Letter to The Times, 1862

Anonymous "Y." (1862). To the Editor of The Times. In "The Times" newspaper, 1st November 1862, p.5.

Sir,--Showing up seems to be the order of the day, and you have done excellent service in this line of late. Thus, you have gibbeted that wretched caitiff, Bully Butler; applied the lush lustily to the shoulders of vexatious railway officials; seized Sir Rowland, of Martin's-le-Grand, by the collar and shaken him soundly, yet deservedly; and consigned to an ignominious death that arch impostor, the frog in the coal. Encouraged by these notable achievements, I venture upon a personal onslaught, in your columns, which I know will expose me to odium and, it may be, to ridicule. There is an individual in whom all the world believe, of whom poets have sung and orators talked. It is admitted that he is an erratic vagabond, and rejoinces in misleading unwary travellers who have the misfortune to be overtaken by the shades of evening and lose their way. His favourite haunt is low marshy ground, where he appears as a flame at the height of a few feet above the surface. He is never stationary, but, like a perturbed spirit, wanders restlessly to and fro. On approaching him, it is confidently affirmed that he decreases in brightness, and no one has ever yet succeeded in capturing him. He is evidently supernatural, as all natural light follows an opposite law, its intensity being inversely as the square of the distance from its source. But who shall presume to doubt his existence, especially as philosophers have generally accepted it, and even ventured to explain it by natural causes? It need hardly be stated that he goes by the names of "Will-with-the-wisp," "Jack-with-a-lantern," and "Ignis fatuus." Well, Sir, with full conviction of the obloquy which awaits me, I boldly denounce this vagabond as a rank impostor, and I challenge the production of evidence in proof of his existence, either past or present. I am acquainted with the phenomena of phosphorence. I know that rotten wood in certain states and decaying lobsters shine in the dark; I have seen glowworms in England and fireflies in Italy; but I assert that the properties ascribed to Jack do not admit of being referred to any of these well-known sources of light. There is a gaseous compound of phosphorus and hydrogen which spontaneously ignites in contact with air; and some have supposed that this gas might be evolved from marshy soil and produce the luminous appearance in question. However, the generation of this gas in such localities has never been demonstrated, but, for the sake of argument, admitting the contrary, Jack could not depend on its occurrence; for it would be evolved from the surface of the ground bubble by bubble, and each bubble would inflame at the surface, and not give rise to a persistent luminous flame hovering at a considerable elevation in the air, such as Jack is reported to be. Nothing is more remarkable than the inaccuracy of popular observation with reference to natural phenomena. It is not sufficient that men have eyes in their heads to enable them to see correctly. They must learn to observe as well see, or, in other words, to look with their brains as well as their eyes. Who doubted the existence of witches a century or two ago? Did not the celebrated Henry More attempt to demonstrate the being of a God from their existence? But what educated person now believes in a witch? The last witch is dead. Ghosts are rapidly dying out; and so one popular misbelief after another will disappear. In conclusion I bed to state that I have made many inquiries after Jack and have attentively perused the records of his history; and I have come to the conclusion that he never presents himself except to a drunken man in boggy ground on a foggy night, --conditions in which accuracy of observation can hardly be insured. I repeat, I know what I have to expect. Jack's friends will doubtless assail me in terms of no small indignation. You have recently had occasion to enlighten the public on certain points which some persons were interested in keeping in the dark, and the whole pack has been howling ferociously ever since, like curs with their legs in a trap. Nevertheless, magna est veritas et prevalebit. I remain, Sir, yours faithfully,
London, Oct. 30. Y.

Sean B. Palmer