In the Nineteenth Century, as world shipping increased, so did the building of lighthouses. Although navigation beacons are at least as old as the Colossus of Rhodes, now they were being built in very remote locations. The “Light At the Edge of the World” was built on Isla de los Estados off of Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America. This very remote lighthouse functioned from 1884 to 1905, including three years that it was used as a military prison.
In 1905 Jules Verne wrote his novel The Light At the Edge of the World, set in a lighthouse very like the one off Tierra del Fuego. In Verne’s novel, the island is seized by pirates and one lone survivor of their attack battles them. This book was made into a 1971 movie starring Kirk Douglas and Yul Brynner.
There is something about the isolation of a lighthouse that makes it a particularly good setting for a crime story.
In 1917, a real story of murder unfolded on Clipperton Island a thousand kilometers west of Mexico. The island had been subject, off and on, to various nation’s claims of ownership. Mexico and France were the two main claimants and their case was sent to international arbitration in 1909 but not decided until 1931.
Mexico had constructed a lighthouse on the island in 1906 and a group of about a hundred people lived on the island, apart from the lighthouse, working the guano deposits on the island for an English company. These people all had to be fed by supplies shipped from Acapulco every two months.
The first lighthouse keeper went mad — an occupational hazard — and was replaced by one Victoriano Álvarez in 1912. By 1914 the chaos of the Mexican revolution caused the government to rethink its priorities and the lighthouse was ordered closed. But the keeper did not leave. Food shipments ceased as the Mexican crisis deepened and the small colony began to starve. In 1915 a passing American vessel took off some of the colony. All, with the exception of Álvarez, wanted to leave, but no more ships landed. Men began dying of scurvy. The colony leader, Captain Ramón Arnaud, and the remaining men attempted to sail out to a passing vessel but their boat overturned and all were drowned.
The only man left alive was the lighthouse keeper, Victoriano Álvarez. He proclaimed himself king over the fifteen or so women and children still surviving and demanded sex from the women. One woman and her daughter refused him and Álvarez murdered them. He then dragged one of the other women to his lighthouse. A few months later he brought her back and took another, a thirteen-year-old girl. When he tired of her, he replaced her with a third, Tirza Randón. Randón seethed with rage and swore to kill Álvarez. The lighthouse keeper continued his rapes for almost two years. The only woman he did not assault was the captain’s widow, although he told her that, if a ship was sighted, he would shoot her immediately. But, finally, Álvarez decided that Madame Arnaud’s turn had come. She was ordered to bring her things to his hut. Tirza told her. “Now is the time.”
Alicia Arnaud, Tirza, and Ramón, Alicia’s young son, went to Álvarez’ hut. “What are you doing here?” he demanded of Tirza. Alicia distracted Álvarez and Tirza went into the back of the hut and picked up a heavy hammer. Then Tirza bashed in the lightkeeper’s head. Ramón grabbed his gun. But there was no need to shoot Álvarez; Tirza battered in his skull and then stabbed and slashed his body, slicing at his face until Alicia pulled her off.
Within minutes of the killing, an American ship was seen making for the island. The USS Yorktown rescued the Clipperton survivors: three women and eight children, including the girl, now fifteen, that had been raped by Álvarez. The American captain, who said that Álvarez’ face was “a complete sieve”, decided to protect Tirza. He did not write up the killing in his log and he, and his crew, kept silent on the Clipperton affair for twenty years. In 1931 the island was transferred to France. The lighthouse has been closed since 1945. (from Cast Away by Joseph Cummins, out of print and terribly expensive. Googlebooks excerpt here.)
The isolation of lighthouses makes them a great setting for spooky stories. Around 1780, one of the two lightkeepers at Solva, off the coast of Wales, died. The other was afraid that he would be accused of murder so, instead of a sea burial, he lashed the corpse to the outside of the lighthouse. The body stayed there, during storm and calm, until a relief vessel landed at the lighthouse and discovered the situation. Afterwards, all British lighthouses were crewed by three keepers.
Lighthouse murders occurred at St. Simons, Georgia — now said to be haunted by the man killed there in 1880 following a quarrel between keepers — and the Little Ross light off Scotland near Kirkcudbright. At Little Ross the three man rule was relaxed while one keeper went on holiday. In his absence the keeper Robert Dickson shot to death his co-worker. Dickson fled and managed to get to Yorkshire before being apprehended. He was sentenced to death but the sentence was commuted because the man seemed clearly insane. A few days after the commutation, Dickson killed himself. He never gave a reason for the murder.
Possibly the oddest mystery is that of the Flannan Isles lighthouse northwest of Scotland. There the entire three-man crew vanished sometime between December 15 — the last entry in the log — and December 26, 1900 when a ship checked in to find out why the light was not on. Of course it is possible for one man or even two to be swept away while working outside, but one man was always to be on duty with the light itself. No one has yet discovered what happened at the Flannan Isles light.
Lighthouses have become automated, those that are left. Modern navigation systems have made them obsolescent and they are being torn down or abandoned. One less spookyness to disturb your dreams.