Annie Svendsen steps cautiously and alone up a winding stone staircase in the dark, stiff ocean winds sending banshee howls through the tower’s open windows. As she ascends up and around and around, light from the oil lantern that guides her casts spooky shadows off the claustrophobic confines of those tight, twisting walls. The unknown that awaits her behind each bend fills her imagination with macabre possibilities as she makes her way — 129 steps and 104 feet — to the top of the St. Simons Lighthouse on this night in 1908.
After all that, Annie finally gets to the top only to discover the dang mechanism is fouled up that is supposed to keep the lighthouse casting a guiding light to offshore mariners. Her husband, Carl Svendsen, the actual light keeper, is out of town. It is up to her, so it seems.
And that is when she first saw the ghost. Well, she asked for it. And Frederick Osborne was a friendly ghost, by all accounts of this historic paranormal encounter. It is the main reason that Coastal Magazine once ranked our St. Simons Lighthouse at No. 4 on its list of Top 15 Haunted Lighthouses. And back in 1908, we are told, her ghost tale with the happy ending made national headlines.
I mentioned above that Osborne was a friendly ghost. Contrite might be more accurate. After all it was his impertinent rebuke of his assistant’s wife that earned him ghost status to begin with.
Frederick Osborne served as the lighthouse’s keeper from 1874 to ‘80. His assistance at the end was John Stephens. Both were married men. The four of them lived together in the lighthouse keeper’s house, which connects to the tower itself. Osborne and his wife lived on the ground floor and Stephens and his wife on the second floor. These must have been tight confines for two men and two women, joined solely by the work arrangement that bound the guys.
On top of that, several accounts back then paint Osborne as a stickler for details — his details. He could be quick to point out the shortcomings of his subordinates, it was said.
“He has several assistants during his short time there, let’s put it that way,” said Sandy Jensen, Education Director for Coastal Georgia Historical Society.
Stephen had probably had it up to there with Osborne’s berating ways for quite some time. But when Osborne snapped at Stephens’ wife, well, that was the last straw.
“It seems there had been bad blood 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,” the Brunswick Advertiser and Appeal reported in the March 6, 1880, edition of the paper.
Osborne drew a pistol and ordered Stephens to stand down. Stephens sought to explore other possibilities. At this point, “Stephens went back into the house, took down his double-barreled shotgun (which had been previously loaded with buckshot for deer hunting) ... “
So armed, “as Osborne advanced along the path near the fence, leading to the gate, Stephens fired, a distance of 90 feet, hitting him in four places ...”
This included the gut shot that proved fatal several days later. “It is an affair very much regretted by many friends of both parties,” the Advertiser and Appeal reported.
Stephens was arrested and charged with murder. The March 13 edition of the Advertiser & Appeal indicated Stephens showed an admirable degree of regret afterward. “It is a fact worthy of much praise that as soon as he shot Osborne, Stevens (sic) sent at once for medical assistance for the wounded man, repaired immediately to Brunswick and gave himself up to the proper authorities ... “
After posting bond, Stephens returned to St. Simons Island and went immediately back to work at the lighthouse, “and has been doing double-duty since,” the paper reported. A jury later acquitted Stephens, who continued to work at the lighthouse.
“Nobody other than him knew how to run the lighthouse,” Jensen said.
Apparitions of his dead boss wasted little time in making their presence known to Stephens, according to some accounts. “Stephens later reported hearing footsteps ascending and descending the tower steps and blamed it on Osborne’s ghost,” according to a Wikipedia entry on the St. Simons Lighthouse.
Osborne’s ghost also is reputed to have given Stephens’ dog the heebie-jeebies. Twenty-eight years later, the old ghost of Osborne was reportedly giving constant fits to Jinx, the family dog of light keeper Carl Svendsen.
And it was very likely Annie Svendsen was all too aware of his spectral spectacles. Eerie Obsorne-ish apparitions and audible plodding of invisible footsteps had long become an irregular occurrence at the lighthouse by then.
So, with no other solution to fixing the faulty mechanism on that dark night, Annie called on the the Ghost of Mr. Osborne to make himself useful for once.
“’Well, come and fix it now,”’ she said to Osborne, according to ExploreSouthernHistory.com. “There was a clink and a rattle.”
And, clear as day, there stood Frederick Osborne, looking no worse for the wear and tear of having been dead these 28 years. However appreciative Annie was for the help, she fainted posthaste, the story goes.
But when she awoke, the light mechanism was in fine working order. The light was casting its beacon out to sea. And the ghost of Osborne was long gone.
Some speculated that is what Osborne had been doing up there all along, keeping the light he was entrusted to maintain on the day he died. Plenty of Ghost Tour guides on the island will be glad to tell you Osborne is on the job still today.
“Reports of Osborne haunting the lighthouse made national news in 1908 and his ghost is one of the most popular stories in the South,” according to Paranormal United States.