Articles

“Mystery Airship” Sightings, 1896 – 1897

September 27, 2019


(Typewriter clicks and slide) In 1896 and 7, hundreds of western American
newspapers reported mass sightings of fantastic, winged airships performing maneuvers
years ahead of the technology of the time. In some cases, the airships landed,
and their pilots talked to witnesses. Most Americans assumed a secret inventor
would soon take credit for the sightings, but no one who did so could prove
ownership of a functional flying machine. The “mystery airships” remain unidentified, constituting an early wave of UFOs before flying saucers,
and almost before flight itself. (Typewriter clicks and slide) The majority of the sightings occurred over
8 months between mid November, 1896, and the end of April, 1897. There were hundreds of sightings some with thousands
of witnesses each, according to newspaper reports. Every attempt to verify the names of witnesses provided
in newspaper reports has turned up real people. There were more than 1200 newspaper
articles published on the sightings in over 400 papers in 41 states
and 6 Canadian provinces. The first sighting to make the news occurred
over Sacramento on November 17. The most obvious feature was a brilliant electrical light. It was not clear the light was mounted to a structure, but some saw an egg-shaped craft
with four downward-facing propellers. The San Francisco Call had this image drawn
of the craft, based on witness’ descriptions. The object flew by the city over the course of
half an hour and made several changes in course, swaying from side to side and up and down,
like a boat against a rapid current. It was later reported that a similar light went
the opposite direction the following night. The majority of papers dismissed the sightings,
but a few took them seriously. Believers assumed an inventor was testing a new
design, and expected him to unveil his craft at any time, but anyone who claimed responsibility,
like the lawyer George Collins, or California’s Attorney General, William Henry
Harrison Hart, later reneged on their claims. More sightings occurred in
Sacramento on November 22. This time, two lights were seen,
apparently anchored to the same structure. Again, those who could see it
said that it was egg-shaped, and at least one witness could see
moving parts like wings or propellers. Lights were seen in the San Francisco Bay area as well; witnesses included policemen, street-car drivers,
car barn employees, their foreman, and a conductor. The mayor of San Francisco vouched for his two
servants who said they’d seen lights as well. In the following days, similar lights were seen
from San Jose to Tacoma, Washington, and even into Western Canada. Sightings continued into December,
and fizzled out by the end of the year. No one took credit for them. (Typewriter clicks and slide) The airship story died by mid December, but on February 2, 1897,
new sightings emerged in Nebraska, then spread north and east over the next ten weeks. By mid April, the lights were seen over Omaha,
with mass sightings over; Kansas city; Nashville, Chicago,
and Evanston, Illinois; and Waterloo, Iowa. By April 20 there were sightings
in Wisconsin and and Indiana. At the same time, the sightings spread
southwest into Texas and Louisiana. By May, they had nearly ceased entirely. In the majority of cases, witnesses saw only lights, but those who saw structures claimed that
the airships reached over 200m in length, though most were between about 10 and 60m long. Airships displayed a wide range of mechanisms
for generating lift and propulsion: some contained propellers, and most had
wings – curved, straight, flapping or fixed – though some were suspended from great balloons. Many witnesses claimed that they
spoke with the pilots of landed airships. The first pilot encounter came just two days after
the first sightings over Sacramento, on Nov 19: Col. H. G. Shaw claimed to encounter
two tall, lanky Martians who flew away silently in a football-shaped craft. The story is likely a hoax – hoaxes directed at uncritical readers were
common in 19th-century newspapers – but later stories of “close encounters”
weren’t all so far-fetched. Most reports involved “everyday Americans”
who asked for menial favours and boasted of the revolutionary
potential of their experimental craft. On April 16, 1897 a C. G. Williams of Greenville, Texas claimed he was asked to mail letters for the crew
of a brilliant, lighted airship that landed in a field. The ship was cigar-shaped, with corrugated wings,
a fan-like tail, and a propeller at the front. The pilot said that he expected to
“revolutionize travel and transportation” when he revealed his craft to the public. Two days later, Colonel Tom Peoples
of Milam county, Texas saw a giant winged airship that flew like a buzzard
cast its shadow over some workers on his farm. It came to a hover over an artificial lake,
then unfurled a number of coloured banners, and shot strange “streaks of light” into the air. In April 1897, J.B. Ligon and his son went
to inspect some lights in a nearby pasture, and found four men standing next to a
“large dark object” who asked him for water. One man said that his name was Wilson, and that his
ship was only one of five aircraft constructed in secret. It had four large wings like a dragonfly,
and propellers at its bow and stern. The next day, Sheriff H. W. Baylor met three men outside
an airship landed behind his house in Uvalde, Texas, and one identified himself as
Wilson of Goshen, New York. There were at least three other incidents in Texas
involving a Wilson or other similar elements. Encounters with crewman got stranger from there. On April 18, 1897, a Judge Love of Waxahachie, Texas, claimed he met 5 strangely-dressed men
smoking pipes in repose by a landed aircraft. The men said they were from
“the land beyond the polar seas,” and that they were descendants
of the ten lost tribes of Israel. Their craft was cigar-shaped
with three pairs of flapping wings. On April 19, the Dallas Morning News reported
a crashed airship at Aurora, Texas. Supposedly, a “Martian” body was recovered,
as well as many fragments of metal, although no evidence of this remains today. The same day, a cattle farmer
named Alexander Hamilton claimed an airship grabbed one of his
cows by noose, and carried it away. He found it apparently dropped
in a nearby field, butchered. However, Jerome Clarke has provided testimony
from those who claim that they or their family members conspired with Hamilton to perpetrate a hoax,
as part of a liar’s club tradition. (Typewriter clicks and slide) Those who believed in the reality of the
airships were wowed by the sightings. Some interpreted the airships as supernatural omens, and credited them with the current
rise in church membership, but most assumed they were experimental aircraft
being tested by some secret, Edison-like inventor. In fact, Edison was so widely
assumed to be the inventor, he had to make a statement in the
papers denying his involvement, and casting doubt on the practicalities of flight. Denouncers assumed sightings were hoaxes,
or hallucinations from bad alcohol. In an effort to prove that people had been duped,
the Peoria Transcript sent up a lighted balloon in Illinois, and reported on the many witnesses
who thought they had seen an airship. However, none of these witnesses saw any
structural features that were not actually there, and the balloon could only move with the wind,
though many of the mystery lights had moved against it, and made abrupt changes in course. Prof. G. W. Hough of Dearborn Observatory made statements to the press claiming
that the sightings were caused by atmospheric distortions of the red-hued
star Alpha Orionus, or Betelguese, as many had seen a red light on the airship. Other authorities attributed sightings to meteors. But when the sightings ended in the summer of 1897,
there was no consensus on what had happened, and the story evaporated from the newspapers. When the writer Frank Edwards
and astronomer Jacques Vallée resurrected it in the mid 1960s,
it was still an open mystery. The scholarship since comes to no consensus. Daniel Cohen attributes the episode to a bout of
public hysteria stirred up by a few journalists’ hoaxes, and supports the contemporary
belief that a few railroad workers helped start the prank by relaying
fake sightings between stations. The writer Wallace Chariton implies that the airships
may have been extraterrestrial spacecraft. Both Michael Busby and J. Allan Danelek
conclude that the airships were the test craft of a secret network of experimental
aeronauts ruined by some unknown disaster. Some have attributed the airship
sightings to media influence. The airship was then a common
element of science fiction, and featured prominently in Jules Verne’s
Robur the Conquerer series, as well as the Thomas Edison Jr.
and Frank Reade Jr. Series. But the machines in these series
more often had propellers, like modern helicopters, and only rarely flapping wings. And science fiction alone can’t explain the timing of the
wave, or the patterned geography of sighting reports. Because scholars cannot agree on an explanation,
the mystery airships are typically labelled as UFOs – precursors to the “ghost rockets”
and “flying saucers” of the late 1940s – although exactly how they relate to the
modern UFO phenomenon is debated. Certainly, there are many similarities between the
two waves, especially as they appeared in media. However, it’s difficult to explain
why the airships boasted so many clunky and impractical
19th-century technologies, and so few of the mechanisms proven
most effective a few years later. Jacques Vallée explains this fact by suggesting that
the UFO phenomenon evolves in appearance over time so as to always reflect the
technologies familiar to its witnesses. The airships boasted absurd technologies
and designs by today’s standards, but these were the most advanced that
19th-century Americans could imagine. Still, Vallée’s theories don’t explain what the
airships were, or where they came from. (Typewriter clicks and slide) More than a century later,
the origin of the airships is still a mystery. Despite several reports in which airships
dropped letters, debris, anchors, and trash, no evidence exists today
but the stories in the newspapers. But whether they were real or not,
the mystery airships had a strong effect in the media, generating discussion of recent progress in aviation,
and spreading hope in human ingenuity. They allowed Americans to discuss
the far-reaching impacts that flight would have on war, travel,
commerce and transportation, and to get a glimpse of the revolution ahead
a few years before they lived it for themselves. But the airships didn’t simply disappear with the introduction of navigable
flying machines in the early 20th century. More “phantom airships” were seen over the U.K.
in 1909 and 1910, and over the U.K., Germany, Canada, and South Africa in 1912 and 13. Then, their pilots left for good;
or maybe they got new ships. (Sources listed in the video description.) (Typewriter click)

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