Because the winter nights are growing long, I recently posted a few stories about Spook Lights on my Facebook page. These are glowing balls of light, usually white, but occasionally appearing in other colors. They float and drift; they can also keep pace with a walking man or a running horse. They make no sound, tend to inhabit damp areas, and often seem to exhibit intelligence. They can go through solid objects; yet they may explode if touched. These mysterious luminaries of the paranormal world have a variety of names: Spook lights, corpse candles, will-o-the-wisps, jack-o-lanterns, ball lightning, ignis fatuus, ghost lights. Yet no matter what the designation, their nature is elusive to those who try to study them.
I’ve written about several of Ohio’s notable spook lights, particularly the one known as “The Headless Motorcyclist of Elmore,” a head-lamp-sized light that has been seen at least since the 1920s and which has been interpreted variously as the spirit of a suicide, phosphorus in a creek bed, car headlights, and the headlight of a motorcyclist who died in an accident after being jilted by his girlfriend/fiancée. (In The Face in the Window, you’ll find a whole chapter of historic spook light reports from Ohio.)
In some folklore traditions spook lights are markers of buried treasure. In others, they maliciously lead people astray in swamps. In still others, they are harmless curiosities. I have found some tales where the mystery lights have more sinister traits: they are an omen of death, they physically harm the witness, or they drive those who come in contact with them insane.
This first tale, which appears in The Headless Horror: Strange and Ghostly Ohio Tales, is part of a long and bizarre story of a spook light on a Stark County farm that not only guarded a treasure, but appeared in various guises such as a ghastly blue- colored coffin and a fiery red dog. The light was well-known in the area and one man decided to challenge it:
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 challenge to the strange ball of fire. But the “light” started slowly toward the center of the farm.
“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 was 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.
In this story, also from The Headless Horror, the spook light appears in connection with a dead woman’s ghost, as an omen of death.
AN OHIO GHOST
The citizens of Warren Township, Belmont County, are wonderfully excited over the appearance of a “ghost.” The region wherein this so called spirit has been seen is known as “Hog Sink.” About two weeks ago the wife of a citizen of the above named place died. Since that time she has appeared in various forms causing the husband and children to flee in terror at the hour of midnight from their home. A few evenings after her death, the husband states, a ball of fire came down the chimney and rested upon the breast of one of the boys for over two minutes. Strange to say, this boy is now very ill, and not expected to recover. A few evenings after the appearance of the ball of fire, the “ghost” mother mysteriously appeared in long, white, flowing robes, and grasping this same boy in her arms carried him to the door and threw him to the ground. She then vanished as mysteriously as she came. The husband and children fled to the nearest house and cannot be induced to go back.
Belmont is known for its extensive coal mines. I’ve collected other mystery light stories from the area (See The Face in the Window.) Perhaps the geology of the area has something to do with the lights?
This is one of a series of stories about the Elmore Light in The Face in the Window.
SPOOK LIGHT MAKES SHIFT
Oak Harbor, Nov. 23
Port Clinton folk have been taking an active interest in the “spook light” on the Lindsey Rd., five miles southwest of Oak Harbor and eight youths from that place were immediately initiated into the mystery of the light. The spirit of the man who hung himself in the hut nearby, which the light is supposed to represent, did not seem to care as long as they watched from a distance but when they prowled around the bridge it moved out into a field. The youths then began prowling around the abandoned hut and one ventured to open the door and throw a light inside. He did not go very far after opening the door for something hit him on the forehead and sent him staggering back to the support of his comrades. What he said in the excitement following is not clearly recalled by the other members of the party. Deputy Sheriff Eugene Carsten was a member of the party but his experience as a sleuth was not sufficient to solve the mystery. Sandusky [OH] Register 24 November 1922: p. 9
Were soldiers actually maddened by a spook light attack in 1919 Italy?
GHOST SCARES SOLDIERS FROM POWDER MAGAZINE
Milan, Italy. Nov. 6. The great arsenal and powder magazine in the castle of Godego, near the town of Castelfranca Veneto, is unguarded. The sentries who were posted there have fled in alarm at the repeated nightly visits of a strange spectral form.
A few nights ago a soldier was mounting guard over the magazine when a luminous human figure, from whose head issued tongues of flame, appeared before him at a distance of about 20 feet. The sentinel gave the alarm, and the entire guard hurried to the spot. The spectre had in the meantime vanished, but shortly after the arrival of the soldiers it reappeared. The whole company then fired their rifles at the figure, which instantly dissolved into a great ball of fire, finally melting away into space.
The following night the apparition was once more seen. A Sicilian soldier of the guard approached the figure with a number of his companions and an attack was made on it with the bayonet. Their furious thrusts, however, encountered no tangible resistance, and the phantom disappeared in a few moments in a fiery halo which was speedily dissolved in the atmosphere.
The consequence of the strange occurrence has been that all the soldiers have fled from the spot, leaving the depot, which is crammed with explosives, entirely unguarded. In the absence of the men, a dozen officers volunteered to act as sentries pending an official inquiry into the affair.
Meanwhile, four of the soldiers who were visited by the apparition have gone out of their minds. They are now confined in the military asylum.
And finally, two cautionary tales about respecting the power of corpse candles, which were often seen at the nose or lips of a person about to die. In an earlier story in the British Goblins collection, nurses who did not know of the tradition believed that the dying person was already burning in hell when they saw blue flames issuing from the patient’s mouth:
It is ill jesting with the Corpse Candle. Persons who have endeavoured to stop it on its way have come severely to grief thereby. Many have been struck down where they stood, in punishment of their audacity, as in the case of William John, a blacksmith of Lanboydi. He was one night going home on horseback, when he saw a Corpse Candle, and his natural caution being at the moment somewhat overcome by potables, he resolved to go out of his way to obstruct its passage.
As the candle drew near he saw a corpse upon a bier, the corpse of a woman he knew, and she held the candle between her forefingers, and dreadfully grinned at him. Then he was struck from his horse, and lay in the road a long time insensible, and was ill for weeks thereafter. Meantime, the woman whose spectral corpse he had seen, died and was buried, her funeral passing by that road.
A clergyman’s son in Carmarthenshire, (subsequently himself a preacher,) who in his younger days was somewhat vicious, came home one night late from a debauch, and found the doors locked. Fearing to disturb the folk, and fearing also their reproaches and chidings for his staying out so late, (as many a young fellow has felt before and since,) he went to the man-servant, who slept in an outroom, as is sometimes the custom in Welsh rural districts. He could not awake the man-servant, but while standing over him, he saw a small light issue from the servant’s nostrils, which soon became a Corpse Candle. He followed it out. It came to a foot-bridge which crossed a rivulet.
Here the young man became inspired with the idea of trying an experiment with the Corpse Candle. He raised the end of the foot-bridge off the bank, and watched to see what the ghostly light would do. When it came to the rivulet it seemed to offer to go over, but hesitated, as if loth to cross except upon the bridge. So the young man put the bridge back in its place, and stayed to see how the candle would act. It came on the bridge, and as it passed the young man it struck him, as with a handkerchief. But though the blow was thus light and phantomlike, it doubled the young man up and left him a senseless heap on the ground, where he lay till morning, when he recovered and went home. It is needless to add that the servant died. British Goblins: Welsh Folk Lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions Wirt Sikes
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.