Proving that history can indeed be a heckuva lot stranger than science fiction, today’s installment revisits a wacky wave of “Mystery Airship” reports that flooded Texas newspapers in 1897. Long before the infamous Roswell UFO crash sparked the public imagination and endless alien conspiracy theories in 1947, folks were spying odd “Aerial Travelers” during an outbreak of sightings between 1896 and 1897 that sounded like something straight out of a Jules Verne novel. The earliest autumn sightings were in California, but hundreds of reports quickly spread east into the Midwest and Texas by the following spring. You may have heard about the most famous sighting that occurred in Aurora, TX on April 17, 1897, which has been the subject of several books and numerous TV investigations, because it spectacularly crashed and locals purportedly buried it’s pilot thought to be “a native of the planet Mars” in their cemetery. The Aurora Spaceman’s graveyard even has a State Historical marker! The literally hundreds of other eyewitness encounters with various Mystery Air-Ships across Texas both before and after, however, are even more insanely entertaining and fantastically bizarre.
The earliest reported Airship sighting in Texas came from rural Denton on April 13 of 1897, when a curious local out stargazing with a pair of powerful field glasses spotted an odd dark object moving across the moon. “He described the object as being about fifty feet long, cigar-shaped with two large ‘mugs’ sticking out from either side, a ‘beak’ like a ship’s cutwater at the front, and a large rudder or steering sail at the rear. Where the ‘beak’ joined the main body of the object there was a light that ‘paled the moon’ in its brilliance. Along the body of the thing there were more lights, which he assumed meant windows. No smoke was visible from the object. It moved slowly, in a southeasterly direction, for about twenty minutes, then accelerated ‘to terrific speed’ and vanished from sight. The sighting was confirmed by a lady in Denton who, though she possessed no field glasses, described a very similar object moving in the same direction at slow speed, then suddenly accelerating.” The newspaper editor insisted these unnamed eye-witnesses were highly upstanding citizens “whose reputation for truthfulness cannot be assailed.” Their sobriety, however… maybe. There’s also an earlier head-scratching 1873 sighting in Bonham TX of a flying “silvery serpent” that dive-bombed wonderstruck farmers and horses, which totally suggests Denton County just may be some kinda longstanding galactic UFO hub.
Other accounts reckoned on far different origins. A late night sighting in Waxahachie on April 17 reported dozens spooked from the hotel by the piercing spotlight of the “strange aerial monster,” said to be piloted by a woman with a device “resembling a sewing machine.” W.H. Patterson, an unnerved witness, somberly speculated “his satanic majesty or Beelzebub has something to do with this traveler in the lower stratum of ether.” Earlier that same day in Stephenville, in what would up the ante for scoops on close encounters, over 25 prominent witnesses including Sam Houston’s nephew and the town’s mayor claimed to have actually met the navigators when “The Aerial Wanderer” was compelled to come to ground for emergency repairs. Describing “a cigar-shaped body about sixty feet in length” with immense aero-wings, and upright rotors fore and aft “like a metallic windmill” powered by storage batteries, the two-man crew of Tilman and Dolbear revealed they were “making an experimental trip to comply with a contract with certain capitalists of New York.” Because his name was so often speculated in connection with similar mass sightings from The Great Lakes to the Rio Grande, inventor Thomas Edison eventually issued a public statement which flatly insisted that he had no connection with any such flying Airships.
Although these unexplained Airships were the talk of the Lone Star State, reports of sightings abruptly ceased in May as the newspapers in Texas and the rest of the Midwest returned to more mundane fare. So what can we make of these wildly fantastic accounts of this Texas Airship invasion? Beats the heck outta me. Some said it was Venus or claim mass hysteria and the power of suggestion, while others think they were Liars Club competitions between towns to top published tall tales as a way to sell newspapers. Then there are speculations that it was a hoax conspiracy perpetuated by railroad employees and telegraph operators just messing with local yokel news. Indeed, a former mayor claimed in the 1970s that she believed the Aurora Spaceman story by S.E. Haydon was a ruse to attract attention to a dying town bypassed by the railroad, though some residents still swear it happened as printed. Far more fascinating is a book, Solving the 1897 Airship Mystery, that theorizes several airships were in fact actually built by a handful of inventors working in secret before their experimental crafts were destroyed by test-flight accidents. (BTW one eccentric fella named Dellschau documents a clandestine Sonora Aero Club that experimented with a German secret formula suppe, and you can see his wild sketches at the Amon Carter Museum). Lighter-than-air crafts certainly did exist since balloons had been used for air reconnaissance during the Civil War, where Count von Zeppelin’s concept for dirigibles originated (but didn’t fly until 1900), so the idea of flying machines was already floating around in fiction and just maybe on a few inventors’ drafting boards.
I’m not sure which theory is my favorite, either the Liars Clubs taking Texas Tall Tales to new heights of blarney, or genius Aeronauts in goggles and flowing white scarves commanding the skies if only briefly with their top-secret steampunk machines. Whichever explanation you prefer is surely yours to choose, dear reader, but it is indisputable fact that these fantastic stories were indeed black-and-white printed news way back in the day.
Shaun Treat is a former professor at the University of North Texas and founder of the Denton Haunts historical ghost tour. Doc has written about numerous local places and personalities at his Denton Haunts blog, and is forever indebted to the great work of our local keepers of history like Mike Cochran and Laura Douglas at the Emily Fowler Library for their tireless work in helping preserve Denton’s intriguing past. Be sure to check out our local museums curated by the fine folks at the Denton County Office of History & Culture, and follow @Dentonaut on Twitter for local happenings.