As early as the 17th century, Europeans had heard from the local Native Peoples the association of light with the deceased. In Martha’s Vineyard around 1685, a many witnessed a light that appeared over the wigwam of young woman who was dying. With no dry, sap tinder to grow the flame of the wigwam’s fire, this mysterious glow provided enough light for those tending to the woman. It illuminated the interior of the home for most of that cloudy night, until she breathed her last.
More than just general light, spots of light wondering through the woods or dancing near ponds is a usual motif of the Native folklore. There exists a “common Algonkian concept in the association of the disembodied soul with the apparition of a spot of light (129).” The following stories of ghostly lights were collected in the early 20th century.
A Mohegan woman witnessed their nightly glow from her home’s window. On the hill over her house, a light traveled up and down the pasture. As is neared a mound of rocks, it became brighter. Its intensity grew and diminished many times. In the morning, the woman searched the pile of rocks to find no burn marks, which would have been evident to have such a bright light be seen at a distance. Having no reason or evidence to belief a person to have been in the pasture, she concluded the lights to have been spirits. Although an unusual presence, it was not the last time she witnessed the ghost lights around her home.
Although some, as this woman, felt no threat by the visiting lights, not all had such peaceful encounters. Indeed, one of the most disturbing (and specific) images of ghostly meetings tells of a woman walking home at night. On the way she spots a light from across a swamp. The light moves closer and closer to where she stands on the road. As it approaches her, she begins to see that it is a person, and that “the light was suspended in the center of the person’s stomach as though in a frame (129).” Badly frightened, the woman ran the whole distance back to her home.
Others too, felt threatened by the spots of light. Near the bay, where a couple lived in their house, the husband shot at the lights to chase them away. Although they were not seen for a while after being shot at, one night the lights did returned. It came from their pond and came right up to their house.
These same lights were known to lurk on the outskirts of forests, in swamps, and near ponds waiting to lure children and the unsuspecting traveler away into the woods.
And whether by misidentification or by the spirit’s own design, ghost lights began to appear as jack-o’-lanterns to some. Of one particular victim, a runaway slave named John passing through the Native community, the ghost light is said to have been a glowing jack-o’-lantern. Upon seeing it, John strayed from his appointed destination and “followed the light and became more and more bewildered (138).” It led him deeper and deeper into the swamp. After a while of following, the exhausted victim finally started calling for help. Uncle Simon, the man of whom he was on his way to see, heard his voice and yelled back for him, “What the devil have you got down there? (138).” Seemingly unable to help himself, John was saved from the dreadful glow when Uncle Simon hit it with a stick, cutting the jack-o’-lantern in two, leaving only a black mark on the stick.
“Spirit of the New England Tribes” by William S. Simmons, 1986.