History Mystery #21: Ghost Light on Graveyard Shoal

Author: Elizabeth McDavid Jones

Illustrators: Greg Dearth and Douglas Fryer

Publishing Year: 2003

Setting:  Glenn Island, off the coast of Virginia, spring 1895


One stormy night in May, twelve-year-old Rhoda Midyette is awakened by her mother. Her father, who is in charge of the US Lifesaving Station for the area, is out doing a rescue. Rhoda and her mother are to meet them at the beach and help the survivors to their house, where they'll give them plenty of food and hot coffee. It's a bad storm, and the rescue boat itself capsizes near shore. Fortunately, the rescue crew on shore is able to help everyone safely to land. As the excitement dies down, Rhoda takes a moment to talk with Mr. Kimball, her father's best friend and her own best friend's father. Her best friend, Pearl, has been sick with rheumatic fever for a few weeks, and Mr. Kimball sadly reports that she's not getting better. Rhoda gets permission to visit, and sees that Pearl is indeed ill. She's very weak and pale. Her father is afraid she'll waste away like her mother did years before. But Pearl still has her exuberant personality--her body just can't let her show it much. There is an experimental treatment in Norfolk, but it's too expensive for Pearl's family (just her father and her frail grandmother) to afford. To keep both their minds off the possibility that Pearl might succumb to the disease, Rhoda tells her ghost stories, a favorite pastime of theirs. On the way home, she sees a strange light bobbing on the waves and spooks herself, thinking it's a ghost ship.

On the way to school the next morning, Rhoda sends her three younger sisters on ahead while she takes a detour to the beach. She sees footprints and hoofprints in such a pattern that she surmises a wrecker must be on the island--a person who deliberately tricks passing ships into thinking that there's safe passage by hanging a lantern on a horse to imitate a bobbing boat, and then loots the resulting shipwreck. Rhoda had heard stories but never really believed them. Even now she can't really believe someone she knows (it's a small island) could commit such callous acts of murder. Rhoda also spies a whelk shell with a hole in the end (sea stars eat shellfish by drilling holes like this), making the shell into a perfect horn. She decides to take it for Pearl.

When Rhoda visits her friend after school, she tells her about the possible wrecker. Pearl's grandmother overhears, and tells them about the time she saw a gruesome shipwreck caused by a wrecker. Rumors still float around the island that one of those who died is a ghost, the Mangled Mariner. Rhoda starts to wonder if she saw a ghost. She tells her father about the light and the tracks, but he doesn't think there's a wrecker. The hoofprints are from one of his workers walking his horse--with no lantern to deceive sailors. Rhoda feels embarrassed for bothering him at work--he only has one day off a week--and goes to hunt for the turtle eggs she promised Pearl. She sees the light again that night. And a few nights later, she overhears Mr. Kimball arguing with someone about not doing something no matter how much money he's offered--is be being blackmailed, forced to do something so he can afford treatment for Pearl? Surely he can't be the wrecker...can he?

Rhoda takes a moment to peek into the shed on the Kimballs' property. There's a lantern hidden there, and other things that seem to indicate Mr. Kimball might be the wrecker. Could he really be that desperate to raise money? Pearl surprises Rhoda in the shed, having stumbled out to see why Rhoda's going through her father's railroad work equipment, and accuses Rhoda of not trusting her family (Pearl doesn't know that Rhoda is wondering if Mr. Kimball is a wrecker). Pearl faints then, and Rhoda gets her back in bed and runs to get Mr. Kimball from the Lifesaving Station. While there, Rhoda also tries to talk to her father, but he's too busy. Rhoda finds herself confiding in another worker, Harlan. He worriedly reveals that Mr. Kimball has been acting strangely, and tells Rhoda to keep her suspicions secret for now. The two set a trap for for Mr. Kimball, Rhoda feeling awful about every bit of the situation. She stops by to see Pearl again.

Much to Rhoda's surprise, Pearl is out of bed. And she's furious with Rhoda for sneaking around the shack. Rhoda tries to explain without letting on the horrible things she suspects Mr. Kimball is doing when Mr, Kimball himself comes home, with the man who was threatening him earlier. Rhoda and Pearl hide and overhear bits of conversation. When the other man leaves, Pearl confronts her father, who confesses--but not what Rhoda expected, to her relief: he's a thief, not a murderer. He didn't quit his railroad job to come work at the Lifesaving Service. He was fired, and stole some equipment he felt he deserved, figuring he could sell it to get enough money to scrape by. But when he was offered an honest job, he never did sell the items. When Pearl became so ill, he made a shady deal to sell them under market value, only agreeing to the low price because of how they'd been stolen in the first place. Then he says something during the course of his confession that makes Rhoda realize Harlan might be up to something!

Rhoda rushes to the beach where she'd seen the light. Harlan is there, leading a horse with a lantern. And a ship is headed for the rocks, deceived by his treachery. Thinking quickly, Rhoda blows on the whelk shell, scaring the horse and making it bolt, taking the lantern with it. Harlan gives chase, and Rhoda runs back to the Kimballs'. Mr. Kimball takes her to the Lifesaving Station, where they find the man who bought the stolen railroad equipment, reporting a wreck--the one Rhoda just prevented. Harlan had been alerting him about the wrecks so he could claim them (and whatever unclaimed money was within) and split the profits. The man says he didn't know that Harlan deliberately lured the boats--two or three including this night's. Rhoda's father is shaken that Harlan slipped under his radar like that. Two people died in the last wreck. But he's proud that his daughter thought quickly enough to save this last boat. A few days later, a small boat Harlan was known to have used was found wrecked. He most likely drowned.

The book ends with a letter from Rhoda to Pearl, written in August. Pearl is convalescing well in Norfolk, and might be home as early as September. Rhoda hopes, like Pearl does, that they can pick up their friendship right where they left it.

A Peek into the Past

Due to the high volume of shipwrecks on the Atlantic coast of the US, Congress established the United States Lifesaving Service in 1878. The service expanded to include the Pacific Northwest, Gulf of Mexico, Great Lakes, and treacherous rivers. It became part of the Coast Guard in 1915, by then credited with saving 178,000 lives.


Dedicated to "Mr. Thomas Scheft, my seventh-grade English teacher, who was the first to ell me I would someday be an author, and to all the Mr. Schefts everywhere, those teachers par excellence who truly believe in their students."

My grandmother had rheumatic fever as a child, and it damaged her heart permanently.

There's no solid evidence that wreckers existed, but the idea hasn't been disproven either.

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