A rash of mysterious airship sightings piqued the curiosity of Americans in the late 1800s.
IN MARCH AND APRIL 1897, thousands of Midwestern Americans reported sightings of airships. On April Fools’ Day, as many as 10,000 reportedly observed a huge aerial machine flying over Kansas City. Prior to this mass sighting, hundreds of residents of Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri, California and Arizona had reported similar apparitions. Witnesses said the huge machine hovered over farms, ranches and small towns, often sweeping a brilliant spotlight along the ground as it traveled. It was the height of the great American airship scare, which actually began in California some 20 years before, in the fall of 1876, according to modern-day writer Jerome Clark. The Sacramento Evening Bee reported that between 6 and 7 p.m. on November 17, 1876, a light resembling an “electric arc lamp propelled by some mysterious force” was seen by hundreds as it passed over the city. The object seemed to take evasive action as it approached buildings and hills. Some observers claimed to hear voices coming from it.
The 1876 sightings resulted in enormous excitement and speculation. Some theorists claimed that an airship had been secretly developed in nearby Oak Park or flown in from the East Coast. The San Francisco Chronicle called the airship “probably one of the greatest hoaxes…ever sprung on any community,” but noted, “it is hard to account for the evident sincerity of those who claim they saw the machine and heard the voices.”
The following day the Chronicle quoted Professor George Davidson, who believed the incident was the “outcome of a sort of freemasonry of liars.” He added: “Half a dozen fellows have got together, sent up a balloon with some sort of an electric light attachment, and imagination has done the rest. It is pure fake.”
The airship made return appearances over Sacramento on November 20 and Oakland on the 21st. The craft was described as a “peculiar looking contrivance” with a headlight and a searchlight on the bottom. One witness likened it to a “balloon traveling end on…and with what appeared to be wings both before and behind the light.”
Throughout November, sightings continued in California. The appearances were usually nocturnal, and many were undoubtedly planets, such as Venus, or pranksters getting into the act by sending lighted kites aloft at night. But not all the sightings could be explained by planets or pranks.
Electrician John Horen told the San Francisco Examiner that he had actually boarded an airship and sailed to Hawaii (Horen’s wife later said her practical joker husband was sound asleep at home on the night of the “Hawaiian cruise”). Colonel H.G. Shaw upped the ante by claiming to have met the crew of an airship, who he asserted were Martians trying to abduct him, marking the first such reported attempt in UFO history.
In February 1897, a rash of mysterious sightings were taking place much farther east. On February 2, citizens of Hastings, Nebraska, reported seeing an airship. As writer Jerome Clark has surmised, “If we can judge from newspaper accounts, many, perhaps most, sightings were of Venus, meteors and kites; evidently the publicity was inflaming the imaginations of the suggestible and proving irresistible to pranksters.” Clark also provided a representative report of an airship sighting:
To many observers the airship was a brilliant nocturnal light, often compared to an arc light, which moved through the heavens at a notable speed. A number of these reports are apparently of Venus or a kite. Others seem not to be. Frequently the object would appear first as a light, then at some point as a structured craft.
For example at Quincy, Illinois, late on the evening of April 10 hundreds of onlookers saw a “bright white light,” with red and green lights on either side of it, flying low over the Mississippi River on the city’s west side. As they watched, it rose in the air, headed east over Quincy, then south, then west. It hovered over a park for a few minutes before moving north and stopping half a mile later to hover again. It reversed direction and left in a southerly direction at “tremendous speed.”
The Quincy Morning Whig of April 11 reported: “At times it did not appear to be more than 400 or 500 feet above the ground…. Men who saw the thing describe it as a long, slender body shaped like a cigar, and made of some bright metal….On either side of the hull extending outwards and upwards were what appeared to be wings….At the front end of the thing was a headlight….similar to the searchlights used on steamboats.” Also on April 11, 1897, 400 persons supposedly sighted an airship over Norman, Oklahoma. The Daily Oklahoman devoted one sentence to the report: “And now Norman has seen the airship, and by a bank cashier, a devout churchman and prominent citizen, Mr. Wiggins.” The Norman Transcript of April 23 skeptically commented, “Some of the airship stories that are afloat could be more readily believed if the occurrence occasionally took place in the day time.”
On April 19, the Dallas Morning News reported a spectacular crash of an airship:
The early risers of Aurora, Texas were astonished at the sudden appearance of the airship that has been sailing around the country. It was traveling 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 towards 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.
Mr. T.J. Weems, the U.S. Army Signal Service officer at this place and an authority on astronomy gives it as his opinion that the pilot was a native of the planet Mars. Papers found on his person—evidently the records of his travels—are written in some unknown hieroglyphics and cannot be deciphered. This ship was too badly wrecked to form any conclusion as to its construction or motive power. It was built of an unknown metal, resembling somewhat a mixture of aluminum and silver, and it must have weighed several tons. The town today is full of people who are viewing the wreckage and gathering specimens of strange metal from the debris. The pilot’s funeral will take place tomorrow.
On April 23, 1897, rancher Alex Hamilton of Le Roy, Kansas, provided what may represent the first of many livestock mutilation reports. The Yates Center Farmer’s Advocate printed the story:
“Last Monday night, about 10:30,” said Mr. Hamilton, “we were awakened by a noise among the cattle. I arose, thinking that perhaps my bulldog was performing some of his pranks, but upon going to the door saw to my utter astonishment an airship slowly descending upon my cow lot, about forty rods from the house.
“Calling my tenant, Gid Heslip, and my son Walt, we seized some axes and ran to the corral. Meanwhile, the ship had been descending until it was not more than thirty feet above the ground, and we came within fifty yards of it.
“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 brilliantly 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 color. We stood mute with wonder and fright, when 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 slowly revolving 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 hover directly over a two-year-old heifer, which was bawling and jumping, apparently fast in the fence. Going to her, we found a cable about a half inch in thickness made of some red material, fastened in a slip knot around her neck, one end passing up to the vessel, and the heifer tangled in the wire fence. We tried to get it off but could not, so we cut the wire loose and stood in amazement to see the ship, heifer and all, rise slowly, disappearing in the northwest.
“We went home but I was so frightened I could not sleep. Rising early Tuesday, I started out by horse, hoping to find some trace of my cow. This I failed to do, but coming back in the evening found that Link Thomas, about three or miles west of Le Roy, had found the hide, legs and head in his field that day. He, thinking someone had butchered a stolen beast, had brought the hide to town for identification, but was greatly mystified in not being able to find any tracks in the soft ground. After identifying the hide by my brand, I went home. But every time I would drop to sleep I would see the cursed thing with its big lights and hideous people.
“I don’t know whether they are devils or angels, or what, but we all saw them, and my whole family saw the ship, and I don’t want any more to do with them.”
Sometime later, both the editor and Hamilton cheerfully acknowledged that they had made the whole story up. He and several others in the community, including the newspaper editor, were apparently members of the local Liar’s Club, who frequently concocted outlandish tales for their own amusement.
By the summer of 1897 the airship sightings had ceased and were mostly forgotten. The first full-length book to address the subject was Daniel Cohen’s The Great Airship Mystery, published in 1981. He linked it to fascination with developments in aviation, science fiction tales of marvelous flying machines, and tensions between the United States and Spain over Cuba. Though he admitted that “all of these people could not have been mistaken or lying,” he concluded, “there is not a single piece of tangible evidence to support any story.”
The great airship mystery was likely a collective delusion. But while the vast majority of UFO sightings can be logically explained, there remains the nagging suspicion—in the minds of some people, at least—that those few unexplained incidents might have been the real thing.
This article was originally published in the January 1998 issue of Aviation History magazine. For more stories, subscribe here.