Wreck of the Josephus at Highland (Cape Cod) Lighthouse: Miracle Amongst Tragedy
The ocean waters in New England remain pretty cold during the spring months from the cold Atlantic currents until late May, when they finally begin to warm up. The keeper of any lighthouse must maintain the light to guide mariners in all types of New England weather. One of the problematic aspects of any keeper’s job, especially when involved in any rescue attempt, is that they must decide in perilous situations how much risk they must put their lives through to save those in distress offshore. It is also equally as difficult for local mariners to observe those in distress without trying to help. It is in our nature to help those in need, sometimes at the point of possibly risking our lives.
Enoch Hamilton became keeper at Highland (Cape Cod) Light in 1850. The worst wreck recorded at Highland Light occurred during Keeper Hamilton’s tenure. During a violent afternoon storm shrouded in heavy fog on April 20, 1852, the British vessel Josephus, (referred to also as the Josepha), with a cargo of iron rails, skins, and white lead, struck a dangerous outer sandbar of the Peaked Hill Bars, about a mile from Cape Cod Lighthouse, and a half-mile from the beach nearby. The ship broke apart with its heavy cargo, spilling most of the crew into the freezing winter waters.
By late afternoon, the fog was lifting. Two boys walking along the windy shore saw the wreck and heard the cries for help. They ran to the lighthouse as fast as possible and informed Keeper Hamilton of the wreck. The keeper immediately sent a messenger to run into the nearby town of Truro about a mile away, yelling through the streets, “A ship ashore and all hands perishing!”
The keeper dragged a lighthouse dory down to the beach, but the seas and high winds were too dangerous, so Keeper Hamilton decided to make the heart-wrenching decision to remain ashore and not risk any of his crew. Many of the townsfolk came to the beach and could hear the cries of the victims from the wreck. By 7 o’clock that evening, the screams for help from the ill-fated vessel were too much for local fisherman Jonathan Collins to bear. He persuaded Keeper Hamilton to use the lighthouse dory and started to drag the dory toward the beach against the pleas of Hamilton and his neighbors. Daniel Cassity joined his friend as they set off for the wreck. As the boat approached the wreck, a huge wave washed over the boat, capsizing the craft into freezing waters. Many watched in anguish as they witnessed their neighbors perish under the waves.
As the screams from the wreck subsided and the night wore on, fires were lit on shore for any survivors. At around 11 o’clock, Hamilton and a companion were walking along the shoreline and were shocked to find one of the crew members of the Josepha, George Chitney, kneeling before one of the fires. Exhausted, badly bruised, and frozen, he told them he and a fellow crew member, John Jasper, whom he believed was dying, were clinging to pieces of timber from the wreck and felt both were being carried ashore. They found Jasper only a short distance away, in bad shape from hypothermia, but alive.
As the night progressed into the following day, only six bodies of the 16 crew members were recovered. The body of young Daniel Cassity was found and given a proper burial in Truro.
At the lighthouse, the physician was called in early in the morning and found survivor John Jasper with a high fever, with his hands and feet still very swollen. The two men, who miraculously survived the wreck, stayed at the lighthouse for a few days until they were well enough to be moved to the local hospital.
Both men survived the ordeal. Years afterward, one of the survivors of the Josephus, John Jasper, later became the captain of a trans-Atlantic ocean liner. When his vessel passed Cape Cod (Highland) Light and Keeper Hamilton, he would dip the flag as a signal of respect to Keeper Hamilton for helping to save his life and sound the horn to memorialize his fellow comrades who had perished.
Exploring Cape Cod (Highland) Lighthouse and Nearby Attractions
The grounds of Cape Cod Lighthouse are open year-round, and visitors will find occasional tours up into the lighthouse tower offered during the summer months. The lighthouse also is part of the Highland House Museum for visitors to enjoy. The lighthouse is on the Cape Cod National Seashore, providing plenty of hiking and biking trails with nearly 30 miles of protected beach areas. In Truro, visitors can stop by and enjoy wine tasting at the Truro Vineyards.
Here are some photos I’ve taken of Highland Lighthouse on Cape Cod.
Be safe and enjoy your summer,
The Rise and Demise of the Largest Sailing Ships: Stories of the Six and Seven-Masted Coal Schooners of New England. In the early 1900s, New England shipbuilders constructed the world’s largest sailing ships amid social and political reforms. These giants were the ten original six-masted coal schooners and one colossal seven-masted vessel, built to carry massive quantities of coal and building supplies and measured longer than a football field! This book, balanced with plenty of color and vintage images, showcases the historical accounts that followed these mighty ships.
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My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Southern New England: Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, provides memorable human interest stories from each of the 92 lighthouses, like the wreck of the Josephus story mentioned above, along with plenty of indoor and outdoor coastal attractions you can explore. These include whale-watching excursions, lighthouse tours, windjammer sailing tours and adventures, unique parks and museums, and even lighthouses where you can stay overnight. You’ll also find plenty of stories of shipwrecks and rescues. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for weekly and weekend explorers. You’ll also find plenty of stories of hauntings around lighthouses.
My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Northern New England: New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont, provides special human interest stories from each of the 76 lighthouses, along with plenty of indoor and outdoor coastal attractions you can explore and tours. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for weekly and weekend explorers. Attractions and tours also include whale watching tours, lighthouse tours, windjammer sailing tours and adventures, unique parks and museums, and lighthouses where you can stay overnight. There are also stories of haunted lighthouses in these regions.
Included are details of the story of the wreck of the Josephus at Highland Light, along with over 50 other stories in my book New England Lighthouses: Famous Shipwrecks, Rescues & Other Tales. This image-rich book also contains vintage images provided by the Coast Guard and various organizations and paintings by six famous artists of the Coast Guard.
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