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Mystery of the Spook Lights

“See them!” shouted the man excitedly. “Over there… and there!” Twinkling eerily above the headstones in the graveyard were strange, blue lights. Then they vanished… adding another baffling chapter to the story of America’s unearthly ‘spook lights’.

Spooklights Mystery

“It appeared to be about 50 yards long, and I estimated its phosphorescence extended about 25 feet in the air. There it sat, just a blob of blue light!”

‘It’ was a phenomenon well known to the Sei Indians and the poor Mexican fishermen of Bahie Kino, a village on the Mexican coast of the Gulf of California, for many years. They called it the ‘Luz Peculiar’ — ‘The Strange Lights’ — although the Indians at least were convinced that the thing was not a ‘light’ at all, but a great sea spirit.

Bill Mack, a Californian fisherman and author who reported on his experience of the Luz Peculiar for the June 1970 issue of Fate magazine could well understand the attitude of the natives after his own close-up view. “Maybe the Sei Indians are right and the light is a spirit,” he says. “From what I’ve been able to find out, they have just as much evidence as any other investigators.”

Bill Mack had first experienced the eerie blue glow when it shone through the window of his camper trailer, waking him up one night at about 10:00 p.m. He had heard that a team from the University of Arizona had investigated the thing for three days, finally coming up with the theory that the light was caused by ionization of the air which occurs only under specific atmospheric conditions. But, as Bill Mack pointed out, they could offer no explanation why the luminescence appeared only at one particular spot.

“I had reasoned that if the ionization theory was correct and if the light appeared only in that spot something large and metallic might be the collecting agent,” he wrote. “Secretly I had hoped to find a meteor, although the ground surface showed absolutely no indication of ever having been disturbed. But like everyone else’s, my efforts were doomed to failure. Neither the compass nor the metal detector were affected in any way by the ghostly glow.”

A Glow in the Dark

On one occasion, a quiet, sultry night, the light appeared at 11:00 p.m. and remained visible for two hours. Bill Mack was able to make several tours around it as it hovered a few inches over the earth and apparently took shots of it with his twin lens Yashica-Mat camera. But though he was an experienced photographer and had carefully gauged the amount of exposure needed, he got only a few pictures “of extremely poor quality… the light showed as a tiny glow in the center of… intense black.”

And so the Luz Peculiar of the Bahie Kino remains a mystery that anyone can see for themselves but that apparently no one, even scientists, can satisfactorily explain. Furthermore, it is by no means a unique phenomenon; throughout the United States dozens of examples of ‘spook lights’ as researchers have dubbed them, have been recorded over the years, and so far not one has been rationalized in a convincing fashion.

All we know is that they appear to be largely indigenous to the North American continent — although largely unconfirmed reports claim sightings in Russia, China and parts of Europe  — that they all have a similar form, usually a bobbing or hovering blue light, and that they can be seen by almost anyone who cares to seek them out. The histories of the best known and best authenticated spook lights stretch back into the largely uncharted centuries before the white man settled the continent, and most Indian tribes who have them as part of their tradition claim that they are earthbound souls. It is, as Bill Mack observes, as good an explanation as any put forward so far; for each ‘scientific’ approach to the mystery of spook lights tends to have an unnerving knack of falling down on a vital point.

Spook lights — European Roots?

Several thousand miles away from Bahie Kino, on the east coast of the United States, sophisticated New Englanders have watched the ‘Palatine Light’ for over two hundred years. The Palatine Light phenomenon is unique in that it appears as a red, rather than blue, glow, and has its roots in European rather than Indian tradition. In all other respects it is a spook light like the rest.

The story behind the Palatine light is an unpleasant one. The phenomenon takes its name from that of the immigrant ship the Palatine which sailed from Holland in 1752, bound for Philadelphia with a complement of would-be colonists. The voyage took place in the depths of winter, and as the ship neared the New England coast foul weather began to buffet her. To make matters worse there was mutiny; the captain was either pushed or fell overboard and the crew robbed the passengers before taking the only boats and leaving the immigrants to their fate.

About 11 miles off Long Island between Montauk and Gay Head lies the windswept, desolate stretch of land called Block Island, and it was here on a New Year that the hapless Dutchmen finally grounded. The passengers were extra lucky, for the island was occupied by a poor community of fishermen who were said to eke out their meager livelihood by wrecking and plundering passing ships. On this occasion, though, showing Christmas spirit, they saved the passengers of the Palatine before stripping the ship of cordage and bits of rigging, setting her alight, and leaving her to drift back out to sea and sink.

By a tragic oversight, however, the looters had missed one woman passenger who, demented by the storms and violence, had hidden herself in the depths of the hold. As the blazing ship was swept seaward by the tide the onlookers were horrified to see her by the main shrouds screaming for help; but by that time there was nothing they could do.

Ever since that time the people living along the Rhode Island coast opposite Block Island have watched at Christmastime for a fiery red disc which hovers on the horizon near the spot where the Palatine foundered. Some reports, perhaps fanciful, claim that it takes the shape of a blazing ship, while others describe it as being spherical ‘an orange glow like a small setting sun’ — except that it appears in the east. In 1969 the Westerly Sun newspaper carried a story of the sighting by several people of ‘a great red fireball on the ocean.’

It may be that the Palatine Light is a natural phenomenon, perhaps an electrical discharge such as St. Elmo’s fire. But this theory still leaves the perplexing fact that it appears only during Christmas week, on the anniversary of the original disaster, a well documented event in itself.

One set of inland spook lights have become the intangible foundations of a tourist industry. They glow in the evenings near the town of Joplin, in the corner of land where the stated of Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma meet, and have even given their name to the small town of Spooksville. The area was once the preserve of the Cherokee Indians — the great Bull Shoals reservation is nearby — and the Cherokees hold to the usual firm belief that the bobbing blue lights which are viewed by bus loads of visitors every year are the angry spirits of their ancestors, pulsing with incandescent fury at the white men who swept the buffalo from their plains and reduced the mighty Cherokees to servitude. Among white ‘old timers’ there are many who cling to a similar viewpoint; during the American Civil War Joplin and its precincts were the battleground for the infamous ‘Border Raiders‘ — guerrilla troops who swept from the southern slave territories to capture and cut down blacks fleeing to freedom in the north. The liberal viewpoint is that the lights are the spirits of the slaves, while the ‘rednecks’ say that they are the ghosts of the ‘good old boys’ — the raiders themselves.

Old Indian Legends

Mr L. W. Robertson, curator of the Spooksville Museum, confessed that he has an open mind on the subject. “I have no idea what the spook light is, and I’ve looked at it as much as any living man,” he is on record as saying. “I don’t tell the tourists any story about the light at all. If they don’t believe it, it’s here for them to see for themselves. I accompanied the US Army Engineers on their experiments to explain the light in 1946. Maybe the old Indian and Civil War legends about the source of the light are just as plausible as the scientific theories.”

Mr Robertson refers to an expedition made by the US Corps of Engineers to the area during World War Two, when reports of the lights reached the Pentagon and prompted the Army High Command to investigate in case the phenomenon had any military significance. The Corps checked out the area for several miles, testing caves, mineral deposits, and highway routes, and making aerial surveys. They came to no conclusion.

A small pamphlet entitled Spooksville’s Ghostlights written and printed by local man Bob Loftin cites many examples of individual testimony. A Mrs Louise Graham told how on one occasion a spook light perched on the rear window of her school bus near Quapaw, Oklahoma. The children were convinced that the light was trying to get in, and were terrified. “The light was so bright that it temporarily blinded the driver and he had to stop the bus. Just as we stopped the light went away.”

Chester McMinn, a farmer near Quapaw told how he was ploughing after dark because of heat during the day, which made the task intolerable. “Seems the old light felt real neighborly one night and decided to help me with my ploughing. I couldn’t see too well, and I guess the old light sensed it, because he started hovering all over the field where I was ploughing.” Mr McMinn concludes, however, by saying that the light suddenly turned on him, darting in his direction: “I was absolutely frozen stiff to my tractor until it suddenly went away and vanished.”

The most rational approach to the Joplin area spook lights seems to have been made by student Rob Gibbons, a senior at Drury College, Springfield, Missouri. As a freshman in 1960 he began to investigate the lights which appeared along one portion of the ‘haunted area’, a dirt road some 11 miles south west of Joplin, near the Missouri-Oklahoma line. The light there, according to its hundreds of witnesses, is seen almost every evening at about half-an-hour after sunset and continues until half-an-hour before sunrise. Mr Gibbons and his assistant took stills and movie film of the lights, at the same time checking into eyewitness accounts. On February 14, 1965, he presented his conclusions at a student symposium in Springfield.

He spent some time discounting the more fanciful accounts, pointing out that all his team had ever seen was a small light bobbing about at the end of the gravel road.

“Usually it seems to float over the hills down the roadway to the west,” he said. “at rare times it seems to come towards the observer. At times it moves slightly horizontally. With a 30-power telescope… I could perceive as many as four distinct pairs of lights, with pairs of red lights appearing slightly to the right of pairs of bright white lights. The red lights grew dimmer as the white lights became brighter.”

On a composite map of the area, Mr Gibbons pointed out that US Highway 66 running east and west between Quapaw and Commerce was in direct line with the spook light road and the observation point, and noted that the Spring River ran between the spook light area and the highway, 12 miles away.

“Therefore,” Gibbons concluded, “I believe that the cause of the spook lights lies in the refraction of light from automobiles moving on distant US 66 in direct line with the road where the spook light is observed. Light from a source traveling on 66 would be bent, or refracted, out of its normal path and would appear in the form of bouncing balls of fire on the road 12 miles away. The phenomenon of the bright white lights appearing sightly to the left of the dimmer red lights corresponds with the natural movement of traffic on a road or highway.”

Certainly Mr Gibbon’s case is convincing for the area he surveyed, but it fails to account for the other localities in the area where bouncing blue lights are seen; and most notably it fails to account for the fact that lights were first accurately observed on his dirt road in 1903, almost a quarter of a century before Highway 66 was built, and when not even a rough trail lay along its future route.

Seven or eight hundred miles due west of Spooksville, in the Wet Mountain Valley of Colorado, lies the site of perhaps the most baffling ‘ghost light’ phenomenon of all. Like the Joplin spook lights the Colorado ones appear every night for anyone to see and as with the Joplin lights, they have been subjected to all manner of investigation by scientists, reporters, and keen amateurs. No one so far has come up with even the most remote explanation, and to give them and added edge of eeriness, the Colorado lights dance only over individual gravestones, in a small ‘boot-hill’ near the tiny settlement of Silver Cliff.

In 1880 the township of Silver Cliff blossomed overnight on the back of a ‘silver rush’. By the end of that year over 5,000 miners and their families lived and worked in the area, but the boom died quickly and in the early 1970s the town’s population stood at 110, slightly less than the dead population of the old, disused cemetery which lies about a mile from the town itself.

A Whiskey By-product?

The strange phenomena which haunt this graveyard were first seen in the 1880s, when a group of drunken miners returning from their diggings reported seeing eerie blue lights hovering over each grave. Nor were these lights just a by-product of whiskey consumption — they appeared on other nights to sober observers, and passed into local folklore. It was not until the spring of 1956, however, that the press, in the shape of Colorado’s Wet Mountain Tribune, investigated the phenomena and reported on them. A decade later, on August 20, 1967, the respected New York Times ran a story on the case, and two years after that in August 1969 the lights received the ultimate accolade when the National Geographic Magazine sent its assistant editor Edward J. Linehan to investigate in person.

Edward Linehan drove out to the graveyard accompanied by a local resident, Bill Kleine. It was dark when they reached the place, and Kleine told Linehan to switch off the headlights. They got out of the car, and Kleine pointed: “There! See them? And over there!”

Linehan saw them: “dim, round spots of blue-white light” glowing over the graves. He stepped forward for a better look at one but it vanished, then slowly reappeared. He switched on his flashlight and aimed it at one of the lights; the beam revealed only a sandstone tombstone. For 15 minutes the men pursued the elusive ghost lights among the graves.

Kleine told Edward Linehan that some people theorized that the lights were caused by the reflections of the town lights of Silver Cliff and nearby Westcliff. Linehan turned to look back at the two small towns in the distance. The tiny clusters of their lights seemed far too faint to produce the effect in the graveyard. “Trouble is,” Bill Kleine remarked, “my wife and I have both seen these lights when the fog was so thick that you couldn’t see either one of those towns at all.”

County Judge August Menzel added weight to Bill Kleine’s theory when he told a reporter that one night everyone in Silver Cliff and Westcliff shut off their lights; even the street lights were turned off to try and get to the bottom of the mystery, “but the graveyard lights still danced.”

There are spook lights all over the North American continent, some not as well documented as the Palatine, and the Luz Peculiar, the Joplin lights and the Silver Cliff spook lights, but all mysterious so far — and all open to any explanation put forward, of which there are many.

As Edward Linehan concluded in his article in National Geographic: “No doubt someone, someday, will prove there’s nothing at all supernatural in the luminous manifestations of Silver Cliff’s cemetery. And I will feel a tinge of disappointment. I prefer to believe they are the restless stirrings of the ghosts of Colorado, eager to get their Centennial State on with its pressing business; seeking out and working the bonanzas of a second glorious century.”

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