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Harv Howard

The 1896-97 Airship Mystery:
Fact or Farce?













 In the first week of November 1896, the entire household staff of the mayor of San Francisco turned out to view a dark, tubular object hovering offshore from the mayor's ocean-side home.  The precise form of the object could not be determined because it was dark, however, the people could clearly see a powerful light beaming from one end of it and a row of smaller, horizontally spaced lights down its side.  After nightfall, the mysterious craft moved toward shore and rapidly passed over the amazed witnesses at an estimated
altitude of 500 feet.

 This was among the first reports of several hundreds, or perhaps even thousands, of these strange flying machines sighted in the years of 1896 and 1897.  The press quickly dubbed the object the "airship" as it continued to
arouse citizens along the central California area of San Francisco, Sacramento, and Oakland with its repeated appearances.  Thanks to newspaper coverage, its notoriety rapidly spread across the nation.

 By the end of November, sightings were reported by residents down the entire coast of California.  Bakersfield and Los Angeles reported repeated visits by the "mysterious adventurer," as one newspaper called it.  On the 28th of
November it was seen again in the northern part of the state.

 November 30th marked the last time the airship was seen that fall.  As abruptly as it had appeared, after four weeks of almost nightly meandering and continuous attention from the press, it was gone.  A puzzled nation futilely
was left searching the newspapers for clues to its identity.

 The Midwest was undergoing severe spring floods when the airship next appeared to claim a share of the news.  It was seen over flooded Omaha on March 29, 1897.  The next day it was reported over Denver.  In the days that
followed, it created a flood of its own as sighting reports flowed into various newsrooms.  Widely scattered towns in Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, Kansas, and Nebraska reported visits by the airship, all on the same
night.

 The newspaper articles were similar to those of the previous fall.  Then, in the middle of April, a new type of story began to appear about the airship.  A report sent by telegraph to the Chicago Record from Champaign,
Illinois, gave this account of an airship that crashed on a farm a few miles southeast of Champaign:
 

  "When just south of Bouseis Grove the craft became unmanageable and came down
with a crash on Jeff Shafer's farm, about 100 feet from where George Shafer
was discing.  The team (of horses) took flight and ran away, throwing young
Shafer in front of the harrow which passed over him, cutting him all to
pieces.  In the wreck of the ship, which covered a space nearly 100 feet
square, were found the mutilated remains of three persons.  They were
partially imbedded in the soft earth and covered with blood, so that it was
impossible to identify them, but from what McClod could see, he judged them to
be Japanese, the particulars can be more fully told after the inquest
tomorrow."
(Signed) W. J. Wilkinson


 But that didn't end the airship sightings.  That night its travels over the Midwest were even more extensive.

 Two nights later the reports had shifted to Texas.  The ship was seen swiftly moving over Childress at 1:16 a.m.  The following is perhaps the most widely known of the airship stories.  It appeared in more detail in the Dallas
Morning News on April 19th, less than three days after the story from Champaign appeared.
 

 "Aurora, Wise County (Texas)  April 17th. About 6 o'clock this morning (the
airship) sailed directly over the public square and 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 aboard, and while his remains are 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. Signal Service officer at this place and an authority on astronomy, gives his opinion that he (the pilot) was a native of the planet Mars.

 Papers found are written in unknown hieroglyphics.  The ship was too badly wrecked to form any conclusions as to its construction or motive power.The town is full of people today who are viewing the wreck and gathering specimens
of strange metal from the debris.  The pilot's funeral will take place at noon tomorrow."

 Even this was not the end of the airship.  Jim Nelson, a farmer who lived near Atlanta, Texas, was nearly frightened out of his wits by it the next day. He saw the ship descending toward him from the sky.  While still several
hundred feet from the ground, it stopped its rapid descent and rushed off with the "speed of a passenger train," Nelson said.

 A Houston Daily Post correspondent, returning from church with his family on the night of the 18th, saw the airship move across the sky in first one direction and then another.  It was described as "steel colored" with intermittently flashing lights.

 According to the New York Herald an airship was over Sisterville, West Virginia, at about 9:00 p.m. on the night of the 19th.  "It hovered in the darkness over the little town and began flashing at least two very brilliant
searchlights on the community.  The frantic blowing of the sawmill whistle brought the citizens into the streets to witness this fantastic aerial visitor."

 It had red, white, and green lights along its sides and end.

 A Lansing, Michigan, newspaper had reported on the 17th that the airship had landed near Williamston, Michigan, earlier in the day.  The story this time took a far different twist.
 

"A strange man, if he might be called one, was in charge of the ship.  While
he seemed to have plenty of clothes, he seemed to have no use for them, as he
was almost naked, and seemed to be suffering from the heat.  He is almost 9.5
feet tall and his talk, which musical, is not talk at all, but seems to be a
repetition of bellowing. One of the farmers, who was somewhat braver, attempted
to go near him and got a kick that will last him for a time, having had his hip broken."
 Undoubtedly, the most intriguing tale to come out of the airship wave of 1896-7 was datelined from Topeka, Kansas, April 21, 1897.  It was presented in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat as an actual affidavit drawn up and signed by Alexander Hamilton, a prosperous farmer and former member of the U. S. Congress.  The account stated how an airship had carried off a heifer from Hamilton's Kansas farm on Monday, April 19th.
 
 At 10:30 p.m., Hamilton was awakened by noises from his cattle.  With his son
and his foreman, he rushed out to see an airship that was 300-feet long, which
had a "carriage" underneath, hovering 30 feet over his corral.   "It was
brightly lighted within and everything was plainly visible-it was occupied by
six of the strangest being I ever saw.  They were jabbering together, but we
could not understand a word they said."


A red cable was slip-knotted around a heifer's neck.  The other end led up into the airship.  The craft lifted up and attempted to leave as Hamilton approached, but the cow was tangled in the wire corral fence.  Hamilton
attempted to cut the cable, but could not.  Instead, the fence was cut with an axe and the airship quickly sailed away carrying the dangling cow.

 The next day a local farmer found the head, legs, and hide in a soft field with no trace of tracks around.  He took the remains to town where Hamilton later identified his brand on the hide.

 These highly detailed crash and contact stories are only the more interesting of the many that appeared in the week following the publication of the Champaign story.  It would be naive to accept them all as true.  It may be
that none are true.  The fact that they appeared in such close proximity to one another is perhaps a vital clue to what they really represent.

 The period during the late 1800s and early 1900s is called the age of "yellow journalism."  The term is an acid connotation on the shady tactics used by many publishers and editors of that era to sell their products.
Competition was tough.  The prevailing order in many newsrooms was to write sensational stories regardless of the long-tem expense of losing their own credibility.  The ragged newspapers boys hawking their wares on the street corners against the competition need outrageous stories to yell about, and they got them.  Samuel Clements (Mark Twain) got his start in this fashion, writing outlandish stories as a newspaper reporter before he turned to novels.

 The "airship rustler" story at one time was widely repeated and hailed in UFO circles as being true.  It was accepted by writers and readers alike simply because of the fact that it was widely reported, and because it was printed in a reputable newspaper as an affidavit.

 But minor checking of the facts of the matter disclosed quite another story. The clerk of the District Court at Yates Center, Kansas, where Hamilton supposedly drew up his affidavit, could find no trace of the document when the
files were searched at this writer's request.

 A Kansas historical society vouches for Hamilton's existence and his respected position in the area, but not for his airship experience.  In fact, the historian said that he had a local reputation for being a creator of tall
stories.

 The UFO rustler story is a tale best smiled at for its originality, but should never be passed on as a bona fide UFO report from yesteryear.  The same is true for all of the ones given here and a many others more mundane and
even less likely in their details.

  The Aurora story has been and is still being investigated by UFO groups. But the fact that some aspects of the story are true (such as the people and places in some cases) is not reason enough to accept it in its entirety.  The
first story cited here, the Champaign story that appears to have started the more sensational stories, was deemed a hoax by the Champaign Daily Gazette, the same day it carried the crash story.  It told its readers that the alleged
reporter, "W. J. Wilkinson," who reportedly had sent the dispatch to the Chicago paper, was unknown in the area, and that although the names and places were real, the alleged event probably never took place.

 The authenticity of the Michigan story is suspect also.  No later mention of the event was noted in that newspaper, even though from the paper's own account the craft seemed to be still on the ground at presstime.  That being
the case, we can surmise that the only place the airship did land was in the columns of the newspaper.  A more general clue about hoaxes is that if any of the more startling events were in fact true, the papers would have continued doing story after story on the local event and would have eventually attracted national attention both in news and from public officials.  Not once did it happen.

 Most probably it was the fever of yellow journalism that gave various reporters the impetus to create these wild stories.  And it was the telegraph that enabled their quick and wide-spread dissemination.  Imagine that the first
story-perhaps the Champaign story-is dreamed up on the 16th.  It runs in the local paper on that date and is put on the wire.  Enterprising reporters on the other ends, knowing a good thing when they see it, would discard the
original hoax and substitute their localized concoctions.

 The Michigan landing story and the Texas crash both supposedly took place on the 17th-the very next day after the publication from Champaign about a crash. The Kansas rustler story was datelined April 21, only five days after the first story.

 It wasn't the airship that went from place to place, or rather, crash to crash, as it was the germ of the idea.

 A clincher to the acceptance that these alleged crashes and landings, plus others of that period, were all hoaxes is that never were they given banner headlines-even the first time out in their home-town newspapers.  Surely, such a happening would have deserved that much locally?  Interestingly, few of the more spectacular stories were repeated by other newspapers.  This is not to be construed that the old-timers didn't know what hot news was-a Martian was still a Martian even in 1897!-but that reporters had some savvy of how their fellows operated and they weren't about to perpetuate the tales.

 But what of the airship itself?  Was it an actual nuts-and-bolts machine roaming the heavens, or was it entirely the invention of the brazen newspapers?  Or is there a middle ground?

 One common aspect of most of the airship sightings reported in the newspapers can be helpful in substantiating its reality despite the lack of integrity displayed by some reporters.

 Even in the first days of the airshipis appearances in California, and especially later in the Midwest, the reports were fairly consistent as to what was seen, when, and where.  The day after its nocturnal visits to several
different cities and states, separate newspaper accounts were fairly consistent with one another.  Were each inventing its own story, the airshipis travels would most likely have been highly erratic, unchartable, even impossible.  Such is not the case.  In fact, the reports generally agree with one another.  They seem to indicate that there was only one airship.  Even had there been more than one craft, the reports would have maintained some
uniformly so that an analysis of the places and times would tend to indicate such.

 The newspaper reports of the airshipis sudden appearances and disappearances also support its reality.  If it were pure invention, it is unlikely that the sightings would uniformly start and, especially, end.  Some newspapers could be expected to carry-on their manufactured reports of sightings and thus scooping their competitors with a continuing barrage of exclusives long after the others had tired of the game or had run out of new twists.  That didn't happen.  The less sensational sighting reports died among that at the same time.
 

The mysterious airship reports of 1896 and 1897 must all be viewed as suspect. That is not to say they should be thrown out as worthless.  The basic evidence seems sound and indicative.  And, of course, the similar sightings
were to strongly reappear in Europe and Australia around 1910 and later in the late 1920s.  The one self-evident fact which emerges from those early reports is that no person, company, or government ever stepped forward to reap the rewards of society for inventing a fabulous, new flying device.  That situation, that link, has carried forward a hundred years, to this very day. It seems obvious to us today from our current "sophisticated positions in science and understanding" that the world's populace was not ready in those naive days for the owner's to come forward with their fabulous machines. Are we ready today?  Or is that the wrong question?  Are we waiting for them, or are they waiting for us?
 
 

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