Digest>Archives> Mar/Apr 2012

Murder or Suicide?

The Cape Romain Lighthouse Mystery


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For many years tales have been told of a Cape Romain lighthouse keeper, whose last name was Fischer, who supposedly murdered his wife for the gold and jewelry left to her by her deceased former husband. Depending on who told the story or where you read it, folklore also told how the light keeper made a deathbed confession to the dastardly deed. However, proving once again that truth can be stranger than fiction, or in this case folklore, the legend is actually based on fact.

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In reality, the true story revolves around lighthouse keeper Andrew Johnson, a native of Norway, whose last name might actually been Johansen, and the mysterious death of his wife at the lighthouse on the evening of April 8, 1873.

Andrew Johnson, known as Capt. Johnson, arrived at Cape Romain Lighthouse in 1867 as an assistant keeper and was later promoted to head keeper. Reportedly his wife had immigrated from Sweden to the United States in 1851.

It is known that Johnson’s wife had a quantity of jewelry, including a gold watch and chain, and several diamond pins. Whether these items were bequeathed to her by a previous late husband, were family heirlooms, or were hers by purchase is unknown. But it is known that she did have jewelry of considerable worth. It is also known that several days before her death, she withdrew all of her money from the South Carolina Loan and Trust Company: a sum of $1,400, which by today’s standards would be the equivalent of approximately $25,000. She told the banker that her husband wanted to invest the money into a business venture that she knew nothing about.

On the evening of Mrs. Johnson’s death, keeper Johnson went on duty in the Cape Romain Lighthouse tower at 6 pm. Later in the evening, Mrs. Johnson went to visit the home of assistant lighthouse keeper Julius L. Lee, who had been appointed to the position at Cape Romain Lighthouse earlier that year. Interestingly, Julius Lee was also a native of Sweden, as was Mrs. Johnson. Reportedly, Mrs. Johnson had a cordial visit with Julius Lee and his wife Ellen, and she returned to the keeper’s house.

At 9 pm keeper Johnson was relieved in the tower by assistant keeper Lee. Several minutes later, Lee heard Captain Johnson screaming that his wife had killed herself. Assistant keeper Lee, along with another assistant keeper, N. Nelson, rushed to Johnson’s home, where they saw a shocking scene in the bedroom. Mrs. Johnson, dressed in her nightgown, was lying in the center of a blood soaked bed with her throat having been sliced from ear to ear. A blood soaked razor blade was on the bed. Clothing and other items had been thrown around the room and a loaded gun was found.

A subsequent search revealed that Mrs. Johnson’s $1,400 in cash was gone, as was her jewelry. However, her husband’s jewelry had not been touched or disturbed.

Although her death was ruled a suicide, many questions remain unsolved, such as what happened to Mrs. Johnson’s cash and jewels.

Speculation Abounds

Could lighthouse keeper Johnson, realizing that his wife had closed her bank account so she would have enough cash to leave their lonely island life, have killed his wife in a fit of rage and hidden the money for himself?

Could assistant lighthouse keeper Julius L. Lee have killed Mrs. Johnson by himself or with the aid of his wife. After all, Lee and his wife left the island shortly thereafter and disappeared into the pages of time.

Was the loaded gun, found in the Johnson bedroom, being used by Mrs. Johnson to defend herself in a desperate attempt to save her life? Records report that the trigger had been pulled, but that the gun had misfired. But who was she trying to defend herself from? Her husband? Assistant keeper Julius Lee, or his wife, Ellen? An unknown intruder who sneaked on the island under the cover of darkness? Or, perhaps the other assistant keeper, Mr. Nelson? However, Nelson would be unsuspected as the murderer; he continued to stay on the island for a number of years as a keeper and had no real place to spend the money.

At the time, the theory that was given was that Mrs. Johnson had attempted to use the gun to kill herself. But, when the gun failed to discharge, she resorted to the razor blade.

But what about the cash and jewels? What happened to them? Another theory that supports the suicide was that keeper Johnson, realizing that his wife was going to leave him, took the cash and jewels and hid them from her so she would not have any money to make her escape from the island for a new life. In desperation, Mrs. Johnson caused an upheaval in the room while searching for the valuables. Finally, giving up her search and being distraught with desperation, she took her own life.

Reportedly, Johnson had said that his wife had previously attempted suicide, and that at times she acted deranged. Yet no one else who lived on the island reported that; in fact they said she always appeared normal. Some accounts indicate that Mrs. Johnson was buried near the picket fence by the keeper’s house. Other lore has it that her body was brought elsewhere for burial. Could the missing jewels and cash have been hidden in the wooden casket she was buried in to perhaps be retrieved at a later time? And, just where is her final resting place?

After such a horrific incident, one must wonder how Capt. Johnson could force himself to remain as the keeper at Cape Romain Lighthouse. But stay on he did, that is until 1875 when he was transferred to the Georgetown Lighthouse. Whether those at his new lighthouse assignment, or those in the new community that he lived near, knew about the circumstances of his wife’s horrible death at his previous lighthouse may never be known. Or was it?

Where the jewelry and cash disappeared to will probably never be known, unless, someday, it shows up on the island, where some people believe, to this day, it is still buried.

But, wait, there’s still another mystery that remains unsolved. Legend has it that the keeper admitted on his death bed to murdering his wife. Since so much of folklore or legend is often based loosely on real facts, could this be true? However, some written sources seem to indicate that on his deathbed, keeper Andrew Johnson did indeed mutter some words, but his speech was incoherent. Could he indeed have muttered a confession? Or was that tale about one of the other Cape Romain Lighthouse keepers?

The mystery remains unsolved.

This story appeared in the Mar/Apr 2012 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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