Digest>Archives> Mar/Apr 2021

In Memoriam

A Deer Island Death: Joseph B. McCabe

By Debra Baldwin


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“Swept to Death in Icy Waters,” the Boston Globe headline read on February 20, 1916. It continued: Keeper of Deer Island Light Lost Footing Was Returning Along Sandbar at Low Tide

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This portrait of Joseph Bernard McCabe was drawn ...

The long set of headlines was followed by a recent photo of a very handsome young man, looking rather serious, if not melancholy, as if he knew his untimely death were imminent. Or perhaps his somber expression was due to the sadness he had experienced in his childhood which permanently affected him.

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Vintage image of the 1890 Deer Island Lighthouse ...

Joseph Bernard McCabe was born in Massachusetts on May 4, 1884. His mother, Catherine Manning McCabe, died in 1890 from cancer at the young age of 36 when Joseph was only six years old. This would have been difficult enough for him to deal with, but tragically, his father, Joseph Sr., died only four years later at age 43 from influenza and pneumonia, which left Joseph Jr. and his younger sister, Agnes, orphans.

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Joseph McCabe’s fiancée, Gertrude Walter would ...

As a result, the two children were sent to live with different relatives in the South Boston area a couple of miles apart. While eight-year-old Agnes was fostered by cousins, ten-year-old Joseph was taken in by an aunt and uncle who had no children of their own. By the age of 16, he was working as a “cash boy” in a dry goods store.

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Wesley Pingree was assistant keeper at Deer ...

Eight years later, during the summer of 1908, Joseph B. McCabe entered U.S. Lighthouse Service as an assistant at nearby Deer Island Lighthouse in Boston Harbor, Massachusetts. The 1889 light was a caisson “spark plug” type, located 1000 feet off the tip of Deer Island.

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Vintage postcard of Deer Island Lighthouse.

Five years later, around the time he was promoted to head keeper, Joseph had a piano delivered out to the lighthouse to ease the boredom of his isolation. Captain Arnetta E. Betts, some years later, recounted a few of his more memorable and difficult moments in his profession as the Boston Harbor “janitor” and mentioned having moved the piano to Deer Island Lighthouse by means of a derrick. It was a very tricky maneuver to safely hoist a piano onto the narrow deck of the spark plug lighthouse from a rocking boat.

On September 22, 1915, Joseph McCabe and his assistant, Elno C. Mott towed the power boat Madeline to safe anchorage when it was disabled in a strong breeze. They were commended and written up in the Lighthouse Service Bulletin for their “prompt action” which “probably prevented a serious accident.”

Keeper McCabe would frequently row over the short distance to the mainland to pick up mail, supplies and visit with friends. By February of 1916, Joseph was engaged to Gertrude Walter, age 23, whom he planned to wed on April 24, Easter Sunday. Joseph had been staying with Gertrude’s family in East Boston whenever he was on leave.

On Saturday, February 19, 1916, he and Gertrude met on the mainland so they could spend some time together addressing wedding invitations for the upcoming nuptials. According to lighthouse historian Edward Rowe Snow, when they finished, Joseph McCabe returned to Deer Island to retrieve his boat and row back to the light, but due to a rapid drop in temperature from a gale that had sprung up in the interim, he found the dory frozen fast to the beach.

So, Joseph borrowed a pair of rubber boots, most likely from the nearby Metropolitan Pumping Station, and began walking along the narrow bar back to the lighthouse accompanied by 15-year-old Philip Pingree. Philip’s father, Wesley A. Pingree, had been the Deer Island Light keeper in the 1890s and in 1916 was working at the pumping station.

A Boston Globe article published the following day blamed the “turbulent condition of the water, caused by the high westerly wind” which made McCabe opt to walk back over the sandbar “rather than take his chances in the sea with his frail boat.”

The bar was broken in several places by water and while Joseph was attempting to leap across one of these gaps, “he missed his footing and was dragged to death by the swirling currents. Young Pingree made a desperate effort to save the drowning man. McCabe put up a strong but vain fight for his life against the intense cold and swift currents.

“Employees of the pumping station saw the accident and, hitching a horse to the emergency boat in a nearby station, rushed to the shore. When they arrived at the scene, McCabe had disappeared. The rescuing boat searched the vicinity for some time, but was unable to locate the body of the dead light keeper.”

The next day, the crew of the Harbor Police steamer Guardian “armed with grappling irons” tried again to find McCabe’s body, but they found it “impossible to work in the high wind with so high a sea running” and it was feared that the policemen would be washed overboard from the deck of the boat, so the attempted recovery was abandoned.

A party of Joseph McCabe’s friends also grappled for two days looking for him, but concluded that his body had been swept out to sea. It was never recovered.

The news of Joseph’s death was devastating to his fiancée, Gertrude, with their impending marriage being only two months distant. It would take her seven years before she was engaged again in June of 1923 to marry Warren McDonald the following year.

It is always sad to lose a lighthouse keeper in the line of duty, but doubly so in the case of Joseph B. McCabe when he was so close to starting a real family life. Since his body was never recovered, there is no grave where a U.S. Lighthouse Service memorial marker can be placed. But if you would like to remember Joseph and honor him for his service, you can place a virtual flower on his findagrave page: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/222512765/joseph-bernard-mccabe

A month after Joseph B. McCabe drowned at Deer Island Light; an article appeared in the Boston Globe using his death as an argument for lighthouse keepers to receive a government pension based on the dangers associated with the job. The article reasoned that stories “of the loss of life of a lighthouse keeper in the performance of his duty are frequent. The life is at times as dangerous as it is lonely. Many of the reasons advanced for giving the life-saving crews pensions apply to the lighthouse keepers.

“Pensions are given to many state and city employees whose tasks are much less arduous. The pay of a lighthouse keeper is not so great that he can afford to save any adequate fortune to care for him in his old age.”

“The job does not lead to any particular advancement in any in other line of work. And yet the Government expects of the keepers very strict attention to their duties and their work often places them in danger. Recently, the keeper of Deer Island Light lost his life because his sense of duty that he must be at his post at dusk compelled him to take a fatal risk.

“It is certainly not too much to ask that these men, in their monotonous existence, should be at least able to feel that their old age was secure…. and that at the age of 65 they could return to civilization assured of a small income.”

Two years later in 1918, the Lighthouse Service Retirement Pension Act was approved through both houses of Congress that provided financial subsistence for keepers upon retirement. It is considered one the of greatest accomplishments of U.S. Lighthouse Service Commissioner George R. Putnam’s era. Sad as Joseph B. McCabe’s death was, at least something positive could come out it that would benefit his fellow keepers into the future.

This story appeared in the Mar/Apr 2021 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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