by Mark Vornhusen

Photograph of a little flame coming out of the ground. Does a jack-o'-lantern look like this?
Photo: © Rainer Arlt

"And so 1 would like to ask how many "scientists" are there still nowadays who in dark; foggy autumn nights walk around out there in forests and swamps? On their desks or in a show case in a museum, a jack-o'-1antern of course, cannot be observed.
Kurt Floericke: Lights in the forest at night, Kosmos 5, Page 270-271, 1908 (Nächtliche Waldbeleuchtunq)"

A jack-o`-lantern is a little flame coming up from the ground which mainly forms on swampy meadows and moorlands. The flames are visible just for a few seconds and are between 1 and 11 cm tall. They are caused by gas that rises in the ground and alights in the air by itself. The gas probably is a mixture of PH3 and. H2S that burns without emitting any smoke or smell. Many people think that jack-o'-lanterns wander about the swamps. But probably this is not true. The reason for this impression probably is that one jack-o'-lantern extinguishes at one place while same steps away another one forms. This can give the impression of a moving light.

For a long time scientists thought that jack-o'-lanterns were nothing more than a whim or mistaken other light-emitting phenomena as, for example, St.-Elmo's fire or glow-worms. Only when respected persons described it they began to believe that it really existed. Especially an observation made by the excellent astronomer Bessel in the morning of December 2, 1807, at Lilienthal near Bremen contributed to this. He saw jack-o'-lanterns in complete darkness and rainy weather on a dug-out swamp site, the holes in which had filled with water. There were a lot of slightly bluish little flames. Their light was faint, so that they did. not illuminate the ground. The jack-o'-lanterns were visible for about 15 seconds each and the distance between them was about 15 to 20 steps. Most of them did not move, but others, in most cases arranged in groups, moved horizontally. Another observation was made by the physicist Knorr, who saw jack-o'-lanterns which were about 10 cm tall and 3 cm wide near Herzberg a.d. Elster. When he held the brass fitting of his walking-stick against a jack-o'-lantern, it did not get warm. Contrary to this are other observations according to which a jack-o'-lantern was able to light a piece of dry cane or even dry grass.

More observations of jack-o´-lanterns are listed up in the “Naturkundliche Chronik Nordwestdeutschlande“ (Scientific
Chronicle of Northwest Germany) by Dr.F. Hamm.

The German word “Irrlicht” (light that goes astray) probably means that these lights seem to jump around and to wander about, that they go astray without having any aim. But there is also another possible explanation. People can get lost by these lights. Nowadays each road is well built, there are road signs and street lamps so that there is no danger to lose the way. But 200 years ago, travelling to the neighboured village at night and under a moonless sky could be dangerous. People who thought to see an illuminated house or a person with a lantern (~jack-o‘-lantern) and walked towards the light, could easily lose their way and get into those swampy areas where jack-o´-lanterns mainly form.

In myths, jack-o´-lanterns were thought to be the souls of children who had died without having been baptized. This may be due to the fact that jack-o´-lanterns have often been observed on cemeteries. But jack-o´lanterns are also believed to have some positive properties. A jack-o´-lantern on the left is said to be a good sign. It is also told that they come flying to you when you call them and shine for you if you give them some money. Weather -wise farmers say that, if there are many jack-o‘-lanterns in the swamps, the weather will stay fine for a longer period of time.

Nowadays people do not know more about jack-o´-lanterns than they did a hundred years ago. Just very few new observations have been made. I do not know about any photographs or videos. So 1 would like to appeal to observing jack-o´-lanterns exactly. Perhaps this is a way to find an answer to the following questions:

These are lust a few of the questions that have not been answered up to now. If you have ever seen a jack-o´-lantern, 1 should be grateful if you sent me a report on that observation. If you are so lucky to see a jack-o´-lantern in future, you should observe it exactly. Of course it would be ideal if you had some photographs or a video of a jack-o´-lantern. During the last century, jack-o´-lanterns were mainly observed in swampy areas. Nowadays most swamps have been damaged by peat-cutting. But even in these swamps the formation of jack-o´-lanterns is possible. In a night in the early summer of 1997, I saw a quite great number of lights on such a swamp near Vechta which probably were jack-o´-lanterns. Several hundreds of metres away, a great number of white lights blinked up in the swamp in irregular intervals. Each blink lasted about 4 to 10 seconds and was about as bright as the planet Venus. The phenomenon lasted about one hour. Unfortunately I was not able to get closer to the lights because the swamp was inaccessible. But I cannot completely exclude the possibi1ity that those lights actually were torches, although it is very improbable that a large group of persons stayed in the swamp at night. But it might have been a military exercise, just as some helicopters passed the area.

Jack-o´-lanterns have not only been observed on swamps but also on swampy meadows, along embankments, on recently fertilized soil, muddy ditches, sewage canals and on cemeteries. In winter they seem to appear less frequently. In summer and in rainy and mild autumn nights, however, they seem to appear more often. According to other reports, jack-o´-lanterns appear more frequently in autumn and Advent, but also in late summer and Lent. Dull weather and sultriness seem to be good preconditions for jack-o‘-lanterns to form. There have been described very different colours of jack-o‘-lanterns. Some people described them as yellowish, others as reddish, while some saw bluish ones.

A report on an observation of jack-o‘-lanterns should contain the following statements:

If the jack-o´-lanterns did appear right in front of you, you should try to kindle tinder in the flame. Perhaps you can also take a photograph. You should send your report as an e-mail to Mark Vornhusen. And perhaps you know somebody who remembers having seen jack-o‘-lanterns.

Bibliography on Jack-o‘-lanterns

Other words for "Irrlicht" (English will-o'-the-wisp, jack-o'-lantern) in German speaking countries are:

Irrwisch, Tümmelding, Dwerlicht, Spoklecht, Irrlüchte, Irrfackel, Dwallicht, Quadlicht, Wipplötsche, Dröglicht, Draulicht, Stölten, Stöltenlicht, Dichepot, Huckepot, Tückebote, Tückebold, Lüchtemannchen, Irdflämmken, Irdlicht, Flämmstirn, Flackerfür, Dwerlicht, Lopend Für, Lichtkedräger, Schwidnikes, Erlwischen, Irreding, Irrflämmchen, Heerwisch, Druckfackel, Schäuble, Stäuble, Zunselwible, Füersteinmannli, Buchelmännle, Fuchtelmännlein