Close encounters of the Greene County kind
By ANDREW MCGINN
One hundred and twenty-one years ago, an 8-year-old girl named Virginia O’Hanlon wrote to her local newspaper after being told by her friends (little snots, all of ’em) that Santa Claus didn’t exist.
What the newspaper wrote in response on Sept. 21, 1897, has been reprinted the world over every Christmas season since.
As far as I’m concerned, Santa is a settled matter — he exists.
I’m more interested to know where that editor stood on the pressing question of UFOs.
The editorial that would become universally known as “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus,” isn’t actually the most interesting thing that appeared in a newspaper in the year 1897.
Particularly in the Midwest, reports of unidentified flying objects — namely, a cigar-shaped craft emanating bright lights of red, white, green and blue capable of “incalculable” speeds when it wasn’t hovering — dominated news pages that spring.
Go ahead. Laugh.
But what if little Virginia O’Hanlon had asked instead about the existence of extraterrestrial life?
The opening lines of the famous editorial actually work either way:
“Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see.”
Well, would you believe that hundreds, if not thousands, of Greene County residents saw a UFO — termed a “mystery airship” at that time — in April 1897?
And that many more inspected the deep hole created when one UFO crashed north of Jefferson?
In my unending quest to root out offbeat local stories to tell — “Is this finally the week,” I’ve been asking myself for a while now, “that I tell the one about the squirrel that was attacking people in Jefferson in September 1941?” — I may have stumbled onto the greatest weird story of ’em all.
But what’s weirder is how quickly the story was buried, never to be spoken of again for 121 years.
Or was that by design?
“Part of the time the great white light at the bow was visible,” read a Page 1 report in the Jefferson Bee of April 15, 1897, “and then the green light suddenly appeared and the ship would reverse itself. Then it evolved into a monstrous pinwheel, the green, red and white blending into a circular disc beautiful beyond compare, followed by an undulating, weaving motion as though floating on a heavy swell.”
“Suddenly,” the paper continued, “the great boat seemed to steady itself; the white light became fixed and gradually increased in size. Somebody shouted, ‘The airship is headed for the earth,’ and sure enough.”
Described by the paper as a ball of purest white, only the dim outline of a great hull could be seen “rushing downward at a rate of speed simply incalculable.”
The wreckage wouldn’t be discovered until morning on the east side of Mahlon Head’s celery patch, near the Northwestern depot, the newspaper reported.
Who knew that Jefferson was Roswell, 50 years before Roswell?
The crash story was promptly picked up by newspapers around the Midwest, including the influential Omaha Daily Bee, which reported, “Before noon a number of people had actually visited the place to see the hole.”
The sighting of another mystery airship over Pierre, S.D., made the Omaha paper that day as well.
The UFO mythos, at least as we know it, didn’t yet exist in 1897.
Even the H.G. Wells novel “The War of the Worlds” was still a year from publication.
If you could have questioned President William McKinley in 1897 about the reports of unexplained aerial phenomena in the nation’s skies, he may have just raised one or both bushy eyebrows.
And as far as a vast government cover-up went, well, there was no CIA. No Air Force. No airplanes for that matter.
Area 51, the secret base carved out of a salt flat 120 miles north of Las Vegas, was only a great place to mine silver and lead.
That said, Las Vegas didn’t exist, either.
It wouldn’t be settled until 1905.
McKinley was assassinated in 1901 (and not, as far as we can tell, because he was planning on going public with the truth about intelligent alien life).
McKinley was no Jimmy Carter, who famously reported seeing a UFO in Georgia one night in 1969, the same year the U.S. Air Force terminated what was known as Project Blue Book.
For more than two decades after World War II, the Air Force officially logged and investigated 12,618 sightings of UFOs across the country — of which 701 remain “unidentified.”
The official Air Force effort to determine the national security threat of so-called flying saucers — and to discredit such sightings, as any good conspiracy theorist, ufologist and/or fan of “The X-Files” will argue — went by the names Project Sign and Project Grudge before its most famous incarnation in 1952: Project Blue Book.
The History Channel is purportedly basing its new drama series, “Project Blue Book,” on actual case files. It premieres at 9 p.m. Jan. 8, and promises to bring the UFO issue back into prominence.
As if things these days aren’t already weird enough.
The day Jefferson stood still
The “mystery airships” of 1897 are widely considered the start of modern ufology (and, yeah, that’s actually a thing; the word dates to 1959).
“The 1897 sightings were the first time we had a wave of sightings,” said Kevin D. Randle, one of the nation’s most prominent ufologists, who just happens to live in Cedar Rapids.
Randle, 69, is the author of more than two dozen books about UFOs, including five alone on the purported crash of a UFO in Roswell, N.M., in 1947.
A frequent guest on “Coast to Coast AM” — the legendary overnight talk radio show dedicated to all things bizarre and unexplained — Randle’s bio boasts that “he was the first to report the alien home invasions and among the first to suggest humans working with aliens.”
All along, the UFO issue has been a jumble of elaborate hoaxes and genuine phenomena pitting skeptics against believers.
“A lot of hoaxes get in the way, and it’s maddening,” Randle said, “especially when they’re exposed as hoaxes, which makes us look bad.”
Remember the alien autopsy film that surfaced in the mid-1990s?
It was said to be secret footage of a dead extraterrestrial recovered at Roswell — complete with a big head, little body and round, black eyes — being dissected on a makeshift operating table by military surgeons.
Fox made a national sensation out of it in 1995 with the TV special “Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction.” (You can still watch it on Netflix.)
Randle was prominently featured throughout the program as a talking head.
The film itself was later revealed to be a hoax — one of the greatest of all-time.
I hate to say it, but the widely reported crash of a UFO in Jefferson in 1897 wasn’t real, either.
To either the amusement or dismay of the Jefferson Bee staff, who made the whole thing up, other news outlets glommed onto the story as legit.
What those other newspapers didn’t include was the paragraph at the end of the Bee’s coverage in which the paper sorta kinda tips its hand and leaves the reader with a wink.
Randle himself even included the Jefferson crash in a 2010 book, “Crash: When UFOs Fall From the Sky,” in a section on pre-1947 crashes.
One thing is certain: You couldn’t open a newspaper in the spring of 1897 and not see something about a mysterious craft behaving in now-classic UFO style.
So were any of the reports authentic?
The jury, it would seem, is split.
Randle said that a fellow UFO investigator, Jerome Clark, believes there was a core of legit sightings around California in 1896.
“I think that may be the origin of the hoax,” Randle explained.
Jefferson’s crash story could have taken on an even bigger life of its own if not for a competing crash story out of Aurora, Texas, just two days later.
On April 17, 1897, a cigar-shaped mystery airship made of an unknown metal struck a windmill in Aurora and went down, newspapers reported.
According to T.J. Weems, a U.S. Signal Service officer quoted in the story, the pilot was “not of this world,” and papers found on the pilot were “written in some unknown hieroglyphics.”
The alien visitor, who didn’t survive the crash, was reportedly buried in the Aurora Cemetery.
The crash remains the subject of interest.
Today, the city of Aurora (pop. 1,220) embraces the lore, much like Roswell to the west. The city of Aurora’s logo is of a saucer flying toward a windmill.
Randle, for one, doesn’t buy it.
“The Aurora, Texas, crash was a hoax,” he said.
Aurora in the spring of 1897 was dying, Randle said, after being bypassed by the railroad.
“He (the newspaper correspondent) created the story to bring attention back to the town,” said Randle, who found that the Mr. Weems quoted in the story was actually a local blacksmith.
Blatant hoaxes aside, there’s usually an explanation for what people think they see in the sky.
“Most sightings are explainable in the mundane,” Randle said. “A lot of people report Venus when it’s at its brightest.”
Funny enough, that’s exactly what Father William Rigge, a professor of astronomy at Creighton University, said in 1897 after waves of sightings in Nebraska. He said people were most likely seeing Venus, with clouds blowing by in the night sky.
In reading newspaper coverage of the sightings, you have to at least give the writers credit — their descriptions of otherworldly visits were decades ahead of their time.
And like all good science-fiction, they describe technology that wouldn’t come to be for years.
For starters, humans in 1897 were only just learning to navigate the air.
The dirigible would have been highly experimental at the time, and the first rigid airship with a hull of aluminum sheeting was still in the developmental stage a world away in Germany.
The first airship built by Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin wouldn’t fly until July 1900 — and it only had a top speed of 20 mph.
Not quite hyperspeed.
Even by the end of the airship era, when the Hindenburg exploded in 1937, ships sailed through the sky at a leisurely 76 mph.
Scranton vs. the flying saucers
What wasn’t redistributed to other newspapers in 1897 were the Jefferson Bee’s other airship stories — firsthand accounts of sightings and close encounters from all around Greene County that read like a dress rehearsal for “The War of the Worlds.”
In one letter to the editor published on Page 1, a man in Scranton wrote, “I have a 40-foot airship in custody. Am feeding three beings of some sort. Notify sheriff and have him bring hundred feet of rubber rope.”
The man reported seeing a cigar-shaped craft gradually descend in the timber east of his house.
At daybreak, the man, his sons and their hired man ventured out to make contact.
“We have tried to tie the ship down,” he wrote, “but every time we touch any part of it a severe shock is felt; that’s why we want insulated rope.”
The letter closed with, “Haven’t time to write any more — send up a reporter. Enclosed subscription to the Bee to Jan. 1, 1898.”
In other news on April 15, the county board of supervisors met in regular session, and more than 400 residents had signed a petition asking the city of Jefferson to enact a curfew law.
“Jefferson appears to have a full quota of bad boys and girls who need to be sharply looked after and sternly dealt with,” the Bee reported.
Juvies and aliens are always an awesome mix, as we would later see in the movies of the 1950s.
As for the massive hole in Mahlon Head’s celery patch with a UFO at the bottom, it was said to have extended 100 feet.
A volunteer — only naturally, a local newspaper man — was lowered down by rope, where he pried the craft open to find a chamber finished in “plush and fancy woods.”
“At the extreme end toward the bow,” he wrote, “the bodies of four persons, probably men, were discovered, jammed almost to a pulp by the terrific force of the concussion.”
Each occupant had two sets of arms and legs, and what appeared to be a face on both sides of the head.
Reading the coverage now, 121 years later, it’s so clearly a hoax.
Or is that what they want us to believe?
When it comes to UFOs, people seem to only remember the hoaxes, according to Randle.
“They don’t remember the good sightings that have gone unexplained,” he said.
Like the disc-shaped lights reported in the spring of 1965 by a half-dozen Scranton residents — high school principal Byford Jarvis among them.
Or the sighting reported to the National UFO Reporting Center in 2012 from Paton, in which someone claimed to see red and white lights moving in sync through what appeared to be a hole in a clear, night sky.
“Eventually, I think we’re going to make contact,” Randle said, “and that will end the whole discussion.”