UFO Fever in America’s Historical Newspapers: The Mysterious Airships of 1896-97

Before Roswell and Area 51, before the Wright Brothers and heavier-than-air flying machines, America’s attention was seized by reports of a “mysterious airship.” For five months beginning in November 1896, newspapers across the country described strange aircraft and lights in the night sky above many Western states.  Although the country was not without its skeptics, and opportunists, by April 1897 much of the Midwest was afflicted with UFO fever.

On November 23, 1896, a story originally reported by the San Francisco Chronicle was picked up by many newspapers across the United States. Under various headlines—such as “All in the Air: A Mysterious Airship Puzzles the People of California” (Minneapolis Journal), “Airship a Fact: A Son of Maine has Mastered the Secret” (Boston Daily Journal), and “An Airship: Residents of Sacramento, Cal., Are Treated to a Rare Sight; Aerial Navigation a Reality” (Cleveland Plain Dealer)—the newspapers all reported the same general story.

About 1 o’clock last Monday morning the inhabitants of Sacramento, who were astir at that hour, claim to have seen an airship passing rapidly over the city. Some merely said they saw a bright light, while others went so far as to say they saw a cigar-shaped flying machine and heard human voices from it. The residents of Oakland also say they saw the same sight a few nights ago. (Duluth News Tribune, November 23, 1896)

Presumably in hopes of dissuading their readers of the notion the story was simply a hoax, most of the newspapers also included the following quote from the inventor’s attorney, George D. Collins:

It is perfectly true that there is at last a successful airship in existence and that California will have the honor of bringing it before the world. I have known of the affair for some time and am acting as attorney for the inventor. He is a very wealthy man who has been studying the subject of flying machines for fifteen years and who came here seven years ago from the state of Maine in order to be able to perfect his ideas away from the eyes of other inventors. During the last five years he has spent at least $100,000 on his work. He has not yet secured his patent, but his application is now in Washington. I cannot say much about the machine he has perfected, because he is my client and, besides, he fears that the application will be stolen from the patent office if people come to know that his invention is practicable. I saw the machine last week, at the inventor’s invitation. It is made of metal, is about 150 feet long and is built to carry fifteen persons. There was no motive power as far as I could see; certainly no steam.

It is built on the aeroplane system, and has two canvas wings eighteen feet wide, and a rudder shaped like a bird’s tail. The inventor climbed into the machine and after he had been moving about the mechanism a moment, I saw the thing begin to ascend from the earth, very gently. The wings flapped slowly as it rose, and then a little faster as it began to move against the wind. (Sioux City Journal, November 23, 1896)

The Sioux City Journal continued, quoting Attorney Collins:

The reports from Sacramento, the other night, were true. It was my client’s airship that the people saw. It started from Orovill, in Butte County, and flew sixty miles in a straight line directly over Sacramento. After running up and down once or twice over the capital, my friend came right on a distance of another fifty miles and landed at a spot on the Oakland side of the bay, where the machine now lies, guarded by three men. The inventor found during his trial trip that his ship had a wave-like motion that made him seasick. It is this defect that he is now remedying.

On the following day, Nov. 24, 1896, the Bismarck Daily Tribune offered additional information about both the inventor and the latest test flight, again quoting Attorney Collins:

The inventor of the mysterious airship, which has been puzzling local scientists and others for the past week, is believed to be one “Dr. E.H. Benjamin,” an alleged dentist, who occupied rooms in an Ellis Street lodging house for the past two years, but so far, he has successfully evaded all attempts to discover his identity. His attorney, Collins, when seen and pressed to tell more about the machine and its inventor, said: “This morning the inventor came to my office in the Crocker building, and told me he had tested the merits of the ship in last night’s storm, with the greatest success…He hovered over Seal Rocks for fully 10 minutes, and played his searchlight on the seals themselves.”

However, in its conclusion, the same Bismarck Daily Tribune expressed some doubt about the reports:

A dispatch was received from Sacramento to the effect that hundreds of people there had again seen the mysterious meteor in the heavens, but as yet no one has been able to see the object sufficiently well to state definitely what it is.

Within a week, on November 19, 1896, The Sunday Oregonian printed an article, “The Lair of the Faker,” exposing the mysterious airship as a prank and seemingly putting an end to the charade. The Oregonian article also contains a vitriolic critique of California’s inhabitants and the state of journalism in its neighbor to the south:

The fake flourishes through all the school of journals that imitate the New York World, which first used it as constant and simple stock in trade; but it has reached its most luxuriant development in San Francisco, whose newspapers print little else. It is easy to understand from the history and social conditions of California, why it should afford a soil peculiarly adapted to fake cultivation. California society unites, strangely enough, many of the human sentiments and susceptibilities of the barbaric state with those of an overripe civilization. Some forty-five years ago there was a sudden relapse there of civilized man into the conditions of primitive savagery, followed by a superficial return to civilized manners and a swift decay of human vigor, accompanied with all the morbid symptoms of racial senile gangrene that mark a declining civilization. This rapid growth and decay accomplished in one generation the work of centuries of race development in other peoples, bringing the primitive brutality of the Sabine rapture and the inconceivable degeneration of the sixth satire of Juvenal within the scope of a single life.This produced a peculiar mental receptivity of marvelous, horrible and obscene fiction, by uniting in the typical Californian of today the credulity of the barbarian with the depraved taste of over mature civilization. He will believe any lie, but he likes best lies well spiced with horror and indecency.

After having shown “how universal is the fake spirit in California,” the Oregonian author turned his attention to the immediate “fake,” the mysterious airship:

Wide attention has been drawn to the newspaper story sent out from San Francisco of a mysterious airship, invented by a man from Maine, built in secret and launched from a retired spot south of San Francisco, whence it made long voyages back and forth over the length of the state… [T]old with a clumsy imitation of all Swift’s wealth of detail, including an interview with the “counsel” of the inventor – a lawyer who afterward denied all knowledge of either inventor or airship. But it was swallowed gluttonously by the people of California, who blocked the streets nightly to imagine that they saw the “oblong white body, enveloped in dim light,” as it traveled to and fro in the air. Apparently Californians are still gaping up into the empty night, though the falsity of the story has been proved. Of course, no person of intelligence ever believed it.

For several months after The Sunday Oregonian article, reports of mysterious airship sightings became scarce, suggesting it had, in fact, been a hoax. Either that or it had been flying over unpopulated areas while traversing the Rocky Mountains because by spring it was back in the news, this time over Omaha, Nebraska.

On March 30, 1897, the Idaho Daily Statesman published an article under the headline, “Saw the Airship: Reputable Omaha Citizens Witness the Passage of the Aerial Flyer,” claiming the mysterious airship “came into view in the southeastern portion of the horizon. It was in the shape of a big, bright light, too big for a balloon, and glowed steadily.”
Four days later, on April 3, 1897, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported another sighting:

That mysterious airship still continues to show itself in the West. It was first seen in California, and it has now reached Kansas. With rare modesty it only makes its appearance at night, and then but little of it is visible except the lights that are on board of it. The fact that the scores of people who have seen it at different times all agree in the descriptions which they furnish is certainly something in favor of the truth of the story. As the inventor appears to be working his way East, we, in this latitude, may soon have the opportunity of adding to the number of observers.

Unfortunately for residents of Philadelphia hoping to catch a glimpse of the mysterious airship, it allegedly turned south and was next seen above Guthrie, Oklahoma, on April 6. The Dallas Morning News published an article on April 8 titled, “Strange Object Seen: And There Shall Be Signs Seen in the Heavens;” describing the encounter:

Soon a bright light was seen at the front of the object, which seemed to be thrown out in different directions. Mr. Trumbull called a number of people, who watched the strange shadow object for a long time and are confident it is the mysterious airship seen at so many places during the past few weeks.

Its outlines were indistinct but a light was thrown out from the front, and at times there were flashes of light along the sides. It moved swiftly backward and forward, sank almost to the ground just north of the city, and then rose straight into the air at great speed and disappeared into the darkness of the night.

On April 14, 1897, The Philadelphia Inquirer provided additional information about the inventor and the possibility of the airship being openly displayed:

And now comes the story that the directors of the trans-Mississippi Exposition to be held at Omaha have received a communication from a man who declares that he has invented an airship, and that he will disclose his identity and come to the front if the directors will guarantee him 870,000 square feet of space. He declares that the ship will carry twenty people to a height of from ten to twenty thousand feet.

The Inquirer article notes that ideas for nearly all new forms of transportation have been greeted with skepticism, but in due time are so thoroughly integrated in our daily lives “the people who laughed at the thought will acknowledge the simplicity of the vessel and wonder why it was not constructed a century earlier.”

By mid-April 1897, the Dallas Morning News was reporting a sighting nearly every day, each often more grandiose than the last. On April 15, the Dallas Morning News described a reappearance of the mysterious airship over Denton County, Texas, by “at least two credible persons… whose reputation for truthfulness can not be assailed.” This article contained more details than nearly any published previously:

I at first thought it was a meteor… but upon closer examination discovered the unknown object to be almost stationary and focusing my [binoculars] on it, discovered that it was moving slowly in a southeasterly direction. At this slow rate of speed the ship continued its course for a few minutes, and then, with almost a jump, started off at a terrific rate and disappeared in the southeast, remaining in the range of my vision about twenty minutes.

When I first ascertained the character of the object it floated about a half-mile above the earth and seemed to be about fifty feet long, of a cigar shape with two great mugs thrust out from each side; a broad tail or steering sail behind and a long beak or blade resembling a cut-water on a ship in front. At the point where the search light threw its rays far into the night ahead, beside which even the luminosity of the moon paled. A row of windows along the side gave out smaller lights, the source of which must have been stored electricity, as there was no smoke, as well as I could see and I could see very plainly, coming from the ship, nor was there even a sign of a smoke-stack.

Two days later on April 17 the Dallas Morning News reported another detailed account of the mysterious airship, this time in Paris, Texas, about 100 miles away from Denton County. According to Mr. J.A. Black, the night watchman at the Paris Oil and Cotton Company’s plant:

I was engaged in making my usual rounds at the mill yesterday morning about 2 o’clock when I observed a faint, but luminous object in the northeast sky… I first thought it to be a meteor of gigantic proportions, and its speed appeared equal to such a planetary tramp. As it came nearer this idea was quickly dispelled. I ran to the cabin of a colored man by the name of Jim Smith… and together we viewed the aerial monster as it approached nearer. From what appeared to be at first a luminous cloud there was now clearly outlined a monster airship. Myself and the negro (Smith) were held spellbound by the sight… The ship had sails or wings outstretched on both ends there were large rotating fans projecting from the sails at an angle of about 45 degrees, the one in front being elevated, while the one at the rear was depressed, somewhat resembling the tail of a bird. We could only gain a faint idea of its accurate size, but think it must have been 200 feet long, the sails or wings constituting nine-tenths of the whole.

The cigar-shaped cabin was apparently suspended in the midst of the sails, and it was evident that the fans were propelled by some power or force located in the cabin. The noise of the propelling machinery was plainly heard as the ship sailed swiftly over us. My dog was with me when the airship was first discovered, and he immediately set up an unearthly moaning, which he continued until the curious visitor was completely lost to view. The negro was visibly affected, and being naturally superstitious lost no time in falling to his knees and offering up a prayer for the safety of himself and family. The negro even now claims the airship was none other than the return of Noah’s ark, with wing-like attachments on its way toward the Mississippi bottoms, its mission being to save the colored folks from the perils of the overflow in that section.

The following day, April 18, the Dallas Morning News located the craft approximately 40 miles west of Paris, Texas. Although sporadic reports of mysterious airship sightings over various Midwestern cities continued, and still do today, the Dallas Morning News outdid itself on the April 19, printing sixteen airship stories and filling four full columns.

Several articles in this airship section are fairly typical of previous reports, consisting of brief descriptions of the airship and the location of the sighting. For example, in “Seen at West” Prof. Hickman describes seeing an airship, “whaleback in body with bat-like wings,” which “ascended rapidly until almost out of sight” and “had almost meteor-like speed.”

In “Ladonians See It,” the airship is described as “a mammoth alligator with wings outstretched.” The article “A Bank Cashier Sees It” adds an interesting twist, reporting, “Newt Gresham, captain of the Riddle Rifles and editor of the Hood County Truth, says it was a huge fish with wings.” And that Gresham “could not stand the sight of the air machine, so he ordered the company to open fire on the object, which it did, and the whole town was soon aroused.”

Other articles in this section go further than reporting mere aerial sightings; they describe downed airships and even conversations between witnesses and the airships’ crews. In “The Great Aerial Wonderer,” Mr. C.L. McIlhany claims to have spoken with an engineer and a pilot who “had been compelled to come to the ground to make some repairs on the machinery.” He continued:

[The airship] consists of a cigar-shaped body about sixty feet in length, to which is attached two immense aeroplanes, and the motive power is an immense wheel at each end, in appearance much like a metallic windmill. It is driven by an immense electric engine, which derives its power from stored batteries. [The crew reported] that they have been making an experimental trip to comply with a contract with certain capitalists of New York, who are backing them. They are confident that they have achieved a great success and that in a short time the navigation of the air will be an assured fact. They refused to have their machine critically inspected and refused to talk further as to their plans for the future. They rapidly made the necessary repairs, boarded the ship and, bidding adieu to the astonished crowd assembled, the ship rose gently in the air and sailed off in a southwesterly direction.

The article headlined “C.G. Williams Saw It” includes a similar description of an airship and conversation with the crew, who were also engaged in a secretive business venture. Oddly enough, the crew had not landed for repairs, but rather for the altogether earthly purpose of mailing some letters. However, in a final article about business opportunities presented by the airships, titled “Airship Line,” the reporting tended back toward the incredible. It described a peculiar limitation a passenger line would face:

For a distance of about five miles in the Ivanhoe country the air does not contain sufficient buoyancy to float the ships.  [The company] expect to overcome this difficulty by either bridging or tunneling. The stockholders, backed by the local newspapers, have all the necessary material on the ground to carry out the enterprise except the bridge and ships.

The last two articles from the April 19, 1897, Dallas Morning News are simply spectacular. They take us from “mysterious airships” to an unknown continent and, finally, the extraterrestrial. In “A Judge Sees It,” Judge Love tells of his conversation with an airship crew he came across while on a fishing trip. The judge offered a common description of the craft, adding it “was capable of a speed of 250 miles an hour,” before recounting what he was told by the “five peculiarly dressed men”:

We…live in the regions of the North Pole. Contrary to the general belief, there is a large body of land beyond the polar seas, containing about 250 square miles of territory. The first time this land was visited by human beings, so far as we know, was when the ten tribes of Israel found their way there after the captivity and dispersion of the Jews. According to tradition they were attempting to cross Bering Straits and were carried by a floating iceberg and landed on the shores of North Pole Land. The climate there, while at that time cold, was prevented from being uninhabitable by the influence of the gulf stream, which, after flowing for hundreds of miles many fathoms under the surface of the sea in that region, came to the surface and flows entirely around the continent of North Pole Land. You wonder how I speak English? Well, the polar expedition of Sir Hugh Willoughby in 1553, who, with his crew, was supposed to have been lost, as a matter of fact succeeded in reaching North Pole Land. The ship had been so wrecked and broken up by the voyage that Sir Willoughby and his crew were unwilling to risk a return trip; therefore they remained at North Pole Land. In the early part of 1846 Sir John Franklin’s crew reached North Pole Land. Sir John having died near what is now called Lady Franklin Bay. Sir John’s crew remained, as to return was impossible, the ship being crushed between two icebergs 100 miles from North Pole Land to which they went in boats. In addition to the foregoing, various parties in the United States and Europe from time to time reached this land in a helpless condition.

Well, we have a splendid country now. You know how buildings are heated by steam? Well, we have pipes through which steam is conveyed all over the inhabitable part of the country and the soil is kept at such a temperature that we can produce all the fruits of the temperate zone and some of the fruits of the tropics. The county is lighted by electricity during the six months of night. We have no timber and no coal. Water, as you know, is composed of two parts of hydrogen and one part oxygen. The oxygen burns very rapidly, giving out great heat. Now, by means of a chemical process, we take an iceberg, separate the hydrogen from the oxygen and use the latter for fuel and lights. For lack of timber we can not build ships or trains; therefore we were led to the invention of the airship.

While a previously unknown continent seems beyond belief, it pales when compared to the claims made in the final Dallas Morning News article of the same day. In fact, “A Windmill Demolishes It,” is not only so fantastic it is transcribed here in its entirety, but it also concludes with a non sequitur that, literally, deserves the final word.

About 6 o’clock this morning the early risers of Aurora were astonished at the sudden appearance of the airship which has been sailing through the country.

It was traveling due north, and much nearer the earth than ever before. Evidently some of the machinery was out of order, for it was making a speed of only ten or twelve miles an hour and gradually settling toward the earth. It sailed directly over the public square, and when it reached the north part of town collided with the tower of Judge Proctor’s windmill and went to pieces with a terrific explosion, scattering debris over the several acres of ground, wrecking the windmill and water tank and destroying the judge’s flower garden.

The pilot of the ship is supposed to have been the only on board, and while his remains are badly disfigured, enough of the original has been picked up to show that he was not an inhabitant of this world.

Jr. T.J. Weems, the United States signal service officer at this place and an authority on astronomy, give it as his opinion that he was a native of the planet Mars.

Papers found on his person – evidently the record of his travels – are written in some unknown hieroglyphics, and can not be deciphered.

The ship was too badly wrecked to form any conclusion as to its construction or motive power. It was built of an unknown metal, resembling somewhat a mixture of aluminum and silver, and it must have weighed several tons.

The town is full of people to-day who are viewing the wreck and gathering specimens of the strange metal from the debris. The pilot’s funeral will take place at noon to-morrow.

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