Ghost of the St. Simons Lighthouse
St. Simons Island, Georgia

"I'll come back from Hell and tend to it!"

by Dale Cox

The beautiful old white tower of the St. Simons Lighthouse is a landmark of Georgia's Golden Isles. It is open to the public through the efforts of the Coastal Georgia Historical Society .

There is something about lighthouses that make them popular focal points for ghost stories, and the St. Simons Lighthouse is no exception. Perhaps it is the way that the interior stairs seem dark and foreboding as they rise through the gloom, almost like a dungeon of ancient times? The other theory, of course, is that a real ghost haunts the lighthouse!

A fascinating legend surrounds the St. Simons Lighthouse; a story founded on real events.

The tower and adjacent keeper's cottage were completed in 1872, replacing an earlier structure that was blown up by Confederate forces during the Civil War. Bradford B. Brunt was the keeper when the lighthouse began his service, but he was replaced just two years later by a man named Frederick Osborne. The new keeper, some people believe, is the ghost of the St. Simons Lighthouse.

Osborne lived an exciting life long before arriving on St. Simons Island. Born in England between 1841 and 1843 (he gave different dates at different times), he immigrated to the United States when he was around 30 years old, arriving in New York on April 1, 1863. [I]

The Civil War was underway, and recruiters targeted immigrants as they arrived in New York. Osborne enlisted in the Union army on April 27, 1863, serving in Battery K, 4th New York Heavy Artillery. The unit was attached to the Army of the Potomac and served as infantry at the Battle of Five Forks, where Gen. Robert E. Lee's defense of Petersburg was broken, and his army forced into a desperate retreat that ended at Appomattox Court House.​​​
Does the ghost of a former keeper still haunt the St. Simons Lighthouse? Many believe that Frederick Osborne tends the light nearly 140 years after his death!

Friends of both men regarded the incident as a terrible tragedy. Stephens himself was quite stricken by the results of his shotgun blast:
  
…It is a fact worthy of much praise that as soon as he shot Osborne, Stevens sent at once for medical assistance for the wounded man, repaired immediately to Brunswick and gave himself up to the proper authorities, and the very moment the bond for his appearance was signed he returned to his post as assistant light-keeper, and has been on double duty ever since, performing both his and Osborn’s duty incessantly day and night. [VII]

From the very time of Osborne's death, strange things began to happen at the St. Simons Lighthouse. Stephens returned to his job after bonding out of the Glynn County Jail in Brunswick on March 7, 1880, he found an unexpected guest waiting for him high at the top of the tower:

…When assistant keeper Stevens, at St. Simons Light, resumed his post on Sunday night at twelve, he was surprised to find on the top landing, 125 steps from the bottom of the tower, quietly sitting and watching the revolving light, Capt. M.P. King’s pet yard dog, Bull.—After his dogship had acted the role of inspector for awhile and showed signs of fatigue, Mr. Stevens, in the kindness of his heart, supplied him with a rug for a couch. It was not long, however, before Bull was fast asleep, and there remained till morning, perfectly unconscious of the winds who their night vigils kept. [VIII]

Bull was not the last animal to act strangely in the lighthouse. Stories persist of other dogs who seemed to see something unusual on the stairs.

Stephens eventually was cleared of the charges filed against him, a local jury determining that he had been provoked and was acting in self-defense. George Asbell took over as keeper of the light and time passed.

Strange happenings, meanwhile, continued in the lighthouse. The sounds of footsteps were heard going up and down the stairs. Doors slammed. A dark figure was seen high in the tower.

The wife of a later keeper referred to Frederick Osborne - whom she called a "French Canadian" (he was English) - when she described a special apparatus he invented to make sure the light sent out the proper signal. When someone asked what they should do if it broke, he told them to let him know, and he would come and repair it. The questioner jokingly asked what he should do if Osborne was dead and the keeper bizarrely said, "Well, call me anyway, and I'll come back from hell and tend to it!" [IX]
The St. Simons Lighthouse rises high above the southern end of St. Simons Island, one of the Golden Isles of Georgia's Atlantic Coast.
He enlisted in the regular United States Army after the war and served in the Southwest. Osborne was mustered out at Fort Union in 1868 but remained in New Mexico where he worked as a packer of quartermaster stores for the army. [III]

He appears to have been single in 1870 but married Julia Pauline Pagson in the years that followed, becoming a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1873.

The records are a bit murky, but Osborne likely worked at the Cape Romain Lighthouse in South Carolina before accepting his new assignment on St. Simons Island in 1874. His oldest son, William Thomas Osborne, was born at Cape Romain on November 5, 1873.

The Osborne family continued to grow after moving to St. Simons Island. Frederick and Julia had another son, Frederick Page Osborne, on October 19, 1875. The unfortunate child, however, lived only two years before dying on November 15, 1877. Julia gave birth to a third child, Elizabeth Frederick Osborne, on St. Valentine's Day of 1880.

The keeper and his family lived on the ground floor of the charming brick cottage that stands at the base of the lighthouse. It was built at the same time as the tower in 1872.

The assistant keeper, John W. Stephens, lived on the second floor with his wife by 1880. The close quarters did not foster good relations between the two families.

There are two stories about what happened in March 1880. The first holds that Osborne made a pass at his assistant's wife. The other tells of how the English-born keeper was a stickler for perfection and spoke in a "disrespectful manner" to Mrs. Stephens while her husband was away on the mainland.

Whatever happened, Stephens was not happy when he returned to the island and heard the story:
  
MR. OSBURN, keeper of the light house on St. Simons’ Island, was seriously shot by Mr. John Stephens, his assistant, for talking in a disrespectful manner to his wife. [IV]

A more detailed account of the shooting appeared in the Brunswick Advertiser newspaper on March 6, 1880:

On Sunday morning, at about 8:30, an unfortunate occurrence transpired at St. Simons Light house, in which Mr. Fred Osborne was seriously shot by his assistant, Mr. John W. Stephens. It seems that there had been bad feeling between these gentlemen for several days, and on Sunday morning they went out into the bushes in front of the house to settle their difficulty. During this interview Stevens threatened to chastise Osborne, when Osborne drew his pistol and ordered him not to advance further, whereupon Stevens went back into the house, took down his double-barreled shot gun (which had been previously loaded with buck shot for deer hunting) and as Osborne advanced along the path near the fence, leading to the gate, Stevens fired, at a distance of nighty-eight feet, hitting him in four places, only one shot, however, taking serious effect. [V]


The shotgun blast that killed Frederick Osborne was fired from the front of the keeper's cottage. Stevens lived on the second floor and Osborne on the first.
The mechanism failed many years later and the unidentified keeper's wife - who regularly helped operate the light - found herself alone in the tower:

...Mrs. C----- seized the largest wheel of the works and started to revolve the machinery by hand. She was absolutely alone on that part of the island and had no means of communicating with any one at the settlement, four miles inland. As she turned the frame her mind ran back to the conversation her husband had had with the inventor and his reply to the question of possible accident. Almost unconsciously she cried aloud, “Well come come and fix it now!” There was a clink and a rattle, and looking up Mrs. C----- saw the distinct figure of the French Canadian bending over the works. Overcome by the reaction, she fainted, and when she regained consciousness the steady “click, click,” of the works assured her all was well with the light. The man had disappeared and Mrs. C------ called down the tower steps, thinking he had gone below for restoratives; but there was no answer, and he did not return. [X]

"There are some who say that Osborne’s death came so suddenly that he never stopped his nightly routine of inspecting the lighthouse. His ghost appears in and around the tower, and many also claim to have heard strange footsteps going up and down the old spiral staircase late at night.

The woman who told the story recounted above may also have been referring to a different former keeper of the light. The use of the letter "C" to identify here suggests that she may have been Mrs. Joseph Champagne He was the keeper in 1892-1907 and his term of service ended just one year before the ghost story appeared in print.

Isaac L. Peckham was the keeper of the St. Simons Lighthouse before Champagne. He was not French-Canadian, however, but was a New Yorker who worked as a harbor pilot in St. Marys before taking the lighthouse job in 1883.

The tragedy surrounding the death of Frederick Osborne has made him the focus of most of the ghost stories about the lighthouse. Perhaps he remains there, quietly tending the light to protect ships at sea, to this day.

The St. Simons Lighthouse is open to the public Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (last tickets sold at 4:30 p.m.) and Sunday from 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. The street address is 101 12th Street, St. Simons Island, Georgia.

Please click here for visitation information, including prices and more.
Some modern writers have described the affray as a "duel," but this was not the case. Base on the Advertiser account, Stephens must have fired from somewhere near the front door of the keeper's cottage. Osborne was walking near the gate at the end of the walk when the buckshot struck him.
Dr. R.J. Massey, the island physician and a correspondent for the paper, wrote the above account. He and Dr. Blain from the mainland treated the wounded man, but initial hopes that he might survive quickly faded:
  
Frederick Osborne, who was shot in the Stevens Osborne tragedy, an account of which we gave last week, died last Wednesday at 3:30 P.M. His remains were taken to Brunswick and interred in Oak Grove Cemetery. [VI]

References:

[I] Record of Admissions to Citizenship, District of South Carolina, 1790-1906; National Archives Microfilm Publication M1183. ​​

[II] Service Record of William Osborne, National Archives.

[III] 1870 United States Census.

[IV] The Georgia Weekly Telegraph and Journal & Messenger, March 12, 1868, Page 6.

[V] Brunswick Advertiser, March 6, 1880, Page 3.

​[VI] Brunswick Advertiser, March 13, 1880, Page 3.

[VII] ​Ibid.

[VIII] Ibid.

[IX] San Francisco Call, February 9, 1908, Page 1.

[X] Ibid.
  


See more of the lighthouse by clicking the play button below to enjoy a short video!