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  • In Search of the Science Behind Misleading Wisps May 16, 2013

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback

    will o the wisp

    Beach has covered, on previous occasions, stories of will o’th’ wisps (never know how to spell that damn word/words) and lights that apparently have a mind of their own. First, it is worth making a division between memorates (experiences) and folk-lore. Memorates often include descriptions of being out on this or that moor and running into a light rolling across the ground or opening and closing above this point. In folk-lore the lights though create narrative. They lead people astray and drag them into a swamp or marsh where the victim gets a soaking (see mischievous pixies) or even drowns (northern part of the UK and northern Europe). An example, of this contrast from the late 1890s:

    Last evening at the meeting of the members of the Burnley Literary and Scientific Club, in the Technical School, Elizabeth-st., Mr. Tattersall Wilkinson gave a very interesting paper upon ‘The folk-lore of the district.’…  He remembered when a boy listening to those stories to such an extent that he could scarcely venture home after dark across the village green at Worthorne. Will-o’-th’ Wisp, a spontaneous combustion of gasses from a number of peat bogs on the moor bottom, about half a mile from the village, was a common occurrence during the months of October and November. Sometimes it would appear as a brilliant fireball, flicker for a moment, and then disappear as sudden as lightning, only to re-appear almost as suddenly perhaps half a mile away. Many a story had been told of the benighted traveler being allured to his destruction by that ‘spirit of the swamp,’ into the intricate bogs and marshes on the dreary moors.

    The boy apparently saw these lights (experience). Then, there is the story of those who were misled to their deaths out on the moors (legend). Beach has been looking now for a couple of years in vain for an example where experience and legend come together, that is where a reliable witness describes falling into a bog or some such thanks to one of these things. Beach is looking because a friend of his had an experience two years ago that seems to offer something similar, certainly there is a combination of night and light.

    Every day I walk through deep woods on a path I know far better than the back of my hand. I sometimes, in fact, go in the pitch black because there is no time in the day: it gets me lots of bravado kudos in the village where I live and sometimes I bump into fauna. Two summers ago I went for one of these nocturnal walks and had an unusual experience. Typically, I have no problem following the path: in fact, I walk so fast even in the dark that I have to remember to slow down as I approach a foot bridge, because a mistake there could prove fatal. That night though there was a storm of fireflies all through the wood. It was extraordinarily beautiful, but also extraordinarily disorientating and I stumbled off the path on a number of occasions. It was not that I was following the fire flies (at least not deliberately), but my eyes latched on to them and my body was thrown off balance by this and down I went into the ditch, once, twice, thrice…


    Is there any physiological explanation here? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com Can it be made to apply to Will legends?


    31 May 2013: John writes in: Moths and other insects circle lights and candles because they mistake the light for the moon and are used to navigating by keeping a fixed angle to the source of light. I wonder if deep down in the human brain, if there are no other reference points, there is an instinct to keep the brightest light at a fixed angle, this would certainly cause one to veer to the left or right depending on which side the light was. KR, meanwhile, writes: If a person is in the dark and concentrates his vision on lights (even little ones)for a while, he reduces his natural night vision, and can see less well than before. This can be disorienting, as Also if you are not paying attention to a path, but instead you are walking while staring at fireflies, you are likely to have a fall. The swamp gas flares are often said to resemble fires and lanterns. So I should think that back in the times when lanterns and firelight marked the location of a house or village, someone out on the moor as it began to get dark might say “Oh! There’s the light of the village! I must have got off the path!” when he was actually seeing swamp gas instead, and wasn’t close enough yet to see the village lights or the lights of his home-fires. Children might chase such a light thinking it is a “fairy” because they think they might be helped, or find a pot of gold, or just because they are both curious and feel a youthful invulnerability. You might not have so many stories now because not so many walk at night near swampy places, and when we are looking for town, we aren’t fooled by a little fire: we want street-signs traffic noises streetlights neon! Chris from Haunted Ohio Books writes While I don’t have any first-person accounts that would stand up in court about persons being injured or led astray by will-o-the-wisps or “spook lights” as they are often called, there were several 19th-century theories to explain the mysterious balls of lights.1) Swamp gas. People noted the terrain in stories about spook lights and often said the lights arose from a marsh or swampy area.2) Phosphuretted hydrogen gas. I have no idea what this is. 3) Effluvia –bad smells rising out of decaying matter, which have been somehow ignited 4) Signs of buried treasure 5) Ghosts 6) Lights reflected from automobiles or streetcars 7) Corpse candles or some other bad omen 8) Lights which are seen on railroad tracks, often mistaken for oncoming train headlights 9) You also have a separate category of lights which appear in mines. Modern-day forteans would probably add “luminous owls” or insects, plumes of methane arising from graves, UFOs, and ball lightning. In some stories, the lights seem sentient and respond to challenges from witnesses as in the woman in this story who asks the light where it’s leading her and the man who challenges it to fight. I’m also amused by the housewife who gives a scientific explanation. This particular story seems to ring all the changes on spook lights: it shape-shifts, guards a treasure, is seen in a marshy area, responds to human interaction, and, ultimately is “explained” as gas. THE GOLD GHOST IT MAY GUARD THE MISER’S POT OF SHINING PIECES THE PHENOMENAL LIGHT THAT ROAMS O’ER THE WILSON FARM AT HARRISBURG, STARK COUNTY IT IS A VERSATILE “LIGHT” WITH A LEANING TOWARD LIGHTNING CHANGES A MATTER OF FACT ORIGIN THE PEOPLE IT HAS TACKLED AND THEIR TALK An uncanny, mysterious light, or rather ball of fire, is an oddity that is seen hovering about a farm near Harrisburg, Stark county, on dark, foggy nights. This ball of fire, it is said, has been seen at various times during the past century. It is a veritable will o’ the wisp, ghostly, supernatural and fear inspiring, and many remarkable tales concerning it are told by the country folks around. In short, the “light on Wilson’s farm”—as the ball of fire is now called—has been a source of gossip and speculation for years. The “light” wanders to and fro on the farm; it rises high in the air; descends into hollows; tremblingly moves down a small stream of water; suddenly brightens, as quickly fades away; and, so it is said, the “light” pursues and attacks venturesome travelers who attempt to capture it in order to discover its origin. The land on which this strange light is seen is owned by Solomon P. Wilson, a well to do American famer. Nearly forty years ago it was owned by a German named Knouff. The farm is one and a half miles south of Harrisburg, on the left of the old Harrisburg and Louisville road, as you travel towards Louisville, and consists of about 160 acres of timber and farming land. The soil is rich and the topography of the land gently sloping and rolling. A small stream of water, fed by several springs, flows through the west end of the farm in a sort of swampy hollow. A large barn, a neat farm house and several fine outbuildings and sheds are the buildings upon the land; in fact, Wilson’s farm is very much like many others found in the neighboring country. As already noted, many strange stories are told concerning the “light.” Several of them are worth repeating. It is said—and, mark you, these stories are told as they were related to the writer—that a Louisville maiden named Mary Dence was one dark night passing by the old Knouff farm. The maiden was not at all superstitious, and when she caught sight of the strange, pinkish colored ball of fire she cried out: “Whither would you lead me, will o’ the wisp?” The “light” immediately came toward her, rested upon the rail fence, then began slowly moving up the small creek. The maiden climbed through the fence and followed the ghostly ball. It darted to and fro, yet traveled always straight ahead, the puzzled girl following. Suddenly the “light” disappeared—faded from her sight. Startled, then horrified, the maiden turned to flee, when missing her footing, she toppled and rolled down a steep hillside and was badly injured upon striking the ground below. She lost consciousness and upon regaining her senses was horrified to see before her bedimmed eyes the phantom ball of fire. Screaming with fright she started on the run for the highway, gained it and sought shelter in a neighboring farm house. An honest old farmer, Brown by name, was returning toward Louisville from Harrisburg several years ago. With him was his wife. They reached the “Wilson” farm toward 11 o’clock at night—at least, so the story goes—and as it was winter they traveled in a sleigh. The tinkling bells on the horses seemed to attract the “light,” for it moved toward the sleigh and rested upon the rear seat. Mrs. Brown was the first to see the mystic apparition and screamed. Brown, attracted by his wife’s cries, turned and saw the strange “light.” He immediately whipped up the horses, whereupon the “light” changed into a fiery red dog, with glaring eyes, red tongue and awful teeth. Faster and faster went the horses, more and more frightened were Mr. and Mrs. Brown. At last they reached the center of the farm, when the fiery red dog changed suddenly into a ghoulish, blue colored coffin. It followed the fleeing horses and sleigh; it moved silently, stealthily and quickly. Mr. Brown lashed the horses forward, urging them on and half supported his wife who had fainted. They finally gained the Strasburg crossing road in safety, where upon the awful, ghostly coffin faded suddenly away. It was months ere Mr. and Mrs. Brown recovered from their fright.   It is related with declarations of truth that George Beam, a farmer’s boy, who lived close by, once upon a time borrowed a horse and wagon from old man Knouff. George attended a ball at Louisville that night and did not return home until after the midnight chimes had run. The farmer had reached the Knouff farm late at night. Upon reaching the cross roads he saw the mystic ball of fire hovering about the wagon and carriage house on the farm. But he was a brave lad and not at all afraid of the “light’ and so he drove toward the barn. Meanwhile the “light” slowly moved toward the door of the carriage house and beckoned the lad to follow. George, evidently controlled by an unseen power, followed. When the “light” went through the carriage house door the lad opened it and passed within. In a corner of the carriage house, moving slowly up and down, was the ghostly “light.” Going toward it and glancing toward the last corner, George held a large iron kettle overflowing with bright gold pieces. Eagerly he sprang forward to grasp the prize, when there was a hissing noise and the “light” turned into a purple colored, horrible shaped dragon. Not a sound did the frightful dragon make, but its attitude was one of open defiance and threat. The frightened lad gave but one glance, staggered back to the door, half fell outside and ran screaming toward his home, leaving the unhitched horse standing near the stable door. The next night George was sitting in his room, gazing out a window which overlooked the Knouff farm. Suddenly the strange “light” appeared near a corner of the cross roads fence and beckoned to him. He arose from his seat and leaned far out the window. In the twinkling of an eye the “light” left the fence corner, traveled swiftly toward the Knouff house and ran up the water pipe to an upper window. It still beckoned the lad to follow, but he was so engrossed in watching the strange spectacle that he seemed incapable of waling. Suddenly at the upper window of the Knouff house a weird transformation took place. The “light” changed from a globe form to that of a star. It changed in color from white to green. Again it changed in form and color—this time from a green star to a pink crescent; then to a yellow egg, to a blue headstone, to an iron kettle and then into the form of an old, old gray-haired and white-robed man. The old man raised his right hand and beckoned George to come and secure possession of the kettle of money. But the lad was so startled in viewing the strange spectacle that he heeded not the invitation and in a few moments the old man faded from sight and was seen again no more. Many years ago, at least a quarter of a century, so it is said, a Harrisburg man named Campbell swore that he would visit the Knouff farm and dare the strange “light” to injure him. That he might feel quite courageous Campbell filled himself with liquor and together with a friend started from Harrisburg at 11 o’clock one dark rainy night for the Knouff farm. The “light” seemed to know the drunken couple were coming for it was waiting for them at the end of the farm nearest Harrisburg. Campbell, reckless with liquor, greeted the “light” with loud curses and taking off his coat dared it to “come on and fight him like a man.” Save an uneasy, tremulous dancing the “light” did nothing. “I dare yez to touch me,” was Campbell’s challenged to the strange ball of fire. But the “light” started slowly toward the center of the far. “Ye coward; ye ___ coward,” yelled Campbell, suddenly whipping out a large horse pistol. “Take that, ye spalpeen, will yez?” There was a loud report and in a second, thereafter the strange “light” was at Campbell’s side. It had assumed the fiendish garb of a hydra-headed scorpion and ferociously darted at the white faced, thoroughly frightened Campbell. Then there as a scorching, burning sound and all was still. An hour later Campbell’s companion rushed into Bailey’s saloon at Harrisburg and told the startled inmates that Campbell had been killed by the “light” on Knouff’s farm. But Campbell had not been killed. Several days after the night’s adventure related a wild, half crazed man, with a badly burned face, was found wandering in the woods near Strasburg. It was Campbell and he was mad. The foregoing tales are ones that were related to the writer, and it led him to visit the farm and investigate the strange light. It was a bitter cold February day when the writer and a friend started out from Harrisburg to walk to Wilson’s farm. At several houses along the Louisville and Harrisville road the country people were interviewed concerning the “light.” Almost without exception they agreed that there was a “light” hovering about Wilson’s farm but ascribed to it no ghostly or supernatural powers. Said a farmer’s wife who lives opposite the farm in question: “I’ve lived here for twenty years and have seen the ‘light’ many times, and I never seen it leave the creek in the hollow. Yes, I know there are lots of spook stories told about the ‘light,’ but they are not true. They are told by superstitious persons who are afraid of their own shadows. Wilsons’s farm is just as good, if not better, than other farms hereabouts, and you can rest assured all of these spook stories about that ball of fire makes him mad. Why, the ‘light’ is perfectly harmless—it’s nothing more than a will o’ wisp, and is caused by the water in the creek being charged with phosphuretted hydrogen gas.” And from all that could be learned of the “light,” the farmer’s wife’s explanation of the phenomenon is correct. At one time there was a graveyard on Wilson’s farm. The phosphorus from the buried bones is carried down the small creek of water by the underground springs and as a result on dark, damp, foggy nights an ignis fatuus arises. The vain, false fire on Wilson’s farm is similar to the ones described in text books on natural philosophy and physical geography. It has a luminous appearance and is generally seen only on foggy damp nights. The “light is of a pale bluish colored flame and sometimes burns steadily during the greater part of the night. It arises, it is thought, from phosphuretted hydrogen gas, which possesses the power of spontaneous combustion upon coming in contact with dry atmosphere. It can readily be seen that such a harmless apparition is apt to frighten superstitious people who do not understand the nature and origin of the “light” or ball of fire. Mr. Wilson, the proprietor of the farm, is well aware of the “light’s existence, and, it is said, has frequently shot at it in order to observe what effect a bullet will produce on the “light.” Mr. Wilson does not care to talk about the “light,” for in the past it has injured the sale of his farm. The will o’ wisp is certainly a strange phenomenon and yet, so far as know, a harmless one. Scientists who love to study nature have a field of observation in Stark County. Perhaps they might capture the ignis fatuus on Wilson’s farm; perchance they could imprison certain of the spontaneous combustible gases, analyze them and give the result to the world. Certain it is that such a result would prove interesting to scores of people. The tale connected with the light by the country folk is that an old miser once lived on the Wilson farm and buried upon it a huge pot of gold. That gold his spirit in the form of a fire ball hovers over and protects.  Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 28 February 1889: p. 8 A story, but not first-person, of a man chased by a ball of fire. A Ghost in Allen County St Mary’s Dec. 6 A fiery spook is again terrorizing the people in the vicinity of Conant, Allen county. Several months ago the weird spectacle was first observed, it resembling a ball of fire, oval-shaped, while its pranks threw the whole community in a state of great excitement. Nightly the apparition would appear and would remain at a fixed point for some time, when it would very suddenly disappear. Hundreds of people witnessed the phenomenon each night, until at last it vanished altogether. A few nights ago the mysterious visitor again put in an appearance, when it confronted an old man on his way home at 10 o’clock at night and for a while made life miserable for him, being so overcome upon reaching his house after running a distance of several miles that he fell exhausted in the doorway. Nobody seems able to explain the cause of this uncanny apparition. The neighborhood is greatly excited over it. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 7 December 1891: p. 1 A crowd of 500 persons assembled around the Au Sable cemetery Monday night to see, if possible, the strange blue light or ball of fire that numbers of the people in that vicinity say has appeared almost every night for several weeks, but no light appeared. Those who claim to have seen it, say that the light appears to rise over the grave of Fulton, one of the victims of the late Burner horror, after ascending six or eight feet seems to fall back to the grave like burning tar. Many superstitious people in that neighborhood think it an evil spirit. Others, more scientific, believe it to be escaping gas. Kalamazoo [MI] Gazette 16 October 1885: p. 3  A weird story about something called “Owl Blasting” tells of a ball of light in broad daylight setting fire to trees.   Other posts on strange lights and fire balls:  fiery hand of doom  spook lights and corpse candles Then we have this extraordinary story:  Struck by a Ball of Fire [From the San Antonio ( Texas ) Express] Yesterday afternoon, Fred Balder, 11 years old, son of Constable Balder, went home from school, and finding his parents gone, went to the cupboard and sliced off a piece of bread, buttered it, and then went to the front of the house and sat down on the gate-post and began eating. In a few seconds he was enveloped in a flame which passed around the house to an irrigation ditch and was then lost Freddie’s sister, near by, saw the flame, and describes it as a ball of fire. Freddie’s hat was burned, also his shirt-bosom, and his eyebrows were singed off, and the hair where not protected by the hat. He is unable to see, and can scarecely hear. His face is swollen and ridged as if by a sharp instrument. The boy is in great pain, and may lose both sight and hearing. There was no one near except his little nine-year-old sister at the time. The burning is said by physicians to have been produced by an electric fire. It is the occasion of universal wonder and comment there, being an extraordinary case.  Titusville [PA] Herald 20 November 1880: p. 3 Thanks KR, Chris and MR!