Letter to the Times, 1862

J. H. Humfrey (1862). To the Editor of The Times. In "The Times" newspaper, 3rd November, 1862, p.7.

Sir,--Presuming that the letter of your correspondent "Y.," in your edition of to-day (Saturday, Nov. 1), is intended to elicit proof that what he denies may nevertheless exist, I take the liberty of stating a fact, which is, that in 1839 or 1840 I was in Scotland, at Glasgow, and used to go frequently on Saturdays to Dunoon, in Argyllshire, and to the Holy Loch near it, where my cousin was the superintendent of the quarantine establishment at that time there existing, to enjoy the beautiful scenery and sea bathing, returning by the steamer on Monday morning, as was, and probably still is, the custom of the Glasgow people. It happened one fine evening that my cousin and I were walking by the road from Dunoon to the Holy Loch, and enjoying the quiet transit, when, as we came to the large reedy pool which is on the left hand, near the back of Mr. Hunter's property (it being dark, with the exception of such light as the stars afforded), we both saw several lights flitting across the surface of the pond from one sedgy part of it to the other. We both stood still and observed the phenomenon attentively, and I am certain we were not mistaken, and that what we saw were not fireflies, though I have seen fireflies in England once, in very fine summer weather only, and frequently in Germany and France. Any one who has seen fireflies will know that they are precisely like a glowworm in their light, but that they fly as common flies do, in a devious and zigzag course, swiftly, but not as a light thrown from the hand. Now, what we saw near Dunoon and the Holy Loch were precisely like the flame of a common candle, not larger and not smaller, and I can only compare them to what one may imagine a candle thrown from the hand to be, supposing it not to be extinguished by the act. My cousin said, "Oh, yes; those are the Will-o'the-wisps, to be seen frequently," and neither of us ever doubted that the existence of such phosphorescent emanations could be questioned. We went close to the reedy edge of the pond, and there was certainly not a boy or man besides ourselves near the spot. The lights appeared to leap from place to place and then vanish, just as if you threw a candle across the pond and it fell in the water; but this appearance might arise from the many lights bubbling, as your correspondent suggests, out of the mud and vegetable remains. What I mean to say is that these were what are commonly called "ignes fatui," or Will-o'the-wisps, and not fire flies. They did not appear to rise high above the water, but to flit across the surface, about a foot or two above it, and not more. I was not aware that any one ever supposed these lights to be "a persistent luminous flame, hovering at a considerable elevation in the air," as your correspondent remarks. Of the fact observed by me there can be no doubt, and certainly neither I nor my cousin were in the least degree intoxicated, or had tasted a drop of anything that could make us see double, or be mistaken in what we saw; and I have always had it registered in my mind as a convincing proof that "Will-o'the-wisps" or Jack-o'lanterns did really exist as well as fireflies and glowworms, both of which I have had in my hands. I have also remarked the sea to be phosphorescent in summer in the British Channel, with a southerly wind and fine weather, just as much as it is on the coast of Portugal or in the Mediterranean.
I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
London, Nov. 1. J. H. HUMFREY.

Sean B. Palmer