Thursday, April 17, 2014



On April 17, 1897, something very strange happened in the small town of Aurora, Texas. A mysterious metallic airship crashed down on a local farm, killing the pilot in the process. He was buried in the town cemetery and has been there ever since – the source of a mystery that will likely never be solved. Over the years, UFO buffs have claimed this “airship” as their own, speculating that the pilot was an alien, based on a newspaper story that stated he was “not of this world.”

But I don’t think that’s what the witnesses meant when they described the pilot, or his strange craft. I believe the Aurora crash is just one small part of a much greater mystery that was taking place in the skies over America in late 1896 and 1897.

In the last years of the nineteenth century, a rash of sightings occurred in the skies across the United States of strange, airships – cylindrical-shaped and constructed from weird metal and shiny steel. The reports came in from everywhere, despite the fact that their construction, and very existence, was seemingly an impossibility at the time. No known aircraft, save for hot air balloons, flew under their own power before the Wright Brothers left the ground at Kitty Hawk. So, what were these strange ships? Who had constructed them and perhaps strangest of all, who was flying them?

Reports of the alleged crewmen and pilots usually described them as human-looking. Most of them carried extraordinary messages to the people on the ground, while others seemed to have superior intelligence, odd skin tones and weird speech patterns. It was popularly believed that the mystery airships were the product of some inventor who was not yet ready to make knowledge of his creation public. Thomas Edison was so widely speculated to be the source behind the alleged airships that in 1897 he "was forced to issue a strongly worded statement" denying his responsibility.

Reports of the aircraft, which had vast metal wingspans and arrays of bright lights, first appeared in California in 1896. Hundreds of people saw the airships as they began what seemed to be a leisurely eastward tour across America.

The first sighting occurred on November 18, 1896 and was reported in the Sacramento Bee and the San Francisco Call newspapers. Witnesses claimed that they saw a light moving slowly over Sacramento on the evening of November 17. Some witnesses said they could see a dark shape behind the light. A man 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. There were no churches in the area, but there was a tower on a local brewery. 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 a 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 next day, a witness claimed to see the airship – or one just like it – on the ground. According to the November 19 edition of the Stockton Daily Mail, Colonel H.G. Shaw stated that while driving his buggy through the countryside near Stockton he came across what appeared to be a landed aircraft. Shaw described it as having a metallic surface, which was completely featureless apart from a rudder, and pointed ends. He estimated it had a diameter of twenty-five feet and a total length of around one hundred and fifty feet. Three slender men, each standing close to seven feet tall, were outside the airship "emitting a strange warbling noise." The men reportedly examined Shaw's buggy and then tried to seize him, apparently attempting to force him to accompany them back to the airship. When the doughty Colonel Shaw resisted, they fled back to the ship, which lifted off the ground and sped out of sight.

On November 21, the airship with the mystery light appeared again over Sacramento. It was also seen over Folsom, San Francisco and Oakland later that same evening and was reportedly viewed by hundreds of witnesses.

Soon after, the mysterious ship began traveling eastward across the country, wreaking havoc, creating mayhem and leaving very puzzled witnesses in its wake. Some of the stories of the airship were very strange. For instance, one witness from Arkansas – allegedly a former state senator named 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.” In one account from Texas, three men reported an encounter with an airship and with "five peculiarly dressed men" who reported that they were descendants from the lost tribes of Israel. They had learned English, they said, from the 1553 North Pole expedition led by Sir Hugh Willoughby, an early English Arctic voyager. An article in the Albion, Nebraska, Weekly News reported that two witnesses saw an airship crash just inches from where they were standing. The airship suddenly disappeared, leaving a man standing where the vessel had been. The airship pilot showed the astonished men a small device that supposedly enabled him to shrink the airship small enough to store the vessel in his pocket.  

In April 1897, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a story reporting that one W. H. Hopkins encountered a grounded airship about twenty feet in length and eight feet in diameter near the outskirts of Springfield, Missouri. The vehicle was apparently powered by three large propellers and was 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.’”

The mysterious aircraft arrived in Illinois a short time later. The first sightings were in Evanston and in several other communities near Chicago. The local newspapers quickly spread the news that the airship was filled with “English spies,” although why the English would have wanted to dispatch spies to the American Midwest was left unstated. More than five hundred people witnessed a ship that was said to be in full view for over forty-five minutes. One description stated that the airship was “composed of two cigar-shaped bodies attached by girders” and others claimed that it had wings and sails.

A newspaper illustration of the Chicago sighting

The airship reportedly stayed in the Chicago area for three days and was there long enough to be photographed by a newspaper dealer named Walter McCann. He was picking up his daily newspapers at the Northwestern Railway depot when he saw the ship coming toward him from the south. A short time before, his son had won a camera in a contest for signing up newspaper subscribers and McCann ran into his store and snatched it up. He ran back outside and snapped a photo of it. He then ran down the railroad tracks and took another photo a few minutes later. After the plates were developed, McCann gave copies of the photos to all of the newspapers who requested them but he refused to sell the negatives. The staff artists and etcher for the Chicago Times-Herald subjected the photos to acid tests and proclaimed them to be authentic. Sadly, the photos have since been lost.

After departing from Chicago, the airship began a tour across Illinois. It was spotted in dozens of cities and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to its route. It appeared in both northern and southern Illinois, being in one region on one day and the other on the next. For instance, on April 5, it made an appearance in the southwestern Illinois town of Nashville and on April 8 was seen up north in Dixon, Rock Island and Sterling. The craft buzzed over Elgin, Jerseyville, Kankakee, Taylorville, East St. Louis, Edwardsville, Jacksonville, Ottawa, Quincy, Decatur, Lincoln, Hillsboro, Peoria and many other locations. Even if we discount many of the reports as being merely excitement or practical jokes that were generated by newspaper stories, there are still scores of credible and very similar accounts. The last Illinois airship sighting took place in Rossville on April 25, and then the ship continued on its strange journey.

In the midst of the airship reports, one of the strangest incidents linked to the craft (or apparently one of many such crafts) allegedly took place in the town of Aurora, Texas. The story appeared in the Dallas Morning News on April 19, 1897, but the incident had occurred two days before, on April 17. According to the reporter:

About 6 o’clock this morning the early risers of Aurora were astonished at the sudden appearance of the airship which has been sailing around the country. It was traveling due north and much nearer the earth than before.

Evidently some of the machinery was out-of-order, for it was making a speed of only ten or twelve miles an hour, and gradually settling toward the earth. It sailed over the public square and when it reached the north part of town it collided with the tower of Judge Proctor’s windmill and went into pieces with a terrific explosion, scattering debris over several acres of ground, wrecking the windmill and water tank and destroying the judge’s flower garden.

The pilot of the ship is supposed to have been the only one aboard and, while his remains were badly disfigured, enough of the original has been picked up to show that he was not an inhabitant of this world.

As mentioned, the occupant of the craft was dead and mangled, and while UFO researchers believe that the pilot was an alien, the newspaper only states that he was “not an inhabitant of this world.” This could have referred to his looks, his dress, or the fact that he was flying an airship that should not have existed – not that he was an alien. However, there was a note that strange "hieroglyphic" figures were seen on the wreckage, which resembled "a mixture of aluminum and silver ... it must have weighed several tons." In 1973, interest was revived in this story and metallic material recovered from the presumed crash site was shown to contain an unusual percentage of aluminum and iron. The story ended by noting that the pilot was given a "Christian burial" in the town cemetery. During the investigation of the possible crash site, researchers 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 whatever may have lain below, and when they returned several years later, the headstone was gone. Incidentally, there is now a Texas Historical Commission marker in the cemetery mentioning the incident.

The Aurora Cemetery. The Texas Historical Commission marker is located to the right of the cemetery gate and mentions the airship crash and the pilot that was buried in the graveyard.

The stone marker that was placed on the pilot's grave. The design of the airship was etched crudely on the stone. 

According to local legend, wreckage from the crash site was dumped into a nearby well. Adding to the mystery was the story of Brawley Oates, who purchased Judge Proctor's property around 1945. Oates cleaned out the debris from the well in order to use it as a water source, but later developed an extremely severe case of arthritis, which he claimed to be the result of drinking contaminated water from the wreckage that was dumped into the well. As a result, Oates sealed up the well with a concrete slab and placed an outbuilding atop the slab in 1957.

It’s not surprising that many have come to believe this story is a hoax. One of the most outspoken believers in the hoax was Barbara Brammer, a former mayor of Aurora. Her research revealed that in the months prior to the alleged crash, Aurora was plagued by a series of tragic incidents. The local cotton crop was destroyed by a boll weevil infestation, a fire on the west side of town destroyed several buildings and killed a number of people, a spotted fever epidemic caused the town to be quarantined and finally, a planned railroad reached a point twenty-seven miles from Aurora, but never made it to town. Essentially, Aurora, which had nearly three thousand residents at the time, was in danger of dying out. Brammer believed the story was designed as a last-ditch effort to keep Aurora alive. Her theory was further supported by the fact that there was never any follow-up to the story. She also pointed to the fact that Judge Proctor never had a windmill on his property.

Unfortunately, Brammer’s theories of the hoax also work toward making the story seem legitimate. For starters, Judge Proctor did have a windmill on his property. The remains of it have since been found, along with the well that Brawley Oates thought was contaminated. They also found melted metal at the site, which turned out to be aluminum, which was very rare in the late nineteenth century. There was an actual grave marker at the site in the cemetery (later stolen) that supposedly marked where the pilot was buried and ground-penetrating radar has revealed the presence of a casket-shaped object under the ground.

And as far as the idea that the story was a hoax cooked up to save the town? Well, the tragic incidents might also explain why there was no follow-up story to the airship’s crash. With all of the terrible things that had just occurred, it’s not really that surprising that the pilot was simply buried and the people moved on with their lives. There were more important things going on in Aurora at the time than the crash. It wasn’t until the 1970s that anyone really took an interest in the story again.
What really happened in Texas in 1897? Who knows? While I don’t think there is any conclusive proof that an airship crashed to earth on that day in April, I do think something unusual happened, but what it was, we’ll probably never know.

In time, the airship reports faded away, leaving a mystery behind – and a lot of people to argue about what really happened. As one can imagine, theories abound. Attempts to uncover the truth about the airship reports reveal some unhappy realities: newspaper coverage was unreliable; no independent investigators spoke directly with alleged witnesses or attempted to verify or debunk their testimony; and, with a  only one exception, no eyewitness was ever interviewed, even in the 1950s, when some were presumably still living. That single witness was a former San Francisco Chronicle employee named Edward Ruppelt. In 1952, Ruppelt stated that he had been a copyboy in 1897 “and remembered the incident, but time had cancelled out the details.” He did say that he, along with the newspaper’s editor and the news staff had seen the airship but they never told anyone what they had seen because they didn’t want people to think they were “crazy.”

There will always be many who dismiss the 1896-1897 airship wave as some massive hoax. Even at the time, there were many attempts to explain the airship sightings as hoaxes, pranks, publicity stunts and hallucinations. One man suggested the airships were swarms of lightning bugs that were misidentified by observers. It’s also very likely that many of the newspaper reports were, in fact, hoaxes, riding the wave of a national craze for goofy, off-beat tales. Stories created out of whole cloth by enterprising reporters do tend to stand out, though, since most of them have a tongue-in-cheek tone and are heavily sensational. Furthermore, the supposed authors of many such newspaper hoaxes make their hoax obvious by stating – in the last line – that he was writing from an insane asylum, or something to that effect.

Over time, the 1896-1897 airship wave has become probably the best investigated of all historical anomalies. The files of almost 1,500 newspapers from across the United States have been combed for reports, an astonishing feat of research. The general conclusion of investigators was that a considerable number of the simpler sightings were misidentification of planets and stars, and a large number of the more complex sightings were the result of hoaxes and practical jokes. A sizable number, though, remain perplexing.

What were the ships and better yet, who was flying them? In 2009, author J. Allan Danelek made a case for the idea that the mystery airship was the work of an unknown individual, possibly funded by a wealthy investor from San Francisco, who built an airship prototype as a test vehicle for a later series of larger, passenger-carrying airships. Danelek not only laid out a plausible scenario, but demonstrated how the craft might have been built using materials and technologies available in 1896 (including speculative line drawings and technical details). The ship, Danelek proposed, was built in secret as a safeguard from patent infringement, as well as to protect investors in case of failure. Noting that the flights were initially seen over California and only later over the Midwest, he speculated that the inventor was making a series of short test flights, moving from west to east, and following the main railroad lines for logistical support, and that it was these experimental flights that formed the basis for many – though not all – of the newspaper accounts from the era. Danelek also noted that the reports ended abruptly in late April 1897, suggesting that the craft may have met with disaster, effectively ending the venture and permitting the sightings to fall into the realm of legend.

These ideas were not far off from some of the theories posed at the end of the nineteenth century – a time of great popularity for science-fiction writers like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. In fact, the idea that a secretive inventor might have developed a viable craft with advanced capabilities was the focus of Jules Verne's 1886 novel Robur the Conqueror. Steerable airships had been publicly flown in the United States since 1863, and numerous inventors were working on airship and aircraft designs. In fact, two French army officers and engineers, Arthur Krebs and Charles Renard, had successfully flown in an electric-powered airship called the La France as early as 1885, making no fewer than seven successful flights over an eleven-month period. Also during the 1896-1897 period, David Schwarz built an aluminum-skinned airship in Germany that successfully flew over Tempelhof Field before being irreparably damaged during a hard landing. Both events clearly demonstrated that the technology to build a practical airship existed during the period in question, though if reports of the capabilities of the California and Midwest airship sighted in 1896-97 are true, it would have been considerably more advanced than any airship built up to that time.

Several individuals, including Lyman Gilmore, Charles Dellschau and Thomas Edison (who issued a strong denial) were later identified as possible candidates for being involved in the design and construction of the airships, although little evidence was found in support of these ideas.

How can we explain the mysterious airship (or airships) that crossed America in 1896-1897? Was it a hoax, a case of mass hysteria? Perhaps, but this seems unlikely based on the unrelated and completely unconnected witnesses who spotted and reported it. In Chicago, there was a sighting that allegedly included several hundred people, all describing it in almost exactly the same way.

If the ship was real, then who were the passengers? They had strange messages to pass along and seemed to be almost constantly at work on their vessel. During one encounter that took place in Texas, an airship passenger actually asked for help in repairing his craft. He handed the witness current American money and asked him to fetch supplies from the local hardware store. But how could ordinary materials function in the baffling airship?

The mystery remains unsolved. It seems unlikely that the airship was built by the mechanical means of the time period and yet it apparently existed. The passengers on the ship appeared to be normal humans, taking what seemed to them to be a normal trip, aboard a machine that could not exist – and yet did.

This is a small excerpt from Troy’s book, CABINET OF CURIOSITIES 2. If interested in more about the unexplained, click on the link to see more about the book!

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