The Dark Side of Lighthouses

Mouthfuls of molten lead, wild weather, and insanity: the occupational hazards of an early lighthouse keeper.

Published November 18, 2016

Lighthouse keeping is not for the faint-hearted. Keepers live in isolation, endure violent storms, and must be ready to respond to the occasional shipwreck. They have to be self-sufficient, handy, happy with their own company, and comfortable with heights. Still, today’s “wickies” have all the mod cons compared to their predecessors. Early lighthouse attendants often faced particular risks of much greater magnitude. Here are five of those historical hazards.

Fire and Lead

Until the invention of the light bulb, the “light” in a lighthouse usually came from a flame. If the fire escaped control, catastrophe could quickly ensue, which is what happened at Eddystone Rocks off England’s south coast in 1755. The lighthouse there at the time had a structure of pitch-coated wood and a lead roof. Henry Hall, the 94-year-old lighthouse keeper, discovered that a spark, probably from a candle in the lantern, had flown up and ignited the top of the tower. As Hall looked up to throw a bucket of water on the blaze, a stream of molten lead from the roof poured down his face and throat. Incredibly, Hall survived for 12 days. When he died, the autopsy revealed his stomach contained 200 grams of solid lead.

The Perils of Rescue

Ida Lewis, the daughter of a lighthouse keeper at Lime Rock in Newport, Rhode Island, became famous for her rescues in the late 19th century and was dubbed “the bravest woman in America.” She made most of the rescues by herself in a rowboat, which she had learned to row while ferrying her siblings to school on the mainland 200 meters away. Lewis made her first rescue as a teenager, when she rushed out to save four boys whose boat had capsized, hauling them over her rowboat’s stern. She went on to rescue at least 18 other people and once used a clothesline to save some men who had plummeted through the ice on the frozen harbor. She spent her life at Lime Rock and took over the lighthouse in 1879 after her father died and her mother’s health failed. Female lighthouse keepers were uncommon, but not unheard of. Since they were already on site and knowledgeable, female family members were often best suited to assume duties at the lighthouse if their keeper husbands or fathers died. Lewis remained the keeper at Lime Rock until her death in 1911.

Wild Weather

The journal left by three men who vanished from the lighthouse on the island of Eilean Mor off the north coast of Scotland in 1900 is a testament to how fickle and dangerous coastal weather can be (and how it can play with a person’s judgement). After stormy weather delayed his trip to the lighthouse for days, a replacement keeper arrived at Eilean Mor by boat only to find that all three of the on-duty keepers were gone. Only vague and scattered clues remained: a stopped clock, a knocked-over chair, and one coat. The log showed that the lighthouse had been besieged by a massive storm and winds so severe the men had sobbed and begged God to deliver them from the tempest. The replacement keeper noted that on the west side of the island, equipment sitting 33 meters above sea level—as high as a 10-story building—had been damaged by waves. An investigation concluded that the unfortunate men had left the tower, likely to try to secure the equipment during a break in the storm or possibly to make a rescue, and had been swept into the sea by huge waves.

Toxic Mercury

Before widespread electricity and automation in the 1960s, it was up to the lighthouse keeper to ensure a massive lens that could weigh up to two and a half tonnes kept spinning all day, every day. The multifaceted lens turning at a set speed made the light flash. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the lens was usually set on wheels or bearings and attached to clockworks, which the keeper would periodically wind. In the 1890s, some keepers began floating their lenses in liquid mercury. The lens’s metal base spun more easily in the mercury, which helped the light rotate faster with less frequent winding. The resulting quicker flash was safer for seafarers, but not for the keepers, who breathed and touched the mercury on their daily cleaning rounds. Modern scholars have wondered if mercury, not isolation, was behind reports of lighthouse keepers behaving erratically or losing sanity, since chronic mercury poisoning causes confusion, depression, and hallucinations. William Brown, the first keeper stationed on British Columbia’s Ballenas Island, was committed to an insane asylum in May 1905 after he sent a bizarre telegram to a colleague. His wife, Maggie, who lived with him on the island, also complained of his violent behavior. Released in June after an apparent recovery, he returned to the lighthouse only to be committed again in April 1906. While there’s no way to say for sure, the recurrence suggests mercury poisoning may have played a part in Brown’s ill health.

Extreme Isolation

Lighthouses likely attracted some folks who had trouble fitting into society, but the keeper of Clipperton Island was an extreme case. The danger in this situation wasn’t to the keeper, but to the people stuck on the tiny Pacific island 1,000 kilometers off Mexico’s southwest coast with him. Since 1899, Clipperton Island had supported a small guano-mining colony, but by 1915 political tumult in Mexico stopped supply ships from replenishing the community, leaving the remaining people on the island hungry. The only available food was birds and their eggs, which led to widespread scurvy. Four men set off in a boat for help, but they all drowned, leaving lighthouse keeper Victoriano Alvarez the only man on an island with about a dozen women. He grabbed a rifle, threw the rest of the weapons in the ocean, and enslaved the women, abusing them physically, mentally, and sexually. After two years of this, one woman, Tirza Randon, managed to kill Alvarez by smashing his head with a hammer while he was distracted. A passing boat eventually rescued the women.