At the fringes of luminous phenomena ranging from spook lights to freak lightning, there are strange accounts for which there is no ready explanation. These involve lights that show a particular interest in human beings – and not always to their benefit.
Take what befell 12-year-old George Campbell and his father, E.W. Campbell. They were riding along the ‘Eighty-foot Road’, north of the city of Sherman, Texas, on the night of 4 October 1898. Somewhat after nine o’clock that evening, the boy was witness to a startling phenomenon:
He is a bright, intelligent little fellow, who said he didn’t believe in ghosts; that his parents had never scared him with spook stories, and he is one of the best- behaved scholars in the fourth grade at the Franklin school building. His story as told to a News reporter to-day is as follows: “Last night papa and I were riding along the ‘Eighty-foot Road’, about two and a half miles [4km] north of town, when all at once everything got very bright. We saw a great ball of fire coming down toward the ground. It got within about three feet [90cm] of the ground and seemed to rest for a while and then it went back up until it got clear out of sight. There was a buzzing sound all the time.” George describes it as being about 10 feet [3m] in diameter and that it hurt one’s eyes to look at it. Although they were very close to it, he says that he did not feel any heat. 
It’s a puzzling tale, one which nowadays might be interpreted as a UFO account.
Another encounter with a mysterious fireball did not have such a fortunate outcome. Twenty-two years previously, also in Texas, near the town of Palestine, another “intelligent boy” appeared, out of breath and “as pale as he could be”. His story was that he’d been trudging along a highway at night.
There was a negro woman riding a horse in the direction the little coloured boy was going. The boy appeared that night in Palestine… He said he saw a ball of fire come out of the sky and strike the woman and set her ablaze. The horse ran away with the woman afire on his back, and he ran to town to tell the people what had happened. The people went to look after further particulars concerning this curious incident, and they found the woman lying on the ground, her clothing burned off, but enough of life in her to tell that she had been struck in the breast by a ball of fire. She died the next day. The horse was afterwards found with his mane singed. People here think that she was struck by a meteor. 
In contrast, there are also numerous instances of death from above by freak lightning manifesting as balls of fire. These incidents are no less outré, but in such cases we might console ourselves with a natural explanation. In 1866, Miss Addie Murray, a schoolteacher in Ross township, Vermillion county, Illinois, met her untimely end in this way: “She was sitting in the schoolhouse with two pupils, when the house was struck, and she was found sitting in the chair dead, with her clothing nearly burned off, and the children severely stunned. The children describe the scene as a ball of fire falling into the room.”  Something similar struck John Whitton, a driver for a telegraph construction train in Leavenworth that same year. “He had occasion to lift the telegraph line off the ground, when a flash of lightning struck the line at that point, tearing it into small pieces, and instantly killing him. The men who saw the accident state that they saw a ball of fire as large as a man’s fist issue from Whitton’s breast.” 
An unfortunate death by a fireball in 1933 was accompanied by a curious premonition on the part of the unfortunate victim. “In San Rocco, during a thunderstorm, a cleric was killed by lightning. The priest was involved in a discussion with several of his congregation in the village street, when quite slowly a one metre [40in] big, orange-coloured fireball came floating through the air straight towards the priest, which then erupted in his vicinity. The incident made quite an impression on the superstitious farmers, more so, as the day before the priest had presaged his own demise that was soon to come.” 
A different kind of strange light, again attracted by the presence of a human being, was experienced by Alec Campbell, working as a game warden in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). One night, Campbell was walking by an old burial ground when suddenly a bright light appeared beside him. “The light turned into a ball of fire about the size of a softball and moved along at Campbell’s speed, he said… he turned and stared at the mysterious light. Immediately, the ball started advancing on him.” Campbell remembered the tales that said that if one encountered such a light, the best thing to do was to close one’s eyes, which would cause the light to disappear. He did so, and the light vanished. 
Could there be lights not only possessed of some sort of intelligence but which are capable of forming a unique rapport with a person and even delivering painful stings when they so choose?
This seems to have been the case in Richmond, Indiana, in 1978. The bizarre incident involved local resident Martha Grieswell, 46 at the time, whose house had been plagued by “flashing pinpoints of light” ever since one had come into her bedroom one night in early January that year. Grieswell described how it appeared to her that she and the light were watching each other. The little light approached her: “I said ‘No,’ and it stopped about one and half feet [45cm] away. Then I held out my hand and it came right over and sat in my hand and turned my whole hand a psychedelic purple. It glowed for a while, then shut down to a point of light, then rose from my hand – then the others started to come in…”
Over the following nights, dozens of the “floating, flashing lights”, mostly white and pinhead-sized, entered her bedroom through the closed window; after that, they became her constant companions as soon as evening fell. Grieswell also began to note some of these lights during the daytime, although then they seemed less active. She moved out of the upstairs bedroom, where the lights continued to manifest, and began conducting experiments to try to ascertain what the lights might be. She captured several in containers, including an aluminium cigarette case, and saw them shining through the container walls. Grieswell also immersed the lights in water, keeping them submerged for two days: “The lights were observed to ‘swim’ freely, and when released, to ‘fly’ free, their lights undimmed.” She got the same results when she locked them up in a freezer. She was only able to conduct these experiments when the lights were willing participants, since at other times they simply escaped through the walls of the containers. Radiation tests and an attempted chemical analysis turned up nothing. She did find out, though, that one thing had an effect on the lights. When she touched one with a burning cigarette, the light made “a crackling sound, as if you had wadded up cellophane very rapidly in your hand”. She was unable to replicate that experiment: “You can’t burn them any more. They move away too fast,” she explained. It dawned upon Mrs Grieswell that the lights might learn from experience and therefore might possess some kind of intelligence. When asked why she wanted to get rid of them, she gave the unnerving answer: “Because they bite.” At times, when the lights became more bright, they would sting or bite, giving off a sensation like “the sting of a sweat bee”, and leaving a very small welt. “They go through a tapping motion… When they land, they raise up, then light again… they feel like bugs when they sit on you and that’s when they burn.”
One night, a light got in her eye, which was a painful experience. The next day, she noticed that the eye was bloodshot and the corner crusted. When the lights were not stinging her, they had a tendency to land and crawl over her during the night. They also stung her husband, who wasn’t able to see them. This might be a significant detail; some of the many curious people who visited her house were able to see the lights, yet others were not.
Trying to escape the lights for a while, Mrs Grieswell went to her mother in Decatur, but on the third night after her arrival the lights came in through the window and were also seen by her mother. Perhaps, she reasoned, they had been able to follow her or had hidden themselves in her clothing or luggage. She got the impression that the lights meant to say that she could not flee from them. She sought help, and consulted scientists, ufologists and psychic researchers, but to little avail. As she said to the reporter who visited her (he wasn’t able to see the lights): “I’ve just made up my mind that I’m not going to get rid of them.” 
One of the psychic researchers whom Grieswell contacted offered as explanation that she might be “experiencing a stage of consciousness preliminary to becoming a psychic medium”. A plausible suggestion, coming from a psychic researcher, as puzzling luminous phenomena manifest themselves often around mediums, and are well known in the field of parapsychology. It is said that Helène Smith experienced the manifestation of mysterious globes or lights in her studio where she had taken up painting, long after her association and ensuing break-up with Theodore Flournoy: “The visions were accompanied by luminous phenomena. They began with a ball of light which expanded and filled the room. This was not a subjective phenomenon. Helène Smith exposed photographic plates which indeed registered strong luminous effects.” 
Then there is the case of Ada Bessinet, a Toledo medium of the 1920s. Denounced as a subconscious fraud by Professor Hyslop, who had investigated her during 70 sittings between 1909 and 1910, she clearly made more of an impression on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He wrote, describing a séance with her: “Brilliant lights are part of the medium’s power, and even before she had sunk into a trance, they were flying up in graceful curves as high as the ceiling and circling back on us. One nearly rested on my hand. It seems to be a cold light, and its nature has never been determined, but perhaps the cold, vital light of the firefly may be an analogy.”  Hereward Carrington was another who was not impressed, but he did state that he observed some very curious lights at a 1922 séance which, “on request, hovered for a few moments over exposed photographic plates and that the plates, when developed, showed unusual markings which he failed to obtain by artificial means”. 
Originally published in Fortean Times 266, September 2010
1 “Aerial Phenomena in Texas”, Dallas Morning News, Texas, 5 Oct 1898; “Aerial Phenomena In Texas”, Galveston Daily News, Texas, 6 Oct 1898.
2 “Burned To Death By A Meteor”, Burlington Hawk-Eye, Burlington, Iowa, 23 Mar 1876; “Burned To Death By A Meteor”, Ohio Democrat, New Philadelphia, Ohio, 30 Mar 1876; “Burned To Death By A Meteor”, Decatur Daily Republican, Decatur, Illinois, 11 April 1876.
3 The North-West, Freeport, Illinois, 23 Aug 1866.
4 Bangor Daily Whig And Courier, Bangor, Maine, 26 June 1866.
5 “Vuurbol Doodt Een Priester”, De Gelderlander, ed. Nijmegen, Netherlands, 18 Aug 1933.
6 Sanford Spillman: “Strange To Relate”, Winnipeg Free Press, Canada, 2 Aug 1969.
7 Barry Wood: “What Lights Through Yonder Window Broke?” and Barry Wood: “Others Say They’ve Seen The Lights At Mrs Grieswell’s House”, both in the Palladium-Item, Richmond, Indiana, 20 Aug 1978; also summarised in the Logansport Pharos-Tribune, Logansport, Indiana, 28 Aug 1978. An account of Martha Grieswell’s ordeal was also published in Wonders, Dec 1995, as “Life As We Know It Not”, by Mark A Hall, pp109–118.
8 Nandor Fodor: Encyclopedia of Psychic Science, University Books, 1966, 3rd printing 1969, p350.
9 Walter B. Gibson: “Human Enigmas That Still keep the World Guessing, No. 14 – Ada Besinnet”, Lethbridge Daily Herald, Lethbridge, Canada, 13 Jan 1925.
10 Fodor: Encyclopedia of Psychic Science, p30.