As we close out the year, I’m revisiting a couple of posts that I originally wrote for my Scarlet Order blog before I started posting exclusively here on the Web Journal. In the autumn of 2015, I wrote a post entitled “Haunted Observatories” and discussed how I got the inspiration for writing a ghost story set at an observatory.
As it turns out, I know of three observatories where astronomers are interred either at telescopes they helped to build or nearby. One is Percival Lowell, whose mausoleum is right outside the 24-inch telescope on Mars Hill in Flagstaff, Arizona. In the photo, you see my daughters and I standing beside his mausoleum. Another is James Lick, who funded the University of California’s Lick Observatory and is interred under the observatory’s 36-inch telescope. Also, John and Phoebe Brashear are interred under the Keeler Telescope at the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh.
However, it’s not just bodies near telescopes that gave me the idea. My first job in astronomy was at Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket Island. The building is an old-fashioned Gothic structure right next to the house once occupied by America’s first woman astronomer. My fellow research assistants and I would scare each other by telling stories of Maria’s ghost walking through the building. One night, one of my fellow research assistants even climbed on the roof while I was observing, made thumping noises, and sprayed Lysol in the dome to make me think I was smelling the perfume of Maria’s ghost. In a dark, cold dome in the middle of the night, it was pretty effective! This particular incident even inspired a scene in The Astronomer’s Crypt where one telescope operator scares another in a darkened hallway.
Even today, when I walk around the main floor at the base of the Mayall 4-meter telescope, I sometimes feel like I’m being watched. I look up to an alcove at a darkened stair landing shown in the photo to the right, where I think I see someone out of the corner of my eye. It always proves to be empty, and my skeptical mind always knows its just my mind playing tricks on me but every now and then, I wonder if a ghostly presence haunts the dome.
One astronomer was killed at the Mayall 4-meter almost thirty years ago in a tragic accident. Several people have died over the years on the twisting mountain road to the observatory, and a construction worker died while excavating the tunnel for the McMath-Pierce Solar telescope just across the mountain from the Mayall. There certainly is a potential for ghosts at the observatory.
I’ve only discovered one observatory that describes itself as haunted and that’s Perkins Observatory which was built for Ohio Wesleyan University, a small liberal arts college near Columbus. Ohio State University partnered with OWU to run the facility for a number of years, but finally terminated the relationship in 1998. The history page for the observatory tells us that the ghost of Hiram Perkins, the math and astronomy professor who founded the observatory, haunts the site out of frustration that he could never use the site his money funded.
I’m a skeptic who believes science helps us understand our amazing universe and our place within it. However, being a skeptic doesn’t mean I dismiss things like ghost stories out of hand. I believe the paranormal deserves serious investigation. What’s more, I love a good spooky story and believe they tell us something about ourselves.
The Astronomer’s Crypt is now available as an ebook at the following retailers:
In honor of the season, I’m giving away a copy of The Astronomer’s Crypt for Kindle. Click the following link to see if you’re an instant winner: https://giveaway.amazon.com/p/c1ab0e67aed8c0d9 .
The giveaway ends on January 6, 2017.