The Creepy, Bloody History Of Execution Rocks

By Debra Kelly on Saturday, February 22, 2014
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“I figured it would be a good plan to hire a few sailors to work for me, get them out to my yacht, get them drunk, commit sodomy on them, rob them and then kill them. This I done.” —Carl Panzram, serial killer, on his plans at Execution Rocks

In A Nutshell

The aptly named Execution Rocks is the site of a lighthouse off the western end of Long Island Sound. Unproven folklore says that the rocky island got its name from the British soldiers who would chain colonists to the rocks and execute them via high tide. In the 1920s, serial killer Carl Panzram used the island as a dumping ground for bodies, and it’s long been a hotbed for claims of paranormal and ghostly activity.

The Whole Bushel

Execution Rocks sits just off Sands Point on the western end of Long Island Sound. As suggested by its rather gruesome name, it’s long been a site of horrific history, repeated fires, and ghostly activity, and was the dumping ground for a serial killer.

Its name comes from folklore that’s never actually been proven, but given the gory details in the rest of the little island’s history, it wouldn’t be surprising if there was something to it. The story goes that in Colonial America, tensions were always running high between the British redcoats and the American colonists. But executions were still a matter of necessity at the time. In order to avoid any potential uproar, the British also avoided public executions. Instead, they would supposedly take the condemned to Execution Rocks, were they would be chained to hooks that had been buried deep into the rock. Then, it was simply a matter of waiting for high tide to drown the unfortunate detainees. It’s said that the dead bodies were left there to give future victims a look at what the high tide was going to bring them, a final mind game as they waited for the waters to rise. (That last bit isn’t very likely, as that would likely have caused the public uproar the location was intended to avoid.)

The other idea about how the rocks got their name isn’t really all that much better. This one says that the settlers of Manhasset Neck saw many ships trying to navigate through the dangerous, rocky waters of Manhasset Bay and run aground on those rocks. So many ships met their demise on the rocks that it was finally decided that a lighthouse was probably a good idea.

Government being then much the same as it is now, they first suggested a light-boat instead of a lighthouse; it was cheaper, after all. Debate when on for about 10 years until a lighthouse was finally built, going into active service in 1850. There wasn’t enough money for a lighthouse keeper’s home, though, so Daniel Caulkins and his wife lived in the base of the tower.

The first fire happened on the watch of his successor, in 1918. The lighthouse keepers and the Navy put out the fire; another happened in 1921, also with only minor damage.

In 1920, Execution Rocks was a stopover and brief dumping ground for serial killer Carl Panzram. After robbing a New Haven, Connecticut home belonging to former US President William Taft and stealing one of his guns, Panzram used the stolen money to buy a yacht. He then headed to New York City, where he docked his yacht at City Island before prowling the city streets in search of more victims. He would select his target, then approach them saying that he needed a crew. Once lured on board and sedated with wine, Panzram would kill them with Taft’s revolver, tie a rock to the bodies, and dump them in the waters off Execution Rocks.

Today, the lighthouse on the rocks no longer has a keeper—that job has been replaced by an automated system. Ghosts are still reported there, even though former lighthouse keepers have said that they never experienced any paranormal activity on the island.

According to ghost hunters, though, the spirits of the dead are very much active there, haunting Execution Rocks with apparitions, the sound of footsteps, and cries of pain and terror.

Show Me The Proof

US Coast Guard Aids to Navigation: Execution Rocks
Crime Library: Carl Panzram: Too Evil To Live, Part I
Paranormal Activity Network Investigation Center Database: Execution Rocks Lighthouse
Featured photo credit: NOAA Photo Library