In August, Smithsonian Channel celebrates the 80th anniversary of the maiden voyage of the RMS Queen Mary with a special program Mighty Ship at War: Queen Mary. While the program celebrates the “life” of the famed dame with rarely seen footage and interviews with some of the many millions of people whose lives she touched and changed forever, the ship’s very spirited “afterlife” is of equal interest – easily one of America’s most haunted locations.
From its maiden voyage in 1936 to its retirement in 1967, this stately embodiment of elegant travel has seen life and death come and go with the tides. When she first got her sea legs, the Queen Mary, flagship of the Cunard Line, was the fastest, most luxurious (and just short of the largest) ship to sail the Atlantic. The first class accommodations may have been named for a queen but they were fit for a king, and celebrities such as Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, and Winston Churchill were but a few of her A-list clientele. Though it was still the Depression, there was no lack of excess and opulence at the top, and luxury cruises were the only civilized way to travel between and Old and New Worlds.
But those days came to a screeching halt with the outbreak of WWII in 1939. The Queen Mary ⎯ along with sister ship the Queen Elizabeth ⎯ was called into service, and she answered. She was converted into a transport ship for Allied troops. Six miles of carpet, 220 cases of china, crystal and silver service, tapestries and paintings were removed and stored in warehouses for the duration of the war. She doubled her capacity from 2,410 to 5,500 (and eventually much more), and received a new, stealthy paint job that earned her the nickname “The Grey Ghost.”
During the course of the War she ferried over 800,000 troops to Europe. She set the record for most people aboard a floating vessel, 16,683, which still stands to this day. The Queen Mary’s contribution to the war was unmistakable but not without its share of tragedy.
In October of 1942 the Queen Mary was carrying 10,000 troops across the Atlantic. It was procedure for the large vessel to travel in a zigzag pattern, an evasive maneuver that lessened the likelihood of detection by German U boats. Her escort was the HMS Curacoa, a much smaller, less powerful ship that provided anti-aircraft cover for the Grey Ghost. The Curacoa’s engines strained to keep up with the Queen Mary and her captain made a fateful error, running straight instead of zigzagging.
The Queen Mary, humming along at a speed of 28 knots, sped toward the Curacoa, which had no chance of avoiding the impending collision. The Curacoa was literally cut in two. Due to the threat of U boat attack, strict orders prevented the Queen Mary from stopping or attempting any sort of rescue mission. The screams of the dying rang across the water as the Ghost continued on her journey. The Curacoa sank in less than six minutes, taking all but 99 of the 338 crew with her. The Queen Mary suffered minor damages compared to the complete devastation of her escort.
After the War, the Grey Ghost returned to her role as luxury ship, but the age of the airplane had arrived. Air travel gained popularity and affordability and by the ’60s the Queen Mary was operating at a loss. After 1,000 trips carrying over 2.1 million passengers, she was retired in 1967.
The grand dame was given new life as a hotel, museum, and tourist attraction after being permanently docked in Long Beach, California, and it was then that staff and visitors began to report unusual sounds and ghostly apparitions in nearly every part of her. With at least 49 reported deaths aboard the Queen Mary, it’s no wonder she plays host to so many spirits.
Agonized screams and the sound of tearing metal have been reported in the boiler room. Many believe these to be from the spirits of the doomed men of the Curacoa. Another more frightening apparition nicknamed “Half Hatch Harry” has been spotted near watertight door #13 where an 18 year-old sailor was crushed and literally severed in two by the thick heavy door in which he was trapped. Was it a routine drill or an ill-fated game of chicken that took this young man’s life?
Another of the ship’s prominent spirits is that of a young girl who plays an endless game of hide and seek around the empty first class pool. Her tiny wet footprints have been reported coming out of the pool dressing room, thought to be some kind of spiritual vortex.
Paranormal investigators flock to Long Beach hoping to catch a glimpse of one of these resident ghosts. Ghost Hunters Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson brought their team to the ship for an episode of their show. Although they uncovered an obvious hoax attempt, they couldn’t deny the energy and activity that surrounded them during their stay.
Fact or Faked star Bill Murphy brought his squad to the Queen Mary as well, and agreed that there is something otherworldly going on in the dark recesses of the ship. Murphy produced a documentary about the hauntings on board that examines many different facets of this remarkable national treasure.
The Queen Mary – The Queen’s Salon
The most visually striking area of the majestic ship is the Queen’s Salon, once the First Class Dining Room. This lavish room is 4,600 square feet of burnished opulence, adorned in yellows and bronze, rich imported woods, floors of polished marble, a parquet dance floor, and a trio of golden onyx fireplaces. The Art Deco extravagance of the Queen Mary is celebrated in grand style in the salon, leaving the very notion of “excess” an understatement.
Among the more interesting features of the room are a performance stage lined with heavy gold drapes, and intricately carved motifs of a by-gone era. The piece de resistance is an elaborate, stylized map of the ship’s ocean crossing from the United States to England and back, complete with a tiny moving crystal ship that tracked the position of the Queen Mary on each voyage.
Guests could follow the progress of their journey as they dined on gourmet fare, although few were in a hurry to actually arrive at their destination. The skyscrapers of New York City flank the left side of the map while the ancient cities of old Europe flank the right. A glowing sun shines its rays across the gentle waves while a crescent moon and twinkling stars hang high above.
The haunted reputation of the Queen’s Salon includes numerous reports of paranormal activity. Most notably, another Woman in White resides here, her wispy apparition seen gliding gracefully across the floor, a long white gown covering her slim form as she dances to a song heard only in the afterlife. Presumed to be the ghost of a first class passenger from decades past, she is content to carry on her afterlife in this beautiful place completely oblivious to the living souls around her. She is most likely a residual haunting, a repeating energy loop blissfully unaware of her surroundings.
A similar ghost has been spotted in other areas of the ship, although it is unclear if the sightings are of the same spirit. A woman in a long white dress has been seen descending a set of stairs in the cargo hold, an odd place for a passenger to be. One possible explanation is that the spirit is “attached” to something stored there, such as an antique piece of furniture or a more personal item that held great significance to her.
The Engine Room
Deep in the belly of the Queen Mary sits the heart of the ship: the engine room. Once a loud, hot, bustling place, the engine room is now a maze of silent machinery and cold metal. The labyrinth of steel passageways remains much as it was during the Queen Mary’s sailing days. Each sound reverberates endlessly off the hard surfaces. A dull blanket of white and gray paint covers the engine room, in stark contrast to the vibrant color palate of the ship’s public areas.
Few passengers ever saw this part of the ship, only crew and staff had reason to be here. But this hidden world holds its own stories and secrets.
The most famous tale from the engine room is of an 18 year-old crewman named John Pedder who tried to slip through watertight door #13 as it closed during a fire drill in 1966. It’s possible he was engaged in a game of “chicken” with another crewman, taking turns running back and forth through the door, trying to be the last one through before it slammed shut, but that might be legend.
Either way, young John rather calamitously miscalculated and became jammed in the thick metal door as it closed. He was mortally wounded, some say severed in two. In death he was assigned the rather cavalier nickname “Half Hatch Harry,” likely because it has a better ring than “Grievously Jammed John,” or something similar.
B Deck, Room B-340
B Deck once housed the third class cabins and is used today by guests of the Queen Mary hotel. These aren’t the biggest nor most luxurious of the rooms, but they are comfortable nonetheless. A trip down the deck’s long passageways of glossy wood paneling and carpets of burgundy-and-gold flowers includes an interesting visual phenomenon: instead of a straight corridor, the ship has a curved, banana-like structure intended to add stability to the large vessel. The unusual shape can cause a slight funhouse-type effect, possibly adding to the paranormal vibe on the deck.
Of the twelve decks of the Queen Mary, B Deck is known as the most haunted of them all. One particular room takes the top prize, and for good reason. It is by far the most “occupied” unoccupied room on the ship.
The Queen Mary has 314 staterooms, eight full suites, and five mini-suites. Several of these are considered haunted. But the one with the most notorious reputation is room B-340, which isn’t available to overnight guests. Originally the space encompassed three third class staterooms, but has been remodeled to become one large room.
Even with its expanded dimensions, the room is quite small, and sparsely outfitted with a simple single bed, modest dresser, chair, and small round table holding a basic lamp. A modern shower and bath were installed during remodeling, but third class passengers had to share washroom facilities. Two small round portholes offer an outside view, although it is difficult to see very far.
According to our guide, room B-340 was once available to overnight guests, but persistent complaints about paranormal activity such as strange noises, ghostly footsteps, and peculiar plumbing problems (faucets turning off and on by themselves, toilets flushing on their own) forced management to shut it down. Why this particular room is so haunted is a bit of a mystery. One theory revolves around a man named Walter J. Adamson, a third class passenger who was found dead of unknown causes in room B-226 during one of the ship’s early trans-Atlantic crossings. When the ship was remodeled, room B-226 was folded into what we know today as room B-340.
One of the stories we heard (apparently originating from a psychic’s impression) told of a war bride traveling from Europe to be reunited with her American soldier husband. She was pregnant and alone at the time, leaving behind everything she knew to start a new life in the United States. Alone and scared, she was afraid to venture out of the room. The journey was long and tiresome. The woman went into labor before the ship reached the shore. Her pregnancy was fraught with complications and without proper medical assistance or a midwife, the woman and her baby died.
In another, slightly different account, the woman, a war bride with a newborn baby, was traveling from Europe to meet the father of her child, an American serviceman. She was confined to the room, unable or unwilling to leave the security of the tiny space. Frustrated and lonely, she spent her days fussing about the cabin and tending to the baby. Once she arrived, her dreams were shattered when her “husband” (they may not have been legally married) refused her and the child and sent them away. It is her frustrated spirit that causes poltergeist-type activity in the room, including throwing hangers and turning the faucets off and on.
B-340 was the center of a very controversial episode of Syfy’s Ghost Hunters (aired October 5, 2005). During an investigation of the Queen Mary by The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS), the team set up a stationary camera in room B-340 hoping to catch an apparition or some of the other unusual phenomena reported there. When Steve Gonsalves and Dave Tango returned to the cabin to change the tape on the camera, they found the bed had been “messed up,” although it had been neatly made when the investigation began.
The two immediately reviewed the camera footage and were shocked to find the comforter on the bed clearly moving, as if an invisible force were manipulating it! This piece of footage was so incredible, the team immediately turned their focus on the area.
After a brief investigation of the room, they found it was possible for someone to hide behind a utility closet door that accessed the room from the hall and sneak in outside of camera view. A person could have reached the camera undetected, stopped it momentarily, then mussed the blankets before turning the camera back on.
This theory was confirmed when an eagle-eyed Dave Tango noticed a jump in the video, indicating the tape had indeed been stopped and restarted. A very disappointed Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson were heartbroken by this find, admitting it put a damper on the entire case, leaving all experiences and evidence suspect.
Jason and Grant were invited back to the Queen Mary by 13Pictures founder Bill Murphy for the documentary The Queen Mary: A Floating Phenomenon, who, along with guide Erika Frost, explained the hoax theory in greater detail.
The TAPS founders agreed that no one could be positively blamed for the deceptive act; they couldn’t prove who did it or why. Grant added it was unnecessary to perpetrate such a hoax as the hauntings on the great ship speak for themselves without need of unethical “help” from anyone. Erika, who was disappointed by the original incident, admitted that much good had come in the aftermath of the incident. Tighter security measures were put in place and a 24-hour live webcam was installed in the room to preclude further tampering.
A paranormal team called Beyond Investigation Magazine led by Patrick Wheelock investigated the incident in B-340 and pointed out some interesting and overlooked facts about the Ghost Hunters episode and the hoaxed video in question.
During the original airing of the episode, Jason and Grant verbally “suggested” that only a person of small stature could have sneaked into the utility closet or unnoticed third door, manipulated the camera and messed up the bed clothes. In reality, any reasonably sized person could fit through the small door and remain out of camera range.
The BIM investigation with the same make and model HI8 camera also proved that any attempt at manually stopping or pausing the camera would cause the video to “jump” and produce an audible beep. But, the remote provided with that particular model could be used to pause and restart the tape and give the effect shown on the episode. Who had access to a remote for the camera? The camera’s owner. Who owned the camera? TAPS.
Other details surfaced in the aftermath that potentially point a finger at a TAPS member, although these could not be verified to our satisfaction. It is for the public to decide what happened that night.
Patrick Wheelock also researched some of the more common claims of paranormal activity from B-340 and came up with some interesting findings. The last time the room was occupied by a guest was during its final ocean voyage in 1967. The claims that hotel guests were so scared of the activity in the room that they left during the night or asked to be moved are unfounded, as the room was never available for overnight stays. The hotel opened in 1972 but did not originally include B Deck. B Deck was opened in the 1980’s but not B-340.
How then do you explain the many and persistent reports of activity in this room? For one thing, who’s to say that ghosts must remain where they died? Just because no one passed away in B-340 doesn’t mean there are no ghosts there. Also, B-340 was converted from three separate rooms. Maybe someone DID pass away in one of those earlier cabins, such as Walter Adamson, mentioned previously.
The Queen Mary – Conclusion
Few locations are as iconic and as easily recognizable as the RMS Queen Mary. Once the pride of the Cunard Line and among the most majestic ships ever to sail the seas, the Queen Mary was the epitome of luxury and elegance. When called into service during WWII, she answered, and ferried thousands of troops to and fro, taking them courageously to the front line and gratefully home again.
Among the hoards that flock to her decks now are paranormal enthusiasts and ghosts hunters of every flavor. They come searching for adventure, a glimpse into the past, a peek into the world of wealth and privilege aboard the worlds largest supernatural “floating phenomenon.”
The Queen Mary lives up to her reputation as one of the most haunted locations in the world. All ghost hunters worth their sea salt have heard of the Queen Mary and placed her high on their “must see” list. The attention has helped provide needed revenue to the ship – the daily ghost tours offered on board compliment the more traditional exhibits, tours, and happenings.
Those who seek to interact with the spirits call out to them, enticing them to communicate, opening the door and inviting them to come through. The combined intent of the living, the residual essence of the dead, and environmental factors such as the steady lapping of gentle waves against the steel hull of the ship all fuel paranormal activity.
(all images courtesy the Queen Mary)
(Excerpted from America’s Most Haunted: The Secrets of Famous Paranormal Places, Berkley, 2014, by Eric Olsen and Theresa Argie)