Friday, October 28, 2011

The Ghosts of New London Ledge

Strange events were said to be commonplace in the Coast Guard era at New London Ledge Lighthouse, at the mouth of the Thames River in Groton, Connecticut. Doors opened and closed themselves; the TV turned itself off and on.  A deck “swabbed itself.” Coast Guard Officer in Charge Randy Watkins said he once heard his name being called from an upstairs room when the other crewman was asleep.  

Watkins’ wife Lucretia spent a night in the master bedroom and said she was awakened when the door opened, followed by “the eerie feeling of someone in the room, staring.'’  And one time two fishermen secured their boat and came inside for a visit.  The men laughed at talk of a ghost, but stopped laughing when saw that their boat had been untied and was drifting away. 

These and many other odd happenings were invariably attributed to “Ernie,” who has become probably the best-known lighthouse ghost of the Northeast. Author William O. Thomson has written that Ernie would turn on the foghorn, and that he sometimes polished brass or cleaned windows.  Actual ghost sightings were rare, and supposedly only visiting women have ever seen the lighthouse’s ethereal resident.

The story usually used to explain Ernie’s origins follows.  There are some variations in this story depending on who’s doing the telling, and I make no guarantee that any part of the story is true.

In the 1920s or ‘30s a new keeper came to New London Ledge Light. The keeper’s true name isn’t known, but he was known to all as Ernie.  Ernie had a new young wife, half his age, who lived in New London while he stayed at the lighthouse.  What started as a happy marriage dissolved into bitter despair and desperation as the young woman pined for a normal life with her husband.

One bleak day, Ernie found a letter left by his wife, telling him that she had run off with the captain of the Block Island ferry.  The keeper’s will to live was crushed.  Some say he jumped from the roof of the lighthouse to his death below, while others say he drank himself senseless and then accidentally fell to his death.  Some claim that he made an oath before his death to avenge himself in some way.

Nobody has uncovered evidence that these events ever occurred at the lighthouse, and there’s no record of a keeper named Ernie.  And the lighthouse was always a “stag” station, so it’s unlikely that any keeper’s wife lived with him at the station for any extended period of time.  This seems to be a case of a story being fabricated to explain the unexplainable, or maybe a case of young men with too much time and too much imagination on their hands.  But there may be reasons to believe that this lighthouse has indeed been the scene of paranormal activity.

In December 1981, Dr. Roger Pile, who calls himself a “ghost psychologist,” visited the lighthouse along with his wife, who acted as a medium.  According to the Piles, the spirit revealed itself to be a keeper named John Randolph.  Once again, there are no records of any keeper by this name.  The Piles reported that Randolph had never been married, but that he had lost the woman he loved because of a terrible argument.  The distraught keeper proceeded to stab himself in the throat, falling from the lighthouse to his death.  Pile performed a ritual that was supposed to free Randolph’s spirit, and a newspaper soon reported that ghostly activity had ceased.  A November 1985 article in the New London Day disputes this.

The automation and destaffing of New London Ledge Light had been scheduled for 1986, and according to the article the Coast Guard crew claimed that Ernie had apparently become agitated over the coming change. Charles Kerr said that papers on his desk rearranged themselves, and Paul Noke’s bed moved around the room by itself.  Noke said he eventually started sleeping on a couch after tiring of the moving bed.  Only one of the crewmen at the time, Steven Bailey, expressed doubt about Ernie’s existence.  If he kicks me out of bed and throws me down the stairs,” said Bailey, “I’ll leave.”

Stories of unexplainable events continue to emanate from New London Ledge.  In the book Haunted Lighthouses and How to Find Them by George C. Steitz, Brae Rafferty of the New London Ledge Lighthouse Foundation offered an alternative to the “Ernie” story to explain the origins of the resident ghost or ghosts.  Rafferty had met a woman whose grandfather helped build the lighthouse.  According to the woman, the strange phenomena at the site started before the lighthouse was even completed, with eerie sounds, weird shadows, and tools that vanished during construction. 

Rafferty’s research showed that there was a shipwreck on Black Ledge about a decade before the lighthouse was built.  Many of the dozen or so passengers died, including a newly married young woman.  The woman’s husband desperately combed the nearby shores but found no sign of his beloved.  Witnesses then saw the man walk slowly out into the water toward Black Ledge until he disappeared and drowned.  So – if you’re inclined to so believe – a spirit may have been already waiting for a place to haunt when the lighthouse was built.

And there’s still another story offered to explain the strange goings-on here.  According to a brochure produced by Jerry Olson of the New London Ledge Lighthouse Foundation, “It has been said that around 1913-1914, a sailboat departed New Jersey bound for New Bedford.”  The sailboat passed through Long Island Sound, where it ran into a tremendous northeast storm.  According to the story, late that night the lightkeeper looked into the water and saw a man and a woman swimming, trying desperately to reach the lighthouse.  After helping them ashore, he learned that their sailboat had capsized and they had tragically lost their daughter in the wreck.

Early the next morning, the keeper arose and went to check on his guests.  To his astonishment, he found no trace of the couple.  Days later when the seas calmed down and the keeper reached shore, he was told by friends that they had rescued a young woman who said that her parents had been lost in a sailboat wreck.  But this woman, too, had mysteriously vanished.

Photo by Christine Kaczynski
“It has been said,” concludes the brochure, “that on particular dark nights, a spirit has been observed roaming the lighthouse searching for a loved one.  Over the years people have encountered the spirit and have named her ‘The Lady of the Ledge.’”  Jerry Olson claims that he has had a personal encounter with this mysterious Lady.  One day while he was alone in the basement of the lighthouse, cleaning the cisterns, Olson says he heard the distinct sound of a woman clearing her throat behind him.  He says he immediately had the image of an attractive middle-aged woman in his mind’s eye, but upon turning around he saw nothing.

In recent years paranormal investigator Christine Kaczynski has visited the lighthouse on several occasions with assistants and sophisticated equipment including cameras, motion detectors and an oscilloscope. Kaczynski is a no-nonsense woman who puts no stock in the “Ernie” legend or in Dr. Pile’s investigation, but says her investigations clearly show the lighthouse to be the scene of much spirit activity.  She says the third floor is the “vortex” of the activity, and that the northeast corner of the building is the most active.  She also says that the spirit or spirits are benign and not at all dangerous, although one person did feel strongly that someone “didn’t want them there.”

New England Ghost Project; Maureen Wood on the right
In August 2006, members of the paranormal investigation team called New England Ghost Project spent a night at the lighthouse. No ghost appeared, but the team’s psychic medium, Maureen Wood, apparently made contact with an angry male spirit. The entity claimed he was a worker performing maintenance on the roof of the dwelling, and that his coworkers locked him out as a prank. As he attempted to get inside, he slipped and fell to his death. The accident, said the spirit, was covered up by those involved. There’s no hard evidence to support this story, but it offers an intriguing alternative to the usual tale of “Ernie.”