Letter to The Times, 1862

Thomas Lamb Phipson (1862), To the Editor of The Times. In "The Times" newspaper, 4th November 1862. Mentions his book, Phosphorescence; or, the emission of Light by minerals, Plants, and animals. London, L Reeve & Co., 1862, 1870.


Sir,—I read in your paper of November 1 a conspicuous letter upon the natural phenomenon known as "Will-o'-the-wisp," ignis fatuus &c., in which the writer boldly denounces "this vagabond as a rank impostor," and challenges the production of evidence in proof of his existence. I beg to accept this challenge, and the more readily as I have quite as much right as your talented correspondent to dent the existence of this meteor. But before writing the eight or ten pages relating to the ignis fatuus in my work, Phosphorescence, or the Emission of Light by Minerals, Plants, and Animals, I made careful inquiries about it from persons in every respect worthy of confidence, and who had witnessed it many times. I found that it is very frequently to be seen, for instance, in the peat districts around Carlisle about this season. Several of my friends have witnessed it, and one intelligent lady, when she heard that I, like many others, had never had the good fortune to see this mysterious light, exclaimed, "How sorry I am that I cannot send you a Will-o'-the-wisp up to London, for they are common enough here about November!"

The testimony in favour of the existence of the ignis fatuus is as convincing as that of the most authentic historical facts, and the names of Dr. Derham, Dr. Weissenborn, Dr. Shaw, M. Beccaria, &c., upon whose authority my assertions are based, are ample guarantee of its reality.

Now, as to the cause of this vagabond,—from all the evidence I have been able to collect I am inclined to believe that more than one natural phenomenon has been included under the names of Will-o'-the-wisp, Jack-o'-lantern, elf-candles, ignis fatuus, &c., but as regards our English Will-o'-the-wisp, which flickers over boggy land, it is evidently nothing more than ignited marsh gas (carburetted hydrogen), the same gas which spontaneously inflames in coal mines, the specific gravity of which is about one-half that of air. Its faint flame is almost invisible in the daytime, but becomes gradually visible as night approaches. On account of its lightness this gas burns with a very wild flame. I quote the following short paragraph from page 66 of my Phosphorescence :—

"In the valley of Gorbitz Mr. Blesson discovered a light emanating from marshy ground. Remaining for some days near the place, in order to study the phenomenon as closely as possible, he found it was owing to an ignited gas, the faint flame of which was invisible during the day, but became gradually visible in the evening. The gas appears to have been carburetted hydrogen, or marsh gas. As he approached it the flame receded, but he eventually succeeded in lighting a piece of paper by it."

There are many other cases of spontaneous emission of light, quite as wonderful as the Will-o'-the-wisp, which frequently escape the observation of htose who do not "look with their brains," and I am quite at a loss to imagine why your worthy correspondent should have fixed upon the "Jack-o'-lantern" as a vagabond and impostor rather than on those mysterious lights observed by General Sabine, Beccaria, Rozier, Maffei, Dr. Kane, &c., to which I have lately called attention. Those who look into natural phenomena are often reminded of Humboldt's exlamation, "So varied are the sources of terrestrial light!"

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
T. L. PHIPSON, M.B., Ph.D., F.C.S., &c.
Putney, London, S.W., Nov. 1.

Sean B. Palmer