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11.10.14

Mystery at the Light

The strange story of the Gay Head Light Keeper's House

In 1853, Samuel Flanders, the lighthouse keeper at Gay Head, leaked to the Vineyard Gazette the news that a new brick lighthouse was soon to be constructed to replace the octagonal wooden lighthouse that had stood on the cliffs since 1799. The new lighthouse would accommodate a magnificent Fresnel lens that was so much more complex than the old light that a second light keeper would need to be hired and housed. Along with the lighthouse, therefore, a new two-family keeper’s house was to be built, also made of brick, and connected to the tower by a narrow passageway for convenient access in any weather.

In 1856 the Flanders moved into the new dwelling, and for the next thirty-five years various families of light keepers lived there without any reports of unusual illnesses. But in 1891, William Atchison resigned when he became sick after barely a year on the job. He was replaced by Edward P. Lowe, who quickly fell ill and died within one year at the age of forty-four. His death was noted in the 1892 Gay Head Station Keeper’s Log simply as: “Keeper died.”  The next day, on February 20, the log states, “Mr. Lowe family left station to day.”

One can only imagine the stress and sadness experienced by the family members, having to vacate their home only one day after their father or husband died. But the lighthouse required a full-time crew and the incoming keeper, Crosby L. Crocker, had a family of five. So the Lowe family had to promptly vacate. Once settled into the house, the Crockers had three more children. By 1907, however, all six Crocker children were dead.

The first, named Addie, died at age eight on September 19, 1895. In the 1896 Keeper’s Log, for which Crosby Crocker was responsible, the following notations appear:

 

May 1 –  “Marion [Mammie] taken sick to day scarlet feaver”

May 2 –  “Took the stove down in the watch room”

May 3 –  “George taken sick with scarlet feaver”

May 4 – “Changed the reservoy. & cleaned the burner

May 9 – “Jannie taken sick with scarlet feaver”

May 15 – “Mammie died to day at 11 am”

May 17 – “Commenced painting in the tower”

May 26 – “Jannie died to day at 8:30 am”

May 29 – “Whitewashed the barns”

May 30 –  “Finished painting the tower”

 

What seems most remarkable today is how, in the midst of all this illness and death, the Crockers continued to faithfully fulfill their duties. Keep in mind that the Gay Head Light was a remote outpost separated by a one or two-day horseback journey to the nearest town, so no doctors were readily available. It is also possible the high rate of infant mortality during that time made the acceptance of death less traumatic than it would be today. Nonetheless, commencing with “painting in the tower” just two days after Mammie’s death, while her sister Jannie lay dying seems almost unimaginable. And, just two days after Jannie dies the keepers are out there whitewashing the barns and painting the tower again. No mention is made of any ceremony or mourning process, nor of how the bodies were disposed.

The log lists scarlet fever as the culprit in 1896, but other causes were also suspected. In 1898 the United States Lighthouse Board inspection found the house “too damp and unsanitary for safe occupation by human beings” and recommended it be replaced. Unfortunately, no action was taken in time to save two-year-old Ruth Crocker, who died on January 6, 1901.

News of the death of a fifth Crocker child at the Gay Head Light quickly spread across the Island and through the lighthouse service. Four days after Ruth’s death, the Crockers received a letter from the town clerk of Tisbury that read: “Please fill the enclosed blanks, and if you will send me the dates of the deaths of all the children you have lost, I would like to see if all are recorded in this town.” Two weeks later they received another letter, this one from the lighthouse board requesting a sample of the drinking water.

“It struck me that possibly it may have to do with the troubles that have proved so fatal to your children,” wrote Arthur P. Nagro. “I trust you will all very soon be enjoying better health,” he added. Nothing apparently came of the water test and in 1902 the lighthouse board finally built a spacious gambrel-roofed double dwelling constructed of wood. It was not the solution they hoped for, however; the Crosby’s last child, George, died of unknown causes in 1907.

Crosby retired in 1920, after thirty-four years as principal keeper of the Gay Head Light. Now childless, he and Eliza relocated to Vineyard Haven. A month after Eliza died in May 1929, Crocker sat down with a reporter from the Gazette and shared his life’s story. “For one who has seen so much sorrow and whose life has contained so many disappointments, Captain Crocker is surprisingly cheerful and an entertaining companion,” the paper reported. “A rugged, upright figure, with snowy hair and mustache, he looks the part of an old seafarer as he sits and smokes the pipe that solaces him in his loneliness.”

 “So the years passed and nine years ago the captain and his wife left the Head,” the story continued. “And coming to Vineyard Haven lived there together until Mrs. Crocker passed away just a short time ago, leaving the captain to stand out the watch alone…” 

 

Adapted from Gay Head Lighthouse: The First Light on Martha’s Vineyard; History Press, 2014 .

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