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The Joplin Spooklight

Fate Magazine August, 2002

The legend of the Joplin, Missouri Spooklight began in 1884 when, according to a pamphlet written by the original owner of the Spooklight Museum, Spooky (Arthur P.) Meadows, a young Quapaw Indian girl saw it weaving through the trees in northeastern Oklahoma.

Or, maybe it began when a miner, heading home just after dark, got lost in the woods. Some say that his wife, fearing the worst, grabbed an old lantern and set out to look for him, wandering until dawn. When her husband failed to return a second night, she set out again, and from that point on, each night, until she died. Now her ghost, carrying that lantern, searches for her husband.

Some say her lantern is the light that the Quapaw girl saw. Others suggest that the light was already there when the first of the white man arrived in the area around the beginning of the nineteenth century. Some thought it might have actually appeared about the time of Christ, but there were no humans around the area two thousand years ago. At least none who left a record for us to find.

Whatever the source of the light, or origin of the legend, the light is still there. I know because I have seen it. It appeared on each of the nights I was there, showing up about dusk and flashing around the sky until we left four or five hours later. Given what I know, I suspect it stayed until dawn and then gradually faded into the brightness of the day.

I spent a week in Joplin with Monty Skelton who, at one time, was the president of the North American UFO Organization. That first night, in the mid-1970s, as we pulled up near the somewhat dilapidated Spooklight Museum, about dusk, the light twinkled into existence hovering down the road. As Skelton stopped the car, I pulled my camera from the back, set up the tripod, and began to shoot. I hadn’t expected to see anything and hadn’t been fully prepared. I had only part of a roll of film.

Garland Middleton, who owned the museum in the 1970s, told me later that night, “I’ve seen a lot of people try to take pictures, but none of them got anything.”

I finished the roll of film and the Spooklight was still there. Using binoculars, I watched it bob and weave, seeming to be about a hundred feet above the ground. It broke into three parts, and then five, and finally vanished for several seconds. Moments later it burst out again, outshining everything around it.

When it was totally dark, the outside lights of the museum had been turned on and I could see Middleton’s car, the door labeled “Spooklight,” sitting close to it. While others stood on the road watching the light, and other cars arrived and left, I walked over to the museum.

Middleton was sitting on a couch by an old wood burning stove. He had worked with the original owner, Meadows, had run the museum for him, opening it in morning and sometimes closing it at night. Meadows had been estranged from his own family telling Ron Bogue of the Joplin Globe, “I’ve got three sons. One of them I haven’t seen in twenty years. I don’t know where he is. My other two boys live in Kansas but they never come to see me... I don’t know them.” Middleton, who shared a love of the Spooklight became, to some extent, Meadows’s heir, replacing the family who had no time for him.

When Meadows died, Middleton took over the museum, living out on what Meadows had called “Spooklight Corner.” In the mid-seventies, there were two pool tables and three pinball machines in the museum. On one wall there were dozens of clippings about the light, several photographs of it and a short story about the museum. I read the clippings which told me little about the light and a lot about the legends including one that said river boat passengers had sometimes reported the light. Today I’m not sure what river boats the writer meant, or even what river the boats would have been traveling.

I studied the photographs which suggested that Middleton might have been exaggerating when he said that no one had much luck taking pictures. He was even selling post cards that had picture of the light on the front. It was apparently one of many taken by Meadows who had been a photographer in his younger years.

In the mid-1970s, Middleton was an old man, fairly tall and very thin. He was friendly and eager to talk about the light. He told me, “I first seen the light forty-years ago. It looks the same today as it did then. Now it usually stays away but it used to come right down the road, almost to the corner.”

Middleton, like so many of the others I talked to, told of friends who had been within twenty feet of the light. He said that he had once gotten to within fifteen feet, but that was years ago. “Nowadays it seems to stay away more. It doesn’t come very close but it’s always out there.”

There were a couple of teenagers in the museum. I asked these young men, who were playing pool, if they had seen the light. The taller of the two, who had slightly reddish hair and couldn’t have been more than eighteen said that he hadn’t really seen it and didn’t care to. He was just there to play pool. The other, shorter, stockier kid said that he had seen it but he wasn’t all that interested in it now. Pinball and pool had drawn him, and his friend, out to the museum. They could play uninterrupted because rarely anyone else came in to play pool.

Finally I went back outside. Skelton was talking to a young man who was interested in CB radio and had one in his car. Skelton, who also had a radio (today we probably would have used cell phones) suggested that one of us go with the man while the other remained behind, giving instructions over the radio. Once it seemed the car was directly under the light, it would be reported so that a spot check could be made. I climbed into the passenger side of the man’s car.

We started down the dirt road slowly, trying to keep the light in sight. The road fell away and our view was blocked. I told Skelton that I had lost sight of it, but he said, “It’s still there. Brighter than ever.”

The road dipped and climbed and at the peak of each hill we could see the light. It seemed to be getting farther from us as we tried to approach it. Back at the museum, Skelton said that it didn’t look as if the light had moved all that much, though it had faded out once or twice, and that we were almost to it.

On top of the last hill, the light vanished. Below us, stretched for miles, was part of Oklahoma. In the distance I could see lights flickering along a stretch of highway and some of them looked remarkably like the Spooklight but everyone said they weren’t.

“Besides,” said James Smith of Joplin, “the light was here long before the town or cars or electricity.”

Well, maybe.

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