The Mystery Airships were a class of unidentified flying objects, the best-known series of which were reported in newspapers in western states of the U.S., starting in 1896 and continuing into 1897.
The reported ships were usually said to be a type of dirigible, and were usually differentiated from gliders or hot air balloons. The best-known wave of airship tales was largely confined to North America, but according to Jerome Clark, similar reports were made worldwide, early as the 1880s, and late as the 1990s. Of the 1896-1897 series of airship sightings, historian Mike Dash wrote,
Quote: Not only were [the Mystery Airships] bigger, faster and more robust than anything then produced by the aviators of the world; they seemed to be able to fly enormous distances, and some were equipped with giant wings ... The 1896-1897 airship wave is probably the best investigated of all historical anomalies. The files of almost 1500 newspapers from across the United States have been combed for reports, an astonishing feat of research. The general conclusion of investigators was that a considerable number of the simpler sightings were misidentification of planets and stars, and a large number of the more complex the result of hoaxes and practical jokes. A small residuum remains perplexing.
Airship sighting waves
There were a number of mystery airship reports from the U.S. east coast in 1887
The best-known of the Mystery Airship waves began in California in 1896. Afterwards, reports and accounts of similar airships came from others areas, generally moving east.
Some accounts during this wave of airship reports claim that occupants were visible on some airships, and encounters with the pilots were reported as well. These occupants were said to be human, though their behaviour, mannerisms and clothing were sometimes reported to be unusual. One witness from Arkansas-- allegedly a former state senator Harris -- was supposedly told by an airship pilot (during the tensions leading up the Spanish American War) that the craft was bound for Cuba, to use its "Hotchkiss gun" to "kill Spaniards". (Jacobs, 10)
In one account from Texas, three men reported an encounter with an airship and with "five peculiarly dressed men" who reported that they were descendant from the lost tribes of Israel; they had learned English from the 1553 north pole expedition led by Hugh Willoughby.
At least two airship tales were taken as at least possibly genuine by generations of later ufologists:
An account by Alexander Hamilton of Leroy, Kansas supposedly occurred about April 19, 1897, and was published in the Yates Center Farmer's Advocate of April 23. Hamilton, his son, and a tenant witnessed an airship hovering over his cattle pen. Upon closer examination, the witnesses realized that a red "cable" from the airship had lassoed a heifer, but had also become entangled in the pen's fence. After trying unsuccessfully to free the heifer, Hamilton cut loose a portion of the fence, then "stood in amazement to see the ship, cow and all rise slowly and sail off." (Jacobs, 15) Some have suggested this was the earliest report of cattle mutilation (In 1982, however, UFO researcher Jerome Clark debunked this story, and confirmed via interviews and Hamilton's own affidavit that the story was a successful attempt to win a Liar's Club competition to create the most outlandish tall tale).
An account from Aurora, Texas (as related in the Dallas Morning News) reported that an airship had smashed into a windmill-- later determined to be a sump pump -- belonging to a Judge Proctor, then crashed. The occupant was dead and mangled, but the story reported that presumed pilot was clearly "not an inhabitant of this world." (Jacobs, 17) Strange "hieroglyphic" figures were seen on the wreckage, which resembled "a mixture of aluminum and silver ... it must have weighed several tons.""(ibid.) (In the 20th Century, unusual metallic material recovered from the presumed crash site was shown to contain a percentage of aluminum and iron admixed.) The story ended by noting that the pilot was given a "Christian burial" in the town cemetery. In 1973, MUFON investigators discovered the alleged stone marker used in this burial. Their metal detectors indicated a quantity of foreign material might remain buried there. However, they were not permitted to exhume, and when they returned several years later, the headstone -- and whatever metallic material had lay beneath it -- was gone.
There was a series of mystery airship sightings in 1909. Some came from various European locations, some from New England and from New Zealand. (Clark 2000, 123)
Later reports came from the UK in 1912 and 1913
Jerome Clark writes that "One curious feature of the post-1887 airship waves was the failure of each to stick in historical memory. Although 1909, for example, brought a flood of sightings worldwide and attendant discussion and speculation, contemporary accounts do not allude to the hugely publicized events of little more than a decade earlier." (Clark 2000, 123)
Clark writes that attempts to "uncover the truth about the late-nineteenth-century airship scare comes up against some unhappy realities: newspaper coverage was unreliable; no independent investigators ('airshipologists') spoke directly with alleged witnesses or attempted to verify or debunk their testimony; and, with a single unsatisfactory exception, no eyewitness was ever interviewed even in the 1950's, when some were presumably still living."(Clark 1998, 37)
The "single unsatisfactory example" Clark cites is a former San Francisco Chronicle employee interviewed via telephone by Edward J. Ruppelt in 1952. Ruppelt wrote that the man "had been a copy boy ... and remembered the incident, but time had cancelled out the details. He did tell me that he, the editor of the paper, and the news staff had seen 'the ship', as he referred to the UFO. His story, even though it was fifty-six years old, smacked of others I'd heard when he said that no one at the newspaper ever told anyone what they had seen; they didn't want people to think they were 'crazy.'"
Jacobs notes that "Most arguments against the airship idea came from individuals who assumed that the witnesses did not see what they claimed to see. This is the crucial link between the 1896-97 phenomenon and the modern unidentified flying object phenomenon beginning in 1947. It also was central to the debate over whether unidentified flying objects constituted a unique phenomenon." (Jacobs, 33-34)
Hoaxes or misidentification
During the 1896-1897 wave, there were many attempts to explain the airship sightings, including suggestion of hoaxes, pranks, publicity stunts and hallucinations. One man suggested the airships were swarms of lightning beetles misidentified by observers (Jacobs, 30).
Jacobs notes that many airship tales were due to "Enterprising reporters perpetrating journalistic hoaxes." (Jacobs, 16) However, Jacobs notes that many of these accounts "are easy to identify because of their tongue-in-cheek tone, and accent on the sensational." (ibid.) Furthermore, the supposed authors of many such newspaper hoaxes make their hoax obvious "by saying--in the last line--that he was writing from an insane asylum (or something to that effect)." (Jacobs, 17-18)
Some argued that the airship reports were genuine accounts. Steerable airships had been publicly flown in the US since the Aereon in 1863, and numerous inventors were working on airship and aircraft designs (the idea that a secretive inventor might have developed a viable craft with advanced capabilities was the focus of Jules Verne's 1886 novel Robur the Conqueror).
Several individuals, including Lyman Gilmore and Charles Dellschau, were later identified as possible candidates for being involved in the design and construction of the airships, although little evidence was found in support of these ideas.
Early citations of the extraterrestrial hypothesis, all from 1897, include the Washington Times, which speculated that the airships were "a reconnoitering party from Mars"; and the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, which suggested of the airships, "these may be visitors from Mars, fearful, at the last, of invading the planet they have been seeking." (Jacobs, 29) In 1909, a letter printed in the Otago Daily Times (New Zealand) suggested that the mystery airship sightings then being reported in that country were due to Martian "atomic-powered spaceships." (Clark 2000, 123)
* Clark, Jerome, Unexplained! 347 Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurrences, and Puzzling Physical Phenomena; Detroit, Visible Ink Press; 1993, ISBN 0810394367
* Dash, Mike, Borderlands: The Ultimate Exploration of the Unknown; Woodstock: Overlook Press, 2000; ISBN 0-87951-724-7
* Jerome Clark; The UFO Book: Encyclopedia of the Extraterrestrial; Visible Ink, 1998; ISBN 1-57859-029-9
* Jerome Clark, "The Extraterrestrial Hypothesis in the Early UFO Age" (pp. 122-140 in UFOs and Abductions: Challenging the Borders of Knowledge, David M. Jacobs, editor; University Press of Kansas, 2000; ISBN 0-7006-1032-4)
* David Michael Jacobs; The UFO Controversy In America; Indiana University Press, 1975; ISBN 0-253-19006-1