The tradition of jack o' lanterns was brought from Ireland and Britain in the early 1800s. Travelers through the moors and marshes had long seen flickering, wispy lights teasing them off of established paths and pulling them to get lost in the fog. The lights always receded when approached and followed during a retreat. They were sometimes called will-o'-the wisp, fairy lights or friar's lanterns.
One legend attributed these lights to a man named Stingy Jack who tricked the Devil and was not allowed into heaven or hell after he died. It was said that the when he asked the Devil where he should go, the Devil threw him an eternal ember that Jack stuck in a carved turnip which he used as a lantern as he roamed the Earth. On October 31st , during the festival of Samhain when fairies and ghosts were said to roam, turnip lanterns were carved to ward off evil.
When the tradition came to the United States, pumpkins were carved instead of turnips as their size made them easier to carve. They became associated with Halloween during the mid-1800s.
Civil War soldier, Sam Watkins of the 1st TN, Co. H recounted the first time he saw a jack o' lantern. He was stationed near Corinth, Mississippi and was engaged with the enemy that morning. Him and a comrade had both shot a sharpshooter out of a tree and macabre reported that the soldier tumbled out of a tree like a squirrel:
Watkins, Sam. Co. Aytch, A Side Show of the Big Show. Nashville, TN: Cumberland Presbyterian Publishing House , 1882.
This is where I first saw a jack o'lantern (ignis fatui). That night, while Tom and I were on our posts, we saw a number of very dim lights, which seemed to be in motion. At first we took them to be Yankees moving about with lights. Whenever we could get a shot we would blaze away. At last one got up very close, and passed right between Tom and I. I don't think I was ever more scared in my life. My hair stood on end like the quills of the fretful porcupine; I could not imagine what on earth it was. I took it to be some hellish machination of a Yankee trick. I did not know whether to run or stand, until I heard Tom laugh and say, "Well, well, that's a jack o'lantern.
How scary it must have been to see that for the first time! Have a happy Halloween everyone! I'm glad everyone is safe after that storm.