Gregory L. Reece / Religion

UFO Religion: Flying Saucer Cults and Crashes

Gregory L. Reece.

UFO ReligionOne of the earliest written accounts of a sighting of an extraterrestrial craft appeared in the November 19, 1896 edition of the Stockton Evening Mail. The details of this report, along with other nineteenth-century newspaper reports of aerial craft, are wonderfully elaborated by Daniel Cohen in The Great Airship Mystery: A UFO of the 1890s (1981) and by Wallace O. Chariton in The Great Texas Airship Mystery (1991). On this occasion the Stockton Evening Mail reported that, while driving his buggy through the countryside near Stockton, California, Colonel H. G. Shaw claimed to have encountered what could only be described as a grounded spacecraft. One hundred and fifty feet in length and twenty-five feet in diameter, the vessel came to a sharp point on both ends. The only distinguishing feature on its smooth metallic surface was a large rudder. The vessel itself might not have been enough to indicate the extraterrestrial nature of the craft had it not been accompanied by three strange beings. Nearly seven feet tall and extremely thin, they approached Shaw while emitting what he described as a strange warbling noise. They examined Shaw’s horse and buggy and tried, unsuccessfully, to force Shaw to accompany them aboard their craft. Lacking the physical strength to force him along they rushed back aboard without their prey. Within moments the ship rose from the earth and sped away into the sky. Shaw expressed his opinion that the beings were from Mars. He further surmised that they may have been sent to California to abduct an earth dweller for some unknown purpose, perhaps diabolical. Could it be that their inability to overpower Shaw would be enough to discourage any more such attempts?

On April 17, 1897 the same airship made a startling appearance in the Dallas Morning News. According to S. E. Haydon, cotton merchant and part-time News correspondent, the airship had been spotted in the skies above Aurora, Texas at around six o’clock that morning. It was travelling north at a much lower altitude than was usual. Haydon reported:

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 toward 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. (Chariton, 1991: 198)

The only inhabitant of the crashed airship was deceased, his body very badly burned and disfigured. However, it was clear that the crewman was not from this world. A Mr. T. J. Weems, US Signal Service officer, expressed his conviction that Mars was his place of origin. There were papers found on his person, written in a type of hieroglyphics that no one was able to decipher. The craft itself was too damaged to be examined in any detail, though it was reported that it seemed to be a mixture of aluminium and silver and weighed several tons. Townspeople gathered to view the wreck and collect souvenirs of the strange metal. It was announced that a funeral for the pilot would be held on the following day.

Remarkably, this report appeared tucked away on page five of the newspaper. One would think that if the newspaper had meant this for more than entertainment it would have appeared under a banner headline on page one and have been carried in newspapers around the world. As it was, the Fort Worth Register appears to have been the only other newspaper to carry the story. Neither the News nor the Register bothered to send a reporter to Aurora, just a short distance north of Dallas and Fort Worth, to attend the spaceman’s funeral, supposedly scheduled for the next day. There were also no reports of the funeral in any local obituaries.

This story was mostly forgotten until Frank Tolbert, columnist for the Dallas Morning News, revived it in the mid-1960s after a reader sent him a copy of the original story. This was, of course, right in the middle of the UFO heyday and ufologists jumped on the idea that a saucer might have crashed in Texas in the late nineteenth century. Saucer investigators descended on the town, including a well-publicised 1973 team sponsored by the Mutual UFO Network. The 1973 version of the story turned out to gain far more publicity than the original story ever had. Investigators managed to unearth witnesses willing to testify that they remembered hearing about the saucer crash from loved ones who had seen it in person, and while second-person accounts may not sound all that spectacular, they were not the only things to be unearthed.

Within the confines of the Aurora Cemetery some of the investigators thought they might have located the grave of the extraterrestrial. An old grave with a crude sandstone marker was the focus of much attention. Upon the marker was a triangle with three small circles inside. While many people argued that the markings looked like nothing more than arbitrary features of the stone, others were convinced that they were meant to represent the airship that had crashed so many years before. To make the idea even more enticing, metal detectors found indications of metal within the gravesite. Investigators requested permission to exhume the body. Much to their disappointment, the request was denied (Chariton, 1991: 205–6).

Then, sometime between midnight and dawn on June 14, 1973 the spaceman’s tombstone was stolen from the Aurora cemetery. In addition, it was reported in the July 4, 1973 Dallas Times Herald that the robbers had used long metal probes to explore the grave, perhaps collecting metallic specimens or samples from the body. The whereabouts of the stone and the results of any analysis performed on the specimens remain unknown (Cohen, 1981: 103).

Surprisingly enough, the Aurora crash story was not the first of its kind. As far as I can tell that distinction goes to an 1884 story found in the Nebraska Nugget of Holdrege, Nebraska. According to this report, on June 6, 1884 rancher John Ellis and three of his herdsmen were involved in a round-up when they heard a loud noise from above. Looking up they saw a flaming object crash to the earth. Riding to the crash site, the men saw cog-wheels and other pieces of machinery on the ground. The machinery was red hot, scorching the ground wherever it lay. The article described the scene in this way:

The heat from this strange wreck was so intense that a cowboy named Williamson fell senseless from gazing at it at too close quarters. His face was blistered, and his hair singed to a crisp. His condition is said to be dangerous. . . . Finding it impossible to approach the mysterious visitor, the party turned back on its trail. When it first touched the earth the ground was sandy and bare of grass. The sand was fused to an unknown depth over a space of about 20 feet wide by 30 feet long, and the melted stuff was bubbling and hissing.

Once the objects cooled it did become possible to examine them more carefully:

One piece that looked like the blade of a propeller screw, of metal in appearance like brass, about 16 inches wide, 3 inches thick, and 3½ feet long, was picked up on a spade. It would not weigh more than five pounds, but appeared as strong and compact as any metal. A fragment of a wheel with a milled rim, apparently having a diameter of seven or eight feet, was also picked up. It seemed to be of the same material and had the same remarkable lightness. The aerolite, or whatever it is, seems to be about 50 or 60 feet long, cylindrical, and about 10 or 12 feet in diameter. (Cohen, 1981: 170)

There may have been other similar newspaper accounts, lost now to history. They, like the Aurora crash and the story from the Nugget should probably be regarded as newspaper hoaxes. What is important to see is that long before the UFO craze of the 1950s and 1960s, and long before the supposed 1947 crash at Roswell, crashed spaceships and deceased extraterrestrials were already a part of the burgeoning popular culture. Though neither of these crash stories necessarily had any direct influence on the more famous crash stories of the twentieth century – indeed it was the crash stories of the twentieth century that brought these nineteenth-century tales back from obscurity – they do provide a glimmer of things that were to come. ■

Image courtesy of Ravencrest Travel.

Books referred to:

Charlton, Wallace O. (1991) The Great Texas Airship Mystery (Plano, TX, Wordware Publishing)
Cohen, Daniel (1981) The Great Airship Mystery: A UFO of the 1980s (New York, Dodd, Mead and Co.)

Gregory L Reece is an independent Alabama-based writer and scholar with special interests in new religious movements and cult beliefs. His books include Elvis Religion, Weird Science, Creatures of the Night and UFO Religion, of which this is an extract.

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