This past week, my editor sent me her notes for my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. She declares it scary stuff, but has several good ideas for improving the pacing, strengthening the characters, and tightening the plot. I’ll be working diligently on that over coming weeks and will look for some insights about the process to share.
One of the hallmarks of The Astronomer’s Crypt is that it features a haunted astronomical observatory. Haunted observatories are not an area heavily explored by fiction or even ghost lore. So it’s fair to ask where I got the idea. Part of the idea comes from two prominent men who are interred in or just outside the observatories they founded. One is Percival Lowell, whose mausoleum is right outside the 24-inch telescope on Mars Hill in Flagstaff, Arizona. Another is James Lick who funded the University of California’s Lick Observatory and is interred under the observatory’s 36-inch telescope.
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-looking building 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!
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, 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. The alcove is in the lower left of the photo. 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 I just learned that 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.
I am curious whether anyone else knows of a haunted observatory. Do any of my astronomer friends know of a site where strange things have occurred? Has anything ever been documented sufficiently well that it bears closer investigation? Although I’m familiar with several television shows about ghost hunters, I don’t know of any that have ever visited an observatory. Can you think of any? I’ll be happy to follow up on any leads and report about them in a future edition of the blog.