Tuesday, March 15, 2016

A Mooncussing Keeper..or Not?

On this date--March 14, 1870--the deputy inspector of lighthouses in the Bahamas sent a letter to the Bahamian governor expressing concern over the morals of the lighthouse keeper at Gun Cay.

1884 Gun Cay Lighthouse (British Library image)

The inspector felt sure the keeper was deliberately changing the signal of the lighthouse to confuse ships and cause wrecks. He based this supposition on the fact that the keeper "had married into a family of unscrupulous wreckers residing on Bimini a few miles away" from the Gun Cay Lighthouse.

Wrecking was supposed to be an ethical and useful business, where the goods of a wrecked ship were salvaged for the ship-owner and, at the same time, any shipwreck survivors were rescued. Sometimes wreckers even salvaged the ship itself, either in pieces or to repair and refloat the vessel.

In some places, though, business was nefariously improved by causing shipwrecks. This practice was usually done on moonless nights. Thus, these kinds of wreckers were called mooncussers; they hated bright moonlit nights when ships could see the shoreline and hazards such as whitewater waves on reefs and sandbars. Moonlit nights were not helpful if you wanted to cause a shipwreck. A dark, stormy night was best for the evil practice of mooncussing.

Mooncussers lured ships onto reefs by various means. Some displayed a lantern they hoped a ship would mistake for a lighthouse. Others hung the lantern over the neck of a horse and walked the animal along a treacherous shore to delude a ship into thinking another vessel lay safely at anchor. The rocking of the light mimicked the rocking of a ship. In fact, the community of Nags Head on the Outer Banks of North Carolina supposedly takes it name from the old nag a wrecker once used on that beach. For a lighthouse keeper, it would have been easy to confuse a ship by either turning out the light or changing its signal of flashes.

Most wreckers in the Bahamas were upright citizens who saved lives and property from wrecked ships. But on occasion there were mooncussers among them who exhibited false lights and led ships astray to profit from the spoils of a tragic wreck. The false light carried the biblical name Judas Lantern. Was the Gun Cay lightkeeper guilty of luring ships to their doom in 1870? He certainly had the means to do it, and just offshore of his light were shallows and the narrow channel between Gun Cay and Cat Cay. (You can see it on the map above.)

I'm still searching books and records to find out which type of wrecker the Gun Cay lightkeeper was. I hope he loved a full moon and a ship riding safely by his lighthouse.

Below are some images of the Gun Cay Lighthouse as it looks in recent years. Notice the ruined keepers' dwellings, the rotted up dock, and the curious tripod supporting a light on top of the tower.

Photo by Oscar Reyes for Lighthouse Digest.

Photo by the Sailing Vessel Snow Goose


  1. Dear Elinor- I enjoyed your comments about Gun Cay Light -- the "curious tripod" you mention is in fact the support structure for the present lighting system. Although the Gun Cay Lightstation was originally built in 1864, the Imperial Lighthouse Service rebuilt the lighttower in the late 1920s installing at that time a new lantern, first order Fresnel lens and pressure kerosene burner system. Less than 10 years later, noting that there was less need for such a strong light at Gun Cay and probably to conserve expenses, Gun Cay's lighting apparatus- lantern and all- were disassembled removed and taken to Hope Town Abaco Bahamas where they were reinstalled on the lighttower at Elbow Reef Lightstation. That first order, 5 bulls-eye Fresnel lens continues to be hand-cranked nightly to this day and the Elbow Reef Lighstation is the only remaining kerosene lit manually operated lightstation left in the world. ~ Annie Potts ~ Elbow Reef Lighthouse Society ~ Author "Last Lights- The Hand-Wound Lighthouses of The Bahama Islands"

  2. Great info, Annie! I'd love to visit Elbow Reef Light. I'm glad to meet you, if only through my blog. I have your book!


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