In Episode 307 Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger row out to Conimicut Lighthouse off the coast of Warwick, Rhode Island, to search for the tragic ghosts who haunt the rusting relic in the water. Back in 1922, lighthouse keeper Ellsworth Smith and his family lived in the cramped quarters of Conimicut Lighthouse, but it was more than Nellie Smith could take. She poisoned her children and herself when her husband was at shore forever haunting the lonely lighthouse.
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RAY: I don’t think I’ve ever been to Conimicut Point Beach before.
JEFF: I haven’t either, Ray. But it’s a pretty spot right here at the mouth of the Providence River in Rhode Island.
RAY: You can see the city of Providence to our north, and there’s Bristol, Rhode Island, across the water to our east. It’s a perfect summer’s day to be here at the beach.
JEFF: It is, but we’re not staying here very long, Ray. Our destination is a little over a half-mile out on the water over there.
RAY: I’m guessing you’re talking about the lighthouse?
JEFF: Not just any lighthouse. That’s Conimicut Lighthouse. It’s old, historic, the history is both dark and lonely, and if we’re to believe the Coast Guard… The Conimicut Lighthouse… is haunted.
JEFF: Hello, I’m Jeff Belanger and welcome to Episode 307 of the New England Legends Podcast.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger, we’re glad you’ve joined your townie buddies Jeff and Ray to explore this strange place called New England. We’re always on the hunt for ghosts, monsters, aliens, roadside oddities, and all the weird history that makes New England like no other place. So many of our story leads come from you! So please reach out to us anytime through our Web site.
JEFF: We’ll go looking for the ghosts of Conimicut Lighthouse right after this quick word from this sponsor.
JEFF: As I said, we’re not staying here at the beach very long. In fact… there’s our ride.
RAY: That rowboat?
JEFF: It’s technically a dinghy.
RAY: Okayyyy… somehow that’s even worse.
JEFF: Come onnnnn…. It’s not that far to the lighthouse. Let’s get going.
RAY: I can see the Conimicut Lighthouse up ahead. It’s sitting on a few rocks. You can’t even call that an island.
JEFF: No, you can’t. It’s basically a foundation for the lighthouse.
RAY: It’s painted white with black trim. It almost looks like a sparkplug in the ocean. I can see there’s a small dock off to one side.
JEFF: That’s where we’re aiming for.
[WALKING ON METAL]
RAY: There’s a lot of rust around here. Clearly no one lives here.
JEFF: No, it was automated by the coast guard many years ago.
RAY: I can’t imagine living here. There’s no where to go except walk around the building. You’re really stuck in a lighthouse like this.
JEFF: That’s true. Thankfully it’s a pretty short boat ride. 10 minutes or so and you can row to the nearest shore.
RAY: So here’s a little more background on Conimicut Lighthouse. It’s technically located in Warwick, Rhode Island, and sits at the mouth of the Providence River. A lighthouse was first placed here in 1868 just after the Civil War to protect the ships navigating the sometimes shallow shoals in these waters. In 1883 this more modern lighthouse built of cast iron replaced the original light. It’s 58 feet tall and includes the keeper’s quarters and the light at the top.
JEFF: That pretty much sums it up. And today it’s rusting and haunted… to find out why, let’s head back to 1922 and the meet the lighthouse keeper.
RAY: It’s early June of 1922 here off the coast of Warwick, Rhode Island. Warren G. Harding is the president of the United States. “My Man” by Fanny Brice is the number one song on the wireless. The world war ended almost four years ago, so it’s still a time of rebuilding and peace. The shipping lanes around Providence…
RAY: …Are busy.
JEFF: Here at Conimicut Lighthouse the work is tedious, but critical. Ellsworth Smith is the lighthouse keeper. He lives here with his 30-year-old wife, Nellie, and their two young sons, Russell aged two and Ellsworth, Jr. aged five. They tend to the light, especially at night and during storms. The waters here at the mouth of the Providence River can be shallow. Ships have run aground here before. It can be a dangerous stretch to navigate.
RAY: Still, living in these small quarters with young boys full of energy is tedious and cramped. Though they’ve lived here for about a year now, Nellie is getting stir crazy. She’s asked her husband if they could rent a small place on shore where she and the children can live while he’s at the lighthouse, but Ellsworth says they can’t afford it.
JEFF: Lighthouse keepers don’t make much. But they do get free living quarters so they can save their pennies. If Ellsworth had to rent a place on the mainland, there wouldn’t be much left.
RAY: Each day, Nellie grows more despondent. She’s even threatened suicide, but Ellsworth figures this is just a phase. They don’t intend to live here forever, just until they save enough money to make their next move.
JEFF: It’s ironic, but the nicest days are the most brutal.
RAY: What do you mean?
JEFF: When the sun is shining and there’s good visibility, there’s not much need for the lighthouse. What’s worse is you can see so much life and excitement just a short distance away. Look out there, Ray.
RAY: I see what you mean. There are people having fun at the beach. There’s the city of Providence to the north. And check that out! You can see Rocky Point Amusement Park from here too! When the wind blows in this direction you can hear people squealing on the rides.
JEFF: Meanwhile, the Smith family are stuck in this metal cone on a tiny crop of rocks. In plain view of everything, but you might as well be on the moon because you just can’t get there.
RAY: This IS depressing.
JEFF: The tide comes in, the tide goes out. The sun sets, the sun rises. Life out there on land goes on, life in here is stuck in one vicious cycle. Tend to the light. Polish the rails. Feed the family with the food you have. And do it all again tomorrow. The kids are bored, Nellie is bored, but this is the life they’re stuck in.
RAY: It’s Saturday, June 10th. Ellsworth announces he needs to take the boat to shore to get supplies, but he’ll be back in the evening. He’s left Nellie in charge of tending to the lighthouse, which isn’t asking much considering the weather is fine today.
RAY: Nellie watches Ellsworth row the boat to shore.
JEFF: As Ellsworth and his boat turn into a smaller and smaller dot on the water heading to shore, Nellie turns make to the living quarters in the lighthouse. She finds Ellsworth’s keys…
JEFF: She walks over to the supplies cabinet.
JEFF: And she removes some poison pills from a bottle. (BEAT) She gathers her two boys and tells them it’s candy, and they should swallow it down. Her youngest does as he’s asked. Nellie also swallows one of the pills, but her oldest son finds the taste unbearable. And spits out the pill.
RAY: This is terrible. The youngest, Russell, soon falls unconscious. Though Nellie is feeling weak, she lifts him and lays him on the kitchen table.
JEFF: Over in the corner, Ellsworth Junior is pale and holding his stomach.
RAY: Nellie seems faint now.
RAY: She stumbles a few steps… and collapses on her bed.
[OCEAN FADES IN AND THEN FADES OUT]
JEFF: It’s 6PM, and Ellsworth is hitching his boat back up to the dock of Conimicut Lighthouse.
[FOOTSTEPS ON METAL]
[DOOR CREAKS OPEN]
JEFF: He enters the living quarters and immediately finds his youngest son lying lifeless on the kitchen table. He turns to the bedroom to see Nellie lying eerily still.
JEFF: When he approaches he too sees she’s dead.
[GROAN OF A KID]
RAY: The sound of Ellsworth Junior catches his father’s attention. His son is clearly in bad shape. Ellsworth lifts his son into his arms.
[RUNNING ON METAL]
RAY: And carries the boy back down to the boat hitched to the dock.
RAY: It takes less than ten minutes for Ellsworth to reach the mainland.
JEFF: After calling for help, Ellsworth Junior is raced to the hospital. Ever the responsible light keeper, he notifies authorities that Conimicut Light won’t be in operation tonight. Ships and boats must be warned.
RAY: With his duties out of the way, the doctors act quickly, and within a few hours it’s clear the boy will recover. He spit out most of the poison, which saved his life.
JEFF: Meanwhile, Ellsworth explains to police the scene he found back at Conimicut Lighthouse. After a day in the hospital, Ellsworth brings his son to his sister’s house to recuperate. The police recover the bodies of his wife and son. Ellsworth can’t bring himself to go back to his duties. And that brings us back to today.
RAY: Back in 1939 control of every lighthouse in the United States was placed under the control of the Coast Guard. However, at Conimicut Lighthouse, civilian keepers stayed on until the late 1950s. In 1957, the last civilian keeper, a mane named Powell, died at the station.
JEFF: So that’s three deaths at the lighthouse if we’re keeping score.
RAY: We ARE keeping score. In 1960 an electrical cable was run to Conimicut Lighthouse and the light went fully automated.
JEFF: But strange stories did turn up. Back in 2006 a Coast Guardsman named Paul Baptiste gave an interview where he mentioned he had to relieve the civilian lighthouse keeper back in 1955. He slept in the storage room. After his first night in the room, the keeper’s wife asked him if he’d seen any ghosts. She said the ghost of a former keeper’s wife still haunts the place.
RAY: Yikes! So people were talking about it being haunted at least as far back as 1955.
JEFF: That’s what it would seem.
RAY: And today this lighthouse is rusting away. It clearly needs some TLC.
JEFF: Lighthouses are iconic along the New England coast. They mark waypoints for travelers, each has its own light signature, and many of them date back many decades and sometimes a century or more. While walking the beach we stare at these beacons, we photograph them as so many did before us, and we imagine what life inside must be like. The haunting of Coniumicut Lighthouse shows us: sometimes our sanity can’t survive the isolation. And that will forever haunt us.
RAY: So many lighthouses, so many haunting stories.
JEFF: So true. And that brings us to After the Legend where we take a deeper dive into unchartered waters and sometimes veer off course.
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