Observations on Ignes Fatui, 1830

Richard Chambers (1830), Observations on the Phenomenon termed Ignis Fatuus. Read before the Linnaean Society, and printed in the Magazine of Natural History by Edward Charlesworth (1837), pp.353-7.

It has been the opinion of many naturalists, that the luminous appearance known by the names of Ignis Fatuus, Will-with-the-wisp, and Jack-o'-lantern, is not a meteor, as generally supposed, but a luminous insect; and, in confirmation of this hypothesis, I have collected, not merely the opinions, but the experience, of many persons who have had repeated opportunities of observing this singular phenomenon.

In the year 1814, I had a conversation on this subject with my esteemed friend the late Mr. James Dickson, the celebrated botanist, whose name will never be mentioned without exciting those sentiments of respect and veneration due to the great talents and persevering industry of that indefatigable observer of nature.

The individual just mentioned informed me that he felt confident the Ignis Fatuus was not a meteor, but a luminous insect, for he had seen it settle on a plant and fly off again. The same, he stated, had been witnessed by his friend Mr. Curtis, author of the Flora Londinenis. My curiosity being greatly excited by these remarks, I went immediately to my father, the late Mr. Anthony Chambers, who, having lived for many years in the neighbourhood of Lincoln, where the Ignes Fatui are frequently seen, was likely to aford me information on the subject. He told me that, when a lad, returning in the dusk of the evening through Bultham Wood, he observed behind him a Jack-o'-lantern, which followed him through the wood; and when this luminous appearance came to the gate, at the end of the path, it rose to clear the upper bar, and flew into the adjoining meadow. At another time, he observed, in the same neighbourhood, two of these Will-with-the-wisps flying about each other, apparently at play, which they did or a considerable time, and at last settled on a furze bush.

These remarks corroborated the opinion of Messrs. Dickson and Curtis; and, on referring to the Transactions of the Royal Society, vol v., there is a communication on the same subject by Derham, who says, —

"It being the opinion of divers skilful naturalists, particularly Mr. Francis Willughby and Mr. Ray, that the Ignes Fatui are only the shining of a great number of the male glowworms, in England, or of the Pyraústæ in Italy, flying together.

"My own observations I made at a place that lay in a valley between rocky hills, which, I suspect, might contain minerals, in some boggy ground near the bottom of those hills. When seeing one in a calm dead night, with gentle approaches I got up by degrees, within two or three yards of it, and viewed it with all the care I possibly could. I found it frisking about a dead thistle, growing in the field, until a small motion of the air (even such as was caused by the approximation of myself) made it skip to another place, and thence to another and another."

It is generally allowed that the male glowworm (Lampỳris noctilùca) is slightly luminous, yet not sufficiently so to put on the appearance mentioned by Derham. The following remarks by Mr. Author Aikin, in his Tour through Wales, p. 60., will somewhat elucidate the subject:—

"I was not a little surprised to see the glowworms, at our approach, darting over the hedges into the fields. Knowing the female alone to be luminous, and, at the same time, destitute of wings, this phenomenon puzzled me a good deal; nor can I account for it, except upon the supposition of the male bearing the female through the air when in the act of their amours."

Wishing to obtain all the information I could on a subject so interesting, I spoke of it to my kind and intelligent friend, Thomas Stothard, Esq., R.A., who, besides possessing talents of the highest order in every department of art, is an excellent practical entomologist. From this gentleman I received the following letter:—

"June 16. 1823. Newman Street.
"My Good Sir,— Agreeably to your request, I send you the best account my recollection will supply o the Ignis Fatuus we conversed about when last together.

"As I was returning from Plymouth early in June, 1821, having travelled all the preceding day and night, and had passed Blandford early in the morning, considerably before sunrise, when objects were just distinguishable, I saw what was new to me, and which fixed all my attention, for the short time allowed to observe it while mounted on the outside of the coach, passing at the usual rate of 7 or 8 miles an hour. On my right hand, and the side on which I was place, at the distance of 40 or 50 paces, appeared an irregular light, bounding or rising to the height of 3 or 4ft. over some heathy shrubs, which covered the high and marshy ground spreading to a great extent: amongst these it sank and reappeared with a motion somewhat between flying and leaping. A friend, who was with me, observed it, and exclaimed that it was the third appearance of the like phenomenon; and, requesting him to give me more information, he answered, that, when travelling the Bath road on a similar conveyance, at the same time in the morning and season of the year, he observed one, though not so distance from the road as the one we had passed: its flight was in the same direction with the coach; and several times it alighted on the shrubs or high grass on the border of a wet ditch near the road side. The experienced coachman pronounced it to be a Will-with-the-wisp.

"Yours, dear Sir, very truly,
"T. Stothard."

Mr. Stothard was of opinion that the supposed Ignis Fatuus, from its motion being between flying and leaping, is the mole-cricket. He brought one from his cabinet, and pointed to the structure of its wings, in proof of this conclusion; for it could not fly high, nor long together; and the habitat of the Gryllotálpa being the same as where this luminous appearance is usually seen, is another coincidence. In the second volume of Mr. Kirby's Introduction to Entomology, he relates a circumstance corroborative of the above hypothesis:—"The Rev. Dr. Sutton of Norwich, when he was curate of Tikleton, Cambridgeshire, in 1780, a farmer of that place of the name of Simpringham brought to him a mole-cricket, and told him that one of his people, seeing a Jack-o'-lantern, pursued and knocked it down, when it proved to be this insect, and the indentical specimen shown to him."

In the admiral work just noticed, its learned author, who strongly advocates the opinion of these supposed meteoric apperances being luminous insects, gives the following interesting fact:—"Mr. Sheppard, travelling one night, between Stamford and Grantham, on the top of the stage, observed for more than ten minutes a very large Ignis Fatuus in the low marshy grounds, which had every appearance of being an insect. The wind was very high; consequently, had it been a vapour, it must have been carried forward in a direct line; but this was not the case. It had the same motions as a tipula, flying upwards and downwards, backwards and forwards; sometimes appearing as settled, and sometimes as hovering in the air."

In the summer of 1826, I went into the fens of Lincolnshire, hoping to see an Ignis Fatuus; but in this I was disappointed. From Joseph Simpson, an intelligent fisherman at Frieston Shore, near Boston, I obtained the following information:—That, before the fens were drained, his father had seen a dozen Ignes Fatui, apparently playing with each other like insects, the highest nor more than eight or ten feet above the ground. He told me that, since the draining of the fens, they were not so common; yet he and several others had seen one settle on a hedge, and on a post, and fly off again; and that it appeared to him to have a voluntary motion, for he noticed one flying towards a hedge, then rise and pass over it.

My friend Mr. Cole, surgeon, of Charlotte Street, Bedford Square, has favoured me with the following particulars on this interesting but obscure subject:—

"In October, 1823, I went to Worcester, and was met by a young man, in the service of my father, who came there with a gig to drive me to Leigh, near Malvern. Having heard that he had seen a Will-with-the-wisp, I took the opportunity the drive afforded, to enquire about what he had seen, when he stated as follows:—

"'I was coming home with the boy from looking after the sheep, at the further side of the farm. Our path lay near a hedge; and on a sudden there appeared at a distance a ball of fire about as big as my head. We stopped; and it came directly towards us. The boy asked me what it was: I told him I supposed it must be what they called Jack-o'-lantern. It had a dancing kind of motion, and advanced under the hedge side, till it came quite near to us; it then divided into a dozen or twenty parts, forming so many balls of fire, about the size of my fist, which flew apart from each other, and played about for a short time. They then joined together again into one large ball, as at first, and turned over the hedge into the next field. It passed between two oak trees that stood at some distance from the hedge, and then went straight across the fields, rising over the hedges, until it disappeared in the distance.' In reply to my questions, he stated that it was in the spring of the year, and that the night was about as dark as it was at the time he was speaking, a clear moonless night in the beginning of October, about ten o'clock. To an enquiry whether he thought the motion of the object he saw, especially when it divided, and played about, and then united again, was like anything he had seen before, he replied that he did not know; but, when afterwards asked if he thought it like the playing of flies or gnats in the sun, he said it was precisely similar. The spot where he saw it was shown to me. The soil is dry, and the situation is slightly elevated above the surrounding country: there is no marshy or swampy ground in the neighbourhood. The man's name is William Day. He was brought up in my father's family, and resides there still.

I have questioned many persons who have seen the Ignis Fatuus, besides those whom I have mentioned, and they invariably concur in its having a voluntary motion, flying backwards and forwards, rising to clear hedges, resting on gates, pales, and other objects that lie in its route. From the acts I have been able to collect, I think we may infer that many more insects are luminous than naturalists have imagined; and, should these observations not be sufficient to convince naturalists that the supposed Ignes Fatui are really and truly insects, yet I anxiously hope that the remarks I have made may be the means of leading gentlemen, who reside in favourable situations, to investigate this curious phenomenon.

[There undoubtedly appear many considerable grounds for supposing that the history of many cases of the Ignes Fatui may be connected with the light emitted by certain insects; but, at the same time, there is strong evidence opposed to the universal adoption of this explanation. For observations on this subject, see Jameson's Edinburgh Journal for January, 1833, and Entomological Magazine, vol. i. p. 350.—Ed.]

Sean B. Palmer