The Mysterious Death of Escanaba Lighthouse Keeper Mary Terry, 1886
One of Michigan’s earliest lady lighthouse keepers was Mary Terry, who took care of the Sand Point Lighthouse in Escanaba for eighteen years, 1868-1886. Her keeper career was abruptly cut short when a fire broke out in the lighthouse, devastating most of the building and killing Mary.
This story could end right here – unfortunately, fires were commonplace just about everywhere in Michigan in the 1800s, and it would be accepted universally that Mary died by accident. But mounting circumstances brought suspicions of murder.
Backtracking to 1867, Mary’s husband John was elected to be the very first keeper of the Sand Point lighthouse. The lighthouse had been established and under construction, due to be operable by 1868. As fate would have it, like many people during the 1800s, John had contracted tuberculosis. He passed away before construction was finished and Mary was chosen to take over as Sand Point lighthouse’s first keeper.
Childless and alone, Mary tended the light unerringly for years through battling wind storms, freezing winters, and hot summers.
According to Exploring the North, It was in March 1868 when the fire broke out. Local firefighters were alerted and made their way toward the scene as best they could. Unfortunately, it was March and the snow had not yet melted. The snow was too deep for the firefighters to get there quickly and by the time they fought their way through the drifts, the majority of the lighthouse had been burned…..and so was Mary.
Upon investigating the fire in the following days, some things were discovered that just didn’t make sense. The south door was locked but open, with the bolt jammed forward, as if someone had broken in. Mary’s charred body was found in the oil room and not her bedroom, which made people suspicious. Mary was known throughout the area as a very meticulous, cautious caretaker, which led many to believe this could not have been an accident.
As for the people who wonder – couldn’t it have been Mary that forced the door open to try and escape? And if that’s the case, why was her body found inside and not outside? Since her body was found in the oil room, was she working in there when it caught fire and that’s where she perished? Questions, questions, but no definitive answers.
Speculation at the time was that someone broke in, robbed Mary, killed her, and then set the lighthouse on fire.
The Iron Port newspaper stated that the coroner’s ruling was that “Mrs. Terry came to her death from causes and by means unknown…..the only one that could be rendered".
Or, they just didn’t want to take the time to do a thorough investigation.