Nils Nilson was a hero. Even afterward no one disputed that.
In 1903 while working at a lighthouse near Providence, Nilson dove into the surf to save a drowning man off the Rhode Island shore. He was awarded a medal for his bravery.
That was before he came to Connecticut.
In 1907 he took a job as an assistant lighthouse keeper at Southwest Ledge Light, which marks the main entrance to New Haven Harbor. He came highly recommended, but later some would say that in Providence the lonely work of lighthouse keeping had gotten to him. There were whispers of a breakdown, followed by a short hiatus from the profession. If those stories were true, the last place he should have restarted his lighthouse career was the Southwest Ledge Light.
Built in 1876 as a beacon to warn incoming ships of a treacherous breakwater on the eastern side of the main channel to the harbor, the five-story, cast-iron structure was state of the art in its design but downright Poe-esque in its living quarters. Its cisterns, which collect rainwater for drinking, were located on the bottom floors and would be constantly fouled by flooding seawater. The two-story living area was damp, moldy and crawling with cockroaches.
Because the lighthouse sat atop the mostly submerged rocks of the breakwater, there was hardly any land space outside the structure, and no relief for its keepers. “If it was on an island, at least you can get out and to some degree walk around the island,” says Jason Bischoff-Wurstle, director of photo archives at the New Haven Museum. “Here, you are in this tube and there’s just not a lot of room to move about.”
Nilson moved into Southwest Ledge Light with head keeper Jorgen Tonnesen. The lighthouse was located across the waters of Long Island Sound from Lighthouse Point Park, and when the water was rough and the winter winds howled, it may as well have been on the moon. At least one previous keeper requested a transfer.
As we’ve learned in 2020, isolation and being cooped up inside can be difficult to endure. In early winter over a century ago, something inside Nilson snapped.
“After a minor argument, Nilson grabbed an ax and chased Tonnesen through the structure,” Bischoff-Wurstle writes in one of the museum’s Microhistories, a series of online exhibitions on its website. “Terrified but unwilling to abandon his post, Tonnesen locked himself at the top of the lighthouse while Nilson hacked at the door with the ax! Eventually Nilson quieted down and left for the shore in a rowboat.”
Bischoff-Wurstle was compelled to revisit Nilson’s sad saga during the coronavirus lockdown this spring when many of us were dealing with the challenges of isolation.
The murder attempt is not the end of the tale. For reasons that are hard to fathom today, after Nilson had time to calm down on the mainland, he was invited to resume his post at the lighthouse. “Tonnesen understood things could get hairy and treated it mostly as water under the lighthouse so to speak,” Bischoff-Wurstle writes. “He did, however, ask his brother-in-law Bernt Thorstensen to join them in the lighthouse as a second set of eyes.”
In early 1908, Nilson lost control again. “At the light he talked strangely. He thought he was the king of Norway and then that he had been cheated out of an election to congress,” reported The Morning Journal-Courier, a now-defunct New Haven newspaper. Then Nilson started dangerously wielding a knife. Later accounts would say he tried to attack Tonnesen again with the knife, but contemporary accounts say he was trying to use the knife on himself and that he was prevented from killing himself by Thorstensen. After at least two suicide attempts were thwarted, Nilson was sent to shore to get medical help, but because the light needed to be tended to, he was sent alone. He went to a church for seamen near the old docks at the end of Hamilton Street. There he met with the Rev. J.O. Bergh. After speaking with Nilson for a bit, “I began to perceive that he was unbalanced,” Bergh noted in a letter to the New Haven Register. “I felt that he ought to be taken care of at once.”
Bergh called the local police precinct, but they said they couldn’t help unless he was being violent or guilty of some other crime. The reverend then went to a local doctor for advice and was given pills to give to Nilson, but when Bergh got back to the church, Nilson was gone.
The lonely and disturbed man had left the church and wandered onto the wharf that used to be at the end of Hamilton Street. He borrowed a knife from a local captain, saying he needed it to cut a rope on his boat. He used the knife to slit his own throat from “ear to ear,” in the words of The Morning Journal-Courier.
Bergh was distraught that Nilson’s suicide had not been prevented by police or other city officials. “What I want to know is, is there none in authority to appeal to in such a case and is there no place where such men can be sent in this, our city?” he wondered in his letter to the Register.
The day after Nilson’s death, even as reports were printed in multiple newspapers, Tonnesen was unaware of what had transpired. Flags were set up to signal Tonnesen to come to shore, but the rough weather made it too difficult to cross the lower harbor in a small boat. Tonnesen waited for the news alone, still minding the light.
More than 100 years later the lighthouse is still active, though the light has long operated without a keeper.
Nilson’s story may have been among the tales of strange happenings at New England beacons that helped inspire last year’s film The Lighthouse, starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. In Nilson’s own time, his past heroism was not forgotten. The Register story about his death places blame on New Haven authorities for failing to intervene in the case. The headline itself is full of regret: “No Man Was There To Save Hero.”