On the horizon, a light appears, glowing and neon. Something about the quality of the light makes it seem unnatural and foreign. What appears is not a headlight, not a flashlight, not a plane, not a lighthouse. The light dances about. It races forward at an incredible speed. It flickers off and disappears. This seems like a scene from the 1977 Steven Spielberg film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but it is also a real event that took place in the summer of 1952 in Wicomico County.
The state police outside of Salisbury had gotten the call before. Residents around Hebron off U.S. Route 50 saw, “A weird ball of light that glows like an automobile headlight but cavorts about and vanishes before anyone can approach it,” according to a report by the Associated Press. Even Trooper Robert Burkhardt had seen the light for himself in the woods, on the night of Friday, July 4. Around midnight as he was driving on a sandy road towards Route 50, the bright light came toward him. He realized it was too big to be a car headlight. He turned off his headlights and slowly drove forward. Then, the light began to fade. “It faded slowly into a reddish glow which finally went out,” he later told a reporter, “just like a neon tube.” As he sat in his car contemplating what he’d seen, the light appeared behind his vehicle. He got out of his car and went to look for the source of the light but found nothing.
On the night of Wednesday, July 9, some of the other officers wanted to see it for themselves. They probably wanted to solve the mystery, to put residents at ease, and maybe even catch a prankster. Troopers Burkhardt and C. Edward Bracy made their way to a secluded section of West Church Street about a mile outside Hebron. Folks in the area claimed to have seen lights appearing in the woods for at least fifty years, with ghost stories to account for the lights’ origin.
That Wednesday, the sun went down around 8:30 p.m., and darkness began to envelope the fields and forests around Hebron. Around 10 p.m., the troopers saw the mysterious light. Burkhardt thought it was about as high as a car headlight, and about as bright, but much larger, about as large as a wash basin. They knew it couldn’t be a headlight, though. “The phantom light danced around the wooded road, bounced into the wood on one side and crossed into a nearby field,” the newspaper reported Burkhardt saying. And it moved with speed, upwards of fifty miles an hour, much faster than someone with a flashlight could run.
Burkhardt and Bracey jumped into their vehicle and drove after the light for half a mile before it disappeared into a field. They called Lieutenant C.C. Sherman and Trooper Robert Weir to describe what they’d seen, and the two officers soon joined them in another patrol car on the road. They sat in their cars, about 100 yards apart, watching the light appear and disappear for the next two hours, even when a rainstorm passed through. When they tried to get closer, the light disappeared. They couldn’t explain what they had just seen.
The fact that four state troopers had seen the light piqued the curiosity of residents. Newspapers reported that nearly 300 people, “some bringing beer and sandwiches,” camped out on following nights to catch a glimpse of the light. It didn’t reappear.
After the night of July 9, Burkhardt didn’t think they were dealing with a prankster, but he also didn’t believe in ghosts. “It must be some kind of natural phenomenon I’m not acquainted with,” he said. A few days later, an unnamed Johns Hopkins University professor told a reporter that the light was marsh gas, “generated by decaying vegetable matter” that seeps up to the surface of the swamp and can spontaneously ignite. That explanation didn’t satisfy many people, since the light seemed to move at such fast speeds. No one has yet to offer a better explanation. In fact, over the past 60 years, the mystery has deepened.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Michael A. Frizzell of The Enigma Project started looking into what became known as the Hebron Light and other mysterious lights on the Eastern Shore, including Elsey’s Light in Crisfield and Cal’s Light in Andrews. To Frizzell’s disappointment, the paranormal researchers couldn’t see any of the lights; most of the sightings stopped in the 1960s. Frizzell was fascinated by how close all of the sightings had been, all within about ten miles of one another, he says. Frizzell tracked down Burkhardt for an interview in lieu of seeing the lights himself.
He told Baltimore magazine that Burkhardt was reticent to share too much of those strange weeks in July but, “I was able to … discuss the situation, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he saw something very peculiar out there.” Like Burkhardt, Frizzell thinks the light is too complicated and too long-lived to be a hoax. So if you’re on the dark roads of Dorchester, Wicomico, or Somerset counties, keep your eyes out for the unexplained lights of the Eastern Shore.