I decided that there isn’t enough original content in the “new” Ancient Aliens: Ultimate Evidence reedits of earlier episodes to make it worth my time to re-review them, so I will forgo discussing the remainder of them unless there is something particularly astonishing that needs to be discussed. Instead, I’d like to talk about alien abduction, and before I do so I need to offer a word of disclosure: I am about to discuss a piece written by Theo Paijmans, with whom I have exchanged some collegial emails. My disagreement with his May 21 Mysterious Universe article on the African American contribution to alien abductions is, as is usual with my analyses, due to my disagreement with the premise of his piece and its evidence.
In his piece, Paijmans, who is Dutch, argues that the African American folk figures known as the Night Doctors, who were said to have abducted and experimented on Southern blacks in late Victorian times, contributed to alien abduction lore and stand behind African American abductee Barney Hill’s fear of black-clad humanoids who experimented on him during his alleged 1961 abduction.
I find this hard to believe for a number of reasons, but I’d like to start with the Night Doctors.
Unlike many folklore creatures, the Night Doctors were not entirely fictional. They emerged from real life events, of which Paijmans relates only part. The story begins with the great cadaver scandals of the early 1800s, in which the public became aware that medical schools were paying grave robbers to procure corpses for dissection. This scandal manifested in fears of grave robbing among people of all races and social classes, people who were already terrified of premature burial, a particular fixation at the time. The scandal reached to the highest levels of power, and even John Scott Harrison, son of Pres. William Henry Harrison and father of future Pres. Benjamin Harrison, had been removed from his tomb and taken to Ohio Medical College for dissection in 1878. After the popularization of photography, it was not uncommon for medical students to pose with the corpses, sometimes in “humorous” tableaux.
Intermittent crackdowns on grave robbing left a glaring exception: African Americans, who were institutionally discriminated against, saw the corpses of their loved ones become fodder for the “resurrection men.” As one 1824 advertisement for a North Carolina medical school put it: “Subjects [are] being obtained from the colored population in sufficient numbers for every purpose, and proper dissection carried out without offending any individuals in the community.” By “individuals,” they of course meant “white people.”
But more than this, in a part of the story underreported until recently, white doctors, mostly in the South, also made extensive use of living Black people for grisly medical experiments to pioneer new surgical techniques, resulting in grotesque vivisections and other horrors. Dr. Thomas Hamilton of Georgia, for example, conducted sadistic fire experiments on a slave he obtained as recompense for medical services. Both facets of the story are reflected in the Night Doctors tales, which persisted into the twentieth century, in parallel with ongoing discrimination and impoverishment of African Americans—an ongoing experimentation.
But Paijmans conflates the legendary version of real facts with a different type of supernatural folklore that passed under a similar name, and projects the whole thing back to what he implies is a survival of African animist religion. That second myth is that of the night-doctor who kills babies. He attributes the following words to “one African American” from 1887, though they are actually the words of the International Cyclopaedia’s article on superstition, which I will give in full to better emphasize the parts Paijmans omitted with ellipses, namely the local character of the belief, which he wants us to universalize among African Americans:
Among the negroes of Washington there exists a superstition, that oftentimes, at midnight, there rushes through the streets a supernatural being formed like a man, having long, hook-like fingers and a poisonous breath. Whenever he turns and breathes upon a house where a child lies sick, the child is doomed to death before another night. The night-doctor, as he is called, is only ominous when seen not heard. It is a common thing for the negroes to get together and inquire of each other who has heard him, and some one is sure to assert that he or she heard the low, moaning, rushing sound, as he passed during his flight. Sometimes, at midnight, negroes who are in the street will suddenly stop, turn their faces to the wall, and stand with their hands over their eyes, as they fancy they have heard him pass, and, if they turn, he will blow his murderous breath upon them.
I hope you will recognize that this is not the same as the Night Doctors but is instead a child-killing demon, a personification of infant mortality and SIDS. This is not unique to African American culture by any means, and such stories—often said to be witches, and usually female—are common in folklore. The Greeks had a death-dealing demon of childbirth, for example, and the particular fellow described above has a close parallel in Mesopotamian male lilu child-killing demons. They are so common that they have their own study in folklore and are known as “child-killing demons” and “child-stealing witches.” I can recall hearing stories—never believed—of similar witch-based superstitions my great-grandparents were supposed to have held from Old World European lore. So why bring in this fellow who has nothing to do with the Night Doctors who are dissecting (real) corpses?
Paijmans also plays a bit dishonestly with some other facts through strategic omission. According to a story as given in the Washington Post and widely reprinted (I checked the reprint Paijmans cited), the Night Doctors kidnapped black folk by smothering them with a cloth placed over their nose and mouth. (Almost certainly a folklore reflection of the new anesthetic practice of chloroforming, which in later versions is cited by name.) But Paijmans wishes to find an African origin for the story and claims that Victorians attributed the Night Doctors to Africa and the ordeal of being captured as slaves. However, he omits from his quotation of the newspaper article the final sentence I give here. The bold text is that which Paijmans quotes in two separate sections:
The night doctor meets them in a lonely spot, and, without a word, claps a peculiar plaster over their faces. This stifles their cries, and ultimately suffocates them. Their bodies are then carried to the medical college, where they are dissected and a valuable extract is made from the coloring matter, which makes the “darky” browner than the white person. That is why “night doctors” on kidnaping bent, prefer colored people particularly. Where did this belief originate? Perhaps in darker Africa, in days when ancestors of the race in this country were changed from Africans to Americans through the medium of the slave ship, manacle and lash. The more reasonable explanation is to be had in studying the effects upon the colored people in this country of the crime which gave a new word to the dictionary—“burking”—stealing corpses for purposes of dissection.
My, how that last sentence changes Paijmans’s claim. Far from showing a connection to Africa, it instead reinforces the differential legacy of racism on Black bodies.
Having dispensed with a supernatural Night Doctor (though supernatural elements occasionally emerge in some versions of the story) and its alleged connection to African beliefs or African gods, we must now ask how Paijmans sees his conflated supernatural doctor-demons as figuring into alien abductions. The answer is that Barney Hill was Black.
Did Barney Hill, an African American who also was active in the Civil Rights movement, in this extremely stressful moment, relive that atavistic fear of the Night Doctors, which once terrorized scores of African Americans and is even felt today? […] It can be argued then that this deeply felt fear of the Night Doctors stood at the base of how the abduction phenomenon in its earliest stage was shaped in our collective psyche.
It is an unfortunate choice of language to claim Hill’s fears are “atavistic,” a word associated with the historical construction of African Americans as unevolved primitives. I assume that this is a result of infelicitous word choice by someone from outside American culture.
Of all the things Barney Hill seemed to subconsciously fear according to his hypnosis transcripts—Nazis, Irishmen, Asians—Night Doctors were not among them. The Night Doctor story was primarily a Southern one, from the Mason-Dixon Line downward, and Barney Hill was from New Hampshire. It makes me a bit uncomfortable to read Paijmans’s speculation that Hill’s grandmother might have shared the story with him, a claim that passes a bit too close to the repeated Victorian refrain that a single Black “Aunty” (as the Washington Post put it) spread the Night Doctor superstition to no fewer than seven of her own children and heaven knew how many white ones for whom she served as a nanny. Paijmans even speculates that this story was so powerful that it is the reason Hill was more afraid of aliens than his wife!
Once again, I want to emphasize that I don’t for a moment think Paijmans was intentionally recycling Victorian stereotypes, but rather that as a Dutchman (I do not know how he self-identifies by race) he is perhaps less aware of the finer gradations of racial discourse in the United States, something that most Americans recognize implicitly through lifelong exposure.
Paijmans, though, is right about one thing. I agree that Barney Hill’s race did play a role in his perception of the alleged abduction. But not because it predisposed him to what Paijman oddly calls “strong and mesmerizing” African beliefs. Instead, as I explained in my article on the Hill abduction, his interracial marriage likely made him much more attuned to the figurative interracial marriage that occurred in the Outer Limits episode “Children of Spider County,” which aired only days before his famous hypnosis session in which he described, in essence, the plot of that episode and its distinctive black-clad, slanted-eyed aliens.
The Night Doctors, after all, famously wore white sheets, according to scholarship on the subject. I assume you can figure out where that sartorial choice came from.
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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