The USS Salem has been transformed into a world-class scary attraction. It’s an opportunity to haunt the masses that some of the vessel’s ghosts have been waiting more than a lifetime for.
ALL PHOTOS BY FRANK C. GRACE
The Sea Witch smells like death. “It’s the paint,” joked one of the volunteers who greeted me as I clumsily stumbled onboard the historic USS Salem in Quincy. “There were hundreds of dead bodies on here during the earthquake in Greece in 1953 and many of them died from burns … so that could explain the peculiar smell as well.”
One of the first things I was told when I reported for duty as the manager of the VIP paranormal experience on Ghost Ship Harbor, a new haunted attraction slotted for the USS Salem this Halloween season, was not to piss off the ghosts.
Launched on March 25, 1947, in Fore River Shipyard in Quincy and nicknamed the Sea Witch by her crew thanks to a three-month stint in the so-called witch city, the USS Salem never saw combat but was certainly a harbinger of death. In fact, the area beneath her mess hall became a makeshift morgue during the previously mentioned earthquake off the coast of Greece in 1953 and it’s estimated that at least 400 dead bodies were kept on the vessel. According to additional reports, at least 23 babies were born on the ship during the 1950s.
The USS Salem is a heavy-metal celebrity of sorts. She made a cameo in the action-packed thriller from Disney called The Finest Hours starring Casey Affleck and Chris Pine. The vessel was also featured in a film called the Pursuit of the Graf Spee in 1956. And, of course, the haunted vessel was featured on Ghost Hunters a few years ago.
It should be no surprise, but it’s the ghost ship’s alleged paranormal activity that generates the most regional buzz.
The USS Salem’s volunteers, a motley crew of former military veterans and lovers of the Des Moines-class heavy cruiser, spewed off a laundry list of resident ghosts including “The Burning Man,” who also smells like death and reportedly hides in the berthing area beneath the third mess hall where the bodies were kept during the Ionian earthquake, a ghost girl who speaks Greek, a salty sea captain, a growling devil dog, a cook who likes to keep the kitchen in order and a man named John who reportedly gives tours of the USS Salem in the afterlife.
There’s also an angry sentinel spirit known to get aggressive if you disrespect the Sea Witch.
Kim Mello, a long-time volunteer on the ship and former manager of the USS Salem’s haunted house, told me about a group of teen-girl haunters who were banging on the freezers near the mess hall. “I told them to stop disrespecting the spirits but they wouldn’t listen,” she said, describing the former horror-themed room full of “living dolls,” a scene that caused a ruckus several seasons ago because one of the dolls naively said “turn me on” to visitors. “I could see them through the curtain and two of the girls had scratches all up and down their legs … and they were bleeding. I know they didn’t do it to themselves because I was watching the whole thing as it happened.”
Mello said the mysterious scratches were mere “love marks” compared to the nightmare her team of volunteer haunters endured when they were told to move the haunted house off of the boat. In 2013, access to the vessel was shut down because the MBTA deemed the wharf was unstable. In addition to hosting paranormal investigation teams and overnight visits for Boy Scout groups, the pocket battleship had a 20-year run as the U.S. Naval Shipbuilding Museum in Quincy and served as a symbol of the city’s shipbuilding history during the 1940s.
“It was a nightmare,” Mello said, referring to the volunteer group’s attempt to resurrect the ship’s haunted attraction. “We had a circus freak show theme and we had a tough time keeping the tents up during the season. Plus, it was freezing.”
Jason Egan, the hauntrepreneur behind Fright Dome in Las Vegas and mastermind behind the new attraction onboard the USS Salem, had an equally rough ride in his search for the ideal location to produce a Boston-area attraction. Egan and local marketing guru Matt DiRoberto were swatted down twice when they tried to unleash their initial vision called Fright Island on Georges Island and then Castle Island in South Boston.
Egan’s dream of creating his world-class haunt on a Boston Harbor island was ultimately squashed. However, he and DiRoberto approached the USS Salem and they were eager to create a haunted house on a notoriously haunted location. For the record, the boat was ranked No. 8 in my 13 Most Haunted in Massachusetts book released last year.
“We kind of fell into this location. Originally we were gearing for an island but then we came across this ship. This thing is huge and it’s actually haunted. I’m very excited to launch this haunted attraction in such a unique and iconic location,” said Fright Dome owner Jason Egan. “Over the years, my team has created some of the top Halloween events in the world, from Las Vegas to Hong Kong. To launch in a new market like Boston and work in a location that is notoriously haunted is amazing.”
Rachel Hoffman, an investigator with Paranormal Xpeditions and one of the handful of experts working with me on Ghost Ship Harbor, said her team uncovered a lot of activity in the hospital unit. “We heard a crying baby in the medical area,” she said, adding that there are tables with stirrups indicating facilities for childbirth. In the so-called “butter room” or “meat locker where the bodies were kept while at sea was the thickest, most active area,” Hoffman told me in an interview for my book 13 Most Haunted in Massachusetts, adding that her team heard banging and that others reported being touched when no one else was onboard.
The USS Salem also boasts a few misogynistic spirits who frequently retaliated when Hoffman’s all-female crew investigated the ship. For the record, the vessel was decommissioned in 1959 and its alleged spirits reflect the sentiment prevalent during the World War II era. “The most active was the admiral’s quarters where we got EVPs,” she continued. “The men didn’t like ladies on their ship. I think the ghosts of the men who served still reside with their old-school rules.” Paranormal Xpeditions also picked up an electromagnetic voice phenomenon, or EVP, of what sounded like a pig on the top deck.
The USS Salem’s proverbial ghost cat was let out of the bag in October 2009 when Syfy’s Ghost Hunters investigated the 718-foot cruiser.
In the anchor windlass room, Condon told the The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) team that “one of our volunteers, his name was John, used to work in this space, maintaining and cleaning it. One day he passed away and we noticed people saying they met this terrific tour guide named John,” the vessel’s executive director Michael Condon said, adding that they didn’t have any tour guides on the ship at that time. “He’s very active in this spot and people actively see him and even talk to him.”
Tom Ventosi, a volunteer with the USS Salem, said he saw a woman in white in the restricted medical area. “As I looked down the hall, you could see a woman taking a right. She was in white shorts, white shirt and had a white handbag. She just turned and walked. And when we went down there and looked where she went there was only a metal wall. We couldn’t find her anywhere.”
Condon mentioned that he’s heard an EVP of a woman in the medical area, near the tables with stirrups, saying “get out, get out.” However, Condon said the agitated spirit could be saying “get it out,” which could be a reference to the multiple children born on the USS Salem.
The executive director also told TAPS that he spotted a shadow figure in the machine shop. The ship’s archivist, John Connors, said he’s heard phantom footsteps above him when he’s working. “It’s always right above my head,” Connors explained. “I go up on the main deck to see if there are any cars in the parking lot and there are no cars there, except my truck. I look around to see if anybody is onboard … nobody.”
The Ghost Hunters crew did pick up footsteps immediately and claimed to have heard a woman’s voice. Grant Wilson said he saw a shadowy black figure creep up the gangplank. They also picked up high levels of electromagnetic activity which could result in uneasy feelings of paranoia.
During the reveal, they picked up a low-grade EVP and other inexplicable bumps in the night. “What does it come down to? We have some bangs that we can’t explain and we have some low, subtle voices,” said Wilson, mentioning his close encounter with the shadow figure.
“I truly believe there is something going on here,” Jason Hawes confirmed. “I would like to come back and investigate.”
If Ghost Hunters does return, the USS Salem will be secured at a different location. It’s slotted to move in November a few docks away from its current location in Quincy. Over the past year, the vessel was rumored to set sail for the Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina next to the Nantucket Lightship in East Boston and then Fall River. However, management decided it is best to keep her close to home.
Don DeCristofaro, a paranormal investigator who spent many sleepless nights on the USS Salem, said he’s glad the ship is staying nearby. In his opinion, the vessel is a paranormal goldmine since the Ghost Hunters team visited in 2009. “Interestingly, the ship became much more active after TAPS left,” he said. “Numerous people claim that TAPS opened several doors for spirits on the ship and didn’t close them when they left.”
DeCristofaro said Ghost Hunters focused on the ship’s least active areas. “My most intense experiences have been in the wardroom and the mess decks. We had an evening in the wardroom where several chairs were overturned. The night was the only time I can honestly say I was uncomfortable on the ship. I really felt like something bad was with us that night.”
DeCristofaro said he “lost some time” during the investigation. “The psychic I was with that night said I was channeling,” he recalls. “It was very strange and I was bleeding when it was over.”
Will the ghosts of the USS Salem draw blood this Halloween season? As the manager of Ghost Ship Harbor’s VIP paranormal experience, I’m trying my damndest to not piss off the boat’s ghosts. So far … no blood. Anchors aweigh.
Journalist and author Sam Baltrusis featured the USS Salem in his book 13 Most Haunted in Massachusetts. In addition to working on Ghost Ship Harbor, he published three historical-based ghost books this year including Haunted Boston Harbor, Paranormal Provincetown, and 13 Most Haunted Crime Scenes Beyond Boston. Visit 13MostHaunted.com for more information.