The Strange Mystery of the South Bass Island Lighthouse

Photo Credit: Toledo-Lucas County Public Library

This popular island attraction, the South Bass Island Lighthouse, was built in 1897 and, after just over a year of operation, it had already earned its place among the many tales of Ohio ghostly folklore. The tale is damn near Lovecraftian in many respects.

An experienced naval officer, named Harry H. Riley, was the first lighthouse keeper to be stationed here. He would also become its most famous.

He and his wife moved into the lighthouse on July 10, 1897. Things ran like clockwork for quite some time, but after a year Harry realized he could use a helping hand now and then to maintain the basic upkeep of the building and grounds.

On August 9 of 1898, Harry officially hired on Samuel Anderson as a part-time caretaker. Samuel jumped at the chance for the work, especially since wouldn’t interfere with his current job duties at the Hotel Victory nearby. Better still, Harry allowed Samuel room and board as part of his compensation. Space was made in the basement of the lighthouse and Samuel moved in right away.

But, old Samuel… well, he was a bit of an odd duck. An eccentric fellow, at least. And, perhaps, not quite as mentally stable as Harry would’ve liked. He did his jobs well, but he seemed to keep to himself a lot. His only real companions seemed to be the collection of live snakes he would find on the island and keep as pets in the lighthouse’s basement with him.

Now, at some point during the summer of 1898, a smallpox epidemic broke out and the island was placed under quarantine. No one enters. No one leaves. As time passed and the news of the outbreak seeming more and more grim, Samuel began to grow paranoid he would catch it.

On August 30, just a few weeks after being hired on at the lighthouse, Samuel, fearing for his health, tried leaving for a safer area. Before he could get very far, troops who had been sent in to enforce the quarantine were able to stop him and escort him back to the lighthouse.

It was reported that he refused to enter the lighthouse and was seen wandering the grounds aimlessly around it. Several people even reported hearing Samuel howling for most of that night.

Howling. Not screaming. Not yelling. Howling.

When dawn broke over the island, Samuel was nowhere to be found.

Searchers found him dead at the base of a cliff near the lighthouse. To this day, no one is really sure how he died. Did he fall? In his paranoia-induced panic, did he jump? Or, was he pushed? No one knows. But, since there were no real signs of foul play, the Lighthouse Board ruled Samuel’s death as a suicide.

The story doesn’t end there, though.

Just days later, on September 2, Harry was found on the mainland, wandering around near the city of Sandusky. He seemed delirious and under the influence of something.

Harry was heard telling all who would listen that he had the fastest horse in the area. He would approach total strangers and invite them to the fairgrounds just so they could see how fast it would go and claimed it was fast enough to break any speed record.

The Riley’s did not own any horses.

Some records say that Harry was promptly arrested for being drunk and disorderly while some other accounts say the officers immediately charged him with being “an insane person.”

Either way, Harry Riley was committed to an asylum in Toledo for observation and evaluation.

While Harry was away, it was his wife and a man named Otto Richey who ran the lighthouse. When the Lighthouse Board officially relieved Harry Riley of his post on February 23, 1899, they cited Riley’s condition as “hopelessly insane” as grounds for his termination.

Harry Riley never left asylum. He died in the institution in March of 1899. Due to privacy laws, there are no public records detailing the cause of death. One can only speculate.

No official connections were ever made between Samuel’s death and Harry’s sudden insanity. Just rumors, which is how things sometimes go in a small town, especially one contained to a single island. Locals speculated that Harry knew more about Samuel’s death than he was letting on and that knowledge was what drove him to the point of madness.

What is known is that claims of paranormal activity inside the lighthouse began to circulate soon after the tragic events of that August night had seemed to become a distant memory in the minds of native islanders.

A 1907 article in Ohio Magazine, written by Lydia J. Ryall, seemed to make public what everyone suspected in private: The ghost of Samuel Anderson continues to walk the grounds of the South Bass Island Lighthouse.

Strangely, another death occurred here in April of 1925. It was a death similar to the one that befell poor Samuel.

Charles B. Duggan, who had been the lighthouse keeper since 1908, was also found dead at the base of a cliff near the lighthouse. I don’t mention it here to suggest any kind of connection. I just think it’s odd.

The last lighthouse keeper moved out in 1962 when the U.S. Coast Guard took it over and decided to automate its operation.

In 1967, it was purchased by Ohio University for use as a research facility.

John Kleberg, a retired assistant vice-president at OSU, had this to say about the claims of ghostly activity,

“Over the years there have been a few staff people who simply refused to stay out there,” he said.

Though Mr. Kleberg says he’s never experienced anything odd there himself, he does say that others have reported hearing odd noises and the feeling of being watched.

Many still believe that the ghost of Samuel Anderson still haunts the South Bass Island Lighthouse. If you could go into the basement, maybe you might catch a glimpse of him. Unfortunately, that part of the lighthouse is off-limits to visitors.

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