Naming the Lost: A Look at the Forgotten Shipwrecks and Lost Souls of Cape May, New Jersey – Part I

In the darkness of the oceans depths 240 feet below the surface, the remains of a U-boat sits on the sandy bottom. The wreck site is sixty miles off the New Jersey coast, and until a discovery on September 2nd, 1991, no one knew that the vessel was there. There were a few fishermen that had an idea that a large object sat beneath the waves; no one guessed that it was a WWII German U-boat. It took another six years of trials and failures before renowned diver, John Chatterton, pulled the last, missing piece of the puzzle into the light of the surface. A plate with the vessels number identification etched into the metal; U-869 had been found.

Before the discovery, it was believed that this particular U-boat was lost off the coast of Africa after having been sunk in by a depth charge. An accidental falsification of history that begs the question, how many other ships or submarines are lost, misplaced, and have yet to be remembered? What about the spirits of those who had been on those vessels.

It can be assumed that people who lost their lives on treacherous sea voyages would have a main, underlying cause to remain on earth. Only fantastical ideals would let the living believe that all those who died on the water would have met their ends with peaceful acceptance, ready to move on to the afterlife. So, where are these souls who did not make the journey?

Just because it may seem remarkable and unthinkable that spirits can linger on water, or wash ashore with or without their mortal bodies, does not mean that they do not linger out on the shores during the day and night. Reminiscing of the shipwrecks and storms that took their lives, these are spirits that hold histories and the answers to mysteries with them. Where before, only the waves and nature knew of the final minutes of these lost souls.

The crew of U-869 now have a marked burial for the world to know. With their discovery also came a reminder, that there is still so much unknown out of sight, yet within the reach of humans. That does not mean that those sites are without dangers. Diving and underwater exploration can be dangerous, and three of the men who dived the mysterious U-boat off of New Jersey never came back alive.[i]

In the paranormal world, the idea of taking supernatural investigation beneath the waves has many complications. The techniques of interviewing and tracking the deceased have not yet been mastered on land, let alone in the water. What is available to most investigators exists on beaches around the world. Areas where pieces of shipwrecks and their victims washed ashore; places like Cape May, New Jersey.

Prior to Europeans coming to New Jersey, the Cape May area was inhabited by members of the Lenni-Lenape tribe; the same tribe that has been recorded living in Delaware County and other nearby areas of Pennsylvania. Sir Henry Hudson and Cornelius Jacobsen Mey were the two first explorers to see or land on the future site of Cape May. The first land was purchased from the natives in the 1630s, and it became a center for whaling and farming. The idea of Cape May as a relaxing, restful resort community began in 1766, though it gained popularity during the Victorian Era during the 19th century.

Cape May was publicized as an attraction to draw the rich from nearby large cities: Philadelphia, from which most of the first vacationers in the 1700s lived; New York, Baltimore, and Washington were the other main cities. Presidents Franklin Pierce and Benjamin Harrison also came to stay at the scenic site both Cape May took a downward turn in the mid-1850s through the Civil War. By supporting the Union and President Lincoln, the resort lost many of its Southern families. Prior to this, fires ravaged several of the large hotels: the Mt. Vernon Hotel, and the Mansion House. In 1878, another fire destroyed 35 acres of the city, from Congress Hall to Ocean Street.

Following the fires is when developers began building the large, gorgeous Queen Anne and Gothic style Victorian homes that help make this part of New Jersey famous today. Preserving the town’s character came at a cost, with the city struggling to compete with their more popular neighbor, Atlantic City, New Jersey. [ii]

Investigators walking the beaches under the view of the Cape May lighthouse have picked up a variety of words and names. Some of the spirits contacted claim to have been lost on shipwrecks, despite little evidence to support that these ships were lost off the coast, or that they existed. In the early naval history of this country, and this is a statement true of more than just America, people did not feel the need to record the losses of ships for posterity. Shipwrecks were an expected job hazard. For the survivors and even the ships owners and bankers, it was a forfeiture. Perhaps marked on their books somewhere under the title of damages or losses; with no accounting of the ships name or the hired hands that were lost. They could always look in a port town for their next employees and build a new ship. [iii]

Of the ship names that were registered on digital recorders and spirit boxes, the most clearly noted were: the Princess and the Clover. The man who uttered the word “Clover” had an accent to his voice, indicating that the ship was potentially not from the United States. Other names that were picked up could belong to ships or humans, considering that sometimes spirits are delayed in their responses to questions; sometimes posing answers to inquiries that were asked moments beforehand. This group of names consists of: “Edward,” “Virgil,” and “Virginia.” Two names that seem more connected to humans than ships were “Woodruff,” and “Washington Pole.” Genealogical records from Cape May do state that a family by the name of Woodruff did live in the area.

The lists of words do not stop at names. Others call out for help or prayers. Speaking of ships and shipwrecks. One sad voice questioned if he died, another said that the water was cold, and a third remarked that they quite in fact had drowned. Some of the voices may be tied to drownings at the popular Victorian vacation spot but the rest included “ship” in their statements.

How does one catch a spirit’s voice on a beach? Investigating anywhere outdoors or that lacks a controlled environment is problematic. Noises that may not seem loud when they are first heard can be ear piercing on a digital recorder; this is why they are such great tools for paranormal research, they magnify everything! Waves, for one, can be monstrously loud. Then there are the sea gulls and winds to contend with as well. Ideally, one will already be as far removed from other humans as possible, in order to minimalize contamination on that point. As for tools that can aid in any outdoor investigation, there are types of digital recorders that have background noise cancelling technology. This does pose a risk of missing potential EVPS; however, there are paranormal groups in the coastal regions that do beach investigations using those types of recorders and they are able to make contact with the beach stranded spirits.

There is also an option of using the highly controversial spirit box. Not surprisingly, there are some investigators that doubt that findings of these boxes because what it does is sweep radio channels in a matter of seconds. This gives the investigator real time audio while communicating with the deceased. The trick for using it is to listen to direct responses to the questions asked, and for those answers to pass over several channel changes on the box. If the answer passes over several radio stations, then it automatically rules out the answer coming from that single radio source.

Walking the sandy shores of Cape May to find spirits only examines one side of the tales and accounts of vacationers and locals in the area. In the water off the beach is quite another; and the spirits transfer into both places. People swimming near the lighthouse have reported feelings of drowning and fear of the water, when neither was a previous or current occurrence. It is into the water where part two of this article will take us. 


[i] Kurson, R. (2005). Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II. Random House Trade Paperbacks.

[ii] “Cape May History.” City of Cape May. 2009. Web. 2015. <>.

[iii] “Cape May Investigation.” Black Moon Paranormal Society. 2012. <>