Old Ailsey’s Light is a legend about a light seen over the uninhabited Janes Island in Crisfield – Somerset County, Maryland near Flatcap Marsh.
From time to time, campers at Janes Island State Park in Crisfield will report seeing a strange light hovering above the salt marsh across Daugherty Creek Canal. Unlike swamp gas, it moves in a convulsive manner—hovering and then shooting one horizontal direction before burning out. And some reports state that the light is accompanied by the sound of a high-pitched moan—like a cat or woman wailing. The light isn’t reported to be white like a comet or a meteor. It’s orange like a fireball. Some people say that the light is nothing more than swamp gas being released from the marsh, but swamp gas doesn’t dart around. It bubbles up and then dissipates into the atmosphere.
The light phenomenon that the campers report has an eerie similarity to an old tale told by watermen and hunters about a similar light in the same area a long time ago. 044
The salt marsh across from the campground wasn’t always a marsh. There was a time many years ago when people lived on that island and had productive lives with small houses and gardens. Up at the very north end of the island, in a place known as Long Acre, an old woman lived in a house all by herself—except for her clowder of cats. Everyone knew her as “Old Ailsey.”
Old Ailsey didn’t mind being alone. She kept busy with her house and her gardens. She kept chickens and ducks and feasted on fish, oysters and terrapin. Her cats kept her company, and no matter what the season,
Old Ailsey loved the land she lived on. Every night she’d sit on her porch and watch the red sun slip into the horizon across the Tangier Sound. “There’s no sunset so beautiful as a Tangier sunset,” she told herself. And living there in that little paradise on Long Acre was enough to keep Old Ailsey content. Every so often, friends would come in by boat, check on her and bring her some supplies. They’d often try to convince Old Ailsey to leave Long Acre and come on to the mainland, where she could be looked after. But Old Ailsey would never leave.
One summer day, Old Ailsey was in her house cooking supper in her big fireplace. While stirring the coals, she didn’t realize that one flaming ember had popped out of the fireplace and landed on the hem of her long dress. Before she knew it, the dress was in flames. She had no water in the house, so she ran outside, but as she ran, the fire spread. She looked for her pail of fresh water but was too overcome with fear to give much attention to the search. She began to scream and shriek, and as the flames reached her skin, she ran for the shoreline hoping to be able to jump in the water and extinguish the flames. But the fire advanced quickly, and soon her flesh was burning. Old Ailsey continued to howl in pain and fell to the ground trying to beat the flames down. She burned to death.
Friends who came to check on Old Ailsey a few weeks after her death found her charred remains just a few feet from the shoreline. They buried her near her garden.
Years after her death, hunters and fisherman who were in Flat Cap Marsh or the Tangier Sound at night reported occasionally seeing a strange light as large as a hogshead burst out from Old Ailsey’s deserted house. The light would then travel two or three hundred feet in a horizontal direction, getting brighter by the second. It would stop just before the shoreline and then dissolve. That light became known as “Old Ailsey’s light.” It played before the observers like an old memory—a memory of a poor old woman engulfed in flames, running in a panic from her house trying desperately to extinguish the fire until it finally consumes her, just feet away from the water that could have saved her.
No one ever lived in the house after Old Ailsey died. The abandoned home and the silhouettes of her cats occasionally seen around the old structure kept her memory alive for almost one hundred years. Eventually, the house surrendered to the elements, and the cats died off. The sighting of Old Ailsey’s light became less frequent until no witnesses were left. No one could remember seeing the strange light as large as a hogshead bursting forth from where the house once stood. Old Ailsey became a memory, but the old people kept the memory alive by telling the story, and that pattern repeated itself for nine generations. Even today, almost two hundred years since Old Ailsey met her death, storytellers entertain summer campers at Janes Island by retelling the story of her death and the mysterious light.