Many cultures have stories about mystical balls of floating light or fire that seemingly appear and then vanish. Although in most cases these anomalies can be credited to natural occurrences proven through science, some are perhaps supernatural. Ghost fireballs have been sighted throughout history. The most widely believed theory related to these unexplainable balls of fire are that they are tormented souls on a quest to obtain peace after dying tragically or after having committed heinous acts of violence or crime in life. Several reports of such incidents have been shared from various locations throughout the state of Nebraska.
Around 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night in 1883, August Meyer was near Middle Creek just east of present day Seward, Nebraska. Meyer reported seeing what appeared to be an apparition. He described it as a column of fire that would rise up about 15 feet high and 8 feet in diameter out of the ground. As he stood in astonishment at such a sight, he watched as the fire bent over and then disappeared. According to Meyer, the same thing happened again the following Tuesday at 10 p.m. in the same spot. Once word spread, other people in the community reported seeing similar types of ghost fireballs around the Seward area.
On July 7, 1947, Gertrude Sniffen and her son-in-law Fred R. Reibold of 2325 Himebaugh Avenue reported seeing a flaming object around 10:30 p.m. land in the street in front of their home. Sniffen described the object as round, disc-shaped, and about the size of a silver dollar. After crashing into the ground, the ball burned with extreme heat. A neighbor boy approached the object and once the fire extinguished and cooled, he kicked the fragment causing it to break into several pieces of slate like material. Newspaper reporters that later arrived at the scene collected the ashes for analysis leaving behind nothing more than scorched pavement. Chemical analysis conducted by Dr. C. L. Kenny, head of the Chemistry Department of the College of Dentistry at Creighton University, along with two students, revealed traces of sodium, potassium, iron, aluminum, carbonate, sulphate, and unburnt carbon. Dr. Kenny concluded that the remains were pipe tobacco.
A man named W. L. Reynolds living at 328 S. 28th Street in Lincoln, Nebraska saw a ghost fireball on July 10, 1947. As he sat on his front porch around 8:45 p.m. Reynolds saw a bright light that he described as a flat ball of fire about the size of a silver dollar that crashed into his yard and exploded. After the object burst, the light went out and sent out an electric shock. Mystified by the object, he attempted to pick up what remained in the grass with the blade of his pocketknife. According to Reynolds, the object broke into six small particles, each about the size and shape of a large pea. At one point, he was able to balance a particle on the blade and observed the glowing remnant until it faded in color. In addition to losing color, the object lost substance and disappeared completely. When he touched the blade, he felt no heat and found no residue. After searching the area, he found no other particles and the area where the fireball landed left behind no trace of its existence.
In March of 1953, people living near Highway 89, between Danbury and Lebanon in southwestern Nebraska, were frightened by the possibility of the “ghost fireball of Hamburg” returning. Once the spring rain had ended and the onset of summer heat gradually took over, the fireball was speculated to appear again. The fireball was associated with a cemetery and the last remnants of the homesteading town of Hamburg located on the side of a hill about a mile north of the main highway. The town disappeared after the railroad was constructed to run through the valley away from the town site. Reports of the Hamburg light rising and scaring local residents have been recorded as far back as 1894.
The summer of 1952 included a sighting by a woman who was walking down Happy Hallow canyon. According to a Danbury schoolteacher, Mrs. Jessie Duckworth, her high school chemistry teacher attempted to lessen local’s fears by scientifically explaining the light as a result of gas created from decaying vegetation. Duckworth collected several stories through her research on the subject related to people coming in contact with ghost fireballs.
According to varying reports, locals admitted to being chased and pinned against buildings, before witnessing the light jump over the building and out of sight. Other reports included that of fireballs making coat tails stick straight out and rising out of a grave, one of which was excavated and found filled with coyote bones.
Another schoolteacher and amateur folklorist, Mrs. Celia Walters shared a story she heard about the Hamburg fireball told to her by a neighbor named John C. Townley who witnessed the anomaly in the 1890’s. Townley supposedly described the light as similar to that of a gasoline mantle lantern. Near Sappa Creek, about 13 miles southeast of Hamburg cemetery, Walters says that people reported frequently seeing a ‘Jack-o-Lantern” light.
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