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Corpse Candles: Sailors have seen them for centuries - but are they supernatural?

© 2017 - Stephanie Hoover, All Rights Reserved

Corpse candle over a lake In 1690, Captain Leather of Belfast, Ireland, found himself shipwrecked on the Isle of Man. Before he had the chance to investigate the condition and whereabouts of his surviving crew, several residents of the island broke the sad news that he had lost 13 men. They knew this, they said, because they had witnessed 13 corpse candles floating from the beach to the church graveyard. Sure enough, the captain soon learned that this death toll was absolutely accurate.

Although "corpse candles" - also known as dead men's lights and fetch-lights - appear in the folklore of cultures throughout the world, these tales were most abundant in Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Most frequently, these eerie blue lights marked the location of the bodies of drowning victims. In other instances, they foretold a shipwreck. Sometimes, much like the fabled and equally deadly Sirens, they appeared on the shoreline to deceive ships into crashing into rocky shorelines.

Both sailors and landlubbers have witnessed corpse candles. In Penrose in Cornwall, on the southwestern tip of England, townspeople in the 18th century swore to seeing corpse candles resting near the the graves of an unfortunate ship's crew, all of whom had drowned at sea. Later, in the 19th century, London nurses reported terrifying flames emitting from the mouths of dying patients.

In addition to foretelling tragedy, these spectral lights have been credited with solving crimes. Scottish ballads tell of corpse candles floating on the surface of pools of water in which murder victims had been tossed. But perhaps the most interesting of these kinds of revenge tales occurred in that country in the early 1800s. A weaver near Edinburgh took on a journeyman assistant. Shortly after hiring the new man, however, the weaver disappeared. When asked, the assistant explained that his master was on an extended trip, but would be returning in a few months. This seemed to satisfy curious customers. But one evening, two men were riding by the weaver's shop when they were startled by a large corpse candle glowing beside the cottage. They called the sheriff who commanded his officers to dig upon the spot of the light. Sure enough, the weaver's body was found in a shallow grave, prompting the journeyman to confess to the murder.

So what are corpse candles? Are they really the spirits of drowned sailors, or victims of violence seeking justice? Modern scientists believe the answer is far from supernatural. When an unembalmed human body decomposes, bacteria produces a phosphorescent glow. Even wounds of living persons can glow because of bacteria. During the Civil War, many soldiers wounded at the Battle of Shiloh reported this phenomenon.

Yet, while this might explain the lights seen on or near burial places - how do scientists explain the floating corpse candles witnessed by the residents of the Isle of Man...?