The Smalls Lighthouse Tragedy

This is a story about a lighthouse, which might make it sound quite tame.

It isn’t.

As someone who writes psychological thrillers, I find it fascinating to read about true crime and unexplained mysteries – everything from people disappearing into thin air to being found dead in seemingly impossible circumstances. This story isn’t any of those things – none of it is unexplained and technically no crime was committed (as far as we know).

But it’s still a horror tale worthy of Edgar Allan Poe.

Prologue aside, let’s get into the story of Thomas Howell, Thomas Griffith, and the tragedy of Smalls Lighthouse.

The Smalls Lighthouse

The Smalls lighthouse was built in 1776, on a collection of rocks about twenty miles off the coast of Wales (known as The Smalls).

Back then, lighthouses weren’t the solid, cylindrical structures that we see today, shooting up into the sky and towering over their domain.  The Smalls Lighthouse was essentially a rickety little hut, suspended above the ground on massive stalks which jutted out menacingly like the legs of a gargantuan spider.

The ceiling of the lighthouse hut – the body of the huge arachnid – had a trapdoor leading up to the lamp, which gave the keepers easy access without having to go outside and brave the elements. There was also a short shelf running around the perimeter of the hut – surrounded by railings – which allowed the keepers to undertake any repair work on the exterior when necessary. It was all very self-contained, mitigating the need for the keepers to go outside in heavy storms.

The original spider legs were quickly found to be too weak, so work was done to reinforce them.  The massive arachnid now had a suit of armour.

If only the lighthouse keepers had been as protected.

Thomas Howell and Thomas Griffith

The only thing Thomas’ Howell and Griffith had in common was their first name.

Once installed as lighthouse keepers, they immediately took a dislike to each other, spending hours arguing and fighting. Physical altercations and scuffles soon followed, often in public houses where other patrons would hastily make their escape to avoid the scene. The two men couldn’t agree on anything, clashing on even the most mundane and inconsequential of topics. The animosity was clear to everyone.

Which is why, when Thomas Griffith died in the lighthouse one night (either in a freak accident or through illness – the records are unclear), Thomas Howell knew he would immediately be under suspicion of murder. The whole world knew they hated each other – Howell could already hear the accusations flying that a fight had gone too far and he had killed his colleague.

His solution?

Keep the body in the lighthouse so that when he was eventually rescued – storms howled around the lighthouse by this time so it was impossible for him to simply leave – it would be clear from examining the body that there had been no foul play. If he disposed of the body into the sea or by some other means, there’d be no way of proving his innocence.

So, Howell decided to live with the corpse of Griffith, which from the records we have was a very short lived solution. And, without getting too descriptive, how could it be anything else?

Sharing a cramped hut with a person you hate is one thing, but sharing it with a rapidly decomposing body is quite another…

The Corpse Problem

Howell needed a different solution.  After considering his options, he devised a plan worthy of MacGyver.

Howell was a cooper, which meant he was accustomed to building huge wooden barrels and manipulating the material to fit a specific shape. So he collected various pieces of wood from around the hut and managed to build a makeshift coffin for his former colleague.

Once it was finished, he hefted his former colleague inside – Griffith had not been a small man – and then dragged the wooden box onto the lighthouse shelf. Once there, he secured it to the railings so as to ensure the heavy winds would not result in the very occurrence he was trying to prevent – the body disappearing into the sea and Howell’s innocence being disputed.

Satisfied with his ingenuity and craftsmanship, he hoisted up a distress signal, knowing it was only a matter of time before a rescue boat would arrive.

In the meantime, with the coffin was securely affixed to the railings, Howell got back to work.  He toiled to keep the lighthouse functioning as best he could, essentially doing the work of two men.  He scurried up and down the trapdoor to the lamp, maintaining it and ensuring that it continued to light the way for mariners so as to avoid any disasters.

The plan worked. It worked perfectly.

Until it spectacularly didn’t.

The storms ratcheted up in intensity and ferocity, battering the lighthouse and totally decimating the wood of the coffin.  The hastily-constructed box couldn’t was no match for the elements, and in no time splintered planks were scattered into the sea and dashed onto the rocks. At first Howell must have been terrified that Griffith’s body would be swept away too – the only proof of his innocence blown into the ether. Perversely though, this fear would have turned to relief and then immediately back to fear as he saw that the corpse didn’t go anywhere. The wood had been destroyed, but the ropes between the railings had somehow twisted tight around Griffith, holding him fast to the railings on the outside shelf.

The hut’s window suddenly became a widescreen television showing a decaying corpse in real time.

To add to the horror, the body was positioned in such a way that every so often the howling wind would catch one of the arms, making it look as though Griffith was waving to his old sparring partner.

This went on for a while. And by ‘a while’, I mean four months.

Let’s think about that for a moment.

That amount of time would take the body through the ‘fresh’ and ‘bloat’ stages of decomposition, and well into the ‘active decay’ stage. I’m not going to describe any of those stages – mainly because researching them has made me feel pretty sick – but the names of them should give you a good idea as to what Thomas Howell would have been looking at for sixteen weeks.

Imagine being trapped inside a rickety hut tenuously perched on battered wooden spider-legs as the storms raged just outside.

Now imagine the same thing, but with the inclusion of a decaying corpse which you couldn’t avoid looking at – both directly and peripherally – from every angle of your prison.

And don’t think that closing your eyes would help either. Just because you weren’t looking at the body, doesn’t mean that the body wasn’t looking at you…

Why did nobody try to find Howell and Griffith?

This question has a pretty simple answer. They did.

Attempts were made by teams on numerous occasions to get to the lighthouse and find out just why the distress signal had been hoisted.

The problem was that every time the boats approached the lighthouse – in raging storms, let’s not forget – they would see the same thing. The lamp was lit as it should be, there were no signs of boat wreckage or other indicators of any incident, and everything looked as though it was in perfect order.

Oh, and all the potential rescuers mentioned another thing which made them think all was fine. Every time they got close, they saw the silhouette of a man resting on the outer shelf. In fact, every so often, they saw him give a cheerful wave.

What happened to Thomas Howell?

After finally being rescued, unsurprisingly Thomas Howell was not himself. Close friends who saw him after the incident apparently failed to recognise him. You can understand somebody looking a bit different, or maybe appearing slightly anxious or stressed, but Thomas Howell looked and acted like a completely different person. Such was the physical and emotional damage that had been inflicted upon him.

Now, it is here that my psychological thriller writer instinct kicks in, and asks a question that has been suspiciously absent from the records of this event.

What if Howell did kill Griffith?

What if they did have one final argument which went too far? Or – as records show that Griffith was the bigger of the two men – what if Howell poisoned his colleague? How hard would it be to add non-edible items to food in close quarters?

Sawdust, mould spores, lamp oil…?

History tells us that Howell was decimated by the events that followed Griffith’s death, but what if Howell was guilty of that death?

Maybe this isn’t a horror story after all, maybe it’s a crime story where the killer got immediate, terrible justice?

We’ll never know.

And in the absence of further evidence it’s probably kinder to assume that poor Thomas Howell was an undeserving victim of horrific circumstance.

But does that make this real-life horror story better, or worse?

Sleep No More Angelo Marcos

Sleep No More is a psychological thriller about a young woman whose vivid nightmares begin leaching into reality, causing her to doubt her own mind…

Click here to find out more