The Phantom Airships

The Phantom Airships Tales of History and Imagination


Aurora is a small town in Wise country, in the North of Texas. The county came into being in the 1830s, following an armed standoff between 150 Native Americans and 18 cowboys. The latter, though outnumbered, won and planted a stake in the ground – owing to their superior technology. They brought guns to what the natives thought was a bow and arrow fight. In the wake of the Mexican- American war – 1846-48 – many more people arrived in Aurora, looking for a better life. In 1853 a new technology invaded Texas as the first of the railroad companies arrived. The Iron Horse promised to bring the world to the Lone Star state and vice versa – but for a variety of reasons, less than 500 miles of track was laid on the often inhospitable ground by the time the Civil war broke out in 1861. 

The Robber Barons took another shot at it in the 1880s, and rogues like Jay Gould built thousands of miles of track. They did so through all manner of devious and underhanded means – some of which would seem very familiar to those 18 aforementioned gunslingers, and continued to fight, bribe and steal their way through Texas till reined in, in 1891 by the newly elected Governor of Texas, James Hogg. 

Aurora, built on the modern wonder of the gun, never enjoyed the favour of the locomotive. Once full of promise, it became a backwater – abandoned by railway barons and politicians alike. It was a sleepy town, in rapid decline, where nothing unusual ever happened… This was at least until April 17th 1897. 

In the early hours of Saturday April 17 1897, a strange object streaked across the sky. Off kilter, it hurtled wildly over the town till it collided with a deafening thud into Judge J.S. Proctor’s windmill. Both the craft and the judge’s mill were obliterated. Shocked locals rushed to the scene to find debris strewn the length of the judge’s property. Two days later, a Wise county resident named S.E. Haydon reported the incident in the Dallas Morning News. An otherworldly airship crashed in Aurora over the weekend. When locals investigated, they found metallic wreckage which looked like nothing they’d ever seen before. Amidst the wreckage, the body of the pilot. He too looked like no one they’d ever seen on Earth. The townsfolk, after careful consideration decided the pilot must have come from Mars. 

Struck with compassion for the pilot – wherever he was from he was reckoned to be one of God’s children after all – the locals gave the alien a ‘Christian burial’. The rites performed by one William Russell Taybor – a travelling preacher on his way through the town. The alien was buried in Aurora cemetery, with a simple gravestone to mark the spot. 

The wreckage of the craft, according to one officer T.J. Weems from Fort Worth, was gathered up, then deposited down a well which once stood in the shadow of the mill. Half a century before the Roswell Incident, it appears the US military were far less interested in hoarding and examining ‘alien’ technology.

Some strange things happened decades after. In 1935 a Mr Brawley Oates bought the Proctor residence. Oates saw a well full of debris as a waste of resources and dug all the junk out. Not long after he was diagnosed with particularly bad arthritis. He presumed the wreckage had poisoned the water, which in turn gave him the rheumatism. Oates had the well refilled, then put a concrete cap put over it – then an outhouse on top of the cap. 

The thing which didn’t happen as some hoped was a sudden uptake of rubberneckers travelling out to Aurora to the site of the crash. Such traffic would surely have brought the railway in their direction. For a while the incident even fell off of the public consciousness. 

The whole incident was revealed to be a hoax in 1980. Time magazine interviewed an 86 year old local named Etta Pegues. She revealed Haydon wrote the article hoping to bring tourists to the dying town. There was no alien spacecraft. Judge Proctor didn’t even have a windmill on his land. Descriptions of the well were questionable also, as people started telling the story again in 1947 (in the wake of Roswell) The type of well described was of their own time, invented in 1945. 

Since then, of course, many UFOlogists have argued to the contrary. Several media organisations have reported the incident, lending it credence. The FOX affiliated station KDFW ran a report in 1998 stating locals claimed something crashed there – but never went all in on if it was an alien craft. In 2005 the TV show UFO Files covered a 1973 investigation by UFOlogists, who claimed they found evidence metallic debris was buried with the pilot via metal detector- but were barred from digging up the pilot. They returned later to resume their work but their metal detectors could no longer pick up the debris. Somebody also removed the headstone at some time in the 1970s. It was alleged to have had an UFO-like etching on it. What a shame this happened in the 1970s when cameras were yet to be invented. Yeah, the 1973 investigation sounds a little slapdash.  

The TV show UFO Hunters broadcast a show in 2008. Tim Oates, Brawley’s grandson, allowed the show to remove the capstone to the well. They didn’t find any UFO debris, but did find high concentrations of aluminium in the water. Again, the cemetery refused to let the UFO hunters exhume the remains of the alleged pilot.  

Though the Aurora space ship was an oddity, featuring a visitor from Mars, the latter half of the 1890s was rife with tales of mystery objects in the skies. Thousands of sightings in fact. Most were in fact taken for the work of intrepid, formerly Earth-bound inventors pushing beyond the constraints of science and technology. 

How one French illustrator at the end of the 19th Century imagined the year 2000.

Just on dusk on November 17th 1896 dozens of people in Sacramento, California complained of a large light in the sky flying over them. On investigation, the light was coming from a large cigar-shaped object ambling through the dark. Eagle-eyed witnesses claimed the object had men aboard, and that the craft appeared to be controlled by propellers and a rudder. Some claimed to hear men chattering on the deck of the craft, or singing. “We ought to get to San Francisco by tomorrow afternoon” one man told another within earshot of the ground, as the craft chugged along against the prevailing winds. This was corroborated by another witness, who shouted up at them asking where they were going. “San Francisco – we should be there by midnight” the men replied. The craft, or one much like it, was next seen in Oakland, California on November 21st, this time by passengers on a cable car. 

The sightings were reported in several newspapers, and soon enough thousands of people claimed to have seen the airship all across California. Scientists explained both Mars and Venus appeared bigger than usual at the time – this could explain the sightings. Sober, responsible men, like a Mr Brown – a hunter from just North-west of San Francisco came forward to tell how, on the especially misty morning of November 1st this flying craft half scared him to death while he was out in the woods. He said nothing, of course at the time because people would think him mad, but now everyone was seeing it what was the harm in sharing his story? Grifters of course set up in public spaces with telescopes, offering the public a chance to scan the clouds for a few coins. The craft was spotted again November 25th, around San Francisco, and December 3rd around Vallejo, California. 

At one point a San Francisco lawyer named George Collins came forward with a tale of having met an inventor while on business in Washington. The two men kept in touch, and regularly met. One day, just before the sightings began, the inventor confided in Collins he’d secretly built an air ship – 150 feet long and capable of moving at 80 miles per hour. It was powered by compressed air. Collins refused to give the name of his friend. This didn’t stop the press from locating a 47 year old dentist and inventor named E.H. Benjamin. Benjamin stated he knew Collins well and was an inventor, but he made dental products. Benjamin was so hounded by the press he packed up in the middle of the night, and glided out to God knows where, just like a Phantom Airship himself. 

Soon after this incident former Attorney General for California, William Harrison Hart came forth claiming he now handled the legal affairs of the mystery inventor – and a second airship builder across the country in New Jersey. He stated he was trying to convince the inventors to produce the ships to Cuban revolutionaries fighting to depose Spain in Cuba. This, in his view, was where the money was – not in public transport. Hart would remain an oft quoted figure by the papers. 

By New Years 1897 however, the Phantom Airship, or ships? had disappeared from California.  

In February 1897 they reappeared twelve hundred miles east, first in Kansas, then Nebraska. Late at night, well into the early mornings the airship was spotted by railway operators as it appeared to navigate Eastwards from the railway lines. Reports did come in, however, from places like Harrison, Nebraska – where the craft hovered over the courthouse for 30 minutes, to the shock of all assembled. By April 1897 it reached Illinois, afterwards disappearing into the night from whence they came. 

So, as far as we can tell what was happening in the skies in 1896-7?    

First I should point out these airships were not terribly far removed from reality, but the couple of steps needed to take these craft from science fiction to science fact had been tantalisingly out of reach for a few decades. 

The Montgolfier brothers’ proved conclusively in 1783 that human flight via balloon was achievable. Having first sent up farm animals in 1782, then quibbled about sending up a criminal they thought the world could lose if it went wrong – Etienne Montgolfier made the first manned balloon flight just hours before a competitor named Rosier made the second. For a while, there was a flurry of activity around the hot air balloon. Jean Baptiste Meusnier presented blueprints to the Royal Academy in Paris for a steerable dirigible the same year. A little over a year from the Montgolfier’s first flight, in January 1785, Jean- Pierre Blanchard flew a balloon from the UK across the English Channel to France – a distance of around 21 miles. This could have gone wrong on so many levels – balloons were still flimsy. The wind still decided the balloon’s path.  

By the middle of the 19th Century inventors were still struggling with steerability. In 1851 an Australian inventor named William Bland proposed a  dirigible capable of travelling from Sydney, Australia to London England in a week. He never got funding for his craft, which almost certainly would have killed it’s pilot. In 1852 Henri Giffard made a hydrogen-filled dirigible powered by a steam engine. It was vaguely steerable, and could carry passengers. In one test it flew the 16 miles between Paris and Elancourt. 

A doctor, inventor, and three time mayor of Perth, Amboy, New Jersey named Solomon Andrews built a partially steerable craft named the Aereon in 1863. He offered to sell the craft to Union side in the American Civil war, but they saw no use for it. Of course they did have a team of seven balloonists headed by Thaddeus Lowe, carrying out aerial reconnaissance in conventional hot air balloons but that is a story for another day. Andrews was unlikely to be William H. Hart’s other inventor, having died 25 years earlier. 

The first reliable steering system was invented in 1872 by an engineer named Paul Heinlein. There were still a myriad of other obstacles however, from building an airship of sturdy enough material to more likely than not survive a long flight, and a propulsion system which could last more than a few miles at a time. It was not impossible for an inventor to have solved all these problems – but was improbable given all the known inventors had hit the limits of then current technology in the 1870s. Of course Brazilian Alberto Santos Dumont was only a few years away from making something vaguely like the mystery airship in 1897- but even his N series of airships were a long way from these purported dirigibles. 

So, if presumably the Phantom Airship was not the invention of a 47 year old inventor, who possibly filled and filed teeth by day – and if it was highly improbable the craft even existed – what started off, then fed into the phenomenon?  

The likelihood of war with Spain likely planted the seed. The Cuban war of Independence, the latest of several attempts stretching back to 1868 by Cubans, to rid themselves of the Spanish was well underway. American sentiment was with the Cubans, and they did enter the war in 1898, after a ship – the USS Maine – blew up in their waters. It turned out the explosion was due to a furnace overheating below deck but this was not discovered till after the USA had accused Spain of planting a bomb on the ship, and invaded. In early 1896 however, talking heads in national newspapers were discussing the possibility of making airships to hover over Havana – and bomb the living daylights out of the Spanish. I do have a Tale I’m choosing to keep in my back pocket for now explaining why this wasn’t completely without precedent – but of course aircraft would become weapons of war in 1912 when Italy used them in their invasion of Libya. Germany would later borrow the talking head’s idea verbatim in World War One, bombing the streets of London from Zeppelins in 1915. 

What fed the sightings was a war of another kind entirely.  

In 1883 Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian immigrant who arrived in the USA to fight for the Union in the Civil War – who later turned railroad vagrant, waiter, newspaper reporter then politician – bought the New York World newspaper. Pulitzer’s vision for the paper, from the get-go was to dominate the media. His method? to heavily augment everyday news items with sensationalist tales of sex, crime, scandal and horror. Much of his content was real, such as Nellie Bly’s expose of Blackwood Asylum – but the man was never afraid of letting the truth get in the way of a good story. 

In the meanwhile William Randolph Hearst, a San Franciscan born to a wealthy mining engineer and Senator who owned goldmines, inherited his father’s estate upon his death in 1891. One of his father’s businesses – a newspaper called The San Francisco Examiner. As Pulitzer’s readership expanded due to the level of what became known as ‘yellow journalism’ (a phrase coined, it is believed because the big sensationalist papers ran a cartoon called The Yellow Kid) – Hearst decided to follow suit. When he bought The New York Morning Journal in 1895, the battle lines were drawn. War was declared between the World and the Journal and no story – no matter how outlandish – was off limits. These were hardly the first hoax stories to appear in print – The Great Moon Hoax of 1835 immediately comes to mind – a series of six articles published in the New York Sun claiming the astronomer Sir John Herschel had discovered a thriving civilisation on the moon – full of Bat-Men, bisons, tailless beavers and unicorns. 

But this was an escalation of fake news not seen before. 

Of course tales of phantom airships probably did little harm, perhaps beyond making fools of a number of witnesses. Yellow journalism could do harm. When the USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbour Feb 15th 1898, Hearst’s newspapers particularly were onto the story, stoking public anger without any evidence the ship had been bombed. “Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain” became the rallying cry that led the USA, first into Cuba (the subsequent history there more than a little troublesome) then onwards to the Philippines – where the USA proceeded to throw Spain out – then cause the deaths of at least 200,000 Filipinos during their occupation. 

Yellow journalism died back a little in the wake of the Spanish- American war – though obviously we would see ‘fake news’ pop up in other ways. That is a tale for another day.      

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