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Spooklight as photographed in early 1900s (US Public Domain)

Tourists come from afar in the hope of catching even a mere glimpse of it on dark nights. Some of these same tourists received even more than they had originally bargained for. The subject matter is a mysterious phenomenon: a glow of round bright lights in the Tri-State area where the borders of Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma intersect, near the old two-lane Route 66 which has since been replaced by the wider and faster Interstate 44. 

It usually starts off being one light that breaks off into smaller ones. It bobs, it weaves, and it bounces from side to side only a few feet off the ground. Colors seem to vary: green, orange, red, yellow, and occasionally blue. Some residents have seen it dance along their property: outside their bedrooms, on their roofs and porches. As if it’s trying to peek inside.

It’s known by many names: the Tri-State Spooklight, the Hornet Spooklight, the Hollis Light, and the Joplin Spooklight, depending on where you reside, whether it be, say, Hornet or Joplin, Missouri. However, the most common handle is just plain Spooklight. When sighted, the light or a series of lights appear for various lengths of time during fog or mist: anywhere from a few seconds to as long as a few minutes. And it’s been around since the mid-nineteenth century. 

Is it spooky? To some it is. To others it’s an interesting occurrence that they can’t stay away from and often go out looking for, sometimes in groups. One thing is for certain: Enough people have seen it to ascertain that it’s no hoax. It’s out there. It exists. 

No one knows for sure what Spooklight really is and how it came about. The first reported sighting that ended up in print occurred in 1881. One legend says it’s the ghosts of two Native American lovers who had eloped from their tribe, were subsequently hunted down, and then committed suicide instead of being caught by their elders. Another, it’s the ghost of a miner whose children were stolen by Native Americans. 

One of the more prominent places to spot Spooklight is about five miles south of the Tri-State Junction inside Oklahoma near Quapaw, along roads E40 and E50 (also called Spooklight Road), facing west between 10 PM and the early morning hours. At times it seems to have a mind of its own. People have driven into the light, only to see it disappear, then reappear behind them; while others watch in horror as the light attaches itself to their vehicle for a few seconds before bouncing off and disappearing into a nearby field or clump of trees.

Tri-State Spook Light booklet
Tri-State Spook Light booklet, printed 1955 (US Public Domain)

Iconic New York Yankees baseball player Mickey Mantle was born and raised in the area of Oklahoma where Spooklight has been sighted for decades. In his teens in the late-1940s, he and his friends would often go out at night in search of it. One boyhood friend in particular, Bill Mosely, related in The Last Hero, The Life of Mickey Mantle by David Falkner: “It was a pretty long ways out there, sometimes we’d go out there and wait for the light to come and sometimes we’d miss it. But yeah, a light really would come up…and boy it could scare the devil out of you. We’d start yellin’ and everything and maybe somebody’d get out of the car and throw rocks at it or take a shotgun.” 

Those of a technical mind seem to think that the light is atmospheric gases or glowing materials rising from decaying country vegetation and colliding with static electricity. During World War II, a group of US Army Corps of Engineers conducted their own study of the mystery with the latest scientific equipment. After careful observation, they arrived at one conclusion: “a mysterious light of unknown origin.” 

Kansas City Star newspaper quoted: “In the Star office we have received reports of these spook lights for many years. Scientists have visited the area, seeking explanations on the spot, but they failed to locate the source.” Even the syndicated Ripley’s Believe It or Not! organization looked into the matter, and they, too, were left baffled.

The September 1965 issue of Popular Mechanics contained an article on Spooklight, written by Robert Gannon, who had gone to the area for verification. He started out south of Joplin, Missouri, heading west. In Senica, Missouri, a florist named Clark Fryatt offered to accompany Gannon in search of the light. After driving over the state line into Oklahoma along Spooklight Road, which stretches three and a half miles long, they saw a jittery, golden glow in the distance, resembling a lantern. It played a cat-and-mouse game by appearing, then disappearing at different intervals lasting a few seconds to as long as 10 minutes, with the longest being four minutes and 20 seconds, according to Gannon’s stopwatch. 

A short time later, Gannon arranged for a University of Arkansas instructor to assist him in uncovering the mystery. The two determined that Spooklight was actually reflections of headlights, after the writer flashed his vehicle headlights several times on Route 66 which were then supposedly seen miles away along Spooklight Road at the same time. Given this news, locals didn’t buy Gannon’s conclusions, especially Clark Fryatt. 

One of the best examples to support how the majority of locals felt was found in an article inside the Tri-State Spook Light Booklet, printed in 1955, distributed and sold in area for 25 cents. It’s a story told to an area reporter by Bill Mizer, a resident of Hornet, Missouri:

“I’ve been around here since 1886, and I’ve heard all the stories…and the first time it was seen was in 1903. At that time there was a widow lady living near State Line Road. She lived alone, and when she first reported seeing the light, she thought someone was trying to run her off her property. The reports persisted, and a bunch of boys decided to investigate.

“One night about six or seven of us went to the widow’s house…We didn’t have long to wait before we saw the thing that had the widow frightened. The first time I saw the light, my hair raised several inches from my scalp, and I had a hard time keeping my hat on my head.

“There was a draw on her property, and a little branch ran through. Lots of cattails grew there, and as everyone knows when the vegetation dies down, and conditions are right, phosphorous gas comes from the decaying vegetation. You can rub some of the fuzz from the cattails on your hands and your hands will glow in the dark. So we thought we knew the answer. But as we took up our vigil on this particular night, we were not so sure. 

“After we had waited for a time, we saw this light moving up the draw. It floated like a will-o’-the-wisp, up the draw, and disappeared. Then presently it reappeared, and got to within a hundred feet of us, floated around, and when the wind got up a bit, it disappeared.  And as I said before, I had a hard time keeping my hat on my head.

“Well, the next night…we went back, and waited. And the light reappeared just as it had done the previous night. Each time the wind would get up a bit, the light would float away. One of the fellows, who thought he was a bit smarter than the rest of us, said the marsh gases were causing this bit of a ghostly apparition, but we were never sure. I tell you, when you’re sitting out there in the dark, and this ball of light floats around for a while, and disappears, you begin to wonder.

“After a month or so…we had almost forgotten about our experience; but early in 1905 reports had started coming in again about the light. I have talked to hundreds of people about the strange light which has existed here since long before the coming of the automobile. Since the passing of time and the many thousands of tourists coming here, it looks like the old light is here to stay.”

Bill Mizer, long gone now, was right. Spooklight, by whatever name you wish calling it, is still around. It’s still a tourist attraction, and people are still mystified by it.


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