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Behind the big themes, celebrated figures, and dry dates of history are the interesting stories of life in the past and ordinary people. Southeast Missouri has a varied and rich history that you often don’t hear about in history classes. Join Bill Eddleman of the State Historical Society of Missouri to hear about these stories with “Tales of Days Gone By.” Listen in on the second and fourth Thursday of the month during Morning Edition (7:45 a.m.) and All Things Considered (4:44 p.m.)

George Smith and the Monster

Bitter Oyster.jpg
Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Bitter oyster (Panellus stipticus), one of the fungi responsible for foxfire. Photo by Ylem, Mt. Vernon, Wisconsin.

Halloween is coming up within a week. I am going to veer a little bit from the documentable stories I usually tell and relate a tale that borders on legend. Sometimes things may have a perfectly logical explanation but appear supernatural. Such was the case with an experience a man from Daisy in Cape Girardeau County had in the mid-1800s.

George W. Smith was the middle son of Peter and Jane (Rhyne) Smith, both of whom immigrated from North Carolina as children. His father died in 1856 when George was 13. George enlisted in Col. William Jeffers’ Regiment of Missouri Cavalry, the 8th Missouri Confederate Cavalry, September 26, 1862. His service spanned much of the War, and he participated in Price’s Raid and was captured at the Battle of Mine Creek in late 1864. He returned home after his release from a POW camp after the war ended.

George remained single after the war and continued farming his mother’s land. It was at that time that George Smith had an encounter that on first appearance seems paranormal. He attended a social event at a neighbor’s farm some distance away. The event ended long after sunset, and George started the walk home. A stretch of his route went through a wooded area. It was a quiet, still night, but dark.

George rounded a bend in the path. Straight ahead of him was a blue-green, glowing monster beside the trail. It had two outstretched arms, a dark maw of a mouth, and appeared ready to attack him. The sight startled him and he stopped dead in his tracks. Expecting the monster to kill him, he shut his eyes and stood quaking in fear.

A few minutes passed, and to his surprise, nothing happened! He opened his eyes and saw the monster was still in the same position, ready to attack. Fear began to give way to curiosity, so George began to walk toward the monster. Once he got within a few feet, he realized what it truly was.

The so-called monster was a dead tree. Smaller branches had dropped, leaving two branches on both sides as “arms.” The gaping mouth was a hole where another limb had died and left a cavity as the stub rotted. But what about the glow? The glow, as it turns out, was a phenomenon called “foxfire.”

Foxfire is bioluminescence produced by several species of fungi living on decaying wood. The same enzyme, called luciferase, involved in the bioluminescence of fireflies, or lightning bugs, acts on the material luciferin. The glowing may attract insects that spread spores or may be a warning to deter hungry animals. Foxfire has been known for thousands of years, but scientists studying glowing wooden support beams in mines finally explained it in 1823.

Once George realized the cause of his fright, he continued home.

George Smith married Louisa Walker in 1867, and they became the parents of six children. Louisa died in 1902, and he later remarried. George became impoverished in his old age, living with one or another of his children from his first marriage after his second marriage ended in divorce. His health declined and he finally applied to the Confederate Soldiers’ Home in Higginsville, Missouri in 1931, where he died July 31, 1932. A biography by staff at the home stated, “Mr. Smith was a splendid man. He had been a member of the Confederate Home only a short time but was held in high esteem by his comrades.”

Bill Eddleman was born in Cape Girardeau, and is an 8th-generation Cape Countian. His first Missouri ancestor came to the state in 1802. He attended SEMO for two years before transferring to the University of Missouri to study Fisheries and Wildlife Biology. He stayed at Mizzou to earn a master of science in Fisheries and Wildlife, and continued studies in Wildlife Ecology at Oklahoma State University.