This week self-described “mouth of the South” Micah Hanks published an article at Mysterious Universe covering the April 17, 1897 airship crash at Aurora, Texas widely cited as a UFO event. It has already been the subject of a 1973 MUFON investigation and several cable television documentaries. Hanks not only fails to add anything new to the story, he manages the neat trick of ignoring pretty much all the investigative work done after 1973 in the name of promoting a “mystery” that almost certainly never existed.
The story started when S. E. Haydon reported in the Dallas Morning News on April 19, 1897 that an airship crashed in to a certain Judge Proctor’s windmill in Aurora and exploded, killing its pilot. This inhabitant “was not of this world” and probably from Mars, locals concluded. (H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds had just started its serialization in Cosmopolitan’s April issue, which had been on newsstands for a few weeks at this point.) According to Haydon, who was a local cotton merchant, the craft, destroyed when it crashed into a windmill on land owned by Judge Proctor, was built of an alloy of aluminum and silver and weighed “several tons.” The pilot was to be buried on April 20, but strangely no one reported on the funeral of earth’s first Martian visitor. Haydon had written hoax articles before, and there isn’t much reason to suspect this one was anything but, as we shall see.
But first, if you’re interested, here is the article:
Aurora, Wise Co., Tx., 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 throughout the country.
You’d think he’d have led with SPACE ALIEN LANDS ON EARTH, but who am I to question his priorities, or that of the Dallas Morning News, in not giving a SPACE ALIEN top billing? In fact, the News was silly enough to place this major news event on an interior page amidst fifteen other of the editors’ “favorite yarns” about outrageous aerial events, according to Skeptoid. One story told of an “aerial monster” piloted by New Yorkers, and another about an airship filled with Jews from the Lost Tribes who had been hiding at the North Pole. Hayden’s piece was one of the sixteen crazy airship stories. Obviously, it was intended as humor.
Hanks traveled to Aurora to view the grave of the supposed occupant of the airship. I’m not sure why he bothered traveling all the way to Aurora to take photographs of himself in the cemetery since his article betrays no original research. Instead, he summarizes the UFO case from Jim Marrs’s Alien Agenda (1997) and contributes exactly nothing to the story that others haven’t gone over a hundred times. In fact, he leaves out a very important and salient point: At least one person is on record telling anyone who would listen that the author of the original article reporting the crash of the airship made the whole thing up. “Hayden wrote it as a joke and to bring interest to Aurora,” an 86-year-old named Etta Pegues told Time magazine in 1979. “The railroad bypassed us, and the town was dying.” Pegues was a reporter for the Fort Worth Star Telegram and a local historian who wrote a book about the town of Aurora in 1975. In the 1890s the town of Aurora had suffered enormous catastrophe—a devastating fire, a boll weevil infestation, and epidemic disease outbreaks—that left the place a shell of its former self. Its decline cause the Burlington Northwestern Railroad to cancel plans to expand to Aurora.
Hanks does note that “others” claimed that the article was a hoax, but he doesn’t seem to know the source he pluralizes and summarizes. It is clearly Pegues because Hanks cites and criticizes her statement about the town windmill. Pegues had told Time in 1979 (and others in 1973) that there was no windmill in town, but recent investigations that uncovered the foundation of a windmill showed that she was wrong on this point, almost certainly because the windmill had long vanished—Pegues was four at the time of the supposed incident, and the windmill was likely gone before she was 10. We might well conclude that she simply had no memory that one ever existed, and by 1979 most who might have remembered it were already dead. (According to Marrs, Pegues asked the then-current owner of the site, who had lived there since 1945, if a windmill stood on the property, and the owner said no.) By pluralizing Pegues into “others” and generalizing her specific misstatement into a community-wide assertion, Hanks gives the impression of a cover-up that is unlikely to have actually occurred.
Marrs, as Hanks happily notes, alleged that “the government” cleansed the site of all traces of alien artifacts before Marrs showed up to investigate in 1973. Marrs also claimed that in 1973 he spoke with an 83-year-old named Charlie Stephens, who recalled seeing a UFO explode over the town in 1897 but wasn’t allowed to go investigate because his father said he had to finish his chores. On the other hand, Robbie Reynolds Hansen, who was 12 in 1897, told Marrs that her father had told a visitor that day that the owner of the land where this all occurred, a local judge, “outdid himself that time,” an odd an inconclusive statement Marrs does not explain.
This seems obscure until we consult a fuller version of the story given by Bill Potterfield in A Loose Herd of Texans in 1978. Hansen told him that her father, Constable J. D. Reynolds, was referring to a joke. The judge, J. S. Proctor, fancied himself a satirist and published humor pieces in the Aurora News. He wrote a humor piece about the airship event taking place on his own land. Reynolds read it and “roared with laughter.” According to Potterfield, Reynolds said, “The judge has really outdone himself this time.” Reynolds must have gotten a big laugh from the reference to T. J. Weems as an authority on astronomy. The real Weems was a blacksmith and farrier who knew nothing of the stars.
Few other survivors of the nineteenth century recalled anything of the event except what they knew from people who had read the newspaper back in 1897. According to Marrs, Mary Evans, who was 92 when he talked to her, said that she remembered the incident from when she was 15 years old, but despite have witnessed a spaceship from another world “forgot” about the incident until MUFON came to town in 1973! When asked what happened, she too said her parents wouldn’t let her go see the crash site. In describing what her parents told her of the event, she could recall no details that weren’t part of the 1897 news article or subsequent UFO lore.
What’s interesting is that Marrs presents these accounts in the opposite order, saving Stephens for last. Doing so lets him build up the impression that in sifting through the varying versions he was slowly getting to the truth. When placing the interviews in the order I have offered, they don’t seem to build toward a revelation but rather depict people who have folded half-memories of the attempted hoax into their own personal narratives, with a strong assist from the MUFON publicity. One approach isn’t necessarily better than the other, but it suggests that the author’s point of view heavily influences the reader’s impression, even when presenting facts from multiple points of view.
Hanks also places great weight on Marrs’s statements that mysterious non-magnetic iron was found at the crash site, tested in 1973, and baffled the researcher who studied it due to its strange properties. Both men omit the fact that the researcher involved, physicist Tom Gray, later concluded that the material was actually an iron-zinc alloy used in roofing material. Its particular processing made it non-magnetic. So well-known is this that you can even read about it in The Great Airship of 1897 (2010) by J. Allen Danelek—a fringe source published by David Childress which nonetheless debunks most of the claims about the Aurora “crash.” You can also read about it on Wise County’s official website.
The long and short of it is that Micah Hanks had available to him all the evidence he needed to produce a more comprehensive and useful article—this one took me a little more than an hour to put together—but despite being on location in Aurora and (presumably) having access to Google, he once again has misled his readers by relying primarily on one unreliable source (Marrs) and failing to engage in the kind of cursory review of evidence and literature that would produce a fuller picture of events. Even if he would eventually conclude that there was an alien involved, it’s somewhere between lazy and dishonest to actively ignore vast swaths of evidence just to fill column inches with a “mystery.”
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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