THE 'UFO' AIRSHIPS OF 1896
by Steven A. Arts. [September
Most people regard UFOs as a fairly recent phenomenon, yet mysterious objects
have appeared in the heavens above for thousands of years. Nor have
bright lights and objects in the sky been confined to one time period or
skies from 1896 to 1897, thousands of people saw what they called "airships."
Many were accused of drinking too much. Airships were variously thought
to be kites, balloons, the planet Venus, the star Sirius, hoaxes, fakes,
or ships from an abandoned civilization on Mars, as well as from the star
sketch of the
airship was spotted, officially, over Sacramento, CA, on the evening
of November 17, 1896. But on November 23, the Silver State newspaper of Nevada claimed that an airship was seen on November 15th,
over Winnemucca, Nevada.
State report of this "first" airship sighting is a bit of humorous
repartee. A man named Friday saw the airship, thinking that it was
"Tommy, Patty, and Joe," obviously some local worthies. The airship
itself was described as bedecked by a Chinese Masonic flag.
the Sacramento report begins an important and busy airship era, setting
the stage for modern UFO and flying saucer stories. Although there
are similarities between the 1890s and modern reports (in both eras, sightings
were debunked as balloons, kites, etc.), there are also differences, such
as the manner in which 1890s airships were reported.
This was the
era of yellow journalism, after all, when most anything was printed and
the truth was at a premium.
over California was seen by several people, including Charles Lusk, a cashier
at the Central Electrical Street Railway Company of Sacramento. Some
men claimed to have heard people on the airship speaking. "Well,
we ought to get to San Francisco by tomorrow noon," the airship passengers
November to early December 1896, the Sacramento Bee and Union and the San Francisco Call ran many accounts of airship sightings. The Sacramento airship was reportedly flying in a southwesterly direction,
toward San Francisco. Yet San Francisco newspapers were leery of
the airship stories coming from the state capital city.
Francisco Chronicle reported:
there up in the sky four jolly and intrepid human travelers, paying their
respects to Mars, singing quartets to Venus, and saluting the planets generally
within hailing distance, or are the people of Sacramento affected with
the disease known in polite society as 'Illuminated staggers.' "
attitude was widespread in 1980s journalistic circles, that is, equating
airship sightings with drunkenness. Back then, reporters had many
imaginative ways of calling someone a drunkard. One common reference
was to the "Keeley cure," a quack medical remedy usually pushed by traveling
response, as in an article from the Sacramento Union of November
20, was nonsense humor:
is alleged to have heard the chorus while the machine was doing the 'Corbett
duck,' has put his remembering tank to work, and recalls that one line
was 'Just Tell Them That You Saw Me,' and he now goes about mournfully
whistling, 'It Never Came Back.' Another who heard the music declares
the words to have been 'Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone,' and the refrain
was, 'I Gave That Man a Fill.' "
Bee of November 19 reported an alleged investigation of the airships
by a Grand Jury. On the same day, in another article, a subtitle
declared: All Men Liars? Looks That Way.
23, 1896, newspapers all over California were reporting an airship sighting
in San Francisco. Reports of airship sightings were mixed in with
articles about lawyer George Collins and his supposed human airship inventor
The San Francisco Bee reported that some people thought
the airship was either a balloon, meteor, or Venus. The airship was
said to have hovered over Cliff House. A Dr. Benjamin was put forward
as the airship's inventor.
to articles, William Henry Harrison Hart, one-time attorney general for
California, discussed the alleged airship inventor (who supposedly lived
in Oroville, California) with George Collins. Here, we are conjecturing,
because Collins became tired of newspaper reporters asking him questions
about the airship.
to have liked the airship idea. From several articles, it appears
that Hart wanted to sell the airship to Cuban rebels, who were waging a
guerilla war against Spanish troops. (This wasn't very long before
the Spanish-American War.)
to be pro-rebel, yet still interested in profit. The airship's price
kept rising. He is what we today would call an arms merchant and
a provocateur. He helped generate war hysteria which may account
for many airship sightings of the time.
1896 saw some sightings in the far west that eventually petered out. Some airships were sighted in Washington state in early 1897.
of airship sightings from February to June 1897 were in a wide area stretching
from Texas up into the western Midwest area, and across the Mississippi
River. Sightings occurred in Oklahoma, Indian Territory, Kansas,
Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota, most of
them in April 1897.
of airships were sighted in April. We will note some of the better-known
and more interesting ones.
15, 1897 issue of the Jefferson Bee (of Iowa) reported that an airship
had crashed on the north edge of town in a farmer's field. Most of
the Jefferson's residents gathered around the gaping smoking hole. The next day, a man was lowered into the hole via a rope, along with a Volapak dictionary. Like Esperanto, Volapak is an artificial language.
the hole, the man reportedly entered the airship. It seemed neat
and clean, despite the violent crash.
issue of the Bee reported other airship crashes and captures in
surrounding Greene County communities, such as Churdan. Various alien
creatures were described.
this same month, in Missouri, on a lonely road near Springfield, a traveling
salesman named William Hopkins was driving his wagon when he suddenly saw
an airship on the ground -- and two nude aliens! Hopkins lovingly
described the nude female alien, saying she was "dressed in nature's garb." He described the male as a super-Grecian Adonis.
later wrote a letter to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, wherein he
mentions having kissed both of the alien's hands. Apparently, the
three tried to communicate with one another. According to Hopkins,
they were partially successful.
took Hopkins into their craft. From his description, it wasn't too
19th century. If one didn't know they were reading from a Victorian-era
newspaper, one may consider the report a modern one. After a fairly
thorough look-over, the aliens started the airship, and it began to rise.
Hopkins panicked and jumped off before it got far off of the ground.
the two best known airship incidents of this period was in Aurora, Texas. Around April 17, an airship reportedly came flaming out of the skies and
crashed. S.E. Hughes sold an article about the airship crash to the Dallas
Morning News. Some scholars say he was a town promoter trying
to bring the railroad to Aurora.
was reportedly 300 feet by 50 feet. T.J. Weems, allegedly of the
U.S. Signal Corps, said the pilot was a Martian! Hieroglyphic-like
symbols were found, and the dead Martian given a Christian burial in the
was rediscovered in the early 1970's, whereupon it was found that T.J.
Weems did not exist, although there was a local blacksmith at that time
named Jeff Weems. This rediscovery led to renewed interest by modern
airship and UFO researchers. Nevertheless, the Martian's body was
the most famous airship incident of the era occurred in late April 1897,
near LeRoy, Kansas, involving a farmer named Alexander Hamilton, his son
Wallace and a hired hand named Heslip.
dog began barking one night, whereupon the three men investigated -- and
saw an airship 300 feet long, with a carriage beneath it. The occupants
were described as two men, a woman, and three children, all strange-looking. A rope descended from the hovering craft, latched onto a calf, which was
bawling and jumping. Then the airship flew off with the calf.
got on a horse and searched for the calf. Lank Thomas, some four
miles away, was said to have found the calf's hide, legs, and head in his
signed by eleven men -- including the postmaster, sheriff, and justice
of the peace -- testified to Hamilton's truthfulness.
researchers later found evidence that Hamilton belonged to a Liar's Club
and invented the whole story.
should not consider every airship sighting of that era to be a hoax. Too many people saw too many airships in too many places for them all to
have been hallucinating. People would not have risked so much ridicule,
especially in an era that didn't have many constraints in that direction.
Copyright 2004 by Steven A. Arts.
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