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Curious and macabre objects lie all around at the Paquachuck Inn, whispering of extraordinary times. The giant vertebra of a whale awaits on the veranda, a rusted harpoon is strung from the ceiling of the lounge and an oil painting of a mariner seeking rescue from the jaws of a shark crowns a fire that casts long, flickering shadows over the guests within. As a great storm whirls up from the Atlantic, drinks are poured and the tales begin to flow.

Once, magnificent ships were built in the harbour outside. They would venture to distant, mysterious lands such as Easter Island and the Antarctic, crewed by migrants from the Azores, freed slaves, Native Americans and direct descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers. Their voyages would last up to four years, hunting the whales whose oil would be used in lamps and industries now long forgotten.

In Westport Point village, southern Massachusetts, the Paquachuck Inn was originally a ship's chandler known as the Cory Store, built in 1827. 'When the demand for whale oil dried up around 1890, those who ran the store disappeared overnight,' says Brenda Figuerido, the owner of this gloriously characterful guesthouse. 'It sat empty until 1950. Locals can recall their childhood, entering the spooky old building to play and seeing a pot-bellied stove in the middle of this room with opium bottles scattered about. A few dared to try on the sailors' uniforms that had been left behind.'

Tonight's other guests are from nearby Rhode Island, enjoying their once-yearly visit to soak up the atmosphere and share ghost stories of their own. They speak of dogs circling an unseen presence in a bedroom, of chairs moving spontaneously, and of sensing the cold touch of a long-dead hand during that moment between deep sleep and awakening. Brenda remains detached from such excitable talk, only giving an inch to those eager to hear more as the final embers settle. 'At one time the land next to here was a farm for the poor,' she mentions, glancing at the window. 'Some say they still see people there.'

The whalers' shrine
Nearby New Bedford was once home to America's whaling industry and remains the country's busiest fishing port. Here, the families of sailors visit the eerie Seamen's Bethel to pray for those who face daily perils to keep their nation well fed.

The guardian of this chapel is Dermot Duggan, drawn back to New Bedford after a life spent travelling the world in the Marine Corps. Together we take in the view that would have inspired the bethel's most famous visitor, Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick. 'He would have sat on these pews and listened to the lesson from Jonah, given from a lofty pulpit that, as he wrote, "was in the likeness of a ship's bluff bows",' says Dermot.

For those in search of spirits that live on through the folklore they inspire, the Seamen's Bethel must rank as one of Massachusetts' most haunted locations. On the walls hang marble tablets that commemorate moments of great adventure and loss in the times of whaling. They tell of journeys to the South Seas and the frozen north, of 'worthy men' given up to whales, sharks and fever. A typical example records the fate of 'Capt WM Swain of the Christopher Mitchell of Nantucket', who 'after fastning to a whale, was carried overboard, and drowned'.

In 1841, Herman Melville set out to sea from the city on the whaling ship Acushnet, returning after an 18-month voyage to eventually write Moby Dick, the tale of Captain Ahab's obsessive search for the great white whale. Melville reflected on his time here: 'It needs scarcely to be told, with what feelings I regarded those marble tablets, and by the murky light of that darkened, doleful day read the fate of the whalemen who had gone before me.' He described the source of the riches that funded the opulent dwellings of New Bedford, 'these brave houses and flowery gardens that came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.'

At home with Lizzie Borden
The ramshackle city of Fall River may well have dropped off the map, were it not for a 19th-century tale of jealousy and murder so famed that it gave birth to a nursery rhyme American schoolchildren still skip to in playgrounds today: 'Lizzie Borden took an axe/And gave her mother 40 whacks/When she saw what she had done/She gave her father 41.'

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