Numerous individuals throughout the United States purportedly witnessed anomalous aerial phenomena between the latter half of 1896 and the early months of 1897. In most cases, these sightings involved observing unidentified lights at night. However, more detailed testimonies described vessels akin to dirigibles. Accounts of the purported crew members and pilots often depicted them as possessing human-like features, though at times, they purported to be of Martian origin. During the late 19th century, the first visualizations of Mars' surface were obtained with the aid of telescopes. These initial images prompted the initial attribution of the foreign terrain to a thriving Martian civilization, which ultimately proved to be erroneous.
Most journalists did not give the reports of airship sightings during the period much weight. After the prominent wave of 1896-1897 ended, the topic faded from public awareness. It was not until the mid-1960s, when the newspaper reports from 1896-1897 were again brought to light, that airships received renewed attention. UFO investigators theorized that these airship sightings may have served as early precedents for the post-World War II UFO sightings.
During the years preceding the airship sightings, numerous well-received novels revolving around airships and their enigmatic creators were published. Works of science fiction that featured extraterrestrial beings and spacecraft also gained significant popularity during this time, with some even being serialized in the local San Francisco Newspaper. The late 19th century was characterized by a period of fervent technological advancement, exemplified by the invention of the telephone and the automobile. The widespread dissemination of literature pertaining to heavier-than-air flight during this era led to a widespread belief that the realization of such a feat was in close proximity.
In 1896, reports emerged in California, followed by reports of airships traveling east across the nation. During this period of airship sightings, certain accounts asserted that occupants were discernible on some airships, and interactions with the pilots were also witnessed. These occupants frequently displayed human-like characteristics, although their conduct, affectations, and attire were occasionally described as peculiar. On occasions, the purported humans identified themselves as inhabitants of the planet Mars.
Historian Mike Dash described and summarized the 1896–1897 series of airship sightings, writing:
The general conclusion of investigators was that a considerable number of the simpler sightings were misidentifications of planets and stars, and a large number of the more complex the result of hoaxes and practical jokes. A small residuum remains perplexing.
The 1896-1897 series of sightings occurred in two distinct phases, one primarily in California during the latter part of 1896 and the other in the central and eastern regions of the United States in the spring of 1897. The cumulative count of reported sightings reached the thousands, with an estimated total of witnesses exceeding 100,000 based on newspaper accounts.
The First Wave-1896
Between November and December of 1896, numerous sightings of unidentified watercraft were recorded along the western coast of the United States. Initial reports from newspaper sources suggested the possibility that these vessels were the result of a flight experiment conducted by an inventor.
According to the first witnesses of these sightings in Sacramento, California, a light was observed moving gradually over the city during the evening of November 17 at an estimated altitude of 1,000 feet. Several individuals claimed to have observed a dark outline behind the light while describing the craft as powered by two individuals pedaling on bicycles. It was also noted that a passenger compartment was situated above the pedaling men, concealed beneath the main body of the dirigible. Additionally, a light was affixed to the front end of the airship. Some witnesses even reported hearing singing as the vessel passed overhead.
The subsequent witness in Stockton, California, described the object as possessing a metallic surface with no discernible features except a rudder and pointed ends. He estimated its diameter to be 25 feet and its total length around 150 feet. According to the witness, three slender beings, standing 7 feet tall, presumably of extraterrestrial origin, approached the vessel while emitting an unfamiliar warbling sound. The entities allegedly inspected Mr. Shaw's carriage and then attempted to coerce him to accompany them onto their aircraft physically. However, the aliens ultimately relinquished their attempts upon realizing their inability to overpower Mr. Shaw. They purportedly retreated to their ship, which lifted off the ground and vanished from sight. Mr. Shaw speculated that the beings were Martians commissioned to abduct humans for enigmatic but potentially malevolent reasons. Some have interpreted this event as an early instance of extraterrestrial abduction; indisputably, it is the first documented portrayal of extraterrestrial beings overtly endeavoring to abduct humans into their spacecraft.
The Second Wave 1897
The year 1897 marked the occurrence of the second series of unidentified flying objects, or airships, in the Central and Eastern United States. These sightings took place from January until late May of that same year. A report from Aurora, Texas, which appeared in the Dallas Morning News on April 19th, detailed the event of an airship colliding into a windmill owned by Judge Proctor and subsequently crashing. The occupant was killed and suffered severe injuries, but according to the account, the presumed pilot was described as being "of extraterrestrial origin." Additionally, the debris of the wreckage displayed peculiar "hieroglyphic" symbols and was composed of "aluminum and silver, weighing several tons." The report concluded by mentioning that the pilot was given a "formal Christian burial" in the town cemetery. One of the most interesting features of this account is the presence of hieroglyphic writing on the ship, as this was a distinct feature of both the Roswell, NM crash of the 1940s and the Kecksburg, PA crash of the 1960s.
An account, purportedly provided by Alexander Hamilton of Leroy, Kansas, was documented on or around April 19, 1897, and subsequently appeared in the Yates Center Farmer's Advocate issue of April 23. As stated in the account, Hamilton, accompanied by his son and a tenant, allegedly bore witness to an airborne vessel hovering over his livestock enclosure. After conducting a thorough investigation, it was made known to the witnesses that a crimson "rope" from the vessel had ensnared a cow but had also become entangled in the enclosure's fencing. Despite their efforts to extricate the cow, Hamilton eventually resorted to severing a section of the fencing in order to free the animal. Upon witnessing the event, Hamilton said he "stood in utter disbelief as the vessel, cow, and associated debris ascended slowly and drifted away." Due to its fantastical nature, some have theorized that this was the earliest reported account of cattle mutilation. It wasn't until 1977, however, that UFO researcher Jerome Clark discredited this story and, after conducting interviews and obtaining Hamilton's signed affidavit, asserted that the account was fabricated as part of a successful effort to claim victory in a competition amongst the Liar's Club to develop the most far-fetched tall tale.
Hoaxes, Mass Hysteria, or UFOs?
What really happened during this time? Dirigibles, or lighter-than-air aircraft, were first invented in the 1700s, making aerial flight a reality for over 100 years. Were these accounts really fabrications? Could “yellow journalism be to blame”? yellow journalism is the practice of falsifying news stories to gain more readers. Maybe the advancement in technology that was sweeping the nation caught the attention of alien species who came to take a look. We may never know.