The Great Airship Mystery of 1896 - 1897
In Bound By Chaos, Helena references having been to an alien graveyard. This graveyard is quite real, and I've been there. I was on my way to Cleburne, TX in the early '00s and passed a highway sign that read "ALIEN GRAVEYARD ➡️" I later learned about the 1897 Aurora Incident.
But the Aurora Incident is only a small part of a bigger story.. From late 1896 until mid-1897, the central and western United States were gripped by a rash of airship sitings. Thousands of people reported having seen an airship. Some even reported having spoken to the "aerial navigators," who were all human. (The Aurora Incident is an outlier in that the sole occupant was described as "not of this world.")
Despite the extraordinary scope of this period, very little has ever been written about it. You ready for a weird story? Sit back, because this gets strange.
A few of the airship reports that made the front page news across the country:
The tone of these witness reports is marvel and excitement. Nobody thought it was magic or invading Martians. (The concept of invading Martians being hostile would not become a thing until 1898's War of the Worlds, prior to that the assumption was Martians would be benevolant) Everyone assumed it was an inventor who had mastered mechanical flight. Hooray!
A gentleman who was an ex Attorney General came forward, claiming to represent the inventor of the airship. He explained that the inventor was test-flying the ships (there were at least 3) and no formal announcement had been made yet due to the patents not having been filed. In later accounts from around Texas in 1897, witnesses claiming to have spoken to the pilots also mentioned patent concerns. Oh, and that they planned to use the airship to drop dynamite on Cuba. 🤨
The California sightings settled down after December-ish, 1896, then ramped up in massive numbers in the central United States during April, 1897. This is when things get a bit strange. The airship had a series of sightings here:
April 17th, 12AM: Childress, TX,
April 19th, 12AM: Atlanta, TX,
April 20th, ~9PM: Longview, TX
April 20th, ~10:30PM: Groesbeeck, TX.
April 20th, 11:30PM: Belton, TX
Atlanta is about 380 miles east of Childress. But Longview, Groesbeeck, and Belton are all on the same southwesterly track. Basically, if you start in Atlanta, and drive due southwest to Belton, you will pass near/through Longview and Groesbeeck.
These were, and still are, remote parts of Texas. And this was in an era when the only fast method of communication was telegrams, which you had to pay for by the word or character. If it was a hoax, it was supremely well coordinated and funded.
The description of the ship are all very similar: a cigar-shaped craft approximately 100ft in length, with a "fish-like tail", 4 wings, lights in red and green around it, and a single bright searchlight. Some reports claim the wings moved, while many reported balloon-like tanks. Several reports from witnesses who spoke with the occupants report that the ship used water for ballast, which periodically needed to be refilled. According to the Sacramento reporting, the ship had been built around Oakland, but according to Houston reporting later in 1897, the ships had been built in Iowa.
There were a number of accounts in Texas of people meeting with the pilots. At least two accounts given within 24 hours of each other where one gentleman on board gave his name as "Wilson."
The airship craze was such that there were even political and editorial cartoons lampooning the reports.
Of course, there were some hilarious cases of mistaken identity, such as on the evening of April 24th, 1897, a gentleman who was just out stargazing around 2AM reported seeing very bright lights in yonder pasture. He went to investigate, and discovered his neighbor had a very large cotton gin set up and strung with lights.
There was also a report that the ship had an anchor, which was cut upon the locals discovering it, and the anchor was on display at the local blacksmith. I was not able to find any further reports of this anchor.
The April 15th 1897 edition of the Waterbury Evening Democrat (yes, Waterbury, CT) reported that a message had been dropped from the airship near Chicago, claiming the ship's name was "Pegasus."
Regardless, sometime around May, reports started to come in that the airship(s) had been destroyed and wreckage found, but these were mere mentions buried in with reports of hostile cows attacking children, buggy wrecks, and advertisements for patent medicines to cure all of a lady's particular ills.
Unfortunately, while the patent records from 1790 until 1976 have been digitized, they aren't searchable, so I wasn't able to confirm if a patent had ever been filed for anything like this. The name of the inventor who kept his work quiet until his patents were established was never released, and no family ever came forward to make statements.
So... was there an airship? Was it destroyed and "disappeared," by say, the railroad tycoons of the day and everyone shushed up or silenced? Was it mass delusion? Was it, as some have argued, people confusing an exceptionally luminous Venus and Jupiter with an airship searchlight? Was it an incredibly well orchestrated and funded hoax? Was it a bunch of people looking for their 5 minutes of fame?