Flashback Friday: “A Celestial Visitor” Revisited: A Nebraska Newspaper Hoax From 1884 - Patricia C. Gaster
One of the oddest events in Nebraska’s history was said to have taken place about thirty-five miles northwest of Benkelman in SW Nebraska on June 6, 1884, when a “blazing aerolite” crashed almost within view of a group of Dundy County cowboys, who found metal machinery scattered over the prairie in the wake of the mysterious object. Intense heat at the crash site prevented them from investigating much further. The Daily Nebraska State Journal’s reports of the singular event (and of the following disappearance of crash debris) have been the source of much interest and controversy ever since.
The June 8 report in the State Journal is as riveting today as it was in 1884. Headlines announced: “A Celestial Visitor. A Startling and Curious Story from the Ranges of Dundy County. A Blazing Aerolite Falls to the Astounded Earth. It is Evidently a Machine of Human Manufacture.” On June 6 rancher John Ellis and several of his cowboys were said to have witnessed the impact of “a blazing meteor of immense size,” leaving “fragments of cog-wheels and other pieces of machinery lying on the ground,” with heat so intense they could not approach the crash site. After returning the next day they discovered the remains of an object “about fifty or sixty feet long, cylindrical, and about ten or twelve feet in diameter.”
The article was filled with names and details. A cowboy named Alf Williamson had supposedly had his face blistered and his hair singed by the heat. Williamson was taken to Ellis’s house to recuperate, and a telegram sent to Williamson’s brother in Denver. Brand inspector E. W. Rawlins, “from whom full verification of particulars is obtained,” and others were said to have visited the crash site on June 7. Ellis supposedly intended to file a claim to the land on which the remains of the mystery object rested. The Journal’s “Topics of the Times” column speculated that the “air vessel” might be from another planet “[u]nless the alleged facts are greatly magnified or distorted.” The details “are given with a fullness and particularity that almost command belief” and reflected “the intelligence of the writer, who is a man that generally knows what he is talking about.”
This strange story was succeeded on June 10 by one still more bizarre in which the Journal announced that the aerolite had completely dissolved in a rainstorm: “The Magical Meteor. It Dissolves Like a Drop of Dew Before the Morning Sun. The Most Mysterious Element of the Strange Phenomenon.” The remnants of the mystery vessel had supposedly melted with the rain into “small jelly-like pools,” which soon disappeared. The article said ingenuously, “The whole affair is bewildering to the highest degree, and will no doubt forever be a mystery.”
The skeptical might have noted that the June 10 report seemed suspiciously eager to discourage visitors to the crash site by assuring them that all trace of the strange vessel had disappeared. The Journal on June 11 tried to dismiss the subject in “Topics of the Times” by turning it into a political joke, speculating that the celestial visitor had actually been a Democratic presidential candidate because of its disappearance upon contact with water. The Democrats, opposed to prohibition and its promotion of water as a beverage, in the presidential election year of 1884 held their national convention in July, selecting Grover Cleveland as their nominee.
Predating by a dozen years the wave of airship sightings across America in 1896 and 1897, this odd tale from the yellowing pages of old newspapers has been given new life by today’s microfilmed periodicals and the Internet. Although widely regarded as a practical joke, it is considered by some UFO enthusiasts to be evidence of early extraterrestrial visitors to the plains of Nebraska. It’s been linked with another early “crash” story, which supposedly occurred in April 1897, when a mystery airship collided with a windmill in Aurora, Texas, leaving the body of a Martian in the wreckage.
Modern searches have attempted to locate the Dundy County crash site and whatever remains of the craft that may have survived its mysterious meltdown. Even 40 years later, the story refused to fade away. The later discovery of chunks of a greenish, glass-like substance with white inclusions (described by one account as “lime jello with cottage cheese”) in the McCook area fueled more speculation that these objects may be connected with the 1884 event.
But the story turned out to be completely false.
The Nebraska State Journal in 1927 exposed the two 1884 stories as a hoax, created in the fertile brain of James D. Calhoun, then managing editor. Calhoun’s former assistant, Horace W. Hebbard, recalled the event (and its unintended consequences) for the Journal’s 60th-anniversary edition of July 24, 1927. Hebbard, who had been associated with the Journal since 1879 and later served in his mentor’s old job as managing editor, said:
“The story was written by J. D. Calhoun, managing editor, and among those who read it was Charles W. Fleming, an employee of the business office of the Journal. Mr. Fleming saw visions of a fortune if he could obtain this meteor or whatever it was and exhibit it for a fee to the curious throughout the country. Accordingly, he took the train for Benkelman the morning the story appeared bent on obtaining possession of the wonder and bringing it home with him. He was disillusioned when he arrived at Benkelman and found no one who had heard anything about the thing.”
Newspaper hoaxes have probably been around as long as there have been newspapers, but their popularity peaked during the late nineteenth century. Journalists sought to entertain as well as inform their readers—and fill space—with stories that were wildly exaggerated and sometimes complete fabrications. Columnists and editorial writers who could supply colorful copy that attracted readers were in demand and their writings were widely reprinted.
The entire essay appears in the Summer 2013 issue.