In the December 2019 issue of El Ojo Crítico, a Spanish-language magazine investigating the unexplained, Chris Aubeck has an article looking into the Taylorville UFO encounter of 1873, one of the sightings that he had alluded to in his December interview with Thomas Brisson Jørgensen that I wasn’t able to immediately identify at the time. The story is amusing, but as I thought when I read Aubeck’s description, it scarcely seemed credible. The December issue of El Ojo Crítico was recently posted online. Now, after seeing Aubeck’s much lengthier and more detailed take on the story, excerpted from a forthcoming book, I am even more confident that it just another hoax article, like so many of its era.
Since Aubeck’s article is available only in Spanish, I will summarize his findings. First, though, let’s take a look at the original report of the sighting, as historian William Taylor presented it in a letter to the New York Herald. His letter was published on April 8, 1873 on p. 7:
VERY LIKE A WHALE.
Taylor certainly had his doubts, and neither he nor the newspaper seem to have take seriously the account of a man getting out of a meteor and entering a horseless carriage. Indeed, the Herald titled the letter “Very Like a Whale,” a Shakespearian reference to Polonius’s response to Hamlet’s feigned madness, which in the nineteenth century was a figurative way of saying the story was cuckoo bananas.
Anyway, Aubeck traveled to Ohio to visit the site of the alleged sighting and to confirm the existence of the various characters in it. Short version: The place is real and so were the people. “The letter describes one of the most fascinating ‘close encounters’ in history,” he writes in Spanish. “It has everything, even witnesses who can be identified and a real place.”
Aubeck attempts to analyze the imagery in the story, but I think he overinterprets it a bit. First, he claims that the “blazing object” was a ship that could be compared to those in science fiction novels of the era. To be excruciatingly literal, the original article doesn’t say it was a ship, and one might interpret it as a meteor as well, since in that era many fancifully claimed that various objects or even inscriptions had fallen to Earth inside of meteors. He then investigates how common references to horseless carriages would have been in 1873, though again the idea of a supernatural conveyance need not necessarily require familiarity with automobiles. The infamous “Twelve O’Clock Coach” of Leith, for example, was supposedly a supernatural carriage driven by a headless man and headless horses that appeared at midnight. One with no horses is not much of a stretch. That said, Aubeck documents in perhaps over-lengthy detail the discussions of automobiles and horseless carriages in the newspapers of the 1860s and 1870s, including in the weeks before the supposed sighting, demonstrating that they were familiar enough to serve as a model for a suitably bizarre conveyance.
The meat of Aubeck’s research, however, never required him to leave home:
… the real alarm goes off when considering that the letter appeared on April 8. “A week ago” would correspond to April 1, the Day of the Innocents [April Fool’s Day] in the Anglo-Saxon world and France. Any news published on or around this date should be considered suspicious. […] When the postal service was much slower than today, letters sent on April 1 arrived the following week, and would be published one or two days later. (my trans.)
Just for clarification: April Fool’s Day is celebrated, as the name implies, in April in the Anglophone world, but in Spanish-speaking countries, the Day of the Innocents, celebrated on December 28 to mark Herod’s massacre of the young boys of Bethlehem, features a similar festival of pranking and jokes.
There is a slight problem in that Taylor’s letter was dated April 5, meaning that his “week ago” corresponded to March 30, but that is probably why Taylor actually said “about a week ago.” It is not entirely clear why Aubeck concludes that a letter sent on April 5 and published on April 8 took a week to arrive. Aubeck concludes that the letter from Taylor was a hoax and that the staff of the Herald published it as an amusement, though they did not create it themselves.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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