With the development of more sophisticated forms of air travel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the skies were suddenly open to mankind’s expansion. Our mythology evolved to match the changes, particularly when it came to mysteries from above. The dragons and angels of the past were replaced by human beings in ingenious flying machines built in secret and by even more bizarre meteorological phenomena.
10 New Zealand Zeppelin Panic
In 1909, the British Empire was buzzing about the possibility that the German navy might have become strong enough to launch an invasion of the British Isles. There were also many fears regarding Germany’s growing fleet of zeppelins. Many in Australia and New Zealand feared that the British navy would be recalled to defend the British Isles and leave the antipodes open to invasion. Furthermore, aerial warfare was a much-used trope in science fiction at that time. This atmosphere might help to explain the mass hysteria that followed.
According to the Otago Daily Times in July 1909, several Kaitangata residents had seen a zeppelin for 30 minutes over the Wangaloa Hills, which the Evening Star reported as an aircraft launched from the German vessel Seestern. For the next two months, there were thousands of reports across the country of sightings of German airships. In the town of Kelso, 23 schoolchildren and their adult minder claimed to have seen such a craft swooping over the township, which led to the police and a party of young men tramping through the nearby Blue Mountains to search for it.
At Kaka Point, several boys reported seeing an illuminated object that seemed about to alight on the beach, so they ran off. There was even a rumor that an airship had crashed near Waikata, killing two or three Germans aboard. The Geraldine Guardian reported that a crowd had gathered outside a post office to debate sightings of a mysterious orb in the sky, though that turned out to be a prank in which some young boys had placed a candle inside a hollowed-out turnip and placed it on a flagpole.
By late August, the hysteria had died down, with one final report of a dark cigar-shaped object near the Tapanui Hills. A Southland Times investigation determined that it had been caused by “repeated flights of thousands of starlings, which, prior to nesting season, were making their temporary homes in a clump of pine trees.”
9 Swimming White Horse
According to an 1878 article in the The New York Times, the Cincinnati Commercial had reported that a bizarre telegram had been received from a correspondent in Parkersburg, Virginia, reporting that a local farmer had seen a strange creature in the sky while plowing his field.
Around 7:00 PM, the farmer looked up at the cloudless sky and saw a strange flying object about 1 kilometer (0.5 mi) away in the west. He described it as “an opaque substance, resembling a white horse, with head, necks, limbs, and tail clearly defined, swimming, moving its head from side to side, always ascending at an angle of about 45 degrees.”
He rubbed his eyes, assuming that it was a hallucination or trick of the light, but it was still there, swimming through “the ether.” When he yelled at some men about 100 meters (300 ft) away and asked them what they saw, they confirmed that there was a white horse swimming through the sky. They were scared, but the farmer was apparently stoic enough to simply sit down and observe the apparition until it finally disappeared into space.
According to the Cincinnati Commercial: “Illusions of different appearance have been seen at different times, in the same vicinity, frightening the superstitious, and laughed at by the skeptical.”
8 Flying Snake Chases Train
In 1882, the Los Angeles Times printed a report from a train engineer and fireman who recounted a strange encounter by the Southern Pacific express, a story that was allegedly corroborated by passengers. After passing Dos Palms, the engineer noted what appeared to be a column of sand about 1 kilometer (0.5 mi) ahead, moving toward the track and looking like it was going to collide with the train. When the column came within a short distance, it was clear that it was some kind of animal.
The report said, “It was moving in almost a perpendicular position, the tail dragging on the ground and propelled by two large wings near the head. The bird, snake, or whatever it was,” appeared to be about 9 meters (30 ft) long and 30 centimeters (12 in) in diameter.
Almost everyone aboard poked their heads out of the windows to have a look at the flying snake. But according to the report, when the train passed the creature, “The snake’s tail was not where it should have been, and a portion of its lower extremity was clipped off. This seemed to put this flying snake on his mettle, and he prepared for war. He wheeled around and gave chase to the train.”
The snake moved as fast as lightning and began attacking the sides of the train, giving the vehicle a “lively thrashing” that broke several windows and frightened many of the passengers. Although some of the passengers shot the creature with pistols, it seemed to have no effect. After a few minutes, the snake left of its own accord. The story was apparently confirmed by everyone on the train and was later republished in the Brooklyn Eagle.
7 Wisdom Lamps
The famous 19th-century Buddhist monk Hsu Yun, who lived to age 119, described an apparent UFO encounter in his autobiography. During a pilgrimage through monasteries and sacred sites in China, he climbed the Daluo Peak in 1884 to pay homage to the reported “wisdom lamps” frequently seen in the area.
Describing his second night on the peak, he wrote, “I saw a great ball of light flying from the Northern to the Central Peak, where it came down, splitting a short while later into over 10 balls of different sizes. The same night, I saw on the Central Peak three balls of light flying up and down in the air and on the Northern Peak, four balls of light which varied in size.”
These details were also confirmed in a pictorial biography, which said that Hsu Yun had bowed to the wisdom lights. It also said, “People often came to this spot to witness what fortune they might. At first there was nothing unusual, but then they all appeared: Large ones, small ones, and in between—each fireball was unique.”
In his autobiography, Hsu Yun also reported that in 1888, he saw Buddha lights at the Jinding Peak of Mount Emei, which resembled “a constellation of stars in the sky . . . the beauty of which was indescribable.”
6 Luminous Wheels
In Charles Fort’s The Book of the Damned, he included a letter from Mr. Lee Fore Brace reporting a strange sighting from 1880 on the British India Company vessel Patna while sailing the Persian Gulf. Brace reported that one night at around 11:30 PM, two enormous, luminous wheels appeared on both sides of the ship with their spokes seeming to brush the ship along.
He claimed that both of the wheels had 16 spokes and were each about 460 meters (1,500 ft) or 550 meters (1,800 ft) in diameter, casting a phosphorescent glow on the waters around them. He described the sight as being like “standing in a boat and flashing a bull’s-eye lantern horizontally along the surface of the water, round and round.”
In a letter printed in Knowledge, “A. Mc. D.” responded to Brace by calling him “the modern Ezekiel,” estimating the velocity of the wheels based on their measurements to have been about 550 kilometers per hour (340 mph), and suggesting that Brace had been drunk.
Brace responded, this time giving his name as “J.W. Robertson,” and said, “I don’t suppose ‘A. Mc. D.’ means any harm, but I do think it’s rather unjust to say a man is drunk because he sees something out of the common. If there’s one thing I pride myself upon, it’s being able to say that never in my life have I indulged in anything stronger than water.”
Fort had less skeptical explanations, including a luminous wheel under the Persian Gulf shining upward into the sky, giant fish with strange adaptations, or large, wheel-like constructions from interplanetary space which had entered the atmosphere, begun to disintegrate with an incandescent glow, and taken refuge in the dense medium of the sea.
This wasn’t the only flying wheel reported at sea. At the turn of the 20th century, others were reported in the Persian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, and Straits of Malacca, including one report from the Danish East Asiatic Company’s steamship Bintang of a giant, glowing wheel with “long arms issuing from a center around which the whole system appeared to rotate” that was visible for 15 minutes.
5 Electric Cloud
According to a 1904 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the British steamer Mohican was sailing from Romania to Delaware when something bizarre happened. Captain Urquhart described the encounter: “It was shortly after the Sun had gone, and we were in latitude 37 degrees 16 minutes and longitude 72 degrees 48 minutes. The sea was almost as level as a parlor carpet, and scarcely a breeze ruffled the water. It was slowly growing dark when the lookout saw a strange, gray cloud in the southeast. At first, it appeared as a speck on the horizon, but it rapidly came nearer and was soon as large as [a] balloon.”
The cloud had a strange, gray tinge, but there were also glowing spots in its mass. These spots became more agitated as the cloud moved closer to the Mohican. Suddenly, the cloud enveloped the ship, which seemed to glow and burn like phosphorus. The crew felt their hair stand on end, and the ship’s compass spun wildly. When Captain Urquhart attempted to distract the crew by having them pick up some chains on deck, they discovered they couldn’t move them. Everything metallic—chains, bolts, spikes, and bars—had been magnetized and stuck fast to the deck of the ship.
The cloud was too dense for the ship to go anywhere, nothing could be seen beyond the decks, and the world appeared to be a glowing, metallic hellfire. The cloud also seemed to dampen sound, so after the initial cries of fear, there was silence. After a few minutes, the crew felt their joints stiffen, and it became difficult for them to move their limbs. After about 30 minutes, the cloud suddenly lifted from the vessel and moved off to sea. The compass returned to normal, the magnetization ceased, and the vessel continued on its way.
4 Spook Of Diamond Island
In 1888, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the town of Hardin on the Mississippi River had been filled with rumors about people seeing a mysterious object moving around nearby Diamond Island. The anomaly appeared to be a strange light that looked like a ball of fire around the size of a barrel. One witness, a local businessman, said, “I could see the shape of something fuzzy inside the fire.”
One night, a group of young adventurers decided to get to the bottom of the mystery, so they rowed out to the island with revolvers, knives, shotguns, and clubs to see what the specter was. They pulled their skiff onto the shore and hid in a clump of trees to wait for the phenomenon.
Suddenly, the island was illuminated by a red glow, and the young men saw a bright, red object rise out of the water into the sky, ascending to a height of about 37 meters (120 ft) before fading away. Their weapons had no effect on the apparition. The adventurers lost their courage and dashed for their boat, but their vessel was in the water moving away from the island, with the red ball of fire sitting in it.
Soon, the fire transformed into a small, old man who was wearing a pair of denim overalls, though his face was obscured by a slouch hat. The vessel was awash in a strange glow, and the young men saw the oars move in and out of the water.
As they watched in shocked silence, the glowing man turned back into the ball of fire about midstream, rising up into the air and disappearing, leaving the men with no way off the island. Luckily, their shouts roused a nearby fisherman who rescued them, although several of the party were allegedly almost catatonic with fear. There were allegedly more sightings of the mysterious red ball after that, but no one was particularly enthused about going out to investigate.
3 Phantom Balloons And The Boer Signal
During the Boer War of 1899–1902, the British used observation balloons to track enemy troop movements and direct artillery fire, which made the Boers rather paranoid. They feared that the British would use the balloons to drop bombs on Pretoria and other Boer cities. The Transvaal headquarters sent a message asking telegraphists to report any objects in the sky, which led to a phantom balloon scare.
Many messages were received about supposed balloons being spotted, such as this one from Vryheid: “Airship with powerful light plainly visible from here in far off distance toward Dundee.” Shots were fired into the air, and allegedly, the Boers used powerful searchlights to scan the skies for the balloons. However, the British observation balloons were miles away from the Transvaal, so most of these cases were probably misidentification or hysteria.
Meanwhile, the British had their own scare, which they called the “Boer Signal.” According to one British commander, it “always appeared shortly after sundown as soon as the tents were pitched—that is, when there were any tents to pitch. What bets were made, what quarrels took place, how men argued that the falling light was a signal to the Boers to show where the camping ground was. It took a long time to convince the men that what they saw was the planet Venus going to bed.”
2 Galisteo’s Apparition
According to an 1880 article in the Santa Fe Daily New Mexican, a telegraph operator in Galisteo Junction was having a stroll with some friends before bed when they suddenly heard voices coming from above them. They looked up to see a fish-shaped airship approaching from the west. The craft had elegant writing on the outside and was controlled by a fanlike apparatus. They could hear the sounds of music, laughter, and people talking animatedly in a language they couldn’t understand.
The telegraph operator and his friends saw several items dropped from the airship, but initially, they could only find a flower with a slip of silklike paper containing characters “resembling those on Japanese tea chests.” The next day, they also found “a cup of peculiar workmanship, entirely different to anything used in this country.” These were then supposedly sold to a collector, who believed they came from Asia, likely “from Jeddo.”
A follow-up piece told of the arrival of a group of tourists, including a “wealthy young Chinaman” who identified the dropped items and said he knew who dropped them. He claimed that China had been working on aerial navigation and that the airship was just “the first of a regular line of communication between the Celestial Empire and America.”
He also claimed that his fiancee was onboard the airship when she dropped the note in the cup because she knew that he would be in this part of the country. Under the headline “Solved At Last,” the story ends with the happy Chinese man boarding a train to New York to meet his beloved.
1 1897 Airship Flap
In late 1896 and early 1897, there was a series of mysterious airship sightings across the US. It began in northern California with many witnesses claiming to see an airship with human pilots and brilliant searchlights. When the ship landed, it supposedly took off if approached. Soon, stories with stranger details spread throughout the West and Midwest.
In a letter printed by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, W.H. Hopkins claimed to see an airship sitting in a clearing with a beautiful, naked woman nearby who was singing and picking flowers. When she saw Hopkins, she screamed and ran to a naked man standing by the craft.
According to his story, Hopkins assured them that he meant no harm. When he asked where they came from, they said something that sounded like “Mars.” They gave him a tour of their ship and expressed interest in his clothes, gray hair, and watch. Afterward, they flew away, laughing and waving as they went.
In another case, a Sioux City man complained that he had been dragged by the anchor of an unknown flying machine, tearing his clothing. Another object was reported to have landed near Gas City in Indiana to make repairs, causing cattle and horses to stampede. A dozen farmers in Michigan saw an object land in a field, from which appeared a man 3 meters (10 ft) tall who was suffering from heat stroke.
In one of the last reported cases at that time, Constable John J. Sumpter Jr. and Deputy Sheriff John McLemore were investigating reports of cattle rustling in the town of Jessieville in the Ouachita Mountains. As they were riding at night over Blue Ouachita Mountain, they saw a bright light in the sky, which disappeared and then reappeared a short distance away. The light descended toward Earth, and eventually, they saw an airship sitting on the ground with men outside holding lanterns.
Drawing their weapons, the lawmen approached and demanded that the men identify themselves. A bearded man told them that he and his two companions were touring the country in an airship. The bearded man asked them aboard to fly away to “a place where it does not rain.” But they refused, so the mysterious airship departed. When the lawmen returned to the same spot later that night, they could find no trace of the vehicle or the men.
David Tormsen wishes he had an airship. Email him at tormenteds[email protected].