Dwelling in a lighthouse soothed daily by the ocean’s roar in peaceful solitude sounds like a dream come true for many but as I learned through combing historic newspapers, the isolation faced by lighthouse keepers and their families can lead to violent ends.
One of the more compelling accounts was that of the Smith family, whose patriarch, Ellsworth Smith, was employed as the lighthouse keeper at Conimicut Point Lighthouse in Warwick, Rhode Island. Accounts vary as to how long Ellsworth, his wife Nellie (29), and sons Russell (either 6 months or 2) and Robert (5) lived at Conimicut Point. Some sources report they were there for two to three months while others suggest they’d been in the lighthouse for a year when death came calling.
Prior to moving to Conimicut Nellie had spent her entire life on land and had starry-eyed ideas about the ocean, but those notions slowly withered away as time passed. From the South Bend News-Times:
“The sea didn’t destroy her in one mad burst of fury. It slowly chilled her heart, slowly wore down her will to live. It seemed to Mrs. Smith, as she looked out her tower window, that every living thing had gone from the earth except this tossing monster that stretched out before her.”
On the morning of Saturday, June 10, 1922 Ellsworth left his wife and two sons to procure supplies from the mainland village. Nellie’s interactions with the children were normal and she seemed to be in good spirits, waving to him as he rowed away.
When Ellsworth returned at around 4:00 p.m. he found Robert sitting on a kitchen table, pale and in physical agony. Beside him sat Nellie with her head resting on her arms, unresponsive to physical and verbal attempts to rouse her. He realized that she was dead by the heaviness of her arm instinctively rushed upstairs, where he found Russell’s body on a bed under the light.
Too late to save the baby and his wife, Ellsworth loaded Robert into his dory and rowed towards land for help. Robert survived the ordeal and was able to provide some of the details about that dreadful afternoon.
Nellie then ate some of the “candy” (which was actually bichloride of mercury) and carried Russell upstairs. Robert reported that shortly thereafter his mother returned alone and fell asleep where Ellsworth found her.
Nellie and Russell share a headstone in Brayton Cemetery in Warwick, Rhode Island.
The following is an account printed in the South Bend News-Times on Oct. 15, 1922:
New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide