Last week I mentioned that I had watched UFOs: It Has Begun, a 1979 update of an earlier documentary hosted by Rod Serling about ancient astronauts and UFOs, in which ufologist Jacques Vallée provides thirty minutes of new material about cattle mutilations. In this added footage, Vallée makes mention of something I had never heard of, but which took me a few days to get around to researching. Vallée claimed that in 1897, a UFO abducted and mutilated a cow, the first such claim on record. This was certainly an interesting enough story that I had to look up the text of the alleged statement made by rancher Alexander Hamilton in 1897 and printed April 23 of that year in the Yates Center Farmer’s Advocate, a Kansas newspaper:
Last Monday night, about 10:30, we were awakened by a noise among the cattle. I arose, thinking that perhaps my bulldog was performing some of his pranks, but upon going to the door saw to my utter astonishment an airship slowly descending upon my cow lot, about forty rods from the house.
After this statement, twelve community members signed an affidavit asserting that the cow abduction story was true—well, not exactly. They testified that Hamilton was not in the habit of lying, which wasn’t exactly the same thing. The affidavit—known only from a version printed beneath the article—has never been seen in public records. It might be worth noting that the man whose name is listed first on the affidavit, E. V. Wharton, the newly installed state oil inspector (his term began April 1, 1897), was also a prominent newspaper publisher and editor.
What’s interesting is that this story made it into the 1979 UFOs: It Has Begun since three years earlier, in 1976, one of the last living people to have been present at the time of the cow story explained to a Fortean Times researcher that Hamilton was a prominent teller of tall tales and an upstanding member of the local Liar’s Club. He had made the whole story up as a joke. “The club soon broke up after the ‘airship and cow’ story,” Ethel L. Shaw, then 93, remembered. “I guess that one had topped them all.” According to a 1981 book, three decades before, in 1943, the former editor of the Advocate, Edward F. Hudson, admitted that he and Hamilton had concocted the story as a hoax, calling it “the airship story that we made up.” In fact, Alexander Hamilton told anyone who asked that the story was a hoax down to his death in 1912, at which point he was still receiving letters about the hoax.
This certainly was not the only hoax story told during the months of the Great Airship Mystery in 1897. The Aurora, Texas airship “crash” was another hoax that began as a joking tall tale, and newspapers of the time devoted whole pages to publishing the best “tall tales” about the occupants of such ships.
But that isn’t the only set of facts ufologists have failed to check. The cow abduction story, as reported in UFO and ancient astronaut books like Bruce Rex’s Architects of the Underworld and Maximillian de Lafayette’s various UFO works, alleges that rancher Alexander Hamilton should be believed because he was a member of Congress, either at the time of the abduction (Lafayette) or previously (Rex). This is an easily verifiable claim, and in looking at the list of representatives who served in Congress in the nineteenth century, there is none named Alexander Hamilton. He was actually a member of the Kansas state legislature.
All of the real facts ended up published in Fate magazine in 1977 under Jerome Clark’s byline (having chosen to publish in Fate over the Fortean Times). Jacques Vallée almost certainly would have seen and read the article’s findings.
So how did the story end up in the movie? Easy: Jacques Vallée was one of the first to unearth it from the newspaper archives in the 1960s, along with known fabricator Frank Edwards, and Vallée at first failed to check any of the facts, simply accepting the story at face value because newspapers don’t lie. Why he chose to stick with the story is not known to me; perhaps he was too invested in his discovery to brook challenge. Ironically enough, it was the mass media—movies first, then radio—that killed off the local liars’ clubs and the amusements they provided, as part of the general collapse of civic and community organizations and clubs that continued apace through the twentieth century, to the point that Vallée and Edwards had no inkling of the cultural context of the old newspaper stories they read.
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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