Mysterious lights have a great tradition in Newfoundland and Labrador. There are numerous stories from around the province of an eerie light that would appear in times of danger and was sometimes followed by a tragic incident. They have been often reported flickering over marshy ground, and, it is said, over churchyards.
This strange phenomenon is known most commonly in Newfoundland by some version of the name “jacky lantern,” with “jack the lantern” and “jack o’ lantern” being other variants. Known in Latin as ignis fatuus, or “false light,” it is also widely known by the West Country England name of “Will o’ the Wisp.”
Around the capital city of St. John’s, it was known historically as a corpse candle, and as a corpse light in the community of Harbour Grace.
Andrew Parsons of Lushes Bight was interviewed about the phenomenon in 1986. A veteran of the First World War, Parsons was in his 90s at the time of the interview, but his memory of a strange light in Lushes Bight was quite clear.
“There used to be a light in our bay, a weather light — a jack o’ lantern they used to be called,” said Parsons. “We used to see that one quite often. I don’t know what that was. He was a big light; he was as big as half a barrel.
“I’ve been right near it,” he continued, “and we had one man, Albert. … He was coming down from Pilley’s Island and he saw it out there, a quarter of a mile ahead of him. He knew all about the light. He had seen it lots of times, and he took chase after it.”
“I’m catching you now, to see what you is!” the man was said to have exclaimed.
The light, apparently, had other ideas.
“The light went ahead of him fast,” explained Parsons.
“He couldn’t catch it. Oh, I’ve seen that lots of times, but it hasn’t been seen lately.”
Perhaps it was just as well that Albert did not catch the jacky lantern, as they often appear specifically to lead travellers astray, into bog holes or over cliffs.
For every bit of folklore, however, there is often an exception to the rule. The Harbour Grace corpse light is one such example. A corpse light led the Rev. Canon Noel and his wife to safety during a blizzard just outside the community.
That event took place at the very beginning of the 20th century. The reverend and his wife had taken their horse and sleigh to a blacksmith, several miles distant. Delays meant the couple had to leave during a storm. Their horse was soon bogged down in high snow, and they realized they were completely lost.
A bright light began moving around. Believing it to be rescuers, the couple shouted for help. The light approached them and passed by, but there was no sign of a person carrying it.
The frozen pair walked in the direction of the light. This led them to a stone fence, which in turn led them to a house where they found shelter for the night.
When the owners of the house were told of the strange light, they expressed no surprise. The corpse light was no stranger to the citizens of Harbour Grace. It had been seen many times before, generally before a tragedy.
For whatever reason, the ghostly glow had decided to protect the reverend and his fair wife, instead of leading them to their doom.
Dale Jarvis can be reached