Digest>Archives> October 2000

The Darker Side of Boston Harbor's Lighthouses

By Jeremy D'Entremont


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Boston Harbor LIghthouse off the coast of ...

The illustrious history of the lighthouses in the Boston, Massachusetts area has been recounted many times in the pages of this magazine and elsewhere. Often left out of these histories is the rich trove of stories concerning ghosts, strange deaths and other mysteries that surround these beacons. Believe them or not, they’re an important part of lighthouse lore.

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Long Island Head Lighthouse from an old postcard.

It’s a well-known fact that America’s first lighthouse keeper, George Worthylake at Boston Light on Little Brewster Island, drowned along with his wife and daughter in 1718 when their canoe capsized just offshore. What’s slightly less well known is the fact that an African slave perished along with the others.

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Minot’s Ledge Light in Mass. harbors the spirits ...

Russell Anderson was a Coast Guard keeper at Boston Light in 1947. One day his 22-year-old wife, Mazie, was walking the shore of tiny Little Brewster Island. She heard footsteps close behind her, but saw no one when she turned around.

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Deer Island Lighthouse from an old postcard. This ...

That night as she tried to sleep, Mazie felt a presence in the room. Later she heard what she described as “horrible maniacal laughter” coming from the boathouse. Another night she heard the same sound coming from the fog signal house. This time a little girl’s sobbing voice followed, calling “Shaaaadwell!” over and over.

Mazie Anderson related this story in an article for Yankee Magazine many years later. She said that on one occasion the fog signal engines started themselves and the light mysteriously went on by itself. Mazie saw a mysterious figure outlined against the lens. Soon she again heard the man’s laughing voice and the girl’s sobbing cries.

It wasn’t until years later that Mazie Anderson read that the Boston Light slave’s name was Shadwell — the same name repeated by the little girl’s voice. Anderson read that Shadwell died while valiantly trying to save the others, including the Worthylakes’ young daughter, Ruth.

Dennis Dever, Coast Guard officer in charge at Boston Light in the late 1980s, had a few odd experiences at the station. While working in the station’s boathouse, he liked to have his radio tuned to a rock station. Often, with nobody else in the boathouse, the station would change itself to a classical station. Dever said he and other Coast Guard crew attributed events like this to “Old George.” Worthylake, that is.

One day Dever was in the kitchen of the keeper’s house looking out the window at the tower, and he clearly saw a man in the lantern room. This was quite alarming, as the only other person on the island was his assistant in the next room. From a distance it appeared that the figure at the top of the tower was wearing an old fashioned keeper’s uniform. Dever rushed to the tower and went up the stairs, finding the lantern room empty.

In 1999 Coast Guard Petty Officer Gary Fleming told the Boston Herald, “It really does get spooky. You have plenty of time here and if you let your mind go, you can freak yourself out.”

Just down the coast off Boston’s south shore stands one of America’s most remarkable lighthouses, Minot’s Ledge Light. It’s not hard to imagine that the tall, dark granite tower could be haunted when approached in the fog. The present lighthouse is the second in the dangerous, exposed location. The first consisted of a keeper’s dwelling and beacon atop iron pilings.

The first lighthouse at Minot’s Ledge was demolished in a ferocious gale in April of 1851. Killed in the tower were two young assistant keepers, Joseph Wilson and Joseph Antoine. Local legend tells us that to this day, in dark and stormy weather, sailors hear a voice coming from Minot’s Ledge Light crying in Portuguese (Antoine’s nationality), “Stay away!”

Long Island in Boston’s inner harbor is home to Long Island Head Lighthouse, the harbor’s second oldest light station (1819). The island is also the residence of one of the harbor’s most famous ghosts, the Woman in Scarlet. The great chronicler of New England’s coast, Edward Rowe Snow, wrote about this phantom in his 1935 book, The Islands of Boston Harbor.

At the close of the American Revolution, the British still had several ships lagging in Boston Harbor, and American soldiers began to bombard the vessels from shore. On board one was Mary Burton, who was with her husband, William. Mary was mortally wounded by a cannon ball and her dying wish was to be buried ashore. William was allowed to go ashore at Long Island with his wife wrapped in a red blanket. Mary was buried after a brief service.

Snow recounted two occasions when the ghost of Mary Burton appeared. The first was reported by a group of shipwrecked fishermen in 1804. They heard a moan or wail followed by the apparition of a woman in a red cloak coming toward them. Blood streamed from a wound in her head as she disappeared over a hill. In 1891 the ghost made another appearance to a soldier at Fort Strong, which neighbored the lighthouse station. The soldier described a similarly moaning woman in red.

There’s also a macabre story connected with the last keeper of Long Island Head Lighthouse, Edwin Tarr. In January of 1918 Tarr died while sitting in a chair looking out over the water. A soldier who served as a pallbearer later told an unusual story to Edward Rowe Snow.

Keeper Tarr’s funeral was held in the keeper’s house at the top of the hill next to the lighthouse. During the funeral an ice storm struck and left the hill coated with ice. The four pallbearers attempted to negotiate the slippery slope, but they soon lost control of the coffin, which went skidding down the path. As the coffin started to gain speed, the four men jumped on board and rode it like a toboggan until it came to rest at the head of the island’s wharf.

Directly across the harbor from Long Island Head Light is Deer Island and Deer Island Light. The 1890 “spark plug” type lighthouse offshore from Deer Island was replaced in 1982 by a light at the top of a fiberglass pole. The old cast iron lighthouse was painted dark brown, giving it a fairly foreboding look.

Keeper Joseph McCabe left Deer Island Light on a winter Sunday in 1916 to spend the day with his fiancee. The couple used the time to address their wedding invitations, then said good-bye as Keeper McCabe left to return to the lighthouse before dark. A snowstorm had blown into the harbor, and McCabe found that his boat had frozen to the beach. The tide was low and McCabe attempted to walk on the sandbar that connected Deer Island to the lighthouse. As he jumped to a rock he slipped and fell into the icy waves. Witnesses arrived too late as Keeper McCabe drowned.

John Baxter was the Coast Guard officer in charge at Deer Island Light in the mid-1960s. One day he was in the lighthouse during some rough weather, along with a very young Coast Guardsman from North Carolina. The vibrations of the iron tower caused a coffee cup to move from one side of a table to the other. Baxter jokingly suggested to the younger man that the ghost of a former keeper had caused the cup to move. He then had a difficult time convincing the frightened man that there was no ghost. Something about isolated lighthouse stations in storms seems to demand the presence of ghosts.

Every island, every lighthouse, virtually every rock in Boston Harbor has its own mystery or legend. Check your local library or used bookstore for the works of Edward Rowe Snow to read more. They’re best read by candlelight during a howling nor'easter.

This story appeared in the October 2000 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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