"No form of dirigible or heavier-than-air machine was flying-or could fly—at this
time." And yet ...
By Jerome Clark and Loren Coleman
March 26, 1880 was a quiet Friday night in tiny Galisteo Junction, N. Mex. (now the
town of Lamy). The train from nearby Santa Fe had come and gone and the railroad
agent, his day's work finished, routinely locked up the depot and set out with a
couple of friends for a short walk.
Suddenly they heard voices which seemed to be coming from the sky. The men looked
up to see an object, "monstrous in size," rapidly approaching from the west, flying
so low that elegantly-drawn characters could be discerned on the outside of the peculiar
vehicle. Inside, the occupants, who numbered 10 or so and looked like ordinary human
beings, were laughing and shouting in an unfamiliar language and the men on the ground
also heard music coming from the craft. The craft itself was "fish-shaped"—like a
cigar with a tail-and it was driven by a huge "fan" or propeller. As it passed overhead
one of the occupants tossed some objects from the car. The depot agent and his friends
recovered one item almost immediately, a beautiful flower with a slip of fine silk-like
paper containing characters which reminded the men of designs they had seen on Japanese
chests which held tea.
Soon thereafter the aerial machine ascended and sailed away toward the east at high
speed. The next morning searchers found a cup one of the items the witnesses had
seen thrown out of the craft but had been unable to locate in the darkness.
"It is of very peculiar workmanship," the Santa Fe Daily New Mexican reported, "entirely
different to anything used in this country."
The depot agent took the cup and the flower and put them on display. Before the day
was over, however, this physical evidence of the passage of the early unidentified
object had vanished.
In the evening a mysterious gentleman identified only as a "collector of curiosities"
appeared in town, examined the finds, suggested they were Asiatic in origin and offered
such a large sum of money for them that the agent had no choice but to accept. The
"collector" scooped up his purchases and never was seen again.
Of course the story of aviation does not begin on December 17, 1903, the date of
Orville Wright's 12-second aerial hop at Kitty Hawk. Long before that scientists
and inventors had struggled to unlock the secrets of powered flight and to build
what an 1897 issue of Scientific American called the "true flying machine; that is,
one which is hundreds of times heavier than the air upon which it rests, (and flies)
by reason of its dynamic impact, and not by the aid of any balloon or gasbag whatsoever."
But nothing in the early history of flight tells us what a huge airborne cigar was
doing over New Mexico in 1880, especially as it "appeared to be entirely under the
control of the occupants and ... guided by a large fan-like apparatus," and also
could ascend with startling speed.
Its "monstrous size" and its propeller clearly indicate it was heavier than air,
but such a flying machine didn't then exist according to British authority Charles
H. Gibbs-Smith: "Speaking as an aeronautical historian who specializes in the periods
before 1910, I can say with certainty that the only airborne vehicles, carrying passengers,
which could possibly have been seen anywhere in North America ... were free-flying
spherical balloons, and it is highly unlikely for these to be mistaken for anything
else. No form of dirigible (i.e., a gasbag propelled by an airscrew) or heavier-than-air
flying machine was flying—or indeed could fly—at this time in America."
Nevertheless, mysterious "airships" were seen in many parts of the world in the last
half of the 19th Century and the early years of the 20th. And plans for the construction
of such craft were not unknown.
On November 1, 1896, the Detroit Free Press reported that in the near future a New
York inventor would construct and fly an "aerial torpedo boat." And on November 17
the Sacramento Bee reprinted a telegram the newspaper had received from a New York
man who said he and some friends would board an airship of his invention and fly
it to California. The trip, he said, would take no more than two days. That very
night all hell broke loose and the Great Airship Scare of 1896–97 was off and running.
The next day the Bee led off a long article with this paragraph: "Last evening between
the hours of six and seven o'clock, in the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and
ninety-six, a most startling exhibition was seen in the sky in this city of Sacramento.
People standing on the sidewalks at certain points in the city between the hours
stated, saw coming through the sky over the housetops, what appeared to them to be
merely an electric arc lamp propelled by some mysterious force. It came out of the
east and sailed unevenly toward the southwest, dropping now nearer to the earth,
and now suddenly rising into the air again as if the force that was whirling it through
space was sensible of the dangers of collision with objects upon the earth ..."
Hundreds of persons saw it. Those who got the closest look said the object was huge
and cigar-shaped and had four large wings attached to an aluminum body. Some insisted
they heard voices and raucous laughter emanating from the ship. A man identified
as R.L. Lowry and a companion allegedly saw four men pushing the craft along the
ground by its wheels. Lowry's friends asked them where they were going. "To San Francisco,"
they replied. "We hope to be there by midnight."
One J. H. Vogel, who was in the vicinity, confirmed the story and added that the
vessel was "egg-shaped." The next afternoon an airship passed over Oak Park, Calif.,
leaving a trail of smoke and soon San Francisco, Oakland and other cities and town
in the north-central part of California had their own stories in all the newspapers.
Several persons now stepped forward to tell of earlier sightings. One was a fruit
rancher near Bowman, Placer County, who said he and members of his family had watched
an airship fly by at 100 miles an hour in late October.
Even more remarkable was the statement of a man who claimed that in August he and
fellow hunters had tracked a wounded deer across Tamalpais Mountain until they came
to a clearing where six men were working on an airship.
On July 28, around 6 to 7 a.m., two Louisville, Kentucky men saw an object in the
distance which drew nearer and resolved into the appearance of a man surrounded by
machinery. (Note no gasbag or canopy supported by one) If the man slacked his efforts
(he was peddling) the machine dropped, but if he once again worked the treadles (peddles)
and wings HE ROSE AGAIN; but the machine seemed under perfect control and executed
a turn over the city.
In September an object like a black-clad man with bat's wings and frog's legs flew
over Coney Island.
"The airship as a practical invention is believed to be so nearly ripe that a story
of its appearance in the sky is not necessarily to be received with disrespect,"
Harper's Weekly commented in its April 24, 1897, issue ... not unless you assumed
that thousands of Americans had lost their senses, a discomforting notion which some
scientists, editors and skeptics seemed to embrace.
Prof. George Hough, a Northwestern University astronomer, assured everyone that the
"airship" was nothing but the star Alpha Orion is as perceived by drunks, fools and
hysterics. Most newspapers ridiculed reports of the airship, finally desisting only
for fear of offending the growing numbers of readers who had seen the craft.
California's airship, reported in November 1896, was the first to receive widespread
publicity but that same month an unidentified flying object passed through central
Nebraska and sightings in the state continued until the following May. Delaware farmers
saw airships as early as January 1897.
It took a sighting in Omaha involving hundreds of witnesses to put the airships back
in the headlines, however. The low-flying object, a large bright light, "too big
for a balloon," appeared on the night of March 29, 1897, and was visible for more
than half an hour.
From then on America's skies were filled with airships. The reports came primarily
from Midwestern states and descriptions of the ships varied-as these random examples
Everest, Kans., April 1 (Kansas City Times): "The basket or car seemed to be 25 to
30 feet long, shaped like an Indian canoe. Four light wings extended from the car;
two wings were triangular. A large dark hulk was discernible immediately above the
car and was generally supposed by the watchers to be an inflated gasbag."
Chicago, April 11 (Chicago Times-Herald): "The lower portions of the airship were
thin and made of some light white metal like aluminum. The upper portion was dark
and long like a big cigar, pointed in front and with some kind of arrangement in
the rear to which cables are attached."
Texas, April 16 (New York Sun): "... shaped like a Mexican cigar, large in the middle
and small at both ends, with great wings resembling those of an enormous butterfly.
It was brilliantly illuminated by the rays of two great searchlights and was sailing
in a southeasterly direction with the velocity of wind, presenting a magnificent
Numerous persons reported seeing normal-looking men and women inside the ships. One
of the most interesting "occupant" reports came from M. G. Sisson, postmaster at
On the afternoon of April 19, 1897, while walking his dog through the woods he spotted
an airship 150 feet above him-a phenomenon he found less unsettling than the sight
of a woman standing on a deck on the bow of the craft netting pigeons. When she saw
Sisson she quickly stepped inside and the craft flew off. Later that day Thomas Bradburg
of Hagaman, about nine miles east of Greenfield, found part of a letter supposedly
dropped from the airship. On a printed letterhead of "Airship Co., Oakland Calif.,"
it read: "We are having a delightful time and plenty to eat. Mollie's scheme for
running down birds and catching them with a net works excellently; we feast daily
upon pigeon pie. "Since starting out we have greatly increased the velocity of the
ship. The following figures will give some idea of the speed which we are now able
to make: St. Louis, April 15, 8:30 P.M.; Chicago, same evening, 9:33; Kansas City,
one hour and 40 minutes later."
The events of 1896, incredible as they were, are relatively uncomplicated compared
to what happened in 1897. California's controversy concerned only one alleged inventor,
the mysterious "E.H. Benjamin," but April 1897 produced an onslaught of conflicting
claims involving a host of people—stories which made it obvious that someone was
lying. Sometimes it was the "witnesses," sometimes the newspapers and sometimes it
may have been the airship occupants themselves.
Let us examine several "contact" claims of this period: Springfield, Ill., April
15: Farmhands Adolph Winkle and John Hulle allegedly saw an airship land two miles
outside the city and talked with its occupants, two men and a woman, who said they
would "make a report to the government when Cuba is declared free."
Harrisburg, Ark., April 21: At 1 a.m. a strange noise awakened a man identified as
ex-Senator Harris and through his bedroom window he saw an airship descending to
the ground. The occupants, two young men, a woman and an elderly man with a dark
waist-length beard, got out and helped themselves to a supply of fresh well water.
Overcome by curiosity, Harris went outside and engaged the old man in a long conversation,
during which the latter claimed he had inherited the secret of antigravity from his
late uncle. "Weight is no object to me," he said. "I suspend all gravity by placing
a small wire around an object.
"I was making preparations to go over to Cuba and kill off the Spanish army if hostilities
had not ceased," he went on, "but now my plans are changed and I may go to the aid
of the Armenians." He would accomplish all this with a gun which would fire, he said
"63,000 times per minute."
After offering Harris a ride, which the ex-senator refused, the crew reentered their
craft and disappeared into the night. Stephensville, Tex., late April: Alerted by
"prominent farmer" C.L. McIllhaney that an airship had alighted in a field on his
farm three miles from town, a large delegation of Stephensville's leading citizens
(our source lists all their names) set out to see for themselves.
They found a 60-foot cigar-shaped craft and its two occupants, who gave their names
as S.E. Tillman and A.E. Dolbear. The pair explained that they were making an experimental
trip to test the ship for certain New York financiers. Turning down requests from
onlookers who wanted to examine the craft, the aeronauts boarded the machine and
Conroe, Tex. April 22–23: Around midnight four men, one of them hotel proprietor
G.L. Witherspoon, were playing dominoes in the hotel restaurant when three strangers
entered. They said they had landed their airship not far away and come into town
for supper "by way of a change," then went on to report they had flown from San Francisco
en route to Cuba.
Witherspoon and his friends declined an offer to examine the ship, suspecting they
were the victims of a practical joke. But about an hour later, after the visitors
had left, a brilliantly lighted airship passed over Conroe.
Chattanooga, Tenn., late April: Several Chattanooga citizens reportedly encountered
a landed airship "in the exact shape of a shad, (a type of fish) minus head and tail,"
resting on a mountainside near the city. Its two occupants were at work repairing
it. One, who identified himself as Prof. Charles Davidson, said they had left Sacramento
a month before and had spent the intervening time touring the country.
Jenny Lind, Ark., May 4: At 7:30 p.m. an airship passed over town. Three men leaped
on their bicycles and pursued it until it landed near a spring next to a mountain.
Its pilots, who introduced themselves as George Autzerlitz and Joseph Eddleman, talked
with the three for a while, saying they subsisted on birds which they would overtake
and capture in flight. Before leaving the aeronauts offered any one of them a free
ride and ended up taking James Davis to Huntington, 15 miles away. This story appeared
in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in the form of a letter from two Jenny Lind residents,
who urged the paper to contact R.M. McDowell, general manager of the Western Coal
and Mining Company in St. Louis. McDowell told the Post-Dispatch, "Yes, I know all
those persons. I have extensive works at Jenny Lind. I don't understand the letter,
though. It is very strange."
Hot Springs, Ark., May 6: John L. Sumpter, Jr., and John McLemore, police officers,
testified in an affidavit that they had seen a 60-foot airship land that dark, rainy
night. There were three occupants, a young man and woman and an older man with a
long dark beard.
The latter approached the lawmen carrying a lantern while the young man filled a
large sack with water and the woman stayed in the shadows, apparently hoping to remain
unobserved. The old man said they would stop off at Nashville after traveling the
country. The officers turned down an offer for a ride and then left on other business.
When they returned 40 minutes later the ship was gone.
The Fort Smith Daily News Record noted that while Sumpter and McLemore were subjected
to a great deal of ridicule "they, however, most seriously maintain that it is absolutely
true, and their earnestness is puzzling many, who, while unable to accept the story
as a fact, yet see that the men are not jesting."
Are these stories to be taken seriously? If they are hoaxes, at least they are not
so obvious as many of the tales that circulated during the three months of the 1897
airship scare. And the incidents detailed above have a certain consistency. Three
of them note the presence of a lone young woman with one or two young men; two of
them describe one airship occupant as an elderly man sporting a long dark beard.
In two others the occupants give Sacramento and San Francisco as the points of origin
of their flights and another mentions New York. These cities figure prominently in
the November-December 1896 controversies as locations either where the craft were
seen or where they were constructed. And the business of the birds in the Jenny Lind
report is reminiscent of M. G. Sisson's Greenfield, Ill., sighting.
Even if every one of the stories is no more than a figment of some prankster's imagination,
the fact remains that for the most part (the lesser part we shall examine shortly)
the craft were piloted and PROBABLY BUILT BY HUMAN BEINGS—as opposed to the hairy
humanoids and golden-maned Venusians of modern flying saucer folklore. But who were
the airship pilots and occupants? And what happened to their marvelous inventions?
About 11 p.m. April 19 near Beaumont, Tex., a farmer and his son came upon an airship
in a pasture. They found four men moving around the machine and one of them, who
said his name was Wilson, asked for and received a supply of water from the farmer's
well. At Uvalde, Tex., 23 hours later Sheriff H.W. Baylor spoke briefly with the
three-man crew of an airship which had alighted outside the town. One of them men
gave his name as Wilson and said he was a native of Goshen, NY. Then he asked about
a Captain Akers, whom he said he had known in Fort Worth in 1877 and understood he
now lived in southern Texas. After getting water from Baylor's pump the aeronauts
entered their craft and took off.
On the morning of April 15 a large airship moved northward slowly over Linn Grove,
Iowa, and five men followed it about four miles into the country where it landed.
But when the pursuers got within 700 yards of the vessel it spread out four monstrous
wings and flew away. As it rose its occupants tossed out two boulders "of unknown
composition." The witnesses said the entities within the craft had the longest beards
they had ever seen and a news account of the incident mentions "two queer-looking
persons ... who made desperate efforts to conceal themselves."
The next day at Mount Vernon, Ill., the city's mayor focused his telescope on an
"airship." What he saw was something that resembled, according to the Saginaw Courier-Herald,
"the body of a huge man swimming through the air with an electric light at his back."
It goes without saying that no theory which assumed terrestrial inventors were completely
responsible for airship manifestations is going to account for a sighting like this
From the Houston Daily Post for April 28, 1897, comes the weirdest case of all: "Merkel,
Tex., April 26—Some parties returning from church last night noticed a heavy object
dragging along with a rope attached. They followed it until in crossing the railroad,
it caught on a rail. Looking up they saw what they supposed was the airship. It was
not near enough to get an idea of the dimensions. A light could be seen protruding
from several windows; one bright light in front like the headlight of a locomotive.
After some 10 minutes a man was seen descending the rope; he came near enough to
be plainly seen.
He wore a light-blue sailor suit, was small in size. He stopped when he discovered
parties at the anchor and cut the ropes below him and sailed off in a northeast direction.
The anchor is now on exhibition at the blacksmith shop of Elliott and Miller and
is attracting the attention of hundreds of people."
An ancient obscure Irish manuscript, Speculum Regali, records an incident that supposedly
occurred in the year 956 A.D.: "There happened in the borough of Cloera, one Sunday
while people were at mass, a marvel. In this town there is a church to the memory
of St. Kinarus. It befell that a metal anchor was dropped from the sky, with a rope
attached to it, and one of the sharp flukes caught in the wooden arch above the church
The people rushed out of the church and saw in the sky a ship with men on board,
floating at the end of the anchor cable, and they saw a man leap overboard and pull
himself down the cable to the anchor as if to unhook it.
"He appeared as if he were swimming in water."
The folk rushed up and tried to seize him; but the bishop forbade the people to hold
the man for fear it might kill him. The man was freed and hurried up the cable to
the ship, where the crew cut the rope and the ship rose and sailed away out of sight.
But the anchor is in the church as a testimony to this singular occurrence."
And about 1200 A.D. an anchor plummeted out of the sky trailing a rope and got caught
in a mound of stones near a church in Bristol, England. As a mob of churchgoers congregated
at the scene, a "sailor" came skittering down the rope to free it.
According to Gervase of Tilbury's Otia Imperialia the crowd seized the intruder and
"he suffocated by the mist of our moist atmosphere and expired." His unseen comrades
cut the rope and left.
We do not pretend to understand why an incident of this nature should continually
recur but its occurrence in the midst of the 1897 airship flap should prove conclusively
that we are dealing with phenomena whose implications boggle the mind.
Something astonishing, even incomprehensible, was taking place in 19th-Century America.
Whatever conclusions we draw from it are bound to be unbelievable and little more
than informed guesses, for the gaps in the story are often greater than the substance.
The weirdest incidents—those putting airships in a paranormal framework—well may
have been the important ones, while the more mundane sightings were designed only
to distract attention while the nonhumans set about doing whatever they intended