Digest>Archives> October 2003

Captain Joseph W. Townshend and the Seul Choix Point Lighthouse

By Jan Langley

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This is the true story of how I came to write the Captain and Harry stories.

I had never believed in ghosts, not that I didn’t want to. I think we all have an interest in things that go bump in the night. I believe we all like to be somewhat scared. We like to feel those chills that go up and down our spine when we encounter something beyond the normal. Something that we can’t quite explain like catching a shadow in the hallway, a door opening for an unseen visitor or the feeling someone is watching us.

I certainty had no interest in investigating haunted places or searching for mysterious happenings or ghostly stories. No interest at all, that is, until I met an unusual lady who was restoring an unusual place.

I met Marilyn Fischer in the early fall at an auction in Manistique, Michigan. We got to talking about similar interests when she mentioned she was the president of the Gulliver Historical Society. They were in the process of restoring the Seul Choix Point Lighthouse. It had remained in continuous service until the US Coast Guard installed an airport beacon light in the tower and then abandoned it in 1973. Since that time it had fallen into a sorry state of disrepair. In 1987 the newly formed historical society pledged to restore and preserve the lighthouse. When I expressed an interest in the project, she invited me down to show me what they had accomplished so far. The lighthouse was closed to tourists for the season so setting a date and time was not a problem for either of us.

As I drove up to the old lighthouse, for some strange reason I felt as if I had come home. I don’t know why. I wasn’t a lighthouse collector nor even very interested in lighthouses... until I met this one. Marilyn was waiting for me on the back porch of the lighthouse residence. As I approached, she said, “I saw something rolling down the porch when I walked up the sidewalk a few minutes ago. I thought it was a pencil. It came from the back door all the way to the steps in a perfect straight line. Then it rolled down the steps, one at a time, to where I was standing.” She looked at me to see my reaction as she held it up in her hand. “It’s a cigar. Captain Townshend smoked cigars.” she remarked quietly. “There’s not even a hint of a breeze today. How can a cigar roll down the steps without any wind?” She held it up to look at it again and then put it in her pocket.

As I followed her down the porch, I remembered stories of the supposed haunting of the old lighthouse by a former lighthouse keeper. “Come on in, Jan,” she said as she unlocked the back porch door. As the door opened, little did I realize that a whole new world was opening to me.

The lighthouse was warm and welcoming. I felt very comfortable and very “at home.” The historical society was doing a wonderful job of restoration. The original woodwork and floors were polished to perfection. My personal tour began as we walked down the hallway, past a staircase that gleamed in the sunlight, to the kitchen where Marilyn told me about the old wood stove, the cupboards, and the utensils that were used in the late 1800s.

She then smiled innocently as she placed her hands on the back of one of the four kitchen chairs. “This table belonged to Captain Joseph Willy Townshend who was keeper of Seul Choix from 1901 until his death in an upstairs bedroom in 1910.

We found the table in four pieces in four separate corners of the basement about seven years ago.” As I walked around the table, I could smell the sweet pungent smell of a good cigar. I ignored it as she continued, “Everything had been fine up until that day, Jan. It was after we put the table together and put it here in the kitchen that things begin to happen. “Things?” I questioned. She smiled again and said, “Yes, like the cigar smoke you smell right now. Captain Townshend’s wife wouldn’t let him smoke his cigars in the house back then, but she’s not here anymore... is she?” Her cheeks dimpled as she led me into the dining room. I admit somewhat of a chill ran up my spine as I followed her.

The table in there was set for eight dinner guests. Sparkling silverware and wineglasses complemented the place settings. An old buffet stretched along the end wall. Pictures of even older people in oval frames watched us.

Marilyn stood leaning against the buffet as I paused to look at an old sewing mannequin that was dressed in a light keeper’s uniform. She explained in a soft voice, that was almost a whisper, an assortment of small photographs, cups, saucers and jewelry that filled the small cupboard next me. I commented on the beauty of the room and how warm and appealing it felt to me as I joined her next to the old buffet. There was a Bible at one end and a silver tea service centered beneath a ghastly picture of an older man with a white beard. She noticed my glance and said, “That’s Captain Townshend. He really isn’t as frightening as he looks.”

She ran her hand gently over the leather cover of the Bible. “This,” she said, “was donated by the descendants of Captain Townshend. When we were in here cleaning out the spiders and dead bats last spring, it slammed shut with such force we thought it was going to go through the top of the buffet. None of us were anywhere near it. The Captain doesn’t like spring cleaning,” she said over her shoulder as we left the room to enter the parlor. I couldn’t help but feel my skin crawl as I hurried to keep up with her. We continued through the parlor without incident.

It was hot that day with not a breath of wind. Some people called this time of year Indian Summer. I suddenly felt tired and headachy. “Marilyn, can we take a break?” I asked. I was still smoking at that time and felt the need for nicotine badly. “Sure,” she replied as she led the way to the back porch and a wooden bench that looked to be a hundred years old. “So tell me, Mar,” I said as I lit up a cigarette and inhaled deeply. “You mentioned when you found the table, things began to happen. What did you mean by “things?” It was at that moment I heard the tinkling of a bell and watched the back door gently open and close. A sudden gust of wind out of nowhere slammed the outer screen door back on its hinges. Then, all was quiet again.

“Do you believe in ghosts, Jan?” she asked. “I don’t know,” I replied as I lit up another cigarette. “I don’t know that I would blame that door thing just now on ghosts.”

“I do,” she replied, “and I think you will too. Why don’t you plan on spending a week in one of the cottages at Old Deerfield and we’ll go ghost hunting after I’m done with work at night, or are you a sissy girl?” she laughed. My tour continued without further incident.

With deer season and the holidays fast approaching, we couldn’t get together but for short visits until the following spring. Being inspired by my visit that day to the lighthouse, I spent that winter writing my first children’s book, The Captain and Harry, a haunting tail of Seul Choix Point Lighthouse. I had reservations for a cabin for the second week in June.

Marilyn and her husband Glen are owners of the Old Deerfield Resort. There is a restaurant and twenty-eight cabins that string along Gulliver Lake like a necklace. Marilyn was waiting for me on the steps of the restaurant as I drove up. “Drive down to cabin 17, Jan. It’s on the left. I’ll follow you,” she called to me. Cabin 17 sat on the shoreline of the lake. I unpacked the Jeep, popped a can of Pepsi and waited for Marilyn to join me at the picnic table under a huge pine tree.

We had become good friends during the past few months., and we giggled and laughed like teenagers as we laid out our plans for the week. She told me stories of the Captain’s latest activities at the lighthouse. “He really doesn’t like spring cleaning and he lets that fact be known every spring. Lights go on and off, bells ring, and last week one of the state troopers who had come down to investigate after the alarm system went off told us he heard voices in the kitchen. But when we searched the premises no one was there. Cigar smoke comes and goes. Silverware moves, as do plates and cups. He has been seen in an upstairs window by two tour guides and in the dining room window by a local guy who was painting the garage at the time. And recently the tour guides reported seeing images of people in a large round mirror in an upstairs bedroom. His bedroom.”

“Images of what?” I asked.

“Spirits. Grandma saw a woman in a wedding gown with flowers trailing down the front of the dress. Jim told us he had seen the Captain himself. Maude said she has seen an older woman who looked like one of the Goudreaus that has been dead for 40 years.”

My first encounter with Captain Joseph Willy Townshend came that very evening. It was a good eight miles drive from Old Deerfield to the lighthouse. We passed an old Indian cemetery filled with bones and spooky stories, the kind that scoutmasters tell kids on camping trips. I was startled to see a flashing light over the treetops in the midst of a pitch-black night without stars or moon. As we pulled around a curve I could see that it was the lighthouse beacon. My heart thudded just a little as I saw the outline of the lighthouse tower in the darkness. “That’s funny,” said Marilyn “the parking lot lamp is out. The tour guides must have forgotten to turn it on when they left. We’ll have to go down to the basement and turn it on. Do you mind, Jan?”

Mind? Me mind? Go down into the basement of a dwelling in the dead of night that, by all indications of everyone I had spoken to about Seul Choix Point Lighthouse, was haunted. Mind? Yes, I minded. I didn’t say a word. She gave me that Marilyn grin as we followed her flashlight beam down the walkway to the porch by the lighthouse tower. It was a quiet night. In the distance, I could hear the gentle lapping of the waves against the rocky shoreline. We entered the lighthouse residence through the back door next to the log room entry. Although I put on a good front for Marilyn, I was hesitantly scared. Do you know what I mean by hesitantly?

She switched on lights as we passed the stairway that led to the upstairs bedrooms. The bedroom where the Captain died. The bedroom where the strange mirror was located and its haunting images. The same stairway where many people have seen the Captain leaning on the banister.

We continued our way to the door that led to the basement. The hair on the back of my neck stood straight up as I followed her as close as possible, without being indecent, down the curved stone steps. The basement lights were not working. It figures, I thought to myself. She turned the switch on and off several times. Nothing. Goosebumps marched down my arms.

“Come on, this way,” she said as the flashlight slid across stone-lined walls. “They embalmed the Captain here,” she whispered as she pushed the flashlight beam over the massive stone sinks that we were passing. “What do you mean, embalmed him?” I asked. “They drained his blood from him and then filled his body cavity with salt.” “You’re kidding me, right?” I answered.

The flashlight beam slipped up some stone steps. “They carried his body up these cellar steps to the casket and the wagon that waited outside.” By this time I was clinging to the back of her shirt and walking with shuffling steps as I followed her. I was hoping I wouldn’t see anything in the surrounding darkness. The dark menacing corners of the basement crouched in wait for me. Please, please, don’t let anything show up down here, I thought to myself. “Here, Jan, hold the flashlight for a minute. A ha, here’s the switch and its... on? What the heck... it must be burned out.” She flicked it an and off several times. “Well, I better keep it on off. I am always so worried about a short in the wiring down here.” One more time she pulled the handle into the off position.

I breathed easier as we reached the top of the stairs and overhead lighting that reached into the dark corners and angles of the main floor rooms. “Are you here tonight, Captain Townshend?” Marilyn whispered as we paused in the hallway. I must have jumped a mile. I grabbed her arm. “Where is he? Can you see him?” I exclaimed.

“No,” she laughed. “I can’t see him but I can sense ...something. Let’s go to the kitchen.” I sat at the kitchen table and looked up at the fan that the historical society had installed that early spring. Its slight breeze felt wonderful on my sweaty forehead. Marilyn continued to tell me more details of the Captain’s death as she leaned against the side cupboard that ran along the entire length of the kitchen wall. If, I thought, this place is really haunted by the Captain, I wonder what he thinks of the addition of a modern fan? At that moment, I smelled the cigar smoke. Strong. “Marilyn...do you smell it?”

“Yeah”

“It’s gone now.”

“It does that. Comes and goes in an instant.”

I felt goosebumps chase each other on my arms and legs. They were getting to be old friends. I looked at Marilyn. She was standing up at attention. Beads of perspiration formed on her forehead. And then, once again, cigar smoke permeated the air. Marilyn started to shake all over. I reached for her and grabbed her hand. A frigid wall of air circled us. My spine was ice and chills covered my hands and legs. Suddenly, the cigar smoke was gone: so was the cold and Marilyn was herself again.

“What was that all about? What happened to you?” I anxiously questioned. “I could see him, Jan. Over there by the back door. He just stood there and watched us.”

I don’t know why I did what I did next, but I leaned over to the kitchen window and looked out at the darkened lamp. “If you are here, Captain Townshend, blink twice.” It did. Twice. Like the headlights of an oncoming semi. I fell back against the table. “My God,” said Marilyn. “He has just given you proof that he is here. He must approve of you.” Great, I thought. That’s just great. My heart was pounding wildly.

“I think that’s enough for tonight, Jan. Are you ready to go?” she asked quietly. Was I ready...my hands were shaking and my legs felt like rubber bands. Was I ready to go...oh yeah “Uh Huh,” I said out loud nodding my head.

Our conversation was limited to, maybe the light switch has a short, as we drove back to Old Deerfield. When I opened the door of the truck, she asked, “So, Jan, now do you believe in ghosts?” I lit up a cigarette and leaned back in the seat. I looked up at the stars that finally decided to puncture the darkness of the night. “A little bit more than I did yesterday,” I answered.

And that was the beginning of a summer of introductions to the ghost of Captain Joseph Willy Townshend. From silverware moving, ghostly fogs on the grounds of the lighthouse, dead camera batteries, images in the mirror of the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, and so many other instances of unexplained phenomena that summer (by the Captain and other spirits of the lighthouse) that I have become a kook, a nut, one of the crazies . . . a firm believer in ghosts, at the Seul Choix Point Lighthouse.

If you want to see the ghosts for yourself, Seul Choix Lighthouse will be open until mid-October and also for a week at Christmas.

This story appeared in the October 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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