TIMES WERE STRANGE IN 1897

I remember running across this story, which appeared on the front page of the Waterloo Courier Newspaper, while doing research on “Yellow Journalism” and the Spanish –American War.  The original story used to be available on micro-film in the University of Northern Iowa library.  This account is from a Rhode Island newspaper, as the story generated national coverage.

If I remember correctly, the Courier article mentioned that the mysterious stranger claimed to have lost his partner, who fell out of the airship as he was trying to adjust the rudder of the craft.  Search parties were reportedly sent out to comb the area.

What to make of this?

“My own notion is that it is very unsportsmanlike to ever mention fraud.  Accept anything.  Then explain it your way.”—-Charles Hoy Fort (August 6, 1874-May 3, 1932)

1897: AIRSHIP LANDS IN IOWA

Here’s the actual news story of the UFO that reportedly landed outside Waterloo, Iowa on April 17, 1897.

“Waterloo, Iowa April 17 – This region is much excited over an airship or a large vessel designed to leave the impression that it is a flying machine.”

“It was first observed here at dawn yesterday (April 16, 1897). The stranger in charge says it is a flying machine and he landed here to make some repairs and that he will resume his voyage in the air to-day. He keeps all people at a distance of several hundred yards from the machine and therefore many do not credit his story, but think it is a fake designed to create a sensation.”

“Just what object the man has to gain is a mystery, as he has not asked for money from the hundreds who have visited the field to take a look at the thing.”

“The structure is about 40 feet long (13 meters), constructed like a giant cigar, with wing-like attachments on the sides and a steering apparatus in the rear.”

“The whole is surmounted by a cupola, or lookout cabin, on the roof. The queer craft appears to be built of canvas and to be heavily varnished.”

“A pipe leading from the cone constantly emits vapor, as if the motive power were steam. The man in charge is a stranger hereabouts and carries a rifle to keep the people from too closely examining the machine. He secured permission from the farmer upon whose land he is to keep the machine there for a few days.”

HEADLINE NEWS

Mystery airships or phantom airships are a class of unidentified flying objects best known from a series of newspaper reports originating in the western United States and spreading east during 1896 and 1897. According to fringe researcher Jerome Clark, airship reports were made worldwide, early as the 1880s, and late as the 1890s.Mystery airship reports are seen as a cultural predecessor to modern extraterrestrial-piloted flying saucer-style UFO claims.Typical airship reports involved unidentified lights, but more detailed accounts reported ships comparable to a dirigible. Reports of the alleged crewmen and pilots usually described them as human looking, although sometimes the crew claimed to be from Mars.It was popularly believed that the mystery airships were the product of some genius inventor not ready to make knowledge of his creation public. Thomas Edison was so widely speculated to be the mind behind the alleged airships that in 1897 he “was forced to issue a strongly worded statement” denying his responsibility.

Mystery airships are unlikely to represent test flights of real human-manufactured dirigibles as no record of successful airship flights are known from the period and “it would have been impossible, not to mention irrational, to keep such a thing secret.” Contemporary American newspapers were more likely to print manufactured stories and hoaxes than modern ones are and newspapers often would have expected the reader to be in on the fact that the outlandish stories were hoaxes. Period journalists didn’t seem to take airship reports very seriously, as after the major 1896-1897 flap concluded the subject was not given further investigation. Instead, it was allowed to very quickly drop off the cultural radar.The subject only received further attention when ufologists  revived studies of the airship reports as alleged early UFO sightings.

LOST IN WATERLOO?

Specific cases

  • The Sacramento Bee and the San Francisco Call reported the first sighting of the flap on November 18, 1896.Witnesses reported a light moving slowly over Sacramento on the evening of November 17 at an estimated 1,000 foot elevation. Some witnesses said they could see a dark shape behind the light. A witness named R. L. Lowery reported that he heard a voice from the craft issuing commands to increase elevation in order to avoid hitting a church steeple.  Lowery added “in what was no doubt meant as a wink to the reader” that he believed the apparent captain to be referring to the tower of a local brewery, as there were no churches nearby. Lowery further described the craft as being powered by two men exerting themselves on bicycle pedals. Above the pedaling men seemed to be a passenger compartment, which lay under the main body of the dirigible. A light was mounted on the front end of the airship. Some witnesses reported the sound of singing as the craft passed overhead.
  • The November 19, 1896 edition of the Stockton, California Daily Mail featured one of the earliest accounts of an alleged alien craft sighting. Colonel H. G. Shaw claimed that while driving his buggy through the countryside near Stockton he came across what appeared to be a landed spacecraft. Shaw described it as having a metallic surface which was completely featureless apart from a rudder, and pointed ends. He estimated a diameter of 25 feet and said the vessel was around 150 feet in total length. Three slender, 7-foot-tall (2.1 m), apparent extraterrestrials were said to approach from the craft while “emitting a strange warbling noise.” The beings reportedly examined Shaw’s buggy and then tried to physically force him to accompany them back to the airship. The aliens were said to give up after realizing they lacked the physical strength to force Shaw onto the ship. They supposedly fled back to their ship, which lifted off the ground and sped out of sight. Shaw believed that the beings were Martians sent to kidnap an earthling for unknowable but potentially nefarious purposes. This has been seen by some as an early attempt at alien abduction; it is apparently the first published account of explicitly extraterrestrial beings attempting to kidnap humans into their spacecraft.
  • The mystery light reappeared over Sacramento the evening of November 21. It was also seen over Folsom, San Francisco and Oakland later that same evening and was reportedly viewed by hundreds of witnesses.
  • One witness from Arkansas— allegedly a former state senator Harris — was supposedly told by an airship pilot (during the tensions leading up to the Spanish American War) that the craft was bound for Cuba, to use its “Hotchkiss gun” to “kill Spaniards“. (Jacobs, 10)
  • In one account from Texas, three men reported an encounter with an airship and with “five peculiarly dressed men” who reported that they were descendant from the lost tribes of Israel; they had learned English from the 1553 north pole expedition led by Hugh Willoughby.
  • February 2, 1897, the Omaha Bee reported an airship sighting over Hastings, Nebraska the previous day.
  • An article in the Albion Weekly News reported that two witnesses saw an airship crash just inches from where they were standing. The airship suddenly disappeared, with a man standing where the vessel had been. The airship pilot showed the men a small device that supposedly enabled him to shrink the airship small enough to store the vessel in his pocket.  A rival newspaper, the Wilsonville Review, playfully claimed that its own editor was an additional witness to the incident and that he heard the pilot say “Weiver eht rof ebircsbus!” The phrase he allegedly heard at the airship landing site is “Subscribe for the Review” transliterated backwards.
  • On April 10th, 1897 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a story reporting that one W. H. Hopkins encountered a grounded airship about 20 feet in length and 8 feet in diameter near the outskirts of Springfield, Missouri. The vehicle was apparently propelled by 3 large propellers and crewed by a beautiful nude woman and a bearded man, also nude. Hopkins attempted with some difficulty to communicate with the crew in order to ascertain their origins.  Eventually they understood what Hopkins was asking of them and they both pointed to the sky and “uttered something that sounded like the word ‘Mars.'”
  • An April 16th 1897 a story published by the Table Rock Argus claimed that a group of “anonymous but reliable” witnesses had seen an airship sailing overhead.] The craft had many passengers. The witnesses claimed that among these passengers was a woman tied to a chair, a woman attending her, and a man with a pistol guarding their apparent prisoner. Before the witnesses thought to contact the authorities the airship was already gone.
  • An account by Alexander Hamilton of Leroy, Kansas supposedly occurred about April 19, 1897, and was published in the Yates Center Farmer’s Advocate of April 23. Hamilton, his son, and a tenant witnessed an airship hovering over his cattle pen. Upon closer examination, the witnesses realized that a red “cable” from the airship had lassoed a heifer, but had also become entangled in the pen’s fence. After trying unsuccessfully to free the heifer, Hamilton cut loose a portion of the fence, then “stood in amazement to see the ship, cow and all rise slowly and sail off.” (Jacobs, 15) Some have suggested this was the earliest report of cattle mutilation (In 1982, however, UFO researcher Jerome Clark debunked this story, and confirmed via interviews and Hamilton’s own affidavit that the story was a successful attempt to win a Liar’s Club competition to create the most outlandish tall tale).
  • An account from Aurora, Texas (as related in the Dallas Morning News) reported that an airship had smashed into a windmill— later determined to be a sump pump — belonging to a Judge Proctor, then crashed. The occupant was dead and mangled, but the story reported that presumed pilot was clearly “not an inhabitant of this world.” (Jacobs, 17) Strange “hieroglyphic” figures were seen on the wreckage, which resembled “a mixture of aluminum and silver … it must have weighed several tons.””(ibid.) (In the 20th Century, unusual metallic material recovered from the presumed crash site was shown to contain a percentage of aluminum and iron admixed.) The story ended by noting that the pilot was given a “Christian burial” in the town cemetery. In 1973, MUFON investigators discovered the alleged stone marker used in this burial. Their metal detectors indicated a quantity of foreign material might remain buried there. However, they were not permitted to exhume, and when they returned several years later, the headstone — and whatever metallic material had lay beneath it — was gone.

EARLY UFO?

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