The solitary Execution Rocks Lighthouse in the Long Island Sound guards the way to mansions which inspired The Great Gatsby, but also hides a macabre history of murder.
In the middle of Long Island Sound, equidistant from New Rochelle and Port Washington, stands the lighthouse built in the 1850s, when America was a British colony with a growing revolutionary spirit. Prior to 1850, there had been lights on this reef, but none were official or reliable.
The tiny rocky island on which it was constructed was known as the Execution Rocks, and legend has is that during their occupation of Long Island during the Revolutionary War, British redcoats would chain Colonial prisoners to the rocks, and execute them by allowing the doomed souls to drown in the next high tide.
That’s never actually been proven, but historically, in Colonial America, tensions were always running high between the British redcoats and the American colonists and executions were still a matter of necessity. In order to avoid any potential uproar, the British also avoided public executions. Instead, they would supposedly take the condemned to Execution Rocks, were they would be chained to hooks that had been buried deep into the rock. It’s also said that the dead bodies were left there to give future victims a look at what the high tide was going to bring them, even though it isn’t very likely, as that would have caused the public uproar the location was intended to avoid.
Later, perhaps the ghosts had their revenge: British ships were sent to pursue George Washington when he was retreating from Manhattan to White Plains during the Revolutionary War. However, the British ships foundered on the rocks and all perished.
The legend of the executions had such hold, that when lightkeepers were assigned to Execution Rocks, they were under a unique contract: no lightkeeper was to ever feel chained to the reef. Instead of stating a set length of duty, their contract read that their length of service was for as long as they were willing. If for any reason they requested a transfer, it was instantly granted, and perhaps that is why only one head keeper spent more than a decade at the station.
A more benign tale of how the place got its name comes from the early settlers of nearby Manhasset Neck (Cows Neck) who said that many ships were “executed” on the rocks while trying to make their way past the dangerous reef en route to Manhasset Bay.
On December 8, 1918 a fire destroyed engine house and machinery therein. The roof, indows, woodwork, gutters and eaves were also damaged in the blaze, the cause of which was unknown.
Two years later the steamer Maine wrecked on the rocks due to snow, ice, high winds, and a full moon tide. The ship crashed and nearly hit the lighthouse. All survived, including the 14 horses aboard, but were not rescued from the rocks until three days later. Drinking water at the station ran out and snow had to be melted for the people (and horses) to drink.
The island’s gruesome history added a new chapter in the 1920s, when famed serial killer Carl Panzram confessed that, in that summer he raped and killed a total of ten sailors and dumped their bodies at sea near Execution Rocks Light. In prison confessions he claimed to have committed 22 murders, most of which could not be corroborated, and over 1000 acts of sodomy of boys and men.
After robbing a home belonging to former US President William Taft and stealing one of his guns, Panzram used the stolen money to buy a yacht. He then headed to New York City, where he docked it at City Island before prowling the city streets in search of “a crew”. Once lured on board and sedated with wine, Panzram would kill his victims with Taft’s revolver, tie a rock to the bodies, and dump them in the waters off Execution Rocks.
In any case, when the last lighthouse keeper retired, the lighthouse turned fully automatic in December 1979.
Even though former lighthouse keepers have said that they never experienced any paranormal activity, including Keeper Stan Fletcher, who retired from Execution Rocks in 1970 and that reassured folks that he never shared the place with a ghost, some visitors still report unusual sounds, apparitions and footsteps, ghostly reminders of the island’s troubled past.
In any case, with grisly murders, ghosts and literary prestige, what more could one ask for in a lighthouse?
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Images from web – Google Research