In honor of Halloween season, I recently went ghost hunting.
I wasn’t looking for psychic vibrations or similar otherworldly signs of the spirit world. Instead I sought newspaper clippings and historic accounts of a famous Bridgeport ghost named Frederick A. Jordan. A former lighthouse keeper, Jordan is said to haunt the waves around Bridgeport’s Penfield Reef Lighthouse at the entrance to Black Rock Harbor.
Penfield Reef Lighthouse was built in 1874 to serve as a sentry beside the treacherous Penfield Reef, a mostly submerged reef jutting into the harbor that has been the bane of many ships.
The story goes that shortly before Christmas in 1916, Jordan, the head keeper at the lighthouse, left to row ashore to spend the holiday with his family. A sudden gale capsized his boat and he drowned. Afterward keepers and assistant keepers were said to see his image at the lighthouse, and the log book would turn to the date he died. Later, there were stories of a mysterious man leading at least two stray boats away from the reef to safety. More recently, in the 1970s, lighting malfunctions in the lighthouse were blamed on Jordan.
Beyond the historic lighthouse setting, what’s intriguing about the tale is that the haunted rumors are at least based on reported events.
“When folks hear about ghosts it’s usually an anonymous, unknown individual,” says Michael Bielawa, author of Wicked Bridgeport and Wicked New Haven and collector of local legends and stories of the supernatural. “Frederick Jordan was the lighthouse keeper on Penfield Reef. Frederick Jordan drowned on Dec. 22, 1916, just before Christmas. He was a real person.”
Indeed, Jordan’s death occurred much as the legend says.
An account of his drowning in the Bridgeport Evening Farmer on Dec. 26, 1916, states: “He lost his life while making an effort to reach his family — with whom he intended to spend Christmas.” In an open rowboat, Jordan set out around 1:30 p.m. to take the ferry from Bridgeport to Port Jefferson, Long Island, where his family lived. About 15 minutes into his journey “a gale of wind suddenly sprang up. It lashed the sea to a wild fury and the frail boat was tossed about on the crest of the tumultuous waves, Jordan unable to control it. He was swept back by the fast running tide, wind and waves, to a point about one-half mile from the light[house] where the boat capsized.” Jordan’s assistant keeper witnessed the scene from the lighthouse and tried to go to “his aid in another boat but was swept back to the lighthouse by the storm and sea.” (A Bridgeport Sunday Post article published on May 14, 1922, also contains this account with quotes from Rudolph Iten, the assistant keeper at the time, who, by all accounts, made a valiant, if failed, attempt to save Jordan.)
Jordan’s body was not discovered until the following March when it washed up on the other side of Long Island Sound near Riverhead, New York.
The moment the tragic tale evolved into a ghost story can be traced to a 1920s article in the Bridgeport Sunday Post that survives in the historical archives of the Bridgeport Library. In the article, Iten, who became head keeper at the lighthouse after Jordan’s death, recounts anecdotes about life as a lighthouse keeper, telling the reporter, “They say that all lighthouse keepers are mad.” He then claims to have begun seeing Jordan’s ghost shortly after the former keeper’s death. “Some days later on what was one of the worst nights in the history of Penfield, [when] the waves were dashing over the lantern, I was awakened — I was off duty — by a strange feeling that someone was in my room. Sitting up I distinctly saw a gray, phosphorescent figure emerging from the room formerly occupied by Fred Jordan. It hovered at the top of the stairs, and then disappeared in the darkness below. Thinking it was the assistant keeper I called to know if anything was the matter, but he answered me from the lens room that all was well.” Later in the article, Iten describes how the log book mysteriously turned to the page recounting Jordan’s death.
A Bridgeport Post article from March 16, 1972, told of residents on the shore reporting an erratic light flashing at the lighthouse, and a Coast Guard vessel being dispatched to investigate the problem. Although a mechanical cause was discovered, the article reported that “some ‘old salts’ in the area attribute the mysterious malfunction to the ghosts of former lighthouse keepers.”
While researching the fallen lighthouse keeper, Bielawa has learned a great deal about Jordan, including his age when he died (38), and the number of children he had (three). He says, “Frederick Jordan was a hero out there on the reef with his assistants. They did save vessels; they did save lives.” He adds, “In a way, his spirit lives on no matter what,” whether as a ghost “in that lighthouse or through his accomplishments saving humans.”