No one likes to be the butt of a joke. To protect ourselves from embarrassment, some may never admit that they have been fooled, even if evidence to the contrary is presented afterwards. The wacky world of ufology has always been a fertile field for hoaxers and charlatans of every persuasion. While most four-color glossy tabloids screaming from the newsstand tout the latest photo, sighting, or revelation of conspiracy, none of them (save possibly Fortean Times) seem ready to deal with the shady art of the hoaxer, exposing our vulnerability to suggestion.
When British geezers Doug Bower and Dave Chorley confessed that they (among others) had created many, if not all of the crop circles in Southern England, there were two reactions. By far the most popular one was the "Oh, we knew it all along" school. This was the view perpetrated by the press with the usual tongue-in-cheek attitude. For the rest of us, immediate denial took hold. "How could they have done all of those things?" Both of these views spring from the same basic need: "THEY CAN'T FOOL ME!" A look at the history of UFO hoaxing can be considered an exercise in caution and the eagerness to grab on to the first thing that attracts, or turning on the filters before a situation is completely understood. Anyone can look stupid when fooled by an everyday office prank, but this is as nothing compared to the world-class jackass status achieved by vocal support of cream-of-the-crop saucer events that turn sour.
The "golden age" of ufology (at least in the publishing world) latched on to many of the earliest airship stories of the late 19th century to try and prove the durability of the phenomenon. Without exception, the authors of the 1950s, and '60s took the newspaper accounts at face value, never bothering to cross-check the stories. Par for the course was the story of the "Great Kansas Cownapping."
The Yates Center Farmer's Advocate of April 23, 1897 reported on patriotically-named Alexander Hamilton, and his story of an airship which had 'napped one of his prize heifers. A respected farmer, Hamilton was not one to just make things up. His story, however, seems almost prophetic, given modern accounts of anomalous livestock tampering:
Last Monday night at about 10:30 we were wakened by a noise among the cattle. I arose thinking that perhaps my bulldog was performing pranks, but upon going to the door saw to my utter astonishment that an airship was slowly descending upon my cow lot, about 40 rods [600 feet] from the house... It consisted of a great cigar-shaped portion, possibly three hundred feet long, with a carriage underneath. The carriage was made of glass or some other transparent substance alternating with a narrow strip of some material. It was brightly lighted within and everything was plainly visible--it was occupied by six of the strangest beings I ever saw. They were jabbering together, but we could not understand a word they said. Every part of the vessel which was not transparent was of a dark reddish color. We stood mute with wonder and fright. Then some noise attracted their attention and they turned a light directly upon us. Immediately on catching sight of us they turned on some unknown power, and a great turbine wheel, about thirty feet in diameter, which was revolving slowly below the craft, began to buzz and the vessel rose as lightly as a bird. When about three hundred feet above us it seemed to pause and hover directly above a two-year-old heifer which was bawling and jumping, apparently fast in the fence. Going to her, we found some material fastened in a slip knot around her neck and going up to the vessel...We tried to get it off but could not, so we cut the [fence] wire loose to see the ship, heifer and all, rise slowly, disappearing in the northwest.
Hamilton then related that the cow's hide was found later in another field, with only his brand to identify its dried hulk, and no tracks left in the soft ground around it. The statement was followed by a sworn affidavit by 12 prominent members of the community, from bankers and judges to the town postmaster. No less an illustrious figure than Jacques Valée championed the case, citing it as one the earliest examples of a solid UFO report. The validity of the story was never checked with anyone in Yates Center until Jerome Clark, acting on a tip from Bob Rickard of Fortean Times actually took the amazing step of writing to the paper that published the original story. Ninety three-year-old Ethel Shaw wrote back, describing how as a 14-year-old girl, she had been in the Hamilton home when Alexander came in and declared to his wife, "Ma, I fixed up quite a story and told the boys in town and it will come out in the Advocate this weekend." Mrs. Shaw also revealed that the affidavit signers were all members of the local liars club, who used to try to top each others' tall tales. The group broke up soon after Hamilton's prank, which is not surprising considering the way in which the cownapping legend took hold. The account was reprinted with embellishments and artists' conceptions in countries as far away as France.
Another early story which most every wide-eyed hopeful ufologist has read concerns the little Texas town of Aurora and the strange permanent inhabitant of the local cemetery, said to be the victim of a crashed airship. The Firesign Theatre wove this event into the storyline of their 1974 album Everything You Know Is Wrong. "Not from around here, but a real square little fellow" read the epitaph on the alien's gravestone. The actual events surrounding the story are much stranger than even these formidable talents could make them.
Early on the morning of June 14, 1973, someone sneaked into the cemetery and stole the tombstone, which bore a crudely carved outline of a flying saucer on it. The jokesters, hoaxters, or shadowy sinister meddlers then poked "long, slender, pointed saw-toothed metal probes" into the ground to remove whatever they could from underneath the site. The perpetrators, according to one investigator, "knew what they were after and also must have tried to get specimen remains of the occupant's body, clothing, or something to identify him by. The whole grave robbery was handled in a thoroughly professional manner." It may be speculated that one of our favorite shadow groups who really run the government wanted the prize for their own, but thereafter MUFON and NICAP descended upon the story like kids after free candy. Both unequivocally supported the spaceman stories. Walt Andrus, then and present director of MUFON, fought tooth and nail with the Aurora Cemetery Association for the rights to exhume and examine the remaining remains. He never got them to relent. Eventually, guards had to be posted at night due to souvenir hunters. Jim and Coral Lorenzen of the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization suddenly became skeptical about Aurora, even after supporting other more wild tales from around the globe. Perhaps they simply wanted to disagree with Andrus and the NICAP cronies for the sake of showing them up, but they were to be vindicated (in a roundabout way) on this occasion.
The only source for the original story was published in the Dallas Morning News of April 19, 1897. The reporter, F.E. Hayden described the scene in Aurora's town square at 6:00 AM of that fateful day. An airship, obviously experiencing some sort of breakdown, came sailing toward the town:
...it was making a speed of only ten or twelve miles an hour, and gradually settling toward earth. It sailed over the public square and when it reached the north part of town [it] collided with the tower of Judge Proctor's windmill and went to pieces with a terrific explosion, scattering debris over several acres of ground...The pilot of the ship is supposed to have been the only one aboard, and while his remains are badly disfigured, enough of the original has been picked up to show that he was not an inhabitant of this world...Papers found on his person--evidently the records of his travels--are written in some unknown hieroglyphics, and cannot be deciphered. The ship was too badly wrecked to form any conclusion as to its construction or motive power. It was built of an unknown metal, resembling somewhat a mixture of aluminum and silver, and must have weighed several tons...
Some observant readers may catch themes in this story which were to haunt crashed saucer accounts for many decades to come--the strange writing, unknown metal, wreckage strewn "over acres"--these are familiar details from Roswell, Aztec, Corona, and others. Perhaps this is coincidence, perhaps precognition a' la Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. In any case, J. Allen Hynek was interested enough (and believed in the story) to send his Texas friend Donald Hanlon 'round to investigate. He located one Oscar Lowery, who had been eleven years old when the crash occurred. Lowery ventured the opinion that the story had been completely made up by Hayden in order to put Aurora back on the map, since it had been wiped from it by the decision to run the railroad tracks further north, thus effectively cutting off the town from its manifest destiny. He went on to say that Judge Proctor never owned a windmill, and that a lot of people had known the story was a lie because Hayden had talked about it. Later investigations of the crash site with metal detectors and shovels failed to turn up anything more interesting than a few old license plates, stove lids, and the like. (This occurred years before the later squabbles between the ufological factions, and one wonders why this account and others like it were ignored, although it may not be hard to guess.)
One may also wonder why if the spaceman's body was "badly disfigured" in the fiery crash, how any papers found "on his person" could have survived very intact. There are so many questions raised by this event it is hard to believe it wasn't cooked up by F.E. Hayden just as the cownapping tale was: in order to get away with a colossal joke (and in this case maybe bring a few gullible people with money to the struggling and shrinking community.) It worked, but was almost 70 years too late. While other airship accounts are not so easily torn apart, it is important to remember that all experience that is not personal has gone through at least one filter. It is fortunate that a few of the original residents were still alive to contest the story.
Moving us into the glorious age of the contactees is a man named Karl Mekis, who in 1959 announced himself as "Venus Security Commissar On Earth", and sold "survival kits" and jobs for the faithful in the post-take over "World Republic Of Venus." He and a partner had accumulated a fortune in excess of $300,000 before he was caught and ordered to stand trial in an Austrian court.
Mekis was a retired Nazi SS guard who, on a boat on his way to South America met another WWII fugitive, Frank Weber-Richter. The two cooked up a scheme to scare and bilk the public and line their own pockets with space-invasion gold. Setting up their office in Santaigo, Chile, they started buying ads in popular European science-fiction magazines announcing the imminent invasion of Earth by Venusian forces. One of the ads read: "Only a handful of Earth people will be picked to rule with the Venus Masters after the invasion. And you can be one of them--if you act now." Others offered protection for less cash: "World Republic Of Venus. Chauffeur wanted to serve top official of Venus after invasion of Earth."
Showcasing their acquired talents for propaganda, Mekis and Weber-Richter also offered marriage to Venus men for Earth women to build a new "master race." The Venusians were said to be properly white and able to speak in a "clear, intelligent tongue." People sent in their life savings in order to be among the saved on "Day X." (HEY! What's going on here, Ivan Stang?) Their wealth brought them to the attention of the Chilean police, and the two were forced to flee to Italy. After many postponements and delays, they were finally cornered in Austria and Mekis was sent to trial, but his partner escaped. Witnesses described their fear and reactions to the ever escalating stories pouring out of Mekis' offices. One man received a letter warning: "PLANNED INVASION DELAYED. NEED FINANCIAL SUPPORT. PLEASE SEND ALL YOU CAN" and sent in his last $1,100. Other witnesses presented their passports announcing them as official citizens of Venus. Mekis was convicted on seventeen counts of fraud and swindling and sentenced to five years in a cushy Austrian jail.
Here's a note I left at the end of the article which never
made it to print, but rediscovering it was a delight:
If we can't overcome the ingrained games, (emotional and intellectual) that we are encouraged and forced to play when confronted with strange and anomalous information, whatever we can learn from studying this subject will be lost on us.