Legend: A ghostly figure produced by a moth saved a train from traversing a washed-out bridge.
Example: [Tan, 1979]
The British express train raced through the night, its powerful headlamp spearing the black darkness ahead. The train was carrying Queen Victoria.
Suddenly the engineer saw a startling sight. Revealed in the beam of the engine’s headlights was a weird figure in a black cloak standing in the middle of the tracks and waving its arms. The engineer grabbed for the brakes and brought the train to a grinding halt.
He and his fellow trainsmen climbed out to see what had stopped them. But they could find no trace of the strange figure. On a hunch, he walked a few yards further up the tracks. Suddenly he stopped and stared into the fog in horror. The bridge had been washed out in the middle and had toppled into a swollen stream. If he had not heeded the ghostly figure, the train would have plunged into the stream.
While the bridge and the tracks were being repaired, the crew made a more intensive search for the strange flagman. But not until they got to London, did they solve the mystery.
At the base of the engine’s head lamp the engineer discovered a huge dead moth. He looked at it a moment, then on impulse wet its wings and pasted it to the glass of the lamp.
Climbing back into his cab, he switched on the lamp and saw the “flagman” in the beam. He knew the answer now: the moth had flown into the beam, seconds before the train was due to reach the washed-out bridge. In the fog, it appeared to be a phantom figure, waving its arms.
When Queen Victoria was told of the strange happening she said, “I’m sure it was no accident. It was God’s way of protecting us.”
Origins: This story about a ghostly moth figure saving a train from disaster has circulated in a number of forms, some that are mute about the identity of any of the passengers aboard the rescued train, and some that name various important personages (including Queen Victoria) as having been saved by the ghostly figure.
As a belief tale,
this yarn has a number of interpretations. On the one hand, it can serve as confirmation that seemingly spooky events often are found to have perfectly ordinary, rational explanations once initial panic has subsided. Where others are prone to jump up and yell “Ghost! Ghost!” then rush screaming into the night convinced they’ve had a brush with the supernatural, those whose innate skepticism causes them to look further into the puzzling or frightening see in the engineer’s act of investigating the lamp (and thereby discovering
the dead moth) the sort of level-headed thinking that leads to the debunking of the otherwise inexplicably eerie. Yet another ghost tale laid to rest; yet another “spook” that turned
out to be anything but (e.g., the mysterious
Another interpretation focuses on the improbable coincidence of the moth’s being drawn to the lamp’s beam at just the right moment to project a menacing figure onto the tracks if the train was to be halted before plunging into the abyss. While moths are indeed attracted to light, what could have caused one to throw itself at that lamp at just the precise instant necessary to save so many lives? Surely some benevolent spirit or personal guardian guided the moth’s flight, possibly the ghost of someone who had died at that very spot and now looks to safeguard others across a dangerous span (e.g., the
Finally, the tale can be regarded as a parable illustrating the mysterious ways by which the Almighty acts on His children’s behalf, His unseen hand working miracles:
No, the figure the engineer saw in the headlight’s beam was not an angel… and yet God, quite possibly through the ministry of His unseen angels, had placed the moth on the headlight lens exactly when and where it was needed. Truly “He will command His angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.” [Powell, 1995] Mark states that after the Resurrection, the Lord “appeared in another form unto two of them, as they walked, and went into the country”
[Collected on the Internet, 2006]
No, the figure the engineer saw in the headlight’s beam was not an angel… and yet God, quite possibly through the ministry of His unseen angels, had placed the moth on the headlight lens exactly when and where it was needed. Truly “He will command His angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.”
Mark states that after the Resurrection, the Lord “appeared in another form unto two of them, as they walked, and went into the country”
So, there you have it: This all-purpose supernatural yarn can be held aloft and brandished as a confirmatory tale by those who believe in Jesus. Or angels. Or protective spirits. Or the power of skeptical thinking.
Barbara “omnibustled” Mikkelson
Last updated: 14 August 2013
Tan, Paul Lee. Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations. Rockville, Maryland: Assurance Publishers, 1979. ISBN 0-88469-100-4 (pp. 129-130).