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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Will-'o- the-Wisp?

Artist's  Rendering of the Will-o-the-Wisp Phenomenon

In the last blog entry,  I told you about the letter that we found while poking around the museum. The following intriquing statement was in that letter:
"Those were the days when the Jack Lantern, on mild evenings in the winter, was seen frequently on and around the Devil's Island, five miles west of Pocahontas. Many people, including myself, seen it on many occasions. It was caused by the slow oxidation of hydrogen gas that collected under the ice coming out slowly, so as to form a continuous glow while the flow lasted... With the draining of the slews, the conditions contributory to the presence of the Jack Lantern were removed; hence no more Dark ominous Spirits roaming."
Well, that got me going.  What was Mr. Starkey talking about? Could it possibly be true?
I asked our county naturalist, Corinne Peterson, if she had ever heard of such a phenomenon in the county.  Here is her response: 

"The first thing that comes to mind is stories from Ireland.  I haven't heard of any from our area, but with all our swamps and peat bogs it's certainly feasible.  There's a couple possible scientific explanations.  One is the oxidation of phosphine, diphosphane, and methane that causes photo emissions.  Another is a cold flame, a pre-combustion halo common with hydrocarbons (methane) and other compounds.  Though these stories are abundant in folklore, they are rarely reported today as most of our wetlands have been drained and are now farmed."
Corinne referred me to the Wikipedia article on will-o-the-wisp. I never really knew what that
term referred to. The article also linked this phenomenon to the phrase jack 'o lantern.
For me, the mystery remains. Did they really see light on the sloughs at night? I would have liked to check it out myself.