The true story of Maggie Comer and the Haig Point Lighthouse.
By Carolyn Males
Let me state it right off. The Haig Point Lighthouse does not have a ghost named Maggie who pads up and down the stairs of its two floors. Nor does this specter spend evenings mingling with present-day guests on its porch overlooking the Calibogue Sound. Oh, yes. She’s certainly part of the folklore surrounding the iconic 1873 structure-turned B&B in this Daufuskie resort community, but the real life Maggie’s tale isn’t anything like those you may have heard.
Folklore, spread by imaginative souls, is often perpetuated like a game of “Gossip” where someone whispers something in someone’s ear, who whispers in another’s, and so on down the line until you get to a story that is nothing like the original.
Hang in with me because we’re going to do a reverse “gossip” on this one. I’ll walk you through the tall tales first; then we’ll end up with what really happened.
Our guide to these legends and the true backstory is Jenny Hersch, co-author of Images of America Daufuskie Island. She pointed me in the direction of a couple of these spirit-driven fantasies about Maggie, a 19th century lighthouse keeper’s daughter, and then gave me the facts, leaving me scratching my head, wondering just who dreamed up each fictional twist and why.
In one version, Maggie is a young maiden who dies of a broken heart when she and her beloved, a naval engineer, break up and he sails off into the sunset. Apparently, her ghost still wanders restlessly about the rooms, although it isn’t clear why. But, unlike her more miserable counterparts elsewhere at least she doesn’t seem to hang around sobbing. Instead, she’s kind of like a ghostly welcome wagon, greeting today’s visitors warmly.
In another more elaborate narrative, her suitor is a married guy from Michigan hired by the Navy to work on lighthouse lanterns. Here we’re told he kept a diary where he wrote a couple of “intense” lines about being enraptured by Maggie’s “sweet face” during a Christmastime visit to the lighthouse. However, a few days later he scribbles that he can never return. At this point, the story gets murky with innuendos about a clandestine affair and Maggie’s fragile mental state, although I’d suspect something about our mysterious diarist already having a wife may have come into play. Fast forward to modern times when Maggie’s ghost, perhaps annoyed by all the sawing and hammering on a lighthouse restoration project, takes to startling and annoying the workmen. It ends with a supervisor having a heart-to-heart with the unhappy apparition who apparently agrees to leave them alone.
And then there’s the made-for-Hollywood melodrama. It opens with Patrick and Bridget Comer coming to Daufuskie in 1873. In between keeping the lantern lit and assisting ships navigating the Calibogue Sound, the childless couple tend their gardens and boil water to drink. So far so good. Then Magaidh or Maggie, as they called her, is born. She spends her childhood in idyllic bliss wandering along the beach, collecting shells.
Then tragedy! In September 1886, Charleston is struck by an earthquake so strong that its shock waves send the Haig Point lighthouse walls and ceilings a-crumbling (which actually did happen). Flood waters rise, mosquitos breed furiously, and a malaria-infected one bites Maggie. A month later she is dead. Devastated, her father Patrick takes to bed for his final five years. (Here we must presume someone repaired the falling walls.) Mysteriously, at this point, her mother Bridget disappears from the tale, although we hope she’d at least be keeping the lantern lit while Patrick fades away. Nowadays on moonlit nights visitors, we’re told, catch whiffs of honeysuckle, and the vacant middle chair on the lighthouse porch begins rocking.
Needless to say, all these stories do not sit well with Maggie’s descendants. That’s because the real flesh-and-blood Maggie’s life had a very different trajectory. Once again we start in 1873 with Patrick Comer assigned to the Haig Point Lighthouse and wife Bridget serving as assistant keeper. They arrive on the island with their two daughters, 15-year-old Mary Ellen and her younger sister, Maggie. Six year later, Captain Walter John Thompson, a bar pilot for the Savannah Harbor, comes a-courting and marries Mary Ellen. They go off to Savannah and have five children, two of whom die young.
Meanwhile over on Daufuskie, after Bridget passes away in 1885, Patrick and Maggie continue living at the lighthouse until his death six years later. Richard Stonebridge then takes over as Haig Point’s keeper.
But what of Maggie? Four years after her sister Mary Ellen died in 1895, she would marry that same Captain Thompson and raise the three surviving children in Savannah. She would die in 1930 at age 65 and is buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery.
It is here that we now let Maggie’s ghost rest in peace.