Digest>Archives> October 2007

FBI Investigation Does Not Solve Mystery In Death of Lighthouse Keeper

By Tom Serres


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Melvin Purvis, one of the most famous FBI agents ...

The ghost of Ulman Owens still haunts me. When I wrote I Was a Teenage Lighthouse Keeper in September 2002 for Lighthouse Digest I thought that was the end of it. Not so. My phone rang last year and a voice on the other end said "I'm Ulman Owens' grandson, Spencer." I asked, "Spencer who?" He said, "Spencer Tracy." I said, "yeah, right!" Turns out he was indeed Ulman Owens' grandson and he had a story to tell me. I live in Las Vegas, Nevada and Spence lives in Salisbury, Maryland, a scant 35 miles from Crisfield where the Wickies of Holland Island Bar Lighthouse picked up their mail and supplies.

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The author, Tom Serres, as a teenage lighthouse ...

It seems that Spence and his wife, Shari, visit Las Vegas regularly and he told me he'd be in town for a few days. He learned about me while searching for his grandfather's name in one of the popular search engines. It was there he saw my story in Lighthouse Digest. This was my chance to meet the grandson of a ghost and to find out what really went on at my lighthouse in 1931. We planned to meet at a small local casino and to drive to Nellis Air Force Base, the home of the famous Air Force Thunderbirds who represent the Air Force worldwide by flying air shows. After snapping a few candid keepsake photos and meeting some of the team, we had lunch at the enlisted men’s' club. After that Spence, Shari and I went to his hotel room where he broke out some very interesting documents. I went through old newspaper clippings and FBI files. Most of the supporting documents were from the Crisfield Times, The Baltimore Sun and from various Federal agencies which investigated Owens' death.

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The Coast Guard keepers of Holland Island Bar ...

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Before being stationed at Holland Island Bar ...

Melvin Purvis best remembered for leading the manhunt for infamous gangster John Dillinger signed most of the investigative reports. The young agent joined the FBI in 1927 after a brief career as a lawyer and captured more public enemies than any other agent in the Bureau's history. He served the FBI until 1935 and afterwards practiced law. In the 1974 TV movie, Melvin Purvis, G-Man, was portrayed by actor Dale Robertson.

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Keeper Ulman Owens was once stationed at Sharkfin ...

If our readers remember in the September 2002 article it was Owens' ghost (or so I thought) who kept tugging at my blanket while I tried to sleep near the Florence oil burner in the lighthouse kitchen. I never really believed in ghosts. That is until I was assigned to Holland Island Light. Was I dreaming all this after hearing all the accounts of Mr. Owens' untimely death, or did it really happen?

The story begins when Somerset County officials were summoned after the lighthouse's beacon was not seen on the nights of March 13 and 14, l931. Authorities found Ulman Owens, 55-year-old keeper of Holland Island Bar Lighthouse, dead, when they boarded the structure slightly after noon. It was on a Sunday.

One of the clues that showed up after his death was when officials learned that a boat without lights was seen proceeding from the direction of the lighthouse about 4 a.m. on March 14. Information regarding the mysterious vessel was received by L. M. Hopkins, Superintendent of Lighthouses in this area, from Captain G. D. Bloodworth, master of the steamship Marydel.

Captain Bloodworth informed lighthouse officials that he was coming up the Chesapeake Bay from the James River on the night of March 13 and noticed that the light at Holland Bar was out. He took soundings with his lead line to get his position and used the Marydel's searchlight. He was then about two miles south of Holland Island. The searchlight picked up what appeared to be an old submarine chaser, with her superstructure cut away. The vessel was moving rapidly south and was towing a small yawl, Captain Bloodworth reported. Later, however, agents of the FBI believe they had identified the so-called mystery boat. They determined that the boat in no way was connected with Owens' death.

Those who discovered the body in the living quarters said that alongside the body was a butcher knife and that the room had apparently been ransacked. Owens' death was discovered after Lem B. Sterling, keeper of the Kedges Straits Lighthouse, also notified the Somerset County Sheriff's Department failed to display its regular characteristic flash. Magistrate Fred N. Holland accompanied Sheriff Luther Daugherty to Holland Island, off of which the lighthouse stood. The door to the building, which was called a cottage, was open and inside they found Owens lying amid a scene of disorder in the kitchen, with chairs and table overturned. The butcher knife bore bloodstains and lay behind the keeper's body.

According to Sheriff Daugherty, examination showed several bruises on the man's body. The last entry in the lighthouse log, which must be signed by the keeper daily, was on March 12.

A sample of a daily log written in his own hand and signed by Owens, read, in part: I have one assistant. As keeper I am responsible for the station and all that pertains to same. I have to keep a record of receipts and expenditures and make out a survey to cover all articles worn out and no longer serviceable and turn them in during inspection and see that the station is kept in good condition and I am expected to , [sic] and do all my share of the work pertaining to station. As to my daily duties I am on watch from sunset to midnight, lighting the lamp and seeing that it gives good service during that time and to operate the fog machine during foggy weather. On my watch, I help clean the lamps and lamp room after sunrise. Sweeping floors, cleaning paintwork and polishing brasswork. Also sawing wood, drawing mineral oil filling oil tank and air tank. The station is an isolated one and I have to go ten miles for mail and provisions. /s/ Ulman Owens. Each duty had to have the times they took to accomplish them entered in the log. Owens wrote this entry on October 8, 1928.

Owens became a keeper at Holland Island Bar Lighthouse on August 15, 1924. Prior to that he was stationed at three other lighthouses on Chesapeake Bay. He joined the Lighthouse Service on April 1, 1911. The other lighthouses in which he served were Old Plantation Flats Light, Shark Fin Shoal Light and Hooper Straights Light. All in Maryland.

I've often wondered where Mr. Owens was born and reared. I had always thought that it was either Smith Island, Crisfield, (both in Maryland) or Tangier Island in Virginia. Turns out he was born on April 23, 1879 to Samuel J. Owens and Pracilla [sic] White in a tiny hamlet 17 miles north of Crisfield called Dames Quarter. This information was contained in a State of Maryland Certificate of Death and showed date of burial as March 18, 1931. The certificate also stated that Owens was a widower.

Crisfielders and other locals had a theory that rumrunners killed Owens because he talked too much and that, from his lonely post, twelve miles at sea, he saw the rum fleet which operated off shore, sailing without lights at night. They said, "He knew more than any other person, their paths and their schemes at secrecy."

Others thought he was the victim of robbers whom he had surprised while they were looting the lighthouse. Some insisted that a jilted husband in a love feud killed him over a woman. Those who knew Owens said he was debonair and suave and a dapper; who dressed to the hilt when off duty. Also complicating matters was that Owens had several girl friends -- two of them left their husbands because Owens wooed their wife’s away from them. Many thought a jealous husband "done" him in.

Nonsense, the Feds said, and eventually the investigation was closed and the autopsy brought to light an enlarged heart, a symptom of heart disease. The ruling that Owens died of natural causes stood, for a while, anyway.

According to T. B. Johnson, assistant superintendent of lighthouses for the district, Owens had an assistant, U. S. Todd. He was away from the lighthouse at the time of Owens' death having been ill for quite a while. Todd was not at the lighthouse for a month prior to Owens' death. According to Todd's report two drinking tumblers were found in out of the way places. One was shoved down a drain. The lids of the stove were distributed over the floor and a calendar was discovered which had been cut to shreds. Other peculiar things were noted but not revealed. It was not told whether Todd had ever witnessed any of the shady goings on. None of the supporting documents in my possession told of a replacement for Todd while he was ill. When I served on Holland Island Light in 1951 and 1952, we had four keepers assigned. We were required to always have at least two manning the station.

Two Federal agents of the Department of Justice were ordered to Crisfield to continue investigation into the mysterious death of the keeper. The agents were transported by the lighthouse tender Violet, home-ported in Baltimore, who brought with them the vital organs of Owens which were submitted to Dr. Howard J. Maldeis, a post mortem physician from Baltimore. The agents were sent, Simon E. Soberloff, United States District Attorney, said, as a result of a telephone conversation between Mr. Soberloff and two agents who spent a week in Crisfield. Mr. Soberloff refused to discuss the case, but said he expected to have a final report soon. Meanwhile, it was learned that the officials had not abandoned the theory that Owens may have been murdered.

R. W. Ford of Dames Quarter and son-in-law of Owens said the body revealed marks of violence and impossible to be self-inflicted. When the body was found it was nude except for an undershirt, Ford said. He also pointed out that a bruise disfigured his face, a gash, presumably a knife wound, was found on the right side. He said that there were less severe bruises on the body and then said that the neck had been broken. A later autopsy showed no sign of a broken neck.

Ford's wife, daughter of Owens, is believed to have been the last person to see her father alive. She stated that he called at her home March 12 to tell her he was leaving for Holland Light. He appeared to be in excellent health and spirits.

"Papa never had trouble with his heart," she said. "I do not believe that his death was due to natural causes, and we are determined to probe the mystery surrounding his death until it is cleared up," she continued. She was later asked if he had any known enemies. She replied: "None who would have killed him."

Federal officers ordered that Owen's body be exhumed and another autopsy be conducted. At first mortuary officials thought he had died of natural causes, but his relatives expressed belief that he had been murdered. Still another story had surfaced that the keeper had become insane and had committed suicide after having ransacked his own quarters.

It seems the Government authorities were hell bent on sticking to the story that Owens died of natural causes. You see, if Owens had died in the line of duty his family would have to be compensated. Apparently the case has not closed entirely because Mr. Tracy telephoned the General Services Administration on June 13, 1977 and they informed him by mail three days later that they had located a letter dated May 22, 1931, from the Superintendent of the Fifth Lighthouse District to the Commissioner of Lighthouse concerning a sum of money due to the late Ulman Owens, keeper of Holland Island Lighthouse. This fact is unclear because no amount was stated nor was the money due because of Owens' demise. This writer has a premonition that there's a chance that local officials were involved in the rum-running business and had a reason to make Owens' death appear to be from natural causes, and it's also possible that they put a contract out on him because he knew too much. Just think, the Feds would have turned the area upside down if they thought he had been murdered and they might have asked questions that those involved didn't want to hear, or answer. Especially since corrupt officials were the norm rather than the exception in those days.

Editor’s Note: The author, Tom Serres, gained access to Nellis AFB, NV, home of the USAF Thunderbirds, because he retired from the Air Force and served with the Thunderbirds from 1966 to 1967 as Public Affairs Superintendent.

This story appeared in the October 2007 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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