Macabre Grimoire Chapter 28 Victorian Mystery Airships

Hosts Ari Show, Robert Mehling, and Travis Nye

Produced by Robert Mehling 

Voice Over by Dave Holly

Opening Theme Enhance Your Starry Night by Mouthful of Bees

In 1896 and 1897, hundreds of western American newspapers reported mass sightings of fantastic, winged airships performing maneuvers years ahead of the technology of the time. In some cases, the airships landed,  and their pilots talked to witnesses. Most Americans assumed a secret inventor would soon take credit for the sightings,  but no one who did so could prove ownership of a functional flying machine. The “mystery airships” remain unidentified, constituting an early wave of UFOs before flying saucers, and almost before flight itself.    

The majority of the sightings occurred over 8 months between mid-November, 1896,  and the end of April 1897. There were hundreds of sightings, some with thousands of witnesses each.  According to newspaper reports, every attempt to verify the names of witnesses provided in newspaper reports has turned up real people.  There were more than 1200 newspaper articles published on the sightings in over 400 papers in 41 states and 6 Canadian provinces. The first sighting to make the news occurred over Sacramento, California on November 17.  The most prominent feature was a brilliant electrical light. It was not clear the light was mounted to a structure, but some saw an egg-shaped craft with four downward-facing propellers. The San Francisco Call had an image drawn of the craft, based on witness’ descriptions.   It was later reported that a similar light went the opposite direction the following night. 

The majority of papers dismissed the sightings, but a few took them seriously.  Believers assumed an inventor was testing a new design and expected him to unveil his craft at any time.  However, anyone who claimed responsibility, like the lawyer George Collins, or California’s Attorney General, William Henry Harrison Hart, later reneged on their claims.  More sightings occurred in Sacramento on November 22. This time, two lights were seen, apparently anchored to the same structure. Again, those who could see it said that it was egg-shaped, and at least one witness could see moving parts like wings or propellers.  Lights were seen in the San Francisco Bay area as well; witnesses included policemen, street-car drivers, car barn employees, their foreman, and a conductor. The mayor of San Francisco vouched for his two servants who said they’d seen lights as well.  

In the following days, similar lights were seen from San Jose to Tacoma, Washington, and even into Western Canada.  Sightings continued into December and fizzled out by the end of the year. No one took credit for them.

The airship story died by mid-December,   but on February 2, 1897, new sightings emerged in Nebraska,   then spread north and east over the next ten weeks. By mid-April, the lights were seen over Omaha, with mass sightings over;  Kansas City, Nashville, Chicago, and Evanston, Illinois; and Waterloo, Iowa. By April 20 there were sightings in Wisconsin and Indiana.   At the same time, the sightings spread southwest into Texas and Louisiana.   

By May, they had nearly ceased entirely.    In the majority of cases, witnesses saw only lights,   but those who saw structures claimed that the airships reached over 200 meters (or 650 ft) in length,    though most were between about 10 (30 ft) and 60m (200ft) long. Airships displayed a wide range of mechanisms for generating lift and propulsion:    some contained propellers and most had wings – curved, straight, flapping or fixed – and some were suspended from great balloons. Many witnesses claimed that they spoke with the pilots of landed airships.    The first pilot encounter came just two days after the first sightings over Sacramento. On November 19: Col. H. G. Shaw claimed to encounter two tall, lanky Martians who flew away silently in a football-shaped craft.    The story is likely a hoax – hoaxes directed at uncritical readers were common in 19th-century newspapers – but later stories of “close encounters” weren’t all so far-fetched.    

Most reports involved “everyday Americans” who asked for menial favors and boasted of the revolutionary potential of their experimental craft.   On April 16, 1897, a C. G. Williams of Greenville, Texas claimed he was asked to mail letters for the crew of a brilliant, lighted airship that landed in a field. The ship was cigar-shaped, with corrugated wings, a fan-like tail, and a propeller at the front.    The pilot said that he expected to “revolutionize travel and transportation” when he revealed his craft to the public.    

Two days later, Colonel Tom Peoples of Milam county, Texas saw a giant winged airship. It flew like a buzzard cast its shadow over some workers on his farm. It came to a hover over an artificial lake, then unfurled several colored banners,  and shot strange “streaks of light” into the air. In April 1897, J.B. Ligon and his son went to inspect some lights in a nearby pasture. There they found four men standing next to a “large dark object” who asked him for water. One man said that his name was Wilson and that his ship was only one of five aircraft constructed in secret.    It had four large wings like a dragonfly and propellers at its bow and stern. The next day, Sheriff H. W. Baylor met three men outside an airship landed behind his house in Uvalde, Texas, and one identified himself as Wilson of Goshen, New York. There were at least three other incidents in Texas involving a Wilson or other similar elements.    

Encounters with crewman got stranger from there.    On April 18, 1897, a Judge Love of Waxahachie, Texas,   claimed he met 5 strangely-dressed men smoking pipes in repose by a landed aircraft.    The men said they were from “the land beyond the polar seas,” and that they were descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel.    Their craft was cigar-shaped with three pairs of flapping wings. On April 19, the Dallas Morning News reported a crashed airship at Aurora, Texas.    Supposedly, a “Martian” body was recovered, as well as many fragments of metal, although no evidence of this remains today. The same day, a cattle farmer named Alexander Hamilton claimed an airship grabbed one of his cows by a noose and carried it away.    He found it apparently dropped in a nearby field, butchered. However, Jerome Clarke has provided testimony from those who claim that they or their family members conspired with Hamilton to perpetrate a hoax, as part of a liar’s club tradition.   

Those who believed in the reality of the airships were wowed by the sightings.    Some interpreted the airships as supernatural omens and credited them with the current rise in church membership. But most assumed they were experimental aircraft being tested by some secret, Edison-like inventor.    In fact, Edison was so widely believed to be the inventor, he had to make a statement in the papers denying his involvement, and casting doubt on the practicalities of flight. Denouncers assumed sightings were hoaxes or hallucinations from bad alcohol.    

To prove that people had been duped, the Peoria Transcript sent up a lighted balloon in Illinois and reported on the many witnesses who thought they had seen an airship.    However, none of these witnesses saw any structural features that were not actually there, and the balloon could only move with the wind. Yet many of the mystery lights reported had moved against the wind,    and made abrupt changes in course.    

Prof. G. W. Hough of Dearborn Observatory made statements to the press claiming that the sightings were caused by atmospheric distortions of the red-hued star Alpha Orionus, or Betelguese,    as many had seen a red light on the airship. Other authorities attributed sightings to meteors. When sightings ended in the summer of 1897, there was no consensus on what had happened,   and the story evaporated from the newspapers. When the writer Frank Edwards and astronomer Jacques Vallée resurrected it in the mid-1960s, it was still an open mystery. The scholarship since comes to no consensus.    Daniel Cohen attributes the episode to a bout of public hysteria stirred up by a few journalists’ hoaxes and supports the contemporary belief that a few railroad workers helped start the prank by relaying fake sightings between stations.   

The writer Wallace Chariton implies that the airships may have been extraterrestrial spacecraft.    Both Michael Busby and J. Allan Danelek conclude that the airships were the test craft of a secret network of experimental aeronauts ruined by some unknown disaster.    Some have attributed the airship sightings to media influence. The airship was then a common element of science fiction and featured prominently in Jules Verne’s “Robur the Conquerer” series, as well as the Thomas Edison Jr. and Frank Reade Jr. Series.    But the machines in these series more often had propellers, like modern helicopters, and only rarely flapping wings. And science fiction alone can’t explain the timing of the wave or the patterned geography of sighting reports.

   Because scholars cannot agree on an explanation, the mystery airships are typically labeled as UFOs, although exactly how they relate to the modern UFO phenomenon is debated.    There are many similarities between the two waves, especially as they appeared in media. However, it’s difficult to explain why the airships boasted so many clunky and impractical 19th-century technologies,   and so few of the mechanisms proven most effective a few years later. Jacques Vallée explains this fact by suggesting that the UFO phenomenon evolves in appearance over time to always reflect the technologies familiar to its witnesses.    

The airships boasted absurd technologies and designs by today’s standards,   but these were the most advanced that 19th-century Americans could imagine. Still, Vallée’s theories don’t explain what the airships were, or where they came from.   

More than a century later, the origin of the airships is still a mystery.    Despite several reports in which airships dropped letters, debris, anchors, and trash,    no evidence exists today but the stories in the newspapers. But whether they were real or not, the mystery airships had a strong effect in the media,    generating discussion of recent progress in aviation, and spreading hope in human ingenuity. They allowed Americans to imagine the far-reaching impact that flight would have on war, travel, commerce, and transportation. It gave them a glimpse of the revolution ahead a few years before they lived it for themselves.    But the airships didn’t simply disappear with the introduction of navigable flying machines in the early 20th century. More “phantom airships” were seen over the U.K. in 1909 and 1910, and over the U.K., Germany, Canada, and South Africa in 1912 and 13. Then, their pilots left for good; or maybe they got new ships.   

“Mystery Airship”. 2015. En.Wikipedia.Org. Accessed July 30 2019.

“Mystery Airships: Victorian Ufos!”. 2019. Youtube. Accessed July 30, 2019.

“Mystery Airship” Sightings, 1896 – 1897″. 2019. Youtube. Accessed July 30, 2019.


About the Author
Macabre Grimoire is a podcast of paranormal and mystery exploration. Psychic/medium Ari Show, magician Travis Nye, and historian Robert Mehling delve into the dark places where mysteries go unsolved, events go unexplained, and the line between legend and fact becomes obscured. Whether you're a skeptic, believer or something in between, the Macabre Grimoire will change the way you see the world.