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Paul Dean

Voyage of the Ghost Ship Queen Mary

June 11, 1988|Paul Dean

The spirits of the Queen Mary are mild and many. They are of the '30s, and artful, decorous Noel Coward in Art Deco first class. Of Blue Ribands and the initials of combat-bound GIs carved into teak rails and a final skipper who really was named Treasure Jones.

But now, the wilder wraiths of John Pedder and W. E. Stark have stirred abroad and aboard. There have been similar psychic disturbances involving a military cook who may have been baked (375 degrees for 40 minutes, or until the toothpick emerges clean) in his own oven in some awful retaliation for chipped Spam on toast; troops who died of heat prostration on the Red Sea; and peacetime passengers who were handed their champagne bills and had heart attacks on the spot.

"The count that I have, according to the ship's logbooks, is 47 deaths on board since the Queen Mary was launched in 1936," reports Bill Winberg, archivist for the beached liner, and, more recently, her resident ghostbuster. "The vast majority were from natural causes, heart attacks on board, things like that . . . except for Pedder, a young seaman crushed by a mechanical door during an emergency drill, and Stark, a senior second officer who died after drinking some gin that turned out to be cleaning fluid."

Or, as the death occured in Southampton, England, it could have been some very cheap dockyard gin.

"Unfortunately, as part of security, records weren't kept from World War II," Winberg continued. "But when the ship was in the Red Sea there was no getting away from the fact that troops were crowded below in 120-degree temperatures, there was no ventilation, portholes were welded shut because of blackouts . . . and they were losing people from heat prostration.

"We know that during this period, there was a burial at sea every four hours. There also are stories of soldiers who would literally jump ship as the Queen Mary left New York and who knows how many of these people drowned or made it to shore."

Whatever the number and no matter the apocrypha (example: there is no evidence beyond hearsay of the half-baked chef), no one doubts that deaths to accident and possibly mayhem were not unusual aboard the Queen.

And for years, there have been many solid reports of some very healthy hauntings within the perfect crucible of a beached, elderly liner.

Wrather Corp., operators of the vessel as a Long Beach hotel, initially played down the stories as too unearthly for good business. But three years ago, the Queen Mary made the National Ghost Registry; the Orange County Society of Psychics and specter lecturers threw seances on board. The skeleton, as it were, was out of the closet.

In the belief that if you can't exorcise 'em, join 'em (especially if joining 'em attracts tourist dollars), Wrather has now decided to launch ghost tours of dank, derelict, previously non-public areas of the ship--including Shaft Alley and the engine room doorway where young Pedder gasped his last.

The hunts start next Saturday. They will be escorted, commentated and last one hour. Guests even get to keep their flashlights.

"We will be going from the Promenade Deck, down to the pool area, up fo'ard to the old third-class cabins and crew galley, then down into the boiler rooms and Shaft Alley," said Winberg. "These are mostly bare areas, with very little lighting and it will be quite spooky."

Whether there are ghosts, whether they will appear, said Winberg, remains to be seen. Or not seen.

But whatever the outcome, lay probers would be wise to accept that well-situated ghosts, like hornets and elderly Republicans, do not respond well to disturbance.

Or as King Lear once muttered: "Vex not his ghost. Let him pass. He hates him that would upon the rack of this tough world stretch him out longer."

Queen Mary Ghost Tours commence next Saturday at 4 p.m.; $7 per person. Information: (213) 435-3511.

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