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Phantom Airships of the 19th Century
In the winter of 1896, a spate of airship sightings spread out from California, stampeding across the United States until, in the Spring of 1897, they hit a wall in the midwest, after a brief flirtation on the East Coast. The sightings totalled in their tens of thousands and many included fantastical descriptions of both the ship and the people riding it. As the ships flew from state to state, the stories often grew bolder in their claims until they were heavily dovetailing with the science fiction of the day. With airships still incapable of sustained flight in 1896, were any of the sightings true? Or were the witnesses seeing something else in the sky? Are some of the more outrageous stories, actually far closer to the truth than they may at first seem, or was the whole affair just one big medley of lies, hoax and misidentifications? This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
19th Century USA, Spanish Relations & Yellow Journalism
The 19th Century was an explosive era for innovation and technology. Understanding and utilisation of both steam and electricity laid the pathway to a golden age of invention that saw daily life change, often profoundly, for public life. Whilst inventors such as Tesla and Edison were enjoying all the trappings of fame in real life, the archetypal, mysterious, yet genius inventor character became the focus of boys novels and newspaper serialisations, entrenching it deeply into the popular imagination as science fiction one year became science fact soon after. Discoveries and inventions were discussed in excited columns throughout newspapers, hyping the unveiling of devices and publishing communications between the more famous scientific engineers. IInvention stories were a perfect fit for a flourishing form of relatively new tabloid journalism that focused on news as entertainment. With the public appetite for invention as it was, the stories could, most of the time, focus on entertainment whilst still delivering actual news, something that was not always the case in an economy that was becoming increasingly one sided.
In 1895, this tabloid journalism, reached a new peak that saw the style immortalised as “Yellow Journalism”, when a circulation war broke out between Joseph Pulitzer’s “New York World”, at that point the highest selling paper in new York, and William Randolph Hearst’s “New York Journal”, a penny paper that had been bought by Hearst with the intention of turning it into a direct competitor to Pulitzer’s crown. Hearst had already had plenty of experience in the newspaper game after he had acquired “The San-Francisco Call” from his father in 1887 and now he had his sights on the East Coast. “The New York World” had already forged a reputation for padding its multi-paged 2 cent paper, the longest paper in New York for the price, with stories that were sensational at best and complete fabrication at worst. It wasn’t a new, or unique technique in the 1890s, but the World certainly took the concept to new heights, running stories full of graphic details of crimes and scandal and oftentimes, hyperbolic in the extreme. It was a format that had seen newspaper readership throughout America grow exponentially over the previous decades as readership leapt over the traditional class and educational boundaries. At times the stories aimed to entertain, sensationalising everyday criminality or by satirising public events, figures and even the reading public itself. At other times, such is the case with the looming Spanish-American war, they were bombastic political stories stuffed full of propaganda, pushing a heavily biased pro, or anti, sentiment. On plenty of occasions, they were unashamedly all of the above.
By the late 19th Century, Spanish colonialism was well on the wane after losing many of its colonies in South America during the Spanish-American wars of independence in the early years of the Century. America had long had designs on Cuba, with proposals put forward before the American Civil War to turn it into a slave colony and though the plan never reached fruition, after the war American interest in the region remained high, with bi-lateral trade that made up for 90% of all Cuban exports going to the US. By the 1890s, the Cubans had been struggling for independence from Spain for over three decades, with little success. From the Spanish perspective, Cuba was an important piece of the empire and they used it as both a jewel in its regional crown and a training ground for its armies in South America. The prolonged conflict between the Cuban revolutionaries and the Spanish colonists were not at all in American trade interests, however, though the US refrained from intervening until the USS Maine had been sent to Havana in order to impress the importance of reform upon the Spanish in 1898, where it promptly exploded in the harbour, sparking a declaration of war from America and setting the wheels of Cuban independence firmly in motion. In the run up to the explosion, Hearst was keen to stoke the fires of the anti-Spanish sentiment in his papers, as was Pulitzer and there were many stories printed that were spiced with incendiary, anti-spanish language or simply straight up propaganda attacks on the country that played heavily into the yellow journalism narrative that the readers were already conditioned to accept.
Whilst the circulation war between Hearst and Pulitzer was firmly entrenched within their respective New York papers, the brand of journalism they were touting had long since filtered out across the country, propelling a brand of tabloid journalism based around entertainment that had been evident for almost half a century. For many readers, the distinctions between fact and fiction or news and satire, were fairly evident, but it was not always the case and the line between the two types of stories often blurred. In an age when a wilful public were gleefully humbugged by entertainers such as P.T Barnham and new inventions were being showcased at national fairs that bordered on Black Magic in the eyes of the layman, the murky grey area between fact and fiction thrived. Such was the case in the winter of 1896, when a spate of airship sightings burst onto the scene, spreading from California to the Mid-West, enticing, terrifying, entertaining and infuriating the newspaper reading public in equal measure, all along the way.
California Airship Sightings
On Sunday 1st November, 1896, Mr Brown, a Hunter living on Bolinas Ridge, North West of San Francisco, stepped out of his house in the early hours. The ground was covered in a low hanging mist that obscured the horizon. The mist would not have been uncommon, given the region’s proximity to the coastline, but it was what emerged from the lifting, morning mist that so shocked the hunter at such an early hour. “I saw a large dark shape, with something moving on it,” he told newspapers later that month, “I have been kind of dazed ever since,” he went on, “to have you tell me I don’t look crazy is a great relief.” Mr Brown had bottled up his story for several weeks, afraid of what people would make of it if he told them outright, but recent events had bolstered his resolve to open up about that morning on the ridge. He told the papers, fairly confident that his story was now one of several dozen, that as the mist rose off the tops of the pine trees that lined the landscape, he had seen an airship floating above the ground, perfectly still in the morning sun. Following the sighting, he had initially told a handful of the locals of what he had seen, but it was assumed by them that it had been a mirage, an effect of perspective that made ocean vessels appear to float through the skies above the hills and quickly discounted as nothing to be so excited about. After fearing he’d be made a fool, or thought crazy, he simply decided to keep the story to himself, but after the night of the 17th, it didn’t really seem so crazy anymore, at least, not to him anyway.
The evening of the 17th November was cold and damp, it had been raining heavily all day and as the weak, winter sun sank beneath the horizon at 5pm, it was completely out of sight, shrouded in a thick layer of cloud that sat heavy over the city, obscuring the early evening sky. David Carl, a horse trainer living in Sacramento, California, was on his way home at around 6:30pm when he noticed a light in the sky, bobbing around with an up and down waving motion close to the ground. As the light grew nearer, Carl said he could hear voices talking, shouting that they were too low to the ground and suggesting to “send her up higher.” As the ship began to steadily rise in a slow incline, the voices could continue to be heard talking of how they were anxious to reach San Francisco by midnight. Carl assumed he had seen a balloon, though as it rose out of sight, he wondered how it did so at such a low trajectory, rather than the steep shooting up of a balloon dumping ballast.
As it turned out, David Clark was not the only witness that night and his observation that it rose strangely for a balloon turned out to be an astute one. The next day, The San Francisco Call printed a story on the sightings on page three of the paper and it included a whole handful of witness testimonies who were convinced the light in the sky had not been a balloon, but an airship.
“Claim They Saw A Flying Airship – Strange Tale of Sacramento Men Not Addicted to Prevarication. Declared They Heard Voices of Those Aboard Joined in Merry Chorus”
“A vast amount of excitement was created among residents in the outskirts of the city tonight by the appearance of what they claim to have been an airship, which, seemingly under perfect control, passed over the city, going in the direction of San Francisco.”
“The impression here seems to be that someone has solved the mystery of aerial navigation, and is conducting his experiments at height in order to escape impertinent curiosity. Men in charge of East Park, which lies outside the city limits, state that as the airship passed over the park the voices of men, who seemed to be disputing as to whether they should cause their conveyance to rise higher, could be heard. The lights then rose rapidly into the air and passed on.”
Local Sacramento paper, The Record Union was a fair bit more theatrical with its own coverage, printing the simple headline, “What Was It?”
“An Apparition Wandering Through The Atmosphere – Several persons last evening between 6 and 7 o’clock, saw a big ball of fire, like an electric light, pass over the city going in a southwesterly direction. It moved slowly and was in sight for more than half-hour, finally disappearing in the mist and darkness.”
The San Francisco Call made no bones about it though, the object that everyone had seen on the night of the 17th was an airship and they described it in vivid detail, claiming it to be oblong, or egg shaped, with a bright, electric light on the underside and large, fan like wheels on either side like that of a steam ship that forced it to bob and wave in the air, like “that of a boat being forced against the rapid current of a stream.” Within days, the news spread rapidly and all manner of witnesses came forward with their tales of what they had seen in the sky, including Mr Brown, the hunter, with his sighting from weeks before. T. P. de Long said of how he had heard the occupants of the craft singing as they had passed overhead, a story repeated by several, though he claimed he had not had a good view of the ship itself. Others, like R. L. Lowery told much more bombastic stories, claiming they had got such an eyeful of the ship that they had actually seen the men aboard for themselves.
“Such is the description by R. L. Lowery, who also claims to have been able to distinguish four men, who were seemingly engaged in propelling the vessel by its fanlike wheels, much after the fashion of a bicyclist driving his wheel over a boulevard.”
As the men rode over the heads of Lowery and bystanders nearby, one was said to have shouted up to them, asking where they were headed, to which they received the reply that the occupants were aiming for San Francisco and hoped to be there by midnight. The light made its way South West, carving a diagonal line across the Sacramento sky, bound in the direction of San Francisco for upwards of thirty minutes and in that time, hundreds claimed to have witnessed its passage. Probably the most prominent was the Sacramento Mayor, who having not seen it for himself, told the papers that he had returned home only to hear the stories from his daughter and servants of a “brilliant white light” that had passed over the house at a great elevation. The light had not been a meteor, the mayor had been assured, as it was of a different shade of light and moved much too slowly.
Early rumours were quick to circulate that some secretive inventor had managed to build an airship and was testing it out during the night time in order to conceal the vessel before a patent could be filed. The papers, naturally, suggested that with relations between America and Spain strained, it was perhaps an invention of the government, out testing the practicability of such a vessel for war.
Whilst many papers went all in with the airship story, local paper The Sacramento Bee, decided to play a more skeptical hand with its own reporting and ran a story calling the light in the sky a “what is it?” and fairly openly put forward that the witnesses were all either drunks or liars and that the general consensus was that to call it an airship was “ridiculous.” Calling it the general consensus, however, was a bit of a bold statement. It may have used its own pages to ridicule the witnesses, complete with an anonymous letter from a reader describing the wondrous sights the crew would have seen flying around the earth as witnesses below heard their “Beer corks pop”, but plenty of other papers were convinced that a mystery inventor had managed to beat the puzzle of human flight. As the days passed, rumours continued to swell and every inconspicuous event was attributed somehow to the airship’s presence. Workmen at Sacramento church that had been undergoing renovations on its steeple had found a hammer missing the day after the sightings which quickly gave spread to a rumour that the ship had been flying a test run and come under problems grounding it on the outskirts of the city for repair, but not before they had swept over the church tower and stolen the hammer from the scaffolding as they flew, apparently genius engineers did not have their own tools. Still, it was true that not every newspaper and not every rumour bought into the airship narrative. More conservative stories floated the idea that the light seen was either a meteor or a will-o-wisp and only gently chided those that said otherwise.
It wasn’t long before the speculation could give way to a fresh wave of sightings and on the evening of the 22nd November, the citizens of Sacramento were treated once more to a visit from the mysterious light in the sky when it passed directly over the centre of the city at about 5:30pm. Just like the previous night the airship had been seen, the night sky had been blanketed in a thick cloud all day that left the stars concealed and yet thousands said they witnessed the bright light, weaving through the sky. Jacob Zemensky, a well known, downtown cigar man, observed the ship through a telescope and confirmed with the paper that “if that was not an electric arc light of intense power then I never saw one.” Anyone who had previously been skeptical of the airship’s truth, he said, were now forced, with these new sightings, “to abandon their unbelief.” The workers at the Sacramento Street Car depot who had given many of the original witness testimonies after a newspaper had sent a reporter down to there depot, told the papers the following day that they were thrilled to have been vindicated after a week of derision.
The following day, The San Francisco Call made the ship its front page story, taking up almost the entire page, complete with a sketch of the ship drawn by an attorney who both knew the inventor and had seen the ship up close for himself. Amidst an “avalanche of testimony”, the Call had dug out the exclusive story of local man, George D. Collins. Collins was an attorney working out of Alameda with some fairly bold claims that the enthusiastic Call were happy to give column inches to.
“A few weeks ago, said Mr Collins, I came from Washington, whither I had been on important business. On my arrival in this state I met a gentleman who introduced himself to me, and when I told him where I had been he immediately said he was very sorry that he had not met me prior to my departure, as he had some important business to transact at the patent office in Washington which he would not trust in the mail or by any other means than a trusted servant. I asked him what his business consisted of, but beyond telling me that he was an inventor, I got no further details from him at the time. He told me enough in an indirect manner to convince me that he was a man who had a secret that he evidently cherished dearly, but he enlightened me no further, and beyond exchanging cards, our acquaintanceship developed nothing more til later. A few days afterward he called on me at my office in San Francisco, but as he did not talk about business, I concluded that he had merely paid me a social call. I became greatly interested in that invention. I could not help noticing that there was a desire on his part to tell me more than I knew, and I could also see that he restrained himself from doing so. He called on me a second time, chatted about a few immaterial matters and departed, leaving me in wonder as to when he would confide anything further to me. Altogether, he made about half a dozen of these visits, and I concluded that he really did intend to talk business every time he came, but that his courage failed him as soon as he got in the office. Finally he got up the courage enough to tell me he was not only an inventor but that he really had an invention. He asked me if he could place confidence in me. I replied, do you mean as a friend or as an attorney? He said “as both.” I told him that I could not recall any occasion in which I had violated a friend’s or a client’s confidence and that I thought I was fully capable of attending to any business he might wish me to transact for him. He said that if his secret were made public prematurely it would mean the loss to him of an immense fortune. He further assured me that it was an invention that anybody would willingly steal if they had the opportunity. I talked to him for a little while and succeeded in assuring him that if such were the case I , as an attorney, would be just as anxious to protect his interests as he would be himself. I am telling you the details of my first meeting with this inventor because they carry with them a good idea of the nature of the man and also are evidence of his sincerity and belief in the practicability of his invention.l He is a resident of Oroville and a man of wealth, about 47 years of age, and a fine looking fellow. He does not talk for five minutes without convincing his hearer that he is a man of more than ordinary intelligence. The first time he talked to me of his invention he got as far as the word airship; then I laughed, and laughed heartily. “What kind of whisky have you been drinking?” I asked him. This made him indignant, and had I laughed any longer he certainly would have got very angry and I should have most probably have lost a client. “I have not been drinking sir” he said, “and when I do, it is not whisky.”
The mysterious, wealthy inventor went on to describe how he had been working on the ship for several years in secret, shipping in materials from the East coast to avoid curiosity. He then went one step further by providing the paper with its method of propellant, which was he said, via compressed air. A small electric motor was on board to power the searchlight that everyone around the city had seen during its night flights. Conveniently, Collins had met with the inventor since the sightings and the inventor had assured him that the witnesses had been correct, singling out the Call reporter for telling the truth. On that night, he said, the inventor had flown 60 miles in 45 minutes, but amazingly he understood that “there is practically no limit to the speed which can be attained, provided the necessary machinery is made.” Following the test flights, the airship was almost perfected, with the only wrinkle needing ironing out by the inventor was that of the waving motion noted by many of the witnesses. He described the ship itself as having been 150 feet long with space to seat 15 people. On the sides were two large 18 foot canvas wings and the attached to the rear of the ship, a rudder shaped like a bird’s tail. When called upon by a colleague, Collins doubled down, stating that he “had no alternative but to believe implicitly all I have said.”
Papers quickly descended upon this story and attempted to guess the identity of the mystery inventor. A dentist and inventor was soon brought to the public’s attention named Dr E. H. Benjamin, a resident of Oroville who had hailed from Maine. The evidence was scant, however, and pivoted on the fact that the dentist had a history of inventing and had paid Collins a visit on several occasions, having been his client. When the papers caught up with him, Benjamin assured them that his inventions had absolutely nothing to do with air travel and were grounded within the profession of dentistry. The level of unwanted publicity that had flocked his way, however, was such that eventually it led him to disappearing from the state overnight, leaving all of his possessions behind.
If an attorney was not a man respectable enough to be a trusted witness, the latest sightings nought with it the testimony of the Sacramento Deputy Sheriff, Walter Mallory. Mallory said that he himself had seen a bright white light float above the city, “The more I observed it”, he said, “the more puzzled I became as to what it was.”
One of the biggest problems with the latest sighting, however, was the large area that would have had to have been covered if all the witnesses were telling the truth. Whilst it was seen once more flying over the center of Sacramento, it was also seen in the San Francisco Bay area, just thirty minutes later. There were, it seemed at least two airships in the sky that night, or, just maybe, some of the stories were not being entirely truthful with their treatment of the mystery ship, but how can that be, when even the mayor of San Francisco himself was giving testimony that his daughter had seen a “brilliant light, coming in front he sea.”
This was a logical problem that only compounded itself in the following days, as hundreds, if not thousands of witness testimonies flew in from across California, making it all but impossible to have been a single object. That of course, or the entire thing was a fabrication or a case of mistaken identity. This fact seemed to escape a public, however, that were so excited by the airships presence night after night that the newspapers saw fit to voice their concern for their readers that they not give themselves “airship neck” watching the skies all night in hope of catching a glimpse of the ship.
Interestingly, it was the San Francisco Examiner that remained one of the most skeptical newspapers concerning the airship story. The Examiner was a bitter rival to Hearsts the Call and it’s likely that this played more into the Examiners narrative rather than the testimonies coming in themselves. As another paper put it, concerning the airship being a reality, “you pays your money and you takes your chance.” It really did not matter which side of the argument a newspaper took as the story itself was enough to spur on circulation numbers. The debate only stoked the appetite of the readers who continued the debate in the bars and streets.
Whether or not one believed in the airship stories or not, one thing for certain was that there were hoaxers and pranksters operating, that were muddying the waters of truth. As the stories and witness testimonies filtered out over the following days, they were accompanied by tales of enterprising individuals who were keen to get one over on the prepped population. As the month of November drew to a close, sightings continued to pour in from as far south as Los Angeles, the best witness of which was Captain Frank B. Taylor, who had used a pair of field glasses to observe the ship up close.
“The light was apparent at considerable distance, perhaps 15 or 20 miles. Through the glass it appeared pear shaped or like a soap bubble when suspended from the pipe with the apex tilted a little to the left. About one fifth of the surface, on the left hand side was dark and the remainder was very bright and covered at regular intervals with still more brilliant spots. It was about 20 or 25 degrees in the heavens and appeared to be moving in a South Westerly direction. I watched it through the glass for about ten or fifteen minutes. It finally disappeared, apparently going toward the ocean. I do not think it was an airship. It seemed probable that it was a novel affair sent up by someone to impose on people, It might have been a fire balloon, although it hardly had that appearance. I could not see any indication of a car or any other attachment, though if there were anything of the kind, it probably would not have been visible.”
Probably one of the more sober testimonies of the day, Captain Taylor may not have been so far off the mark with his estimation that it appeared like a fire balloon, as there were already several hoaxes known to have been played by people sending up exactly that in order to fool local inhabitants, though no such prankster appeared to be forthcoming in the event of the Los Angeles sightings.
By the 25th November, stories seemed to leap off a cliff in respect to their credibility, when the Examiner one of the more sensational articles of the day with the headline “Airships Now Fly In Flocks” and suggested that the mysterious inventor had changed his attorney after Collins had talked. His new attorney was apparently a man named William Harrison Hart, the former Attorney General of California who now suggested that with the cold weather in winter, airship travel would not be profitable, this he related to his inventor client, who took his advice not to seek a patent. Instead, he suggested to his client, the flock of airships would be much more profitable if he sold them to Cuba for them to use to bomb Havana. What’s more, Hart also confessed to being the attorney to not one, but two inventors of airships, one was the now infamous airship seen throughout California, whilst the other was stationed in New Jersey where it was built on the East Coast by an entirely different client. Hart was, for what it is worth, a man known for his tall tales.
As far as tall tales go, however, at least Harrisons followed roughly the accepted narrative. On the 27th November, The Evening Mail, from out of Stockton, California, went decidedly off-piste when Colonel H. G. Shaw, a former staffer on the Mails editing staff, supplied the paper with a story that far outstripped even the Examiner for its fantastic claims and exists as one of the earliest recorded examples of alien abduction that closely resembles those repeated today.
“Wednesday afternoon I went out to Lodi and Lockeford in company with Camille Spooner, a young man recently arrived from Nevada. I went to the places mentioned in quest of material to form an exhibit to represent this county at the Fresno Citrus Fair. We left Lodi on the return trip, I should judge, shortly before 6 o’clock, and we were jogging along quietly when the horse stopped suddenly and gave a snort of terror. Looking up we beheld three strange beings. They resembled humans in many respects, but still they were not like anything I had ever seen. They were nearly or quite seven feet high and very slender. We were both somewhat startled, as you may readily imagine, and the first impulse was to drive on. The horse, however, refused to budge, and when we saw that we were being regarded more with an air of curiosity than anything else we concluded to get out and investigate. I walked up to where the strange looking persons were and addressed them. I asked where they were from. They seemed not to understand me, but began – well, “warbling” expresses it better than talking. Their remarks, if such you would call them, were addressed to each other, and sounded like a monotonous chant, inclined to be guttural. I saw it was no use to attempt a conversation, so I satisfied myself with watching and examining them. They seemed to take great interest in ourselves, the horse and buggy, and scrutinised everything very carefully.”
Whilst this bizarre face-off continued, the Colonel inspected the beings carefully and supplied a full description, stating they had small hands with no nails, but feet twice as long as a human. They apparently used their feet like monkeys and seemed to have more control over their toes than they did their hands, a fact he found out, after they drew near enough that he could stretch out his hand and lift one of them by its elbow and it attempted to grasp the ground with its toes. To add to his shock, the colonel also found that lifting them took no effort at all and estimated that they only weighed about an ounce. Their skin, he said, was wrapped in a velvet like texture that was not hair, nor was it feathers, but silk to the touch. Due to their small mouths, the Colonel also decided that they likely never ate, nor drank but instead lived off of gas, as evidenced by a strange contraption carried by both beings somewhat like a bag with a nozzle they put in their mouths and inhaled from, making a sound “as if produced by a person blowing up a football.” After a time, the beings got bored of watching the Colonel and his companion and attempted to lift him off his feet, but though all three tried, they could not muster the strength. Giving up, they walked back to what the Colonel now saw was their airship, 150 feet in length and floating 20 feet off the ground. Once they boarded the ship, it rose up and soon was out of sight.
“I have a theory, which, of course, is only a theory, that those we beheld were inhabitants of Mars, who have been sent to the earth for the purpose of securing one of its inhabitants. I feel safe in asserting that the stories being told by certain San Francisco attorneys are clumsy fakes and should not be given credence by anyone.”
It was a story that topped many of the whoppers already published concerning the airship, but was it any more, or less likely to be true? 1896 was a seven years before the 120 feet, 12 second long flight undertaken by the Wright Brothers and a full 10 years before sustained flight was widely seen as anything other than the dreams of eccentric inventors, so was the Colonel’s story really any more fantastical than all the other stories of airships powering through the night sky?
Airships Before 1896
Prior to the 19th Century, hot air balloons were the primary target for inventors seeking to crack the puzzle of manned flight. France in particular was a country especially interested in the concept and many of the world’s firsts came from the experiments undertaken by the Montgolfier Brothers, a pair of wealthy paper manufacturers with a particular interest in ballooning. The elder brother, Joseph, showed the earliest interest in flight, when he experimented with parachutes by strapping a makeshift pack to his back and throwing himself off of the roof of his house. By 1782, the two were carrying out their very first test flight of a hot air balloon, built from taffeta cloth and thin wood. A year later, they sent a balloon into the air, complete with a sheep, cock and duck in an attached basket to the awe of thousands, except perhaps the King, who had himself suggested sending up two convicted criminals instead of the animals. As work progressed into the 19th Century the designs slowly shifted from hot air balloons to drigibles, or airships, which could be controlled with much more precision than a conventional balloon. Frame continued to lead the way and by the mid century, airships were being tested, but with only limited success. Flight was erratic at best and the ships themselves were extremely fragile, made entirely from lightweight cloth materials with limited use of light woods. In 1884, the French Army launched the first fully controlled, free flying ship named La France, a long cigar shaped ship, covering 8km in 23 minutes. 12 years later, however, and the technology had largely stalled. Airships were perpetually a technology that lay just on the horizon for the average member of the public. Often the subject of science-fiction, an actual functioning airship sat tantalisingly close in one’s imagination.
As early January 1896, newspapers across America, including The San Francisco Examiner, were speculating on the use of airships in future warfare. The San Francisco Examiner published a story on 16th February with the headline “Nations May Yet Fight In The Air” that spoke of “sailing over a city” destroying it with torpedoes.
“Is the success of the airship probable? Eminent engineers and scientists have for some time conceded that many of the important obstacles in the way of artificial flight have been removed, and it now seems probable that within a few years all the problems with it will be solved, and a machine capable of sustained flight and entirely under control will be an actual fact.”
The story is not unique and throughout the year, in the months leading up to the airship sightings of November, readers across the country were being seeded to believe that airship travel was being constantly worked upon and the rollout of a success just around the corner. As tensions with Spain increased, so too did the hyperbole in the papers and with it, the promise of a swift war, quickly decided with the force of flying fortresses dropping dynamite from the air. With The year drawing out to a close, however, the excitement for the Sacramento ariships slowly died out. Though stories were in the local papers almost daily throughout the winter and into spring, most were decidedly tongue in cheek jabs at other publications and there were no new sightings. It wasn’t until February of 1897 that any substantial new stories would reappear in the press, this time as the mysterious ship crept its way East across America, exposing itself to newly enthusiastic audiences.
It was 10:15pm when Ike Chidsey, an operator for the Missouri Pacific Railroad called the signalman at the Atchinson office. Chidsey had been out on a platform in Fall’s City, Nebraska, “I expect you’ll laugh at me” he told the dispatcher before describing seeing a light in the sky, flying at around 60mph. Chidsey should have had a little more faith in the dispatcher as his story was not quite as unusual as it may have felt. A week prior, sightings of mysterious lights in the sky were being widely reported in Kansas. In the days between the sightings, speculation had reigned, with the narrative seemingly settling on the assumption that it was the California airship, making its way across the country. Second in the running was the much more ominous “Ill-Omen”, though supporters of that idea were seemingly in the minority.
On the night of Ike Chidsey’s sighting, reports came in from across the state until 3am, passing from West to East and appeared to be following the line of the railroad. Quickly after, the entire Midwest became swamped with sightings of the airship, with each state from West to East falling like dominoes to the strange lights spell. As it travelled over Iowa, Missouri and Illinois, the lights attached to the undercarriage that were most often described changed from red and white to green and white and several people reported seeing great, material wings. By the 9th of April the sightings reached as far East as Michigan, when the ship was spotted flying over Chicago. Once in Chicago, a new theory was very quickly floated by Professor G.W. Hough, of the Dearborn Observatory who claimed the Chicago sightings were not an airship at all, but rather one of the brightest stars in the constellation of Orion, Alpha Orionis. Though the reporting in Michigan was positively sober in comparison to some of the earlier reports in California, it would be untrue to say that general opinion sided with the professor and there were several other reports that specifically went out of their way to mention that what the witnesses were seeing was definitely not a star, not least because it was seen amidst a barrage of explosions and flying sparks. As the days passed, the airship actually wound up with a destination, thanks to one testimony from attorney Max Hasmer, the secretary for the Chicago Aeronautical Society, who claimed he knew three of the people aboard the ship and knew that they were headed for Washington, where upon their arrival, they would register patents for the vehicle. If Kasmars story did nothing else, it helped push the story to the front page of the Washington newspapers, meaning that even if the ship was nothing more than a mirage, the story itself had travelled from coast to coast.
“We received word from San Francisco three weeks ago, says Kasmar, that a party had started from there in an airship, and that they would stop in Chicago for the purpose of registration. The end of the trip is to be at Washington D.C., where the ship will be brought to the earth and given up to inspectors. The car contains three persons, and I know one of them. The ship is not of steel, as some speculators in the West have declared, but of paper. There is the customary inflated gas reservoir, but the inventors have discovered the secret of practical propulsion. The only new feature of the propulsion is the fact that the posterior of the propellor is flexible and elastic, while the anterior is rigid. The fans have a peculiar twisting motion. President Octave Chanute, with other wealthy men, have furnished the money for the venture.”
Meanwhile, the scientists were sticking to their star story, going to great lengths to explain why they might appear to be moving whilst remaining perfectly stationary. One of the largest problems they faced, however, was the emergence of not one, but two supposed photographs of the airship, recently taken in Chicago by a newspaper dealer named Walter McCann. It was on the morning of Sunday 11th April when McCann had got up to sort his newspapers at the crack of dawn. As he sauntered to his store at around 5:30am, he sighted the ship in the sky and ran quickly to collect a camera belonging to his son. Dashing out into the street, McCann captured two photographs of the ship as it sailed overhead,
“The upper part of the ship apparently consisted of a cigar-shaped silken bag, attached to thich was a lightly constructed framework. In the center of this framework the man was located. A propellor or rudder was attached to the framework, the latter being shaped like the hull of a ship, except that it was sharp at both ends. Apparently the framework was composed of white metal.”
McCann was still busy printing copies of his photograph, which he had shrewdly put on sale from his newspaper store at Rogers Park, when the Boston Globe printed their story that the photographs had been a hoax. According to the Globe, McCann had hung a model of an airship from the telephone cables above the train tracks nearby to his shop and snapped the crudely painted object. McCann had overlooked one small detail, however. Among the witnesses during the time the photograph was taken was a man named Bill Hoodless, a devout member of the Salvation Army, who according the paper, had “positively refused to swear, chew tobacco, take a drink or tell a falsehood.” For several days, Bill had kept quiet about the story, but eventually his conscience got the better of him and he told all to the Globe.
With all the furor around the airship story, it was no wonder that unscrupulous members of the public would be keen to creates hoaxes to use the story for their own personal gain, but it may have been considered a tad off the pale, when newspapers themselves began to create hoaxes, which is exactly what happened when a Peoria newspaper sent Chinese lanterns with balloons attached up into the air, simply to fool another local paper in order for them to write up a petit “gotcha” story. One of the more famous hoaxes involved a letter that was found tied to a three foot long reed, with red, white and blue streamers attached, on a farm in Astoria, Illinois, addressed to Thomas Edison. The Edison letter hoax was not actually the first story to claim that a letter had been dropped from the airship, but the intended recipient was by far the most famous. Bert Swearingin, the farmers whose land the letter had been dropped upon, discovered the strange missive, dated 16th April and stating the letter had been dropped as it had passed over at 2:30pm on that day. Further instructions written on the outside of the envelope asked for the letter to be forwarded to Thomas A. Edison, and was signed “excuse the dirt, just got done oiling, Harris, Electrician, Airship No.3”. Bert opened the letter but was unable to read the contents as the entire thing had been written in a strange cipher code. Reporters were quick to deliver the letter to Edison’s lab, but the man himself could not read the code either and promptly declared the whole thing a “pure fake,” whilst ensuring the press that he was not working on any airship,
“I prefer to devote my time to objects which have some commercial value. At best airships would be only toys.”
It was a statement that if nothing else proves that even genius can have some misses from time to time. The letter did ensure one thing though, that the story was now global news and papers across Europe began picking up and reprinting the various rumours that had been flooding East across America from the previous months. As the months ticked by however, the story faded as quickly as it had come. Throughout the rest of spring, there were intermittent reports on the progress of airship invention in papers across the country and in almost every one, the earlier “California Airship” was often brought up, but no more sightings were given any credence and gradually, it fell by the wayside, into obscurity. There were, however, two stories that would live on into the 20th Century and unsurprisingly, they are two of the strangest from the entire saga and parallelled many events that would come to be linked to mysterious lights in the sky, still today.
Cownapping & Texas Crash
On the morning of 17th April, a large explosion was seen above a farm in Aurora, Texas. In the days previous, several sightings had been reported in the local papers of the mysterious airship already seen by thousands in the states just North of the state border and now it seemed Texas lay in the flightpath. Simple sightings like the rest of the country would soon prove to be far too boring fare for the local residents, however, and reports soon began filing out of apparent explosion.
“About 6 o’clock this morning the early risers of Aurora were astonished at the sudden appearance of the airship which has been sailing through the country. It was travelling due North, and much nearer the earth than ever 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 directly over the public square, and when it reached the North part of town collided with the tower of Judge Proctor’s windmill and went to 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 on board, and while his remains are badly disfigured, enough of the original has been picked up to show that he was not of this world.”
Mr T.J Weems, an alleged “authority on astronomy” was on hand to declare that the body was that of a martian. When it was searched several papers were found, thought to be a record of the flight, btu it was written in “some unknown hieroglyphics”, whilst the ship itself was so badly wrecked that its construction was entirely lost upon the witnesses to the crash site, though it was said to have been formed from an unknown metal, “somewhat a mixture of aluminium and silver” and weighed several tons. If the story wasn’t weird enough yet, the town was said to be holding a funeral for the pilot the following day at noon. All of this, remember, was a full 50 years before the now infamous crash at Roswell.
The debris of the craft was said to have been scattered across the ground and much of it collected by the local townsfolk, though a small selection was buried in the grave, which had been capped with a crudely carved out sandstone block, along with the body of the pilot who had since been christened Ned. Any of the debris left was dumped at the bottom of a well, later to be sealed with a concrete slab and an outbuilding built on top. Unlike much of the airship mystery that had taken place over that winter, the story of the Aurora crash was not quite so quick to fade into obscurity. For a time, it certainly did disappear, but re-emerged in the 1960’s, when some of the surviving locals were interviewed by Dr Allen Hynek of UFOlogy fame, for an investigation into the crash. Hynek spoke to a man named Oscar Lowery, who had been a resident of the town at the time of the crash report, however, Lowery confirmed not only that the weak credentials of Weems, the “authority of Astronomy” were vastly overblown, given that he was the towns blacksmith, but also that the Judge Proctor never even had a windmill on his land, though this claim has been the matter of some strong dispute and in 2008, a TV show investigating the case claimed they had found the foundations of the windmill, buried deep in the ground. In 1973, a campaign to exhume the burial site was partially underway, when the news broke that it had been robbed overnight, removing any metallic pieces which had previously been picked up by a metal detector. The grave robbing put an end to the possibility of exhumation, especially given the fact that no one was quite sure which site was the correct one anyhow. Whether or not the whole story had been a hoax is still worthy of debate, depending on who you talk to, with proponents citing the grave robbery and the allure of what may have been and dissenters keen to point out that in 1897, Aurora was a rapidly declining town that had suffered from epidemic and crop failure and the story was likely an attempt at reinvigorating the failing economy.
Six days after the alleged crash in Aurora, a second incident taking place in Kansas occurred that could rival even the fantastic reports published about Ned, when a farmer saw an airship tie up one of his cattle with a rope and carry it off the ground, stealing it away, off into the night sky. The witness, named Alexander Hamilton, told the story that he had gone out at about 10:30pm that night after being awoken by noises coming from his livestock, only to see an airship, descending upon his cows,
“It consisted of a great cigar-shaped portion, possibly three hundred feet long, with a carriage underneath. The carriage was made of glass or some other transparent substance alternating with a narrow strip of some material. It was barely lighted within and everything was plainly visible – it was occupied by six of the strangest beings I ever saw. They were jabbering together but we could not understand a word they said. Every part of the vessel which was not transparent was of a dark reddish colour. We stood mute with wonder and fright. Then some noise attracted their attention and they turned a light directly upon us. Immediately on catching sight of us they turned on some unknown power, and a great turbine wheel, about thirty feet in diameter, which was revolving slowly below the craft, began to buzz and the vessel rose lightly as a bird. When about three hundred feet above us it seemed to pause and to hover directly above a two year old heifer which was bawling and jumping, apparently fast in a slip knot around her neck and going up to the vessel from the heifer tangled in the wire fence. We tried to get it off but could not. So we cut the wire loose to see the ship, heifer and all, rise slowly, disappearing in the Northwest.”
The next evening, a neighbouring farmer came across the carcass of the young cow, identified by the brand on its hide, torn to pieces, lying in a field on his farm. The story, as amazing as it sounds, came complete with a sworn affidavit from a host of respectable signees, saying they knew Hamilton to be truthful and to trust that the story was equally true and correct. Unsurprisingly, this story, along with the aurora crash outlived the rest of the airship flap from 1896-97, going down in history as one of the earliest examples of UFO cattle mutilation. Just like the aurora crash hoax, however, Hamilton’s cow-napping was also eventually found out to be a complete fabrication. Hamilton, it turns out, was a devout member of a local liars club, a somewhat bizarre form of 19th Century entertainment frequented by wealthy gentlemen, who would gather in smoking jackets to concoct tall tales, the challenge being who coil dtell the biggest whopper and get away with it. In the case of the abducted heifer, it appears that Hamilton had achieved the biggest whopper of his life, as his story was widely believed until the late 1960’s and is still repeated as fact, today.
Sci-Fi: Fact or Fiction?
So what exactly was going on during the airship flap of 96-97? Probably here more than ever, cultural context is everything.
The mystery airship sightings took place at a time when America was deep in the throes of a fetishism for invention and technology. Considering the concept behind some of the centuries inventions, communications could suddenly be sent without wires to a ship in the middle of the ocean, for example, perhaps understandably, many had seemed no more or less otherworldly and certainly no less life changing than that of an airship, or even a spaceship. At the same time, the Science Fiction genre was consistently expanding with tales of the eccentric inventor, concocting all manner of mechanical machines that were just out of reach of what could be considered feasible, the timeless dream of soaring through the sky a particular favourite, ripe for material. It was the age of Jules Verne, Edgar Allen Poe and Robert Duncan Milne, all of which had stormingly popular stories based around mysterious inventors, rock stars in their own right, who had sparked imaginations by inventing a machine to allow flight. If the stories of Martians seem out of place, consider that whilst it came later in the year, H.G. Wells published War of the Worlds in 1897.
Tensions between America and Spain were at a tipping point, with future warfare constantly speculated upon and propaganda inserted into otherwise perfectly innocuous stories, a style of publishing that presented only a fraction of the yellow journalism that ruled the day, read by a readership who willingly paid to be duped by Barnham and Co’s humbugs for entertainment.
Amongst all of this, the airship sightings exploded across America. The sheer number of sightings is overwhelming, certainly in the tens of thousands of witnesses, however, the sheer number of known hoaxes is also fairly steep. Could the “airship fever” that spread across the states all just have been a combination of hoax, misinterpretation of the stars or pure fabrication? Daniel Cohen, who researched the sightings for his book on the subject, published in 1981, titled “The Great Airship Mystery”, came to exactly that conclusion, suggesting that the whole thing had been a collection of lies and errors. Robert Bartholomew and Hillary Evans are somewhat kinder, classifying the sightings as a form of mass wish fulfilment in their book, “The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behaviour.” Could it be, however, that whilst a great many of the sightings could be discarded from all of the above, a few, particularly early sightings, really were legitimate sightings of something unknown, flying through the Californian night sky? With many of the most fantastic stories now firmly debunked and the vast majority of the more simple, buried in the dusty confines of century old newspaper archives, it seems unlikely that the truth either way will ever be known. All of those directly involved are long since deceased and all that is left is a series of stories written largely for entertainment, as part of a personal feud or fabricated for personal gain, which leaves us with a history that is deeply entertaining, but murky beyond all measure.