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THE 'UFO' AIRSHIPS OF 1896 - 1897

by Steven A. Arts.  [September 26, 2004]


 

[WeeklyUniverse.com]  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 culture.

In American 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 Alpha Orionis.


Eyewitness sketch of the 
November 17, 1896 
Sacramento airship.

The first 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.

The Silver 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.

Nevertheless, 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.

The airship 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 supposedly said.

From late 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.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported:

 

"Are you 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.' "


This 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 salesmen.

Another response, as in an article from the Sacramento Union of November 20, was nonsense humor:
 

"The man 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.' "


The Sacramento 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.

By November 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 client.

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.

According 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.

Hart seems 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.)

Hart appears 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.
 

 

December 1896 saw some sightings in the far west that eventually petered out. Some airships were sighted in Washington state in early 1897. 

The majority 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.

Hundreds of airships were sighted in April. We will note some of the better-known and more interesting ones.

The April 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.

Once in the hole, the man reportedly entered the airship. It seemed neat and clean, despite the violent crash. 

That same issue of the Bee reported other airship crashes and captures in surrounding Greene County communities, such as Churdan. Various alien creatures were described.

During 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.

Hopkins 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.

The aliens 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.

 

 

One of 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.

The craft 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 local cemetery. 

This incident 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 never found.

But perhaps 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.

Hamilton's 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.

Hamilton 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 field.

An affidavit, signed by eleven men -- including the postmaster, sheriff, and justice of the peace -- testified to Hamilton's truthfulness.

Modern-day researchers later found evidence that Hamilton belonged to a Liar's Club and invented the whole story.

Yet we 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.
 

Steven A. Arts is the author of Mystery Airships in the Sky. He can be reached at: Photojournalism2001@yahoo.com.

 

 

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