Great Balls of Fire
The Hornet Spook Light, Near Joplin, Missouri
I was raised in Northeastern Oklahoma and knew about the Hornet Spook Light long before investigating the area for my book. As a child, we referred to the mysterious phenomena as the Joplin Spook Light because sightings occurred along a rural county road just 12 miles southwest of Joplin, Missouri. Those who viewed the light describe it as a ball of fire the size of a basketball. Others say it is a blue orb that hovers in mid-air with the ability to divide or separate. While descriptions vary, one thing most people agree on is the spook light’s capacity to frighten unsuspecting travelers.
Explanations for sightings typically lean toward the paranormal – the ghost of two young Quapaw Indians with a Romeo and Juliet type ending. A decapitated Osage Chief looking for his head. A miner with a lantern destined to search for his missing children through eternity. But skeptics will tell you it’s nothing more than swamp gas or headlights from a passing car.
Most local residents believe the light has been around since the late 1800’s. Others say it was first documented in the mid 1930’s. As with most legends, origins are murky and details vary. During the 1940’s, the Army Corps of Engineers conducted a study on the Spook Light, hoping to curb the intense public interest. Their final determination only created more questions when they cited it as “a mysterious light of unknown origin.”
If you’re ever in northeast Oklahoma near sundown, wander over to East 50 Road, four miles south of the tristate junction. Stop and sit a spell. Chances are you won’t be in the dark long.
Great Balls of Fire
by Debra S. Sanders
Henry Tuttle peered through heat radiating off the road in a scintillating haze. It was hot. What Okies call the “dog days of summer”. He dropped his chin so the bill of his faded John Deere cap blocked the afternoon sun from his eyes then watched a white Prius slow and turn into the long drive leading to his farmhouse. Dust formed in a thick, brown cloud behind the vehicle as it crept over potholes and ruts on a road more suited for high clearance vehicles. The right side of Henry’s mouth lifted. Settling into a corner of the wooden porch swing, he began to rock back and forth in a slow, steady rhythm.
The Prius stopped in a wide gravel area next to the house. A young man emerged, running his finger across a layer of dust coating the shiny paint. Seconds later, the passenger door opened and a girl with puffy red lips and large sunglasses stepped out.
“City folk,” Henry muttered with a quick assessment of the man’s baggy pants and loose t-shirt. The woman wore skinny jeans over even skinnier legs. Massachusetts plates confirmed his suspicion.
The man looked up, spotted Henry on the porch and waved. “Hello,” he called in a distinct Bostonian accent. “Fine day, isn’t it?”
“Almost over,” Henry grunted.
“Yuh, it is.” His chuckle sounded forced. “You lived here long?”
“All my life.”
“Ah, that’s great. I wonder if I could ask you a few questions.” The man glanced at his companion. “We’re journalists, researching a bit of local lore.”
Henry took a deep breath then let it out with a whoosh. He knew the minute they pulled into his drive what they wanted – information about the spook light. It wasn’t as if they were the first out-of-towners who fancied themselves ghost hunters.
“I reckon I got a few minutes.”
“Super! Do you mind if we join you on the porch?”
“Suit yourself. Supper’s in an hour. You need to be gone by then.”
The woman giggled. “Yuh, suh. We promise.”
They brushed dried leaves from two wicker chairs before settling onto the worn seats. The man leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “My name’s Peter. This is Emily. We’re writing an article for our travel blog about Devil’s Promenade . . .”
“The spook light,” Henry corrected. “Figured that was it.”
“Yuh, well, we’re researching paranormal activity in the heartland and this particular myth kept popping up so we thought we’d look into it.”
“Have you seen it?” Emily chimed.
Henry pursed his lips, staring at a spot above her head as if conjuring up a memory. “I’ve had my share of run-ins with the damn thing. Most everyone around these parts has seen it at one time or ‘nother.”
Peter licked his lips. His pupils turned to pinpoint as he shifted in his seat. “We’ve read several theories about the light but since you live right here on the road where it is seen most often, we hoped you would have the inside scoop.” His laugh faded into silence. “What is it? Swamp gas? Light refraction? Some sort of geophysical anomaly?”
Henry kept a straight face as he met the young man’s gaze. “Ain’t none of those things.”
“Well, what is it . . . exactly?”
“Riley Crow’s ghost.”
Silence greeted Henry’s announcement. Emily was first to respond, keeping her voice low and pleasant. “We’ve actually heard a few of those myths. I think one source said it might be the spirits of an ill-fated Native American couple. Another suggested it could be a Civil War soldier. However, I don’t think anyone mentioned the name Riley Crow.
“Riley passed on about ten years ago.”
Peter cleared his throat. “But people first reported seeing the light during the 1800’s.”
“Oh, I’m sure it was around back then. Some say this area is cursed so I figure it holds a lot of souls who won’t move on, just like the Quapaw lovers you heard about. Legend goes they wanted to get married but her pappy didn’t think the young brave had enough dowry. He refused to let them join up so they eloped. Pappy sent a hunting party after ‘em. Rather than be separated, they ran to a cliff and jumped off. Died right away.”
Peter cast a condescending smile. “Part of our paranormal research involves debunking stories like that. I mean, there’s really no factual evidence to back up the myth. Is it true the Corps of Engineers investigated the light?”
“Yep, back in the thirties or forties. They ran a bunch of tests and came up empty handed. Look, son, if you talk to ten people around here, you’ll probably get ten different stories about the spook light but one thing’s for sure – anyone who has seen it, don’t want to see it again.”
“Why do you think that is?” Emily inquired. “What makes it so frightening?”
“The unknown, I reckon. I’ve had the damn thing run right in front of my truck. Then in a matter of seconds, it was behind me. One time, it floated towards me, broke into four different orbs and then went and sat in a tree. It’s a crazy sight to see.”
“Have you ever touched it?”
“Nah, but George Stoddard tried to shoot it. He can’t hit the broad side of a barn in daylight so I don’t know why he thought he could hit a moving fireball in the dark.”
Peter chuckled. “Tell me about this Riley Crow. Why do you think the light is his ghost?”
Henry pushed his cap back, scratched the top of his head then reset the hat to its original position. “I have a theory. I think this area is a sort of purgatory for souls who can’t rest.”
“That’s an interesting concept. Why do you think Riley is not at peace?”
“He’s searching for his balls.”
Emily’s eyes widened. “His . . . balls?”
“Yep. Old Riley was missing his testicles when he died.”
Once again, Emily and Peter exchanged looks. “I don’t suppose you’d care to expand on that?” Peter said.
“It’s a pretty gruesome story. Sure you want to hear it?” They both nodded. “Well, okay, then. Riley was a bit of a womanizer. Everyone around here knew he had a strong appreciation for the ladies – everyone except his wife, Lulabelle. She was a big, full figured gal. Good looking in her own right but real jealous. Needless to say, she watched Riley like a hawk.”
“One night, he came home after cozying up with Nancy Brown. Lulabelle took one sniff of the perfume on his collar and knew it wasn’t hers. After an all-night brawl, Riley finally confessed to his indiscretion. He promised never to see Nancy again. ‘Course, Lulabelle’s green eyed monster was all riled up by then. She just couldn’t find it in her to trust him.”
Henry paused to catch his breath. Peter instantly encouraged him to continue.
“About a month went by before Riley got the itch and started tom-cattin’ around. One night, he told Lulabelle he had to go back to the office for a late meeting. She decided to follow him and sure ‘nuff, Riley met up with Nancy at the No Tell Motel up in Joplin. Lulabelle was fit to be tied. She hid in the backseat of Riley’s car and waited. When Riley came out and started the engine, she popped up and scared the poor man half to death. He listened to her rant all the way home. There was no denying his tomfoolery. She’d caught him red handed.
After they got home, Lulabelle kept readin’ the riot act to him, not even pausing to take a breath. Riley finally told her to shut up. He’d had enough. Vowed to file for divorce the next day . . . which sent Lulabelle right over the edge.
From what I heard, the first thing she did was knock the poor man unconscious with a cast iron frying pan. When Riley woke up, Lulabelle had duct taped him to a kitchen chair. He was nekkid as a jay bird and scared half to death. He tried to reason with her but she didn’t want to hear it. Taped the poor man’s mouth closed. All he could do was sit there and listen. She’d cry, then curse, then cry some more, accusing him of all sorts of things. I’m sure he was guilty of most of ‘em but that weren’t no reason to do what she did next.”
Peter leaned in even further, eyes wide. “What did she do?”
Henry shook his head, staring at the toe of his boot for a full minute before conitinuing. “It was awful, just flat out mean. Lulabelle ran down a list of names of every woman she could think of in a fifty-mile radius, asking Riley if he’d slept with them. I suppose he said yes to just about all of them. He probably thought if she got mad ‘nuff, she might get so disgusted she’d let him go. But there ain’t no one more vindictive than a woman with a broken heart.”
Emily’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh, dear. What happened?”
“She castrated the man. Cut off his balls with a kitchen knife right where he sat.”
Peter’s complexion paled. For a minute, Henry thought the kid might vomit but then he swallowed and urged Henry to continue.
“Riley passed out, of course. I think any man would. He was bleeding real bad. While he was unconscious, Lulabelle took his testicles, pounded ‘em out flat with a mallet, rolled ‘em in a little cornmeal and flour and fried ‘em up in lard– just like calf fries. I think she intended to feed them to Riley.”
“Nuh . . .” Peter ran to the far end of the porch, leaned over the railing and heaved. When he returned, his shirt tail was wet and stained. “Sorry, man. That was more than I could handle.”
“No problem. I had the same reaction when I first heard it.”
“What happened to Riley?” Emily’s voice was barely more than a whisper.
“He bled out right there in the kitchen while Lulabelle was cookin’.”
“Was she arrested?”
“Nope, and that’s the curious part. She really loved the old scallywag. Once she realized Riley was dead, she slit her wrists and died on the kitchen floor next to him.”
“That’s an . . . interesting story but what makes you think the spook light is Riley Crow?”
“I hear Lulabelle wailing some nights, usually when the spook light is out there bobbin’ around. I think she’s chasin’ Riley, trying to beg forgiveness. Ain’t gonna happen, not for a while. He’s still pretty mad. I reckon they’re stuck in purgatory for the time being.”
Peter sucked in a deep breath and glanced at Emily. “I appreciate you taking the time to speak with us.”
“But you don’t believe me.”
“It’s not that I don’t believe you. The legend of Devil’s Promenade has been around for over a hundred and forty years. Logically, it doesn’t make sense it would be Riley Crow’s ghost.”
“Son, nothin’ about that spook light is logical. You kids believe what you want. That’s all I got.”
Emily was first to stand. “It’s getting late. If we’re going to film the light, we should be going.”
“Don’t keep anything sharp in your vehicle. Lulabelle has been known to throw knives and scissors through the air. Wouldn’t want y’all to get hurt.”
Peter swallowed, joining Emily at the top of the steps. “Perhaps we should discuss our research at the motel. We can return in a few days.” His suggestion met no resistance.
Henry waved as the Prius drove away, travelling down the lane much faster than when it arrived. He lingered on the porch after it disappeared, staring off into the distance. The front door opened and a grey haired woman emerged, wiping her hands on a dishtowel.
“Supper’s almost ready. Better wash up.”
“Sure thing, Mama.”
She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “Who were those people?”
Henry shrugged. “Just some city folk wanting to know about the spook light.”
“Have you been making up stories again, Henry Tuttle?”
“Now, Mama . . . I was just havin’ a little fun. No harm done.”
Her eyes rolled upward. “I swear, old man. Some days I don’t know what to do with you.”
“I was tryin’ to keep the peace. I don’t think those kids will be back,” he chuckled, “but if they do park down the road, I’ll get out my big spotlight and really give ‘em something to write about.”
His mirth was met with a warning scowl from his wife. She turned on her heel and marched inside, slamming the door behind her.
Henry waited a few minutes longer, enjoying the quiet of the early evening. As he turned, a hazy blue orb bobbed near the far end of the porch. Henry paused, arched a brow, then shooed it away with his hand. “Go on, now git, Riley. I ain’t got time for you and Lulabelle tonight.” He watched the orb float into a tree followed by a low wail in the distance. “I don’t reckon you two will ever get along.”
Shaking his head, Henry shuffled inside and closed the door.