Birth of a Legend

07 07 weather balloonI did consider trying to find something else to tell you about today, as this is already well-trodden ground, particularly on the internet, but today is the anniversary of the Roswell Incident. On this day in 1947, the crashed wreckage of something was found on a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico. It was reported to the Sheriff’s office, who notified the military. They came and picked it up and took it away. At first it was reported that a ‘flying disc’ had been recovered, which was a bit mysterious. But the military announced that what had been recovered was a weather balloon. Years of speculation have led many to believe that it was a bit more that that. And it was. In the 1990s, the military admitted that they had been using weather balloons, with surveillance equipment attached. They were trying to find out if the Russians had developed and were testing a nuclear weapon and were hoping to pick up disturbances in the atmosphere that would tell them if that had happened. The equipment included a radar reflector, made from thin metal foil, which was used to track the balloon and the balloon itself would have probably been made from neoprene, a sort of synthetic rubber. It was a very secret project named ‘Project Mogul’. The balloons did detect the first Russian nuclear bomb in 1949, but the project was shelved in 1950. As a secretive method of surveillance, a massive balloon wasn’t really all that successful. A colonel, who had been in charge of the project said: “It was like having an elephant in your back yard and hoping no one would notice it.”

Earliest reports of the wreckage described strips of rubber, tin foil, paper and sticks. A lot of the what-ever-it-was had been fastened together with Scotch tape. Some of the tape had flowers printed on it. The material that was collected from the crash site weighed about 5 lb. There were no large pieces of metal, nothing that indicated it might have had an engine. It was bits of a balloon that had had something fastened to it. No one thought much more about it until around 1978.

Between 1978 and 1990, UFO researches interviewed hundreds of people who claimed to had a connection to the event at Roswell. They also received documents that supposedly contained secret information leaked by insiders. A document known as ‘Majestic 12’ claimed that an alien spaceship had crashed and that alien technology had been recovered that could be exploited. Then someone who claimed to be connected to the case said that there had been alien beings on the ship and promised footage of an interview with one of them. Nothing materialised. Majestic 12 is now widely thought of as a forgery, but it was the beginning of a really good story. People were fascinated by the thought that we could have been visited by beings from another planet and that the whole thing had been hushed up by the government. Books were written on the subject and a wild and unsubstantiated rumour amongst a few people moved into the mainstream consciousness.

07 07 roswellIn version one of the story, ‘The Roswell Incident’ published in 1980, a spaceship was struck by lightening and crashed in the desert, killing the aliens. The whole thing was covered up by the government. Some archaeology students, from an unidentified university, saw the crash site and the bodies. The material recovered was not a balloon but some strange, new, super-strong material. A photograph of the rancher posing with the recovered material had been faked. Witnesses had been hushed up. It was a popular book and others started to come up with their own versions.

By 1991, in a book called ‘UFO crash at Roswell’, a second crash site had been added to the story. The whole area had been crawling with military police trying to keep people away. Shortly after that, the story of three alien bodies being held at the Roswell Army Air Base emerged. It was the start of the ‘alien autopsy’ thread. This was followed up by a purported film of the autopsies. Its maker has since admitted that he faked to footage using rubber models, chicken entrails, sheep’s brains and raspberry jam. The following year, another book was published which claimed there had been two flying saucers and eight aliens, two of whom had survived.

In 1997, a book called ‘The Day After Roswell’ was published by a former army officer, Philip J Corso. He claimed to have seen the alien bodies from Roswell stowed in crates and that later, he was given material from the crash site. His job was to reverse engineer the objects he was given, so that alien technology could be exploited for corporate use. He claimed to have found technology which helped with the development of lasers, fibre optics, bullet-proof vests and microchips. Again, a fascinating story, but it seriously undervalues the work of all the scientists who actually worked very hard, over years and years to develop those things. There was one piece of equipment though, that he claimed he could do nothing with. It was a helmet that he believed the aliens had used to steer the ship telepathically. Recently, our scientists have come up with a way of controlling a computer directly from the brain. One day, it will be brilliant for people who are paralysed. They will be able to control their wheelchairs, switch on the TV, use a computer. And we’ve done that all by ourselves, with no help at all from Philip Corso.

Human beings are clever. I think it’s wrong to underestimate our ingenuity. I don’t think we needed outside help with our technology, any more than I think the ancient Egyptians needed alien advice when they built their pyramids. We are an inventive and curious people and we always have been. We are good at making objects and we are also good at making stories. What we probably have at Roswell, which is most interesting to me, is the birth of a legend.

It makes me think about the two completely separate lives of Roger Bacon, one real and one imagined. It makes me think about the Trojan War. It was fought by the gods and the children of gods and was thought to be just a legend. But now there is some archaeological evidence that it may actually have happened. There must have been years and years of people retelling the story, half remembering things, adding bits to make it more exciting. Conspiracy theories like Roswell are probably just no more than modern myths that fulfil our need for wild stories. We have no exciting pantheon of gods now, no Prometheus to bring us fire. We have aliens who bring us microchips and lasers.

Tilting at Windmills

04 17 windmillI have a mystery to tell you about today. On this day in 1897, a UFO crash landed in Aurora, Texas. Or did it? It is claimed that the crash caused one fatality… the pilot. There is supposed to be an alien body buried in the local churchyard.

Between 1896 and 1897 there were several reported sightings across the USA of a cigar-shaped airship. On April 17th at about 6 am, according to a contemporary newspaper report, the early risers of Aurora spotted the airship. It was travelling much closer to the ground than it had been at previous sightings and much more slowly, about 10 – 12 miles an hour. There seemed to be something wrong with its machinery and it was getting lower all the time. It passed right over the town square and headed north. Then it collided with a windmill belonging to a man called Judge Proctor. The windmill was completely destroyed, along with a water tank and the Judge’s flower garden. The debris was scattered over several acres.

It seems the only person on board was the pilot. The report says that the body was badly disfigured, but enough was recovered to prove that: ‘he was not an inhabitant of this world’. A Mr T J Weems, an officer of the United States Signal Service, was of the opinion that the pilot had come from Mars. The pilot had with him, papers that were written in undecipherable hieroglyphs. The ship was too badly wrecked for anyone to tell what it was like or how it worked, but it seems to have been made from a metal resembling a combination of aluminium and silver. It was estimated to weigh several tons. The report, of April 19th 1897, goes on to say that the town was full of people picking up pieces of the wreckage and that the pilot’s funeral would be the following day.

The wreckage from the crash was dumped in a well that was underneath the wrecked windmill. In later years, the new owner of Judge Proctor’s property, Brawley Oates, cleaned out the well, because he wanted to use it. Afterwards he developed a severe case of arthritis which he blamed on poisoned well water. In 1957, he sealed up the well and put a building on top of it.

It is possible that the entire thing was a hoax. The newspaper report, which appeared in the Dallas Morning News, was written by a resident of the town called S E Haydon and he may have made the whole thing up. The town of Aurora was having a pretty tough time. Their cotton crop had been destroyed by boll weevil. Much of the town had been destroyed in a massive fire. There had been an outbreak of ‘spotted fever’ which had almost wiped out the people who hadn’t died in the fire. The town was quarantined. Then they were bypassed by a planned railroad. It may have been Haydon’s attempt to save a dying town. He never sent a follow up story. He might have written a second report about the alien’s funeral, but he didn’t. It was also later claimed that Judge Proctor had never even had a windmill.

But then, in 1973, an organisation called ‘MUFON’ which likes to investigate the sites of alleged UFO crashes, turned up two more eyewitnesses. Mary Evans, who had been fifteen at the time, remembered her parents going to the crash site. She had been forbidden from going but she remembered that an alien body had been found. Charlie Stephens, who was ten, had seen the ship pass over, trailing smoke. He too had not been allowed to go to the crash site, but his father had gone to town the next day to see the wreckage. MUFON checked out the cemetery and found a grave marker that seemed to show some sort of flying saucer. They also picked up readings with a metal detector. They asked for permission to dig up the grave but they were refused. Later, the grave marker mysteriously disappeared and was replaced by the three-inch pipe. Their metal detector no longer picked up any readings. They concluded that the metal had been removed from the grave, but they couldn’t rule out a hoax.

In 2008, a television programme called ‘UFO Hunters’ investigated again. They were allowed by Tim Oates, grandson of Brawley, to unseal the covered well. They found no debris, but they did find unusually large amounts of aluminium in the water. They also found the remains of a windmill base. It had been there after all. They investigated the cemetery but, as in 1973, were refused permission to dig. They found the grave, using ground penetrating radar, close to other 1890s burials. But the grave was so badly deteriorated that they couldn’t tell what was in it.

I don’t want to draw any conclusions about this story, because I like a mystery. Perhaps is was a hoax to raise the profile of the town. Perhaps it was a military experiment gone wrong. The US Signal Service were quite enamoured of balloons at one time. Perhaps it was a crashed space ship from another world. In an infinite universe, all things are possible.

Shipping News

01 18 boston harbour mapToday I want to tell you about UFO sightings, and also USO’s (which are unidentified submerged objects) because on this day in 1644 in Boston Massachusetts, a USO was seen by several people to rise out of the harbour and fly away. It was one of a string of similar sightings and the circumstances are somewhat tragic. In early January, a ship had been blown up in the harbour and five men were killed. All the bodies were recovered, save one.

Sixteen days later, three men, who were approaching Boston harbour in their boat, saw two lights rise out of the water on the exact spot where the explosion happened. They said that the lights then assumed the shape of a man and sailed off across the water, close to the shore, for about fifteen minutes, then they disappeared. A week later, the lights were seen again, this time by several people. They were a little further off, but this time they floated for about twelve minutes before disappearing into the sea at the point where the ship had been. The sightings continued. One evening, at about eight o’clock, people in the north of the city saw the two lights again emerge from the site of the wreck. They floated off towards the, then uninhabited, Nottle’s Island where they merged and parted several times, sometimes shooting out flames or sparks. They finally disappeared behind the island. Meanwhile, further south in the city, people were having a different experience. They heard a voice on the water. It seemed to shift it’s location and called out, perhaps twenty times: “Boy! Boy! Come away! Come away!” Reports continued for about three weeks. All these events were recorded by John Winthrop, who was several times governor of Massachusetts and had been instrumental in founding the colony. He was a serious fellow, and I have no reason to doubt that he believed the stories.

There was a lot of debate in Boston over what might have been the cause of the phenomena. It was generally believed that the man whose body had been lost was, in life, a necromancer. They thought it must be his unquiet spirit that was responsible for the lights and voices. They also decided that it was probably him that blew up the ship.

The 1644 sighting though was not the first, not even the first in Boston. In 1639, three men in a boat (I have no idea whether it was the same three men), saw a ‘great light’ at Muddy River. It grew to be about three yards across, then contracted into the shape of a pig. It ran up and down in the sky for two or three hours. When it had gone, they found that their boat had drifted a mile, against the tide, and they were back where they had started from. We have no way of knowing exactly what everyone saw in Boston. The way people interpret what they see, depends very much on their world view. The Bostonians were seventeenth century Puritans who probably tended to interpret anything they didn’t understand as demons and witchcraft. You only need to take a look at the Salem Witch Trials to see that. But there are other, older, and even stranger sightings of objects in the sky.

01 18 nürnberg 1561On April 14th, 1561, around dawn, in the town of Nuremberg, Germany, citizens saw the sky filled with many oddly shaped objects that moved about erratically. They saw two crescents come out of the sun. They saw spheres, rods, cylinders and blood red crosses which all seemed to fight with each other in the sky for about an hour. They then seemed to grow tired and fell to the ground where they: “wasted away on the earth with immense smoke” Then there was a black spear in the sky, pointing to the west. A week later a broadsheet was published describing the event along with a woodcut illustration by Hans Galser. It is a very confusing account. “Whatever such signs may mean,” it says “God alone knows.” It is impossible to imagine what it might have been that they were looking at, but there are several reports from around that time of strange things in the sky. Sometimes battling spheres, sometimes fighting knights. There was, at that time, a massive war going on between the Catholics and Protestants, so it is likely that conflict was uppermost in their minds when they were trying to interpret what they saw.

Here is an even older report from Cloera in Ireland from the year 956:

“There happened in the borough of Cloera, one Sunday, while the people were at Mass, a marvel. In this town is a church dedicated to St. Kinarus. It befell that an anchor was dropped from the sky, with a rope attached to it, and one of the flukes caught in the arch above the church door. The people rushed out of the church and saw in the sky a ship with men on board, floating before the anchor cable, and they saw a man leap overboard and jump down to the anchor, as if to release it. He looked as if he were swimming in water. The folk rushed up and tried to seize him; but the Bishop forbade the people to hold the man, for it might kill him, he said. The man was freed, and hurried up to the ship, where the crew cut the rope and the ship sailed out of sight. But the anchor is in the church, and has been there ever since, as a testimony.”

There do seem to be numerous reports of sky ships whose anchors become caught in part of a church, sometimes it is the altar rail. An almost identical account was reported by Gervase of Tilbury at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Only in his story, the man who swims down through the sky to release the anchor, drowns in our atmosphere as we would drown in water. His shipmates cut the anchor rope and sail away. The idea of sky ships, which are sailed by storm wizards, dates back even further, to at least the eighth century. They were supposed to sail about gathering up booty after a storm and take it back to their home in the sky. Maybe they are some remnant of the story of Odin’s Wild Hunt, that rode across the stormy sky. Maybe it is a story about the new religion foiling and suffocating the old. But that’s just a guess.

01 18 bosch temptaion of saint anthony detail


photo credit: Navy2004 licensed under creative commons

Today I want to tell you about a UFO. It’s a UFO because it was an object that was probably flying and we definitely don’t know what it was. This isn’t a picture of it. It’s a sort of model of it that was made for a television programme. On this day in 1965 a large fireball was seen in the skies, it was seen by thousands in at least six US states and also in Ontario, Canada. It reportedly dropped hot metal debris over parts of Michigan and northern Ohio, which started some grass fires. Sonic booms were heard in Pittsburgh. So the what-ever-it-was, was travelling faster than the speed of sound which is at least 768mph (1236 km/h), that’s pretty fast.

After discounting the possibilities of a plane crash, a missile test gone wrong or re-entering satellite debris, most people assumed it was a meteor. But inhabitants of the small village of Kecksburg, around thirty miles south east of Pittsburgh, reported that something had crashed in the woods.

There was a boy who reported seeing the object land. His mother had seen smoke rising from the woods and called the authorities. Firemen, who were the first to search the area, claimed to have seen a large object about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle and shaped like an acorn. They said it appeared to be made of copper and had peculiar writing around the base that reminded them of Egyptian hieroglyphs. The military arrived and searched the area and reported that they had found nothing. Yet some people were sure they had seen them take away a large object, covered by a tarpaulin, on a flatbed truck.

The fireball was reported by twenty-three aircraft pilots and some scientists tried to plot its path. But there is no conclusive evidence that the fireball was linked to the incident in the woods at Kecksburg. The official explanation was that it had been a mid-sized meteor. It seems that a Russian space probe had crashed that day in Canada, and it did look a bit like an acorn, but in had happened in some thirteen hours previously. NASA denied that the two incidents were related.

A local radio reporter called John Murphy went out to the site after receiving calls from alarmed citizens. He interviewed witnesses and took several photographs. All but one of his rolls of film were confiscated by the military. Over the following weeks he began to work his material up into a radio documentary called ‘Object in the Woods’. But shortly before the documentary was to be aired, he received a visit from two men who said they were government officials, they wanted to speak to him privately. The meeting lasted about thirty minutes and they confiscated some of his audio tapes. No one knows what became of his remaining photographs. A week later he aired a very much censored version of his documentary. He claimed that some of his interviewees had asked for their contributions to be removed because they were afraid of getting into trouble with the army and police. His programme did not mention the object at all. After that he became reticent and refused to talk about the incident. No one can ask him about it now, because he was killed in a hit and run driver in California in 1969.

In 2003, the Sci Fi Channel sponsored a scientific survey of the reported crash site. They found a line of trees that were damaged at the top, evidence supporting the theory that something had crashed through them. Furthermore, tree samples dated the damage to 1965. They also found some minor soil disturbance at the alleged crash site. It seems they also found a witness who reported hearing a couple of loud and horrific screams as the military approached the object on foot. There was a push for NASA to release documents relating to the incident.

In 2005, NASA changed their story. They had examined some fragments of metal from the object, and it was definitely the Russian space probe. Unfortunately, they had now lost all the documents relating to the Kecksburg incident. NASA hold quite a lot of information, and its not unheard of for them to lose things. They lost the original tapes of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and they were pretty important.

So maybe we’ll never find out what it was. But identified flying objects are less fun and there are some interesting theories out there. Perhaps it was a secret military test that went wrong. Perhaps in was an alien space craft. Perhaps it was the Russian space probe. It was the height of the Cold War and the American government would have loved to get their hands on it and keep it a secret. Having everyone really want it to be a flying saucer would have been a good cover up. Perhaps it was something like the fabled Nazi anti-gravity weapon ‘Die Glocke’ (The Bell) which supposedly did very horrible things to anyone who came within 200 metres of it. My favourite though, is that Nazi SS officer, Hans Kammler, used the object to travel through time, crash landed in Kecksburg and afterwards assimilated himself into post-war American society. In fact, no one knows where or when Kammler, who was in charge of the V-2 missile programme, died. He may have come to America and brought with him knowledge of the Nazi weapons programme. But if he did, he probably arrived by plane or ship just like anyone else.