrophobe’s hell. Laird has mounted a video camera in here, which, he says, gathers images in both infrared and UV. It occurs to me that the “blue light” you see being used by forensics guys on TV to detect semen is some kind of UV. So in that sense, Laird’s cameras probably are capable of detecting lingering traces of dead whalers.

The forecastle is crowded, so I go back to monitor the sit-down in the captain’s quarters. The infrareds make the women’s eyes glow like hyena eyes on Animal Planet. Infrared cameras read heat, which makes them seem like an odd choice for detecting entities that register as cold spots.

The sensitives begin their sensing. “If there are any spirits here, come forward,” says Steph. “Let us know. You can either use our meters, a rapping noise, or tell us telepathically.” A dead whaler steps up to the telepathic mike, but, alas, he is speaking a foreign tongue.

Meena na mee ku,” says a sensitive, repeating what she’s hearing in her head. Her eyes are shut and her palms are turned up.

“I think he’s speaking Nigerian,” a colleague offers. “Is Nigeria in Africa?”

Ma taq a ku!

“I’m getting England. Did this ship go to England?”

“Did it carry precious minerals?”

The Globe reporter has been leaning against the wall beside me, listening to the proceedings. “It was a whaling ship,” she says.

IT’S TOO BAD the Morgan‘s crew are coming through in gibberish, because whalers had grisly stories to tell. Bagging whales was big-game fishing taken to its illogical, frequently lethal extreme. Hooking a whale by harpoon—the killing happened later, with a lance—was done at close range, by a six-man whaleboat whose crew sometimes flanked their quarry within arm’s reach. The moment the harpoons were sunk, the oarsmen would scramble to put distance between themselves and the peeved cetacean. While it was typical for a harpooned whale to take off at top speed, pulling the boat on a “Nantucket sleigh ride,” some whales managed to identify the source of their pain and attack the boat, thrashing it to pieces with their flukes.

Or worse. “With its long underjaw, a sperm whale could easily bite a whaleboat in two, ‘chawing’ it in its powerful jaws and sometimes taking an arm or a leg or two in the process,” wrote the late Mystic Seaport curator John Leavitt in his book The Charles W. Morgan. (In fact, the Morgan lost a crewman this way.) When the whale kill was over, six men with oars had to tow a 50-ton corpse all the way back to the ship.

Tonight, life aboard the Morgan isn’t quite so exciting. While the sensitives carry on in the forecastle, Laird explains the sound recordings he’s been collecting. He says his team will often see spikes in the infrasound range, which human hearing cannot detect. I ask how they can be sure that what he’s picking up is coming from paranormal, rather than normal, sources of infrasound. Whales, for example, communicate in infrasound. “We do a lot of scrutiny with it,” says Miller.

Laird nods. “This was set up by a guy who knows what he’s doing.”

I suggest that, if there’s a ghost onboard, it’s the ghost of a whale. As for the pipe smoker, I have an intuition about that. In fact, I’m getting a name. I’m getting Mike… Mike… O’Farrell.

Mike O’Farrell is Mystic Seaport’s PR man. I don’t mean to be a bunghole, but I wonder if the combination of sinking museum revenues and dependable media interest in the supernatural made a trumped-up ghost story a tempting proposition. Along these lines, I tried to get a look at the three “almost verbatim” letters from the visitors who said they saw an old-timey figure with a pipe. Laird didn’t return my calls about this. When I asked O’Farrell about it, he said the people had stated they “didn’t want anything shared.”

I find this odd. People who believe they’ve seen or felt a ghost are always coming up to me at readings, wanting to share stories. Is this ghost a phantom? I can’t prove it. It’s just a feelin’ I got.

IT’S 1:30 IN THE MORNING. Miller is peeling duct tape from the Morgan‘s deck and packing up cameras. Laird is telling a Good Morning, America camera that he’s pleased with how things went, but there’s a general sense of fizzling out. The sensitives say there were too many people on the ship; we scared away the pipe guy. Earlier, I asked O’Farrell if I could camp in the blubber room after everyone left. He agreed to it, provided I let someone from public relations check in on me during the night.

After the busters leave, I bed down in a corner near the forecastle. Something about the rain is causing the ship’s planking to make noisy pops, like the sound of burning firewood played through an amp. The sounds bounce around in the hold. An eerie glow at the far end of the room turns out to be a tiny light above the donor plaque. I want to be scared, but mostly I’m just uncomfortable.

But then, sometime around 3 a.m., I’m awakened by something I’ve never heard before. It’s a strange, clotted, desperate sound, like a man choking on blubber. It’s frightening. It’s definitely in the room with me. It’s…

It’s Mike O’Farrell’s uvula. O’Farrell—who, it turns out, is not merely checking in but staying all night—is crashed out by the doorway to the captain’s quarters, snoring wetly.