Once upon a Time in The West

H. Michael Simmons
Magonia 20, August 1985
In 1896 and 1897 people throughout the United States reported sightings of mysterious airships. First sighted on the seventeenth of November 1896 in Sacramento, the phenomenon soon appeared in the skies over other California cities. An eastward migration then carried it into Nebraska where reports steadily increased until the first months of 1897. At the end of March a series of spectacular appearances in Omaha, Kansas and Ohio signaled the outbreak of the mystery in the Midwest.

Sightings spread rapidly. From Michigan to Texas the question of the day was “Have you seen the airship?

Press coverage of the sightings varied. Generally the yellow press found the airship stories perfect grist for its circulation mills and printed the majority of reports. More conservative papers treated the reports with caution. The New York Times totally ignored the airship. Papers in sighting areas gave the reports fairer coverage, on the whole, than those at a distance. These latter tended to disregard the sightings or commented on the drinking habits of the populations of airship states. The Texas papers made great fun of the Kansas airship but where more circumspect when the mysterious aerial voyager crossed over into the Lone Star State.

Early reports of airship sightings in a particular area usually received more serious coverage than later reports, due to two factors. The early reports were usually simple accounts of the appearance of strange lights in the night sky, while later reports often contained detailed descriptions of the airship and elaborate accounts of encounters with mysterious aeronauts. Second, when airship sightings were first reported, editors and readers were more open to the possibility that an inventor had perfected one or more flying machines which were being tested in secret.

As time went by and no inventor revealed a workable airship, press and public became more sceptical of the reported sightings. The press regarded elected public officials, clergymen and other eminent citizens as more reliable than railroadmen or labourers. Although newspapermen were not always able to judge the veracity of a sighting, they did uncover a number of hoaxes and often added editorial comments to published reports giving the paper’s opinion of the reliability of the accounts. This opinion was often based on the degree to which the description conformed to contemporary ideas of the potential design and performance capability of a flying machine.

The attitudes of competing newspapers towards reports helped determine a paper’s treatment. For example, William Randolph Hurst’s San Francisco Examiner discounted the stories of the airship carried by the competing Call, while Hurst’s New York Journal gave them the sensational coverage which the other New York papers lacked.In addition to the reportage of airship sightings, newspapers also published related stories. The public interest in the mysterious airship prompted the publication of informative articles on the history of aerial navigation, together with speculation on future developments.

Articles appeared on the experiments of Langley, Lilienthal, Chanute, and other pioneers of aviation, often illustrated with sketches of proposed airship designs. Merchants capitalised on the popularity of airship stories by using airship themes in their newspaper advertisements, or even by claiming that the airship had been built especially to advertise their products. Political cartoonists used the airship to poke fun at politicians, while other cartoonists mocked the airships and those who reported them. Newspapers carried interviews with professors of astronomy who explained that the airship was only Venus, Mars, or a star. They also interviewed attorneys who claimed to represent the secret inventors. And not a few reporters invented their own airship sightings, producing imaginative journalistic hoaxes with a high degree of credibility.

First reported in Texas on 9th April 1897, by the middle of the month the airship was sighted throughout the northeastern section of the state. Wealthy Dallasites held evening lawn parties in the hope of seeing the mysterious visitor, and the Dallas Morning Post did its part to keep the airship flying. On the nineteenth of April it printed the following article on a page filled with airship stories:

Aurora, Wise Co., Tex., April 17 — (To The News) — About 6 o’clock this morning the early risers of Aurora were astonished at the sudden appearance of the airship which has been sailing through the country.

It was travelling due north, and muchnearer the earth than ever before. Evidently some of the machinery was out of control, for it was making a speed of only ten or twelve miles an hour and gradually settling toward the earth. It sailed directly over the public square, and when it reached the north part of town collided with the tower of Judge Proctor’s windmill and went to pieces with a terrific explosion, scattering debris over several acres of ground, wrecking the windmill and tower and destroying the judge’s flower garden.The pilot of the ship is supposed to have been the only one on board, and while his remains are badly disfigured, enough of the original has been picked up to show that he was not an inhabitant of this world.

Mr T. J. Weeds, the United States signal service officer at this place and an authority on astronomy, gives it as his opinion that he was a native of the planet Mars.

Papers found on his person – evidently the record of his travels – are written in some unknown hieroglyphics, and can not be deciphered.

The ship was too badly wrecked to form any conclusion as to its construction or motive power. It was built of an unknown metal, resembling somewhat a mixture of aluminum and silver, and it must have weighed several tons.The town is full of people to-day who are viewing the wreck and gathering specimens of the strange metal from the debris. The pilot’s funeral will take place at noon to-morrow. S. E. HAYDON.
The story also reportedly appeared in the newsletter published in Aurora, but no copies of that publication are extant. No other newspaper carried the account or commented on it.In the context of other airship reports the Aurora story is unique only in that it records the recovery of papers “written in some unknown hieroglyphics” and announces the funeral of an extraterrestrial pilot. Other motifs in the story (e.g., crash or explosion of airship, recovery of pilot’s body, recovery of airship parts, and occupants of airship supposed to be from Mars) occur in various reports published before the Aurora incident. For example, on the thirteenth of April the Cleveland World printed the following dispatch:

Mass of wire, bones and a piece of a propellor were found on earth. Galesburgh, Mich., April 13.

Henry Sommers and a friend report that they witnessed last night what appeared to be the explosion of the airship. It was accompanied by a heavy report as if thunder and the scattering of light. Immediately thereafter the machine, which had been visible in the heavens, disappeared from view.

This morning near the scene of the alleged explosion were found a mass of wire that appeared to have been connected with electrical machines and a piece of light propellor wheel that must, when intact, have measured 12 feet in diameter. Carpenters employed on a new house say they found small pieces of bone scattered on the roof. [April 13, 1897]
Variants of this account appeared in a number of other papers, including the Dallas Morning News.

In 1966 Frank Masquelette, a staff writer for the Houston Post considered the incident at Aurora sufficiently unusual to merit inclusion in a series of articles he wrote on the Great Airship Mystery of 1897. His articles discussed the possibility that the airship sightings had been a nineteenth-century UFO flap, a theory with which ufologists were already familiar. He reprinted the story in its original form and attempted to verify it through the editor of the Wise County Messenger, who made enquiries in Aurora.

He discovered only that a Judge Proctor had lived in the area. Since none of the other residents questioned recognised any other parts of the story, Masquelette concluded that the story was “pure fiction”. But his article had put Aurora back on the map.

Aurora is located in southeastern Wise County about 30 miles north of Forth Worth. It was established in 1873 and rapidly became a major centre of cotton production and trade and the largest town in the county. By 1891 it claimed two hotels, two schools, two churches, two cotton gins, a drugstore, a livery stable and a newspaper. In addition it boasted fourteen saloons, three doctors, two lawyers, an undertaker and a brass band. But when the railroads bypassed the town its days were numbered. An epidemic of spotted fever killed or disabled many of its citizens, and fear of the disease started an exodus which was accelerated by other disasters. A fire destroyed the western half of the town and the boll-weevil destroyed the cotton industry. By the end of the century most of the houses and all of the businesses had been placed on skids and moved to the nearby railroad towns. In 1906 with the removal of the post office to Rhome, Aurora became a memory.

In 1966 and 1967 ufologists and reporters flocked to the town to look for the evidence which Masquelette has concluded was non-existent. Investigators located the site of Judge Proctor’s house and well, and questioned residents about the crash of the airship. When no witnesses were found and metal detectors failed to locate any pieces of the airship, investigators associated with Flying Saucer Review pronounced the story a hoax. Aurora’s new found fame rapidly faded away.

In the course of the 1966 investigation, Etta Pegues, a local writer and member of the Wise County Historical Society, be-came interested in Aurora. She wrote a number of articles on the history of the town which were published in local news-papers between 1966 and 1972. In her articles she declared the 1897 article a hoax on the basis of interviews with two former residents of the town who had known Judge Proctor and S. E. Haydon. According to these men, Haydon, the author of the airship story, who was a cotton buyer and newspaper correspondent, had hoped that the hoax would bring some life to the failing town. He was remembered as the writer of satirical verses enjoyed by local residents.

One of the men interviewed could still recite from memory one of Haydon’s long poems. Judge J. S. Proctor had served as Justice of the Peace for Precinct Five of Wise County from 1892 to 1902 and had edited a newsletter at Aurora after the local newspaper had ceased publication. As additional proof of the fictional nature of Haydon’s account, Pegues asserted that Judge Proctor had no windmill and that every grave in the Aurora Cemetery was located on a map with complete records for each burial. There were no Martians listed.

A retired railroad telegrapher in Dallas had told
Tolbert that railroad telegraphers in Iowa had
planned the hoax and that rail-roaders
throughout the country had joined in the fun

At the same time that Etta Pegues’ articles were appearing, Frank X. Tolbert, Texas history writer for the Dallas Morning News received an enquiry about the Aurora incident. He answered with a series of articles suggesting that the entire 1897 airship mystery had been a hoax. Some years before a retired railroad telegrapher in Dallas had told Tolbert that railroad telegraphers in Iowa had planned the hoax and that rail-roaders throughout the country had joined in the fun. Communicating by telegraph, the railroadmen were able to produce realistic accounts of the phantom airship’s movements a cross the country. Tolbert proposed that the Great Airship Mystery be renamed the 'Great Truthful Scully Hoax', after Joseph E. ‘Truthful’ Scully, a Forth Worth freight conductor for the Texas and Pacific Railroad who was chosen to introduce the hoax into Texas because of his reputation for honesty. Tolbert explained sightings not connected with the railroad as mass hallucinations or independent hoaxes inspired by the railmens’ creations.

Having settled the question of the Aurora airship, the reporters turned to other matters, and the people of Aurora considered the future. Reincorporated in 1972, the town now consisted of an Arco filling station, a Baptist church, and the Aurora cemetery. The town planned to enter a new era of prosperity as a suburb of the sprawling Dallas-Forth Worth conurbation. After the opening of the nearby Dallas-Forth Worth International Airport, the population of Aurora increased to almost three hundred, and land prices soared. But in the spring of 1973 history caught up with Aurora again.

In March Hayden Hewes, director of the International UFO Bureau of Oklahoma City, arrived in town armed with S. E. Haydon’s story and accompanied by a team of investigators. Bill Case, aviation writer for the Dallas Times Herald and a member of the Midwest UFO Network, decided to cover the investigation. On the 25th of March, Case reported that IUFOB had located the crash site and were interviewing residents about the crash. He also printed a paraphrase of Haydon’s 1897 account which contained errors in date and time as well as interpolations from other 1897 accounts, including descriptions of the shape and colour of the craft.

By the first of April the wire services had picked up the story, and although the IUFOB investigators had no more success than their predecessors, hundreds of sightseers converged on the little town. Souvenir hunters stole twenty headstones from the cemetary. Day and night reporters and investigators bothered everybody in the little community. In the spring of 1897 the question of the day had been “Have you seen the airship?” Seventy six years later that question had become “Do you believe in the spaceship?”

In May a man describing himself as a professional treasure hunter located unusual metallic fragments buried near the alleged crash site. He claimed that his metal detector gave the same readings at a grave in the Aurora Cemetery as it did at the crash site. The investigators sent the fragments to metallurgists for analysis. In the meantime Haydon’s story, or rather Bill Case’s reduction thereof, was reprinted almost every week in area newspapers in the hope that a witness might come forward. In late May a local man who had previously refused all interviews volunteered that his father had seen the crash and told him the story many times. He had been five years old at the time and remembered going with his father to the crash site. His account of what happened agreed in most details with Case’s version of the 1897 story – including errors and interpolations. His account differed in that he did not remember his father saying that there had been anyone killed in the crash.

When his plan was discovered angry townspeople
posted armed guards at the cemetery to
prevent the desecration of the grave

Hewes, having concluded that he had sufficient evidence to warrant the opening of what he believed was the grave of an extraterrestrial being, arrived in Aurora one Sunday morning prepared to dig. When his plan was discovered angry townspeople posted armed guards at the cemetery to prevent the desecration of the grave. Later the Cemetery Association was able to prove that the grave belonged to the Carr family. Ostracized by the community and by other UFO investigators because of his rash actions, Hewes soon withdrew his support from the investigation and announced that the story was a hoax.

MUFON continued the investigation dropped by the IUFOB and soon discovered a strange circular grave marked with a rough stone bearing a crude design which appeared to be the outline of a cigar-shaped craft with portholes. Two nonagenarian former residents of Aurora who wished to remain anonymous had reportedly led researchers to the grave under the limb of a gnarled oak tree near the edge of the cemetery. Two additional witnesses then told their stories to the press.

But in Aurora a transformation took place that was not covered by the press. The small community divided in two factions: those who believed in the possibility that Haydon’s story might have been true at least in part, and those who totally rejected it. As the split widened between the two groups rumours developed and spread unaided by the media: Brawley Oates supports the spaceman story for the money; his arthritis was caused by drinking water from the well which was contaminated by radiation from the crash; the mysterious grave is that of a victim of the spotted fever epidemic and the germs are still alive in it; space-man are watching the grave and will remove the evidence before it can be dug up; Bill Case invented the whole story including the testimony of the witnesses. While these and other rumours spread, the investigation continued.

A woman of ninety-one recalled that her parents had told her the story of the crash and the burial of the pilot, whom they had described as a small man. She claimed that she had forgotten the incident until she had read the recent stories about it in the newspapers. A ninety-eight year old man from a nearby town told of hearing of the crash from two friends who had seen the debris from the explosion. Flowers began to appear daily at the mysterious grave.

Brawley Oates, the owner of the land identified as the crash site began to receive mysterious telephone calls from people identifying themselves as members of the U.S. Army or the CIA and who were curious about metal fragments and the grave. An Italian journalist sent to cover the story said that in June 1973 Aurora was a bigger story in Europe than Watergate.

When the analysis of the metal fragments revealed that it was an aluminium alloy which could not have been manufactured in the US before 1920, MUFON announced that the extraterrestrial origin of the metal had been proved and asked permission to open the circular grave. The Cemetery Association on the other hand saw the metallurgical findings as proof that the fragments had been planted, and blocked the exhumation request in the District Court. In July a MUFON investigator stated that person or persons unknown had probed the grave and removed the metal. In August MUFON suspended the investigation without reaching a conclusion, and Bill Case privately admitted that the story was probably a hoax.

In 1974 a state historical marker which gives a brief account of the legend was erected at the gate of Aurora Cemetery.