Rumor has it that during the 18th and 19th centuries, one word filled the hearts of sailors with dread and brought them to their knees in prayer: mooncussers.
Now, mooncussers were scoundrels, akin to pirates. However, it can be argued, the former were a lazier, less adventurous lot. Pirates, you see, usually extended some effort for their plunder. After a hot and often dangerous pursuit, pirates had to board their quarry, subdue its crew, maybe supervise the “walking of the plank,” then set about the hard work of looting the victim ship.
Mooncussers, on the other hand, found a less taxing, perhaps even more despicable, way to abscond with the valuables deep in the cargo holds of ships travelling the high seas.
Centuries ago, about one ship per week wrecked along our shores. Lighthouses were few and far between; the fog and mist often all but obliterated their weak candlepower. But these beacons spaced along the coast–Highland, Nauset, Chatham and Monomoy Point–were the only reliable guideposts for sailors navigating off our tricky and dangerous shores.
Knowing this, a band of local scoundrels united to deliberately wreck, then plunder, passing ships. During the darkest hours, especially on wild stormy nights, these land-loving pirates criss-crossed the coast on horseback and planted large decoy lanterns at strategic points. After spotting a ship in distress, the despots grabbed the nearest decoy lantern and began waving it, beckoning the distressed sailors closer to the shore.
Once wrecked, the mooncussers simply needed to do away with the crew and steal the ship’s cargo before benevolent lifesavers arrived on the scene.
So, now you know why the name mooncusser instilled fear in the toughest of sailors, but have you guessed as to the origins of that name?
Because the moon’s rays reflect and magnify the water’s surface, sailors can see very well on moonlit nights–or even when the moon is only partially full. Therefore, the scoundrels’ decoy lanterns would fool no experienced seaman under these circumstances. As such, when the villians’ trickery did not succeed, they often shouted, “Cuss the moon!” into the moonlit night. Over the years, these plunderers eventually became known as mooncussers.
mooncusser (plural mooncussers)
(rare, humorous) A land-based pirate who, on dark nights along dangerous coasts, would demolish any legitimate lighthouses or beacons, erect a decoy signal fire in a different, deliberately misleading location, and then, after having induced a shipwreck, subdue any survivors and plunder the wreckage for valuables.