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Spooky South Shore: A dark side to some Massachusetts lighthouses

Former lightkeepers who died in a fierce storm are said to haunt Minot's Ledge Light, off the coast of Scituate and Cohasset, Mass.

GREG DERR/THE PATRIOT LEDGER

By JESSICA TRUFANT | The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass. | Published: October 24, 2020

QUINCY, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — Minot's Ledge Light hasn't had a keeper for decades, but some say that the victims of one of the most tragic lighthouse disasters in history continue to keep guard more than 150 years later.

Sitting about a mile off the coast of Scituate and Cohasset, Minot's Ledge Light is often thought of as a beacon of romance, as it flashes in a 1-4-3 cycle, symbolic of the words "I love you."

And while lighthouses may represent light and safety, they also carry a sense of darkness that historian Jeremy D'Entremont says is undeniable, even at Minot's Ledge Light.

"There's a reason a lot of horror stories and movies are set in light houses," D'Entremont, president and historian for the American Lighthouse Foundation, said. "Lighthouses are so isolated and dark, especially in stormy weather. It gets people's imaginations going."

A self-described "open-minded skeptic," D'Entremont said Minot's Ledge Light has one of the more notable ghost tales on the South Shore that has been circulating for decades about the tragic demise of two of the earliest keepers.The original Minot's Ledge Light was completed in 1850. Almost immediately, the first keeper, Isaac Dunham, started warning that the lighthouse wasn't strong enough against the crashing waves, and swayed heavily even in normal conditions. But government officials ignored Dunham's warnings, so he quit in October of 1851.

Less than a year later, on April 16, 1852, a fierce nor'easter rolled in while the new lighthouse keeper, John Bennett, was back on land. Two assistant keepers, Joseph Wilson and Joseph Antoine, remained there to keep the lantern lit and the bell ringing through the storm.

Scituate residents reported that the light was last seen burning at about 10 p.m., and residents on shore heard the frantic ringing of the fog bell at about 1 a.m. The structure tumbled into the sea shortly after, but D'Entremont said there is evidence the two men left using the escape hawser before then.

A Gloucester fisherman reportedly found a message in a bottle two days later with the keepers' final message: "The lighthouse won't stand over to night. She shakes 2 feet each way now. — J.W. + J.A"

Antoine's body washed ashore at Nantasket, and Wilson was found on Gull Rock, a small island about a mile from the lighthouse.

The lighthouse was rebuilt in 1860, and automated (without lightkeepers) in 1947. D'Entremont said boaters have reportedly heard warnings to stay away and calls for help coming from the lighthouse in Antoine's native language of Portuguese.

"The legend is that when the seas are rough or a storm is coming, people have seen a figure on the ladder leading up to the doorway waving people off," said. "I haven't seen it and I haven't met someone personally who has experienced it."

In his own book, "Lovers' Light: The History of Minot's Ledge Lighthouse," D'Entremont writes about Gustav Kobbé, a music critic and author who traveled to the lighthouse in the winter of 1893. He wrote of his stay at the lighthouse in an article that appeared in The Century magazine.

One of the passages from Kobbé that D'Entremont included in his book is about the tales he heard from the lighthouse keepers about the ghost of Antoine haunting the tower.

"Strange noises have been heard in the oil-room — sudden rattling of cans and clinking of glass, as if someone were at work there. Stories are also current of the mysterious filling of the lamp and cleaning of the lens and lantern," Kobbé wrote. "One night, as the midnight watch was drawing to a close, the keeper in the watch-room, who had been brooding over the destruction of the old tower, quite unconsciously leaned forward and rapped with his pipe. A few minutes later he was startled to hear an answering rap from below."

D'Entremont said keepers in the first lighthouse were said to have communicated between floors by rapping on a stovepipe.

Further down the coast, D'Entremont said Plymouth Light, also known as Gurnet Light, is rumored to be haunted by lightkeeper Hannah Thomas, who took over the post after her husband John was killed while fighting in the Revolutionary War.

And in Scituate, D'Entremont said people have claimed that the ghosts of Rebecca and Abigail Bates haunt Scituate Light. The girls, whose father was the keeper of the light, reportedly became known as Scituate's "Lighthouse Army of Two" during the War of 1812 after they saw a British warship near the harbor and played the fife and drum to make the British think the town militia was approaching. Some have said fife and drum music can be heard among the waves.

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