• Jeanne M. Mullins

"The Waving Girl"

This sign appears at Fort Pulaski in Savannah, Georgia:


For 44 years, Florence Martus (1868-1943) lived on nearby Elba Island with her brother, the lighthouse keeper, and no ship arrived for Savannah or departed from 1887 to 1931 without her waving a handkerchief by day or a lantern by night. Throughout the years, the vessels in return watched for and saluted this quiet little woman. Few people ever met her yet she became the source of romantic legends when the story of her fateful greetings was told in ports all over the world. After her retirement the Propeller Club of Savannah, in honor of her seventieth birthday, sponsored a celebration on Cockspur Island. A Liberty ship, built in Savannah in 1943 was named for her.

Cockspur Island Lighthouse

Savannah, Georgia

July, 1887

Living on an island and helping her brother Ben tend a lighthouse wasn’t as romantic as people imagined. It was fine when Florence was ten and pretended that one day one of the many ships that came into her line of sight would suddenly swoop in, rescue her from the day to day drudgery, and whisk her off to sea. But when she began to ripen into a young woman, lighthouse life began to lose its luster. Despite having kindly neighbors and a great holistic mentor who was instructing Flo in the Gullah-Geechee ways of healing, life on the island was lonely.

By the time Flo turned eighteen, she started to think of the sea as the enemy, the island as her captor, and the men that passed by as nothing more than ghost lovers. On her nineteenth birthday she realized that if she didn’t find a way off the island, she would never know the pleasures of loving a man the way God had intended.

One dusky night when Flo’s brother told her that he had to go into Savannah for some supplies, she threw a fit. An honest to goodness, plate-breaking, name calling, hissy fit. He said a storm was brewing and if he didn’t get to town tonight they’d run out of oil. Ben left, humming a tune while Flo sat on the island swatting at bats as they encircled her head.

With only her collie Misty to keep her company, Flo sat perched on her favorite magnolia tree limb and watched the loggerhead turtles dip in and out of the water. The tree was in full bloom with Jack-in-the pulpits surrounding its base. She loved to sit in the tree and pretend that the limbs were tanned, muscular arms embracing her. She wasn’t sure how long she sat there but fog had rolled in and the sky was gray. Even though she was mad at Ben, Flo knew the sea was no place to be at night in a storm and despite the hostility she felt earlier, panic set in. She stood on top of the rock to see if she could get a better view.

That’s when she saw the fire. At first Flo couldn’t see much through the mist. Some days the fog was heavier than others so she wasn’t alarmed by the poor visibility. Much of what her job entailed was to keep ships from running aground, especially when the air was thick and vaporous. She couldn’t tell at first if the flicker of light she saw was from the lantern on her brother’s skiff or if it was something more sinister. But when the wind blew and lifted the density, there was no mistaking that a river dredge about a quarter of mile from shore was ablaze.

Flo set the lighthouse beam on warning mode. But nothing happened. Had Ben been right about the oil? Without thinking about consequences, she untied the old rowboat and rowed towards the flaming barge. Flo got about one hundred yards when she was rammed by her brother’s skiff.

“Get back to shore, Flo. It’s much too dangerous out here for you.”

“I’m coming with you.” She looked at the burning ship. “We’re their only hope.”

He tied their boats together and they drifted toward the smoke. They couldn’t see the blaze at this point but what they heard more than made up for their lack of visibility. They heard the splashing of waves and the death screams of men as they jumped off the rig. The air was also thick with arguments between the seamen. Flo would’ve thought fear would unite even the most hard-fast of enemies, but judging by the noise level of the submerging rig the opposite had happened. Friends had becomes foes. The river had tuned into a cacophony of anguish.

And the smells—not just of fire but of flesh burning—were hard to stomach. A few times she had to lean over the side of the hull to vomit. When they got within twenty-five yards of the barge, Ben untied his skiff and went in alone. He told Flo to drop the anchor and wait while he returned with the injured men.

Flo was calm despite the turmoil around her. But a few minutes later, when a hand grabbed the side of the boat, she screamed. A young man with black soot under both his sides, shimmied himself onto the sole of the boat. “Rope?’ he asked.

Flo pointed to the hemp Ben had used to tie their boats together. He grabbed a hold of one end and jumped back into the darkened water. He may as well have just leapt into a black hole.

Flo heard him call out, “Grab the rope, men. It’ll lead you to safety.” Before she could even get her bearings back, five badly burned sailors were shoved into the boat. The weight of the men sunk the boat about two inches into the water. Then the man with the soot under his eyes climbed in, plunging the row boat even deeper into the river.

“How far is shore?” he asked. His voice was husky from all the smoke.

“I reckon about eighty feet.”

“We’ll need to row them in.”

Flo looked over at the five charred men, their blackened clothing adhered to their bodies and it was hard to tell where their uniforms ended and their skin began. She only hoped they were like toasted marshmallows; roasted on the outside but still moist and white on the inside.

“My brother’s here too, searching for survivors.”

“I know. He told me where I’d find you. Let’s get a move on.”

They had only one set of oars on the boat, which he commandeered. “Name’s Donald. Lieutenant Donald Starkwhether.”

Flo told him to steer toward the flickering light. He pushed on forward. While he rowed, she checked the pulses of the men on board. One was strong, two were thready, and one had stopped altogether. She couldn’t reach the last one. The island came into view and he steered toward the dock, barely visible through the fog and smoke.

“Ma’am, after we’ve tied down the boat, run and grab some blankets and any medical supplies you have. We’ll set up a triage on the riverbank.”

Flo wasn’t sure they had much medicine that could be used to treat burn victims but she did the best she could. Flo threw her brother’s bottle of bourbon into a satchel and grabbed a few towels and bed sheets. Next she took some scissors, a sharp knife, bandages, ointment, and filled a jug with water. She raced back to shore, her arms bursting with provisions. Misty, her collie, nipped at her heels.

Lieutenant Starkwhether dragged the last body out of the boat. He pointed to three men lying under the dock. “I’m afraid they didn’t make it.” And the one on the bank is unconscious. This one here is hurt badly, but I think he's going to make it. You can start on him.”

Flo looked at the man. His eyes were glassy, his face and arms sooty and his clothing was black and encrusted with blood. The stench was unbearable. She wretched.

“I can’t do this,” she cried.

He took her hand. “You can,” he said. “Just pretend they’re all your brothers.”

“He’s burned real bad,” she said. “ I don’t know where to start.”

He looked closer at the man.

“First, get his clothes off and then cover his burns with ointment. I’d give him a shot of bourbon, too if I were you. Then cover him with a dry blanket. By the time you’re done with him, either me or your brother will be back with a few more.”

“What about that one?" Flo pointed to the young man still lying on the dock.

“He won’t make it. You need to focus all of your attention on those we might be able to save. Some injuries, like his, will be too severe.”

He got back into the boat and drifted into the abyss. Dazed, Flo completed the duties she had been assigned. As she was putting a blanket over the man, he grabbed her hand and asked her if she were an angel. Then he passed out.

Seconds later, Ben pulled in with his boat. He was carrying a dozen more injured men. Lieutenant Donald was right behind him with another load of burn victims. By the end of the night, they had rescued thirty-nine men.

Life as a lighthouse keeper was never the same.

The riverbank of the lighthouse was transformed into an emergency room with Ben and Lieutenant Starkwhether performing most of the life-saving procedures. Ben, having received a little medical training, served as the lieutenant’s surgical assistant while Flo nursed the men back to health in a make-shift recovery room set up on the lower level of the lighthouse. They used canvas tarps to transport the wounded from the banks of the river to the lighthouse, working through the night, not coming up for air until the sun rose. The next day, the three worked in shifts: one slept, one stood lookout waiting for help to arrive, and one changed bandages and offered shots of bourbon.

But after midday, Lieutenant Starkwhether became worried. He thought help should’ve arrived. He was convinced the authorities must’ve seen the fire and the distress signal.

“I couldn’t send a signal,” said Flo.

“Surely they saw the fire,” he said.

“I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation,” said Ben. “I’ll use my four hours of sleep to sail into the Savannah harbor and rouse up a rescue team.”

“Make it quick. More will die if you dally,” Lieutenant Starkwhether added.

Ben shoved off and the lieutenant and Flo were left to perform both the lighthouse duties and the medical interventions.

“Now that we’re a man down, Miss Flo, I think we’d better work together and pool our strengths and resources.”

Flo looked at the lieutenant and studied his face. His brown eyes crinkled, and his face was lined with worry. He wasn’t as old as she thought. Yet he radiated more compassion than one so young usually possessed. Flo had been told the sea ages a man and she could tell by the furrow of his brow that if she didn’t somehow lighten their current predicament, his sorrow would wear them both down.

“Let’s go and raid the pantry and the garden,” she said. “I bet we can find lots more supplies.” She was right. They found enough of a bounty for a hearty beef vegetable soup. After chopping pounds of potatoes, onions, carrots, tomatoes, and celery, they threw all the ingredients into four large pots along with Sunday’s leftover pot roast. They left everything on the stove to simmer. Then Flo kneaded some dough and set it on the counter to rise. Ben was the one who always baked the bread, but Flo was an adequate pastry chef. Next they went to the shed where Donald chopped wood for a fire. Flo planned on warming the sailor’s tummies and bodies tonight. Maybe that will help take their mind off their pain.

Flo told Lieutenant Starkwhether that he was quite handy in the kitchen. He said it was his mother’s doing. She said that since he was married to the sea with long seafaring hours that made it difficult to find a good woman and settle down, he’d better learn to cook if he wanted to eat.

After the bread was in the oven, they applied new bandages to the men’s wounds. Flo was worried that the men were losing too much blood. The lieutenant didn’t confirm nor deny, just said they’d better head down to the river and wash out the bloody rags and let them dry out on the riverbank. He rolled up his pants legs and waded into the river. Flo noticed his muscled calves and blushed when he caught her looking. Then they laid out the wet sheets and towels and spread them along the bank. A passing boat would’ve thought they were planning a massive picnic. Flo sat –more like collapsed on the tree branch that often served as her private rocking chair—and breathed in the quiet. Lieutenant Starkwhether sat down next to her and pulled out a silver flask, hiding all this time inside his breast pocket. He gulped down a long sip and then wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt. A few dribbles clung to his moustache. He licked them away with his tongue. He handed the flask to Flo. She shook her head. “Last time I’m gonna offer,” he said.

Flo took the flask and downed a big swig. She grimaced. It wasn’t the first time she had tasted alcohol but this was more pungent than anything she ever had before.

“Takes some getting used to. My dad’s home spun brew.”

Flo could feel the liquor run through her veins, causing the hairs on her arms to stand up at attention. He moved closer and ran his hand along her arm sending an electrical charge. His brown eyes bore into hers. Then he kissed her lightly on the lips. He tasted surprisingly sweet, despite the noxious combination of moonshine, smoke, sweat, and stale sea air. Then he smiled, not in the passing way a stranger does but the way someone does who’s taken a look into the future and seen you still sitting there ten years later.

“You make a fine First Mate, Miss Flo. Damn fine.”

Flo wanted him to kiss her again, but before she could sample more of his lips, he spied a ship on the horizon. “Sure hope it’s friendly,” he said.

A ship, looking as though it had seen better days, dropped anchor in the waters off Cockspur Island. Then four men rowed in on a smaller vessel. Lieutenant Starkwhether and Flo met them at the dock. A few loggerhead turtles sunning themselves on the bank crawled away when a quadrant of men climbed out of the small boat. The first man off the boat—wearing an oddly ornate white shirt –stretched out his hand to the lieutenant. He took off his tattered hat when he met Flo’s eyes.

“Captain Beauregard Gunn, at your service,” he said. “Heard what happened. Thought we’d offer a hand.”

Lieutenant Starkwhether surveyed the captain’s malnourished, possibly scurvy-ridden crew, saddened that the lives of his men hinged on the speed at which this haggard team could get his men into Savannah. Starkwhether knew at least three of his men wouldn’t make it through the night without medical treatment and another three had only a few more hours at best. He had to be careful how he handled this band of seedy men. Money might be his best bet.

“If y’all take a handful of the most injured, I’ll see to it that you will be well-compensated.”

“Sounds like we’ve got a deal.” They shook hands and Captain Gunn stole a glance at Flo. “Mighty brave of y’all out here all on your lonesome.” His eyes raked over her body. “Probably don’t get many gentlemen callers.”

Flo was taken aback but before she could defend her spinsterhood, Lieutenant Starkwhether jumped in, “She’s with me, Sir. Let’s just keep to the business at hand.” Then he took her hand and squeezed it tightly. Flo squeezed back, hoping that his act of kindness was more out of genuine fondness than just old-fashioned chivalry.

Flo and the lieutenant rounded up six of the most injured sailors. Three men with severe burns went in Ben’s small boat and the other three followed behind in Captain Gunn’s smaller vessel. The two boats rowed out to the larger vessel. Only five of the men would fit because the boat, although roomy, was packed with dozens of cargo crates. Lieutenant Starkwhether couldn’t read the contents of the boxes because most of the labels were written in foreign languages but they bore a striking resemblance to the cargo from his ship. The only logo he could decipher was the Red Cross symbol. Not a good sign.

The lieutenant, eager for Captain Gunn and his crew to shove off –especially since he was now certain he was dealing with thieves— sweetened the booty. “If you can get my men swift medical treatment, I’ll see to it that my employer offers you a handsome bonus.”

With his hands tucked deep inside his pocket, Captain Gunn said, “Seems unlikely Sir, since nobody seems too worried about your whereabouts.”

Lieutenant Starkwhether did not like this man, not one bit. “Go find Colonel Anderson. He’s staying at the Olde Harbor Inn on Factory Walk. Tell him Starkwhether gave you his word.”

“I got me a better idea. I’ll wait here till my men get back. Then we’ll see how much y’alls word is worth.”

Lt. Starkwhether had no choice. He had to wait it out, hoping that a rescue ship would come, which seemed unlikely now since it appeared that Captain Gunn had pirated the supplies from the rescue ship.

Beau, Donald, and Flo rowed back to shore. Donald never took his eyes off Captain Gunn and Captain Gunn never took his eyes off Flo. When they got off the boat, Flo gripped the lieutenant’s hand and dug her nails into his palms. “Flo, you and I will check the men once more tonight,” he said. “Then we’ll fix Ben’s room for the captain.”

There were still thirty-three more injured men left on the island, most of them badly burned or near drowned. Tending to them under the best of circumstances was a chore but under the scrutiny of Captain Gunn, Flo was beside herself. Her mind was racing to find a way for her and the lieutenant to either overpower or outsmart him. But the severity of the men’s injuries kept her too busy to think clearly. That is until she removed the bandage from one of the wounded men’s leg and the smell of gangrene filled the room.

“Leg’s gotta come off,” said Lt. Starkwhether.

“I’ve got some ether in the watch tower,” Flo said. And a rifle hidden under the dresser that Ben keeps for emergencies, she said to herself.

Flo raced up the spiral staircase and retrieved her father’s revolver from inside her mother’s trunk, hidden beneath many family heirlooms: her mother’s lace wedding dress, her christening outfit, and Ben’s baby blanket. Ben kept the gun loaded and most times it spooked Flo but today she was glad he didn’t always listen to her. She stashed the revolver inside her petticoats, tucking the butt tightly inside the elastic of her pantaloons. She also grabbed the toolbox, which housed the saw and other supplies needed to amputate the man’s leg.

Flo needed a way to distract Captain Gunn. She tore off the top two buttons of her blouse and then rubbed dirt on her shoulders and the tip of her nose. She wanted it to look as though she had tripped. Then she pulled off her cap and let her hair fall down her back. She also ripped the bottom layer of her tiered skirt. Flo sucked in her stomach and pushed up her breasts. She had never played the vixen before thinking she was too much of a plain Jane but in truth Flo was – with her chestnut brown eyes, wavy auburn hair, and honey complexion – a stunner. For the most part, no one noticed. Her clothing was more Sears Roebuck than Parisian, and her hair, although luxurious, was usually tied in an austere bun. The only times she smiled was when Irvana taught her about the medicinal and magical qualities of plant life. But Flo was a hard worker, and like most people that endured hard labor, she had developed a finely chiseled body. Firm breasts, tight buttocks, and toned legs. All of this was on display for her captor, who missed none of it.

She rounded the corner and caught Captain Gunn’s eye. He looked her up and down, stopping to linger at her décolletage, and then glanced down at her calves.

“What the hell happened to you?” said Lieutenant Starkwhether

“Tripped on the lighthouse steps,” she said, eyeing him to keep his comments to himself.

Captain Gunn grabbed the saw. “Get on with it,” he said. Then he grabbed Flo by the wrists. “You did fine. Real fine.” He put his hands on her waist, and rolled his palms along her rib cage. The force of his thrust popped open another button, revealing her undergarments. “Y’all shouldn’t hide such beautiful treasures,” he said, cupping his hands under her breasts.

“Get your hands off her!” said the lieutenant.

“You’re in no position to tell me what to do,” said Captain Gunn

The injured man screamed. “My leg!” Then he howled louder than a woman giving birth to twelve pound twins.

Starkwhether commanded. “Get over here and help me.”

Flo slid over to his side, close enough so that he could feel the tip of the revolver. The lieutenant pulled a knife from the toolbox.

“No weapons for you,” said the captain. “Let her do it.” The injured man cried out in pain, “Momma, momma,” he moaned.

“For God’s sake,” said Captain Gunn. “Are all your men such sissies?” Lieutenant Starkwhether handed the knife to Flo and she cut off the injured man’s pant leg.

“Dab some bourbon on the wound and clean it best you can. Then hand the knife back to me.” He looked Beau in the eye.

“No!” said Captain Gunn. “She cuts it off.” Flo’s lip trembled and her right arm flinched.

“I’ll walk you through it,” said the lieutenant. “It’s just like filleting a fish.”

Flo and Donald tied the injured man’s arms and legs to the bottom of the table legs. Then the lieutenant gave him a piece of wood to bite down on. Donald said to the man, “When I get to three, bite hard and keep biting. Flo, I’ll need you to then make a deep incision along the top of the thigh, two inches above the wound. Keep going until you hit bone.”

Flo gagged and swallowed back down the bile. Sweat was pouring out every orifice and her hand shook like she was having a seizure.

“Easy,” he said and laid his hand over hers. “We’ll do it together.” He eyed Captain Gunn who had looked away from the incision. Donald, knowing he had but a brief moment to overtake his captor, leaned in closer to Flo’s ear. But the captain caught them.

“No canoodling, he said.”

“I was just going to tell her we’re ready for the saw. I didn’t want to startle the patient.”

“Get the damn leg off before I start shooting y’all,” Captain Gunn said.

Donald needed a diversion. “Look at her, she’s too womanly. Flo can’t possibly have enough strength. I need to make the cut myself.”

Beau looked over Flo’s shapely breasts again and licked his lips. “Be quick about it then!”

Lieutenant Starkwhether traded places with Flo and took a deep breath. “When the leg comes off, tie a tourniquet an inch above the stump. Then I’ll fasten a bandage with the rest of the sheet. Finally, we’ll stitch the incision with a needle and thread.” He turned to Captain Gunn, who looked white as the sheet. “The muscle is deep and layered. This may take a while.”

Lieutenant Starkwhether began the ordeal. He had assisted once with a leg amputation, but this was his first time taking the helm as surgeon. But with what he lacked in experience, he made up with brute strength. He put his body weight behind each thrust, carefully manipulating the saw back and forth. Sawing through bone is not a quiet task and he could see that Captain Gunn was getting nauseated, and while Donald did not want to cause the injured man – who gratefully appeared to have passed out—any more distress than was necessary, he needed to exploit the way the blood gushed out from the wound. He had to maximize its effect on Captain Gunn so that he would become so nauseated by the splatter, he would turn away. Donald was optimistic that if he was quick enough he could grab the gun from under Flo’s skirt before the captain could turn back around.

As if on cue, Captain Gunn asked, “How much longer?” As he nosed in for better inspection, a bit of blood splashed up and hit him smack on the nose as the leg fell to the floor. Captain Gunn turned to wipe the blood with his sleeve. But before he turned back around, Lieutenant Starkwhether grabbed the revolver out from Flo’s skirt and cold-cocked the captain on the top of the head.

The injured man roused and screamed in pain. “Give him a few sips of bourbon while I drag our friend into the chicken coop and lock him in.” Flo did as told and a few minutes later the lieutenant returned. As they stitched the leg, sounds of squawking could be heard from the coop.

A dozen Gullah sharecroppers from the other end of the island marched into view. The tallest one said, “Irvana said come help.” He looked at the patient on the table and saw the bloody stump.

After the Civil War, most of the freed slaves from Savannah migrated to the low country and established residencies, making sure not to infringe on the property of their white owners. Even though the war was over, racial tension was still rife in the south. Hundreds of freed slaves who continued to practice the Gullah or Geechee customs of their African or East Indies ancestors fled to Tybee, Cockspur, or other sea islands where they were less likely to be under the scrutiny of mainstream Christians. A group of these sharecroppers settled near the lighthouse keepers, each attending to their daily livelihoods with an unspoken understanding that the island belonged to everyone, and that its safety was a top priority.

Ben had more of a professional relationship with the Gullah-Geechee clan than his sister did. The Gullah-Geechee respected his ability to keep the island safe from harm, and he in turn respected their right for freedom. Flo, with her love of homeopathic medicine, developed a friendship with Irvana, the island’s root doctor often referred to as Doctor Buzzard. Irvana shared her magical secrets with Flo, keeping her fascinated for hours. But while Ben respected the Geechee’s ability to grow rice, he was not thrilled with Flo’s interest in what he called “voodoo.” Brothers and sisters don’t always agree, but after Ben and Flo’s parents died eleven years ago from yellow fever, Ben had become more of a father than a brother so his opinion was the one that counted. Still, they argued, and sometimes the discussions became heated, mostly stemming from Ben’s over protectiveness.

“Excuse me for a moment,” the lieutenant said, “there’s something I need to do.” Then he cupped Florence’s face in his hands and kissed her on the lips. She fainted on the spot.

It wasn’t so much that the kiss swept her off her feet, although it was one fine kiss, but the events of the day had finally taken its toll on her. It didn’t take Flo long to recover though. She was back on her feet to greet Kent, Irvana’s six-foot seven-inch son.

“I think Lieutenant Starkwhether’s barge was pirated and then set afire. Then the same men came ashore and tried to extort money. But we held our own.”

“Where them men at now?” asked Kent.

“One man is locked in the chicken coop, and the other three went into town with a few of our most injured men,” said the lieutenant. “I sent them to the mayor for a ransom. I’m hoping the mayor read between the lies and locked the trio of them in the dungeon.”

“Many of the men are still in need of medical attention,” said Flo. “Could you guard the scoundrel we locked in the chicken coop to make sure he doesn’t escape while we tend to the rest of the injured men?” Kent nodded.

“Is Irvana on her way?’ asked Flo. Kent smiled.

Flo knew Irvana had lots of healing powers but she wasn’t sure if Donald would be receptive. “I have to warn you Donald,” she said. “Irvana is a little unorthodox.”

“Good Lord, woman. I ain’t no Sunday school teacher.”

Flo had thought Kent had left but he was still hanging around. He had a slow way of getting round to things. “Missy Flo,” he finally asked,” Where Ben at?”

“He went into town yesterday to round up some help.” Kent scratched his head.