- ghosts of the prairie -

Ghosts of the Massachusetts Lights

by Lee Holloway

Americaís oldest lighthouse stands in Boston Harbor. The first tower, built in 1716, was destroyed during the Revolutionary War. The first 75 feet of the present lighthouse was constructed in 1783, and another 14 feet were added in 1859. In addition to its 18,000,000 candlepower lens, the light station also has an enormous bell to warn ships off the hazardous shores on foggy days. But despite the velocity of the bell, it cannot penetrate what mariners call the "Ghost Walk," an area of sea several miles east of Boston Light. No one has ever been able to explain the Ghost Walk, not even a team of MIT students who spent an entire summer on Little Brewster Island studying the mystery.

But there are other mysteries associated with Boston Light. John Ford, a local lighthouse afficionado, makes frequent trips to Boston Light and has stayed overnight in the keeperís house on several occasions. "I canít say who or what it is, but there is a ghost or something out there," Ford asserts. "But," he adds, "itís not a scary kind of ghost."

The spirit stalking Little Brewster may be George Worthylake, the first keeper of Boston Light. A few months after accepting the job, Worthylake drowned when his boat capsized. Robert Saunders became the second keeper, but he had only been at the light station a few days when he, too, drowned. After the second disaster, some people surmised the island might be cursed.

"It could be any one of the old keepers," Ford says. "The menĖand womenĖwho kept the lighthouses were very dedicated and very possessive of their lights. There are all kinds of stories about haunted lighthouses. I think its just some of the old keepers--still on the job."

The Quonahassitis Indians believed Hobomock, a demon-like spirit, inhabited the forbidding ledge of granite which lies about a mile off Cohasset, Mass. These jagged monstrosities that bare their teeth at low tied have gnashed holes in the hulls of numerous ships, sending many men to a watery grave.

As the toll of lost ships and men increased, it became evident a lighthouse was needed at Minots Ledge. It took three years to construct the original "screwpile" light which stood high above the water on metal "legs." Henry David Thoreau likened it to ". . . the ovum of a sea monster floating on the waves."

From the day it began operation January 1, 1850, keepers complained the structure was unsafe, but their warnings were ignored.

The light had only been in service a little more than a year when on the morning of April 11, 1851, the keeper went ashore, leaving his two assistants, Joseph Wilson and Joseph Antoine, in charge. A severe northeast gale moved in and the keeper was unable to return to his post. By the night of April 16, people on the mainland were awakened by the incessant ringing of the fog bell at Minots Ledge.

The following morning, the lighthouse was gone. Hobomockís lair had claimed another victim. The bodies of the two assistants washed ashore, one on Gull Rock Island in Cohasset Harbor, and the other in Nantucket. There was some disagreement concerning the ringing of the fog bell as the lighthouse was destroyed. The more logical dismissed it as the result of powerful waves striking the bell. The romantics claimed it was Wilson and Antoine, bidding their family and friends a final goodbye.

Construction of the present 97-foot, grey granite tower began in 1855 and the new Minots Ledge Light became operational in November, 1860.

The first keeper of the new Minots Ledge Light lasted only a year and it wasnít long before the Lighthouse Service had difficulty filling the post. The assignment was undesirable for several reasons: Monstrous waves crashed over the very top of the lighthouse; doors were frozen shut during winter storms; and the isolation affected the most stalwart of men. One assistant keeper was driven mad by living in rooms without corners; and another threatened to kill the head keeper. And to make bad matters worse, there were ghosts lurking about.

More than one keeper reported the presence of two phantom figures in the lantern room, and unexplained knocks and the ringing of a phantom bell were often heard in the middle of the night. Many lighthouse personnel swore that on calm, sunny days, if one looked at the reflection of the tower in the water, the images of the two drowned keepers would appear in the doorway.

Minots Light was automated in 1977, but this did not end the paranormal activity associated with the lighthouse. Boaters hurrying to shore as the skies darkened and the seas became increasingly rough, sometimes reported seeing what appeared to be a man clinging to a ladder on the side of the weather-beaten old lighthouse. He was screaming, they said, but his words were indecipherable. That is, until a Portuguese fisherman witnessed the phenomenon and declared the man was calling for help in his native tongue. Joseph Antoine, you see, was a native of Portugal.

The 34-foot Gurnet Point Lighthouse stands in Plymouth Bay. The first tower was built in 1769, and replaced in 1803, 1843 and 1924. John and Hannah Thomas, who owned the land on which the lighthouse was constructed, became its first keepers. After her husband was killed in the Revolutionary War, Hannah became the first female lighthouse keeper in America. From all reports, Hannah was an effective and very dedicated member of the U.S. Lighthouse Service. In fact, she loved the lighthouse so much, she never left.

In 1994, Bob and Sandra Shanklins of Fort Walton, Beach, Fla., who have photographed lighthouses all over the world, spent the night in the keeperís house near the tower. A little after midnight, Bob awakened to see the upper portion of a womanís body floating near the bed. He said the apparition had long, dark, shoulder-length hair and "very sad eyes."

While there is no way to ascertain with any degree of certainty the identify of the Gurnet Point ghost, Shanklins claimed he had a "feeling" it was Hannah Thomas.

Built in 1819, just off Marion, Mass., in Buzzardís Bay, the little 29-foot Bird Island Lighthouse was recently rescued and renovated by the Bird Island Light Preservation Society.

Around 1830, a former pirate by the name of Billy Moore, was hired as keeper of Bird Island Light, and he and his wife, who had a fondness for tobacco, took up residence in the keeperís quarters. The citizens of Marion welcomed the couple and made frequent visits to the island, always bringing a little tobacco for Mrs. Moore. Her husband attempted to discourage this practice, alleging his wife had a "consumptive cough."

Several citizens noted that Mrs. Moore often sported black eyes and other bruises and feeling sorry for the lady, continued to supply her with tobacco. Then, one frigid February morning in 1832, the distress flag was flying at Bird Island Lighthouse and, upon arrival, townsfolk discovered the lifeless body of Mrs. Moore. Her husband advised she had "succumbed from nicotine." Somehow, the wily old ex-pirate convinced the group of concerned citizens that his wife had been suffering from "contagious tuberculous" and they wasted no time digging a grave in the soft sand of the beachĖthe only ground around that wasnít frozenĖand hastily burying the lady.

Later, people got to talking about the bruised, battered body of the lighthouse keeperís wife and the sheriff decided an investigation was in order. By that time, though, Billy Moore had fled, never to be heard of again.

The next keeper of Bird Island Light didnít stay long. He quit, declaring he and his family were unable to contend with the ghost of an old woman who kept knocking on the door in the middle of the night. Subsequent keepers had similar experiences and one even claimed his children were repeatedly frightened by the spirit of a "stoop-shouldered old lady" with one arm extended as though reaching out for something.

Although the old keeperís house was demolished long ago, people still encounter Mrs. Mooreís ghost in the vicinity of Bird Island. When the harbor was frozen over in 1982, Adam Larkin and another Marion fisherman saw what Larkin described as a "disfigured and tattered looking old woman crossing the ice from Bird Island, an old corn cob pipe clenched in her jaw." According to Larkin, they knew she wasnít real because "she seemed to float over the ice."

Bakerís Island is one of a group of 15 islands called the Miseries, lying some five miles out from Salem Harbor. Consisting of 55 acres and dotted with several rambling old summer houses with wide porches and high ceilings, the island serves as a seasonal retreat for a select group of New EnglandersĖmostly from the Salem area. In addition to the houses, there is also a general store, pump house and, of course, the Bakerís Island Lighthouse.

Built in 1859, the 59-foot Bakerís Island Light was originally one of a pair of lighthouses. Its shorter mate was extinguished and dismantled in 1926. No one has been able to identify the haunting at the Bakerís Island Light, but many have experienced it. The ghost is something of a pest who delights in interrupting the sleep of keepers and caretakers by activating the fog horn. Andy Jerome, who served as caretaker from 1983 to 1987 recalls the fog horn sounding "for no reason on crystal clear nights." He reported the problem to the Coast Guard on numerous occasions, but when repairmen came out to check the device, they could never find anything wrong. According to Jerome, the fog horn never "acted up" in the daytime, only in the dead of the night.

But the horn-blowing poltergeist isnít the only ghost on Bakerís Island. Several of the old summer cottages are said to be haunted, too. In researching the phantoms of Bakerís Island, Salem author Bob Cahill interviewed various caretakers and summer residents who had witnessed supernatural activity. The Chase Cottage, the largest structure on the island, has been haunted for years. Family members have reportedly seen filmy shapes darting about the gloomy halls, and at least one individual claims to have encountered an evil presence in the house.

Martha Chase, who readily admits her familyís island house is haunted, relates an amusing anecdote. One summer in the late 1990s, she was approached by a group of ghost-hunters investigating the "Beast of Bakerís Island" (an alleged evil force that stalks the island). They arrived in the early afternoon with the intention of "laying cable" and setting up various electronic equipment in the haunted houses only to discover the cottages have no electricity! (They are outfitted with gaslights.)

Most of the paranormal activity on Bakerís Island takes place during the winter months when the island is deserted. Caretakers have heard what sounds like a party emanating from the Chase Cottage; workmen in the Wells Cottage have been attacked by a "kissing ghost," and lights are sometimes seen in the general store and Nicholson house when both are closed for the season.

For the most part, Bakerís Island caretakers resign themselves to the fact that dealing with ghosts is just part of the job. But on cold, winter nights when it is well below zero outside and the caretaker, snug in his bed, is awakened by the incessant blowing of the fog horn. "Then," Andy Jerome declares, "you lose patience with the ghosts real fast!"


Cahill, Robert Ellis, Lighthouse Mysteries of the North Atlantic.
Noble, Dennis L., Lighthouses & Keepers.
Salem Evening News.
U.S. Coast Guard Files.
John Ford Interview (1999).

(C) Copyright 2002 by Lee Holloway. All Rights Reserved.

Return to the Ghosts of the Prairie Home Page