Mysterylights Group Message 0434

Subject: Chambers's Observations on Ignes Fatui
From: "Sean B. Palmer" <sean@...>
Date: 23 Mar 2007 17:16

This transcription is of a talk given in front of the Linnaean Society
in 1830, discussing the possibility that ignes fatui are caused by
luminous insects:
- Richard Chambers (1830), Observations on Ignes Fatui

Though the entire piece frames the subject in entomological terms, the
actual reports of wisps given are very objective and interesting. For
example, the first is from the author's father, a Mr. Anthony
Chambers, who used to live around Lincoln. He saw a "Jack-o'-lantern",
as wisps were often called before the term came to be used for the
hollowed out pumpkin with a candle in it, following him through
"Bultham Wood". I've found out that that must be the Boultham Wood
that's now basically just a suburb of Lincoln; so sadly the habitat is
probably all but destroyed, though some woodland remains.

This particular sighting gives credence to the younger Chambers's
claims in that the light *avoided* a gate at the end of the path.
Semi-intelligent behaviour is a characteristic of his other evidence too.

Chambers quotes Derham's famous experience as a typical objection that
the light is caused by insects, and doesn't pass much comment on it.
He then quotes a friend of his called Thomas Stothard, who was a light
near Blandford (Forum, I presume) on his return (to London?) from
Plymouth, in June 1921. The coachman said it was a Will-with-the-wisp,
and Stothard himself describes it as being something like "between
flying and leaping" in its behaviour. Again, the alighting of the
light on "the shrubs or high grass" seems to be evidence of its
intelligent and therefore insect nature. Stothard thinks that what he
saw was a mole-cricket, which intriguingly the map on Wikipedia
doesn't show as belonging now to Britain so perhaps it became extinct
here since the early 19th century:
- Wikipedia on the Mole Cricket

He then tells an intriguing story about a farmer from Tikleton in
Cambridgeshire. The Ordnance Survey says "no such place" when I feed
Tikleton in, and I haven't yet been able to work out what he's
referring to. But the story nonetheless carries on from the
mole-cricket conjecture: the farmer said that someone pursued a wisp,
hit it, and it proved to be a mole-cricket, which he brought to the
curate, the Rev. Dr. Sutton, who identified it. This story is from
Kirby's Introduction to Entomology, which seems to have perpetuated
the craze started by Willoughby et al. through the 19th century.

Chambers then continues to quote another sighting by a Mr. Sheppard of
a wisp between Stamford and Grantham (in Rutland and Lincolnshire
respectively, about 20 miles apart), which exhibits wind-defying
motion. Chambers had even gone to Lincolnshire himself, apparently in
the area of Boston, to try to find some wisps, but without success
according, due to one fisherman, to the draining of the fens.

He concludes his sightings with another from a man called William Day
(unless this was the man who was merely passing the report on), who
saw a wisp in the region of Worcestershire in the spring of 1823. This
is a great report, talking about a wisp that blew apart into "a dozen
or twenty" fragments before recombining and flying off over a hedge
and into the adjoining field before disappearing into the distance.
Sadly, no more information is given about the precise location.

The editor of the magazine, presumably Edward Charlesworth, adds a
footnote saying that there's evidence against the insect theory, and
to see a couple of journal entries for further information.

All in all, then, this is another great but tantalising piece
containing lots of sightings and some good descriptions of
characteristics, but very little in the way of locations and the like.
It seems that apart from the "Tikleton" story, Chambers doesn't really
have any hard evidence beyond what he seems to be indicating is an
intelligent behaviour on the part of the lights, though of course we
could conjure up any of a number of explanations for this behaviour
which are inanimate in nature.

But again, as with all of these theories, there's probably an element
of truth and enlightenment in there: there are bound to be
misidentifications, and the Tikleton story, if it's true, is a very
good example of the imagination running wild on the whole wisp front.
We also learn a little about the cultural milieu that gives rise to
these explanations, just as "UFOs" are the vogue in our technological
age and "ghost rockets" were prevalent during the war, so we have
luminous owls and insects on the mind of the less urban literati of
the 19th and early 20th centuries.


Sean B. Palmer

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