A look at the Aurora, Texas, UFO crash, one of many sightings during the mystery airship flap of 1897.
- urban legends and uncertain truths
- Jacques Vallée
Last year, I did a podcast series about the story of the famous Goatman’s Bridge or Old Alton Bridge in Denton County, Texas, where I grew up. While I was doing that research, I came across a lot of weirdness in Denton. The area is known for being haunted, I already knew there were multiple ghost tours that operate in the city of Denton (my mom's taken one of the tours and reported back that it was great!) So the hauntings weren’t that surprising to me. However, I was really fascinated by one unexpected detail: Denton was supposedly host to a number of mysterious airship sightings in 1897. At the time, I was deep in the Goatman's Bridge series so couldn't look into it further; I made a note of it for a future episode and moved on. That was a year or so ago.
Historically, I haven’t talked about aliens or UFOs much at all on this podcast, so the Denton airship sightings have been languishing in a file, untouched. But a recent realization about a series of synchronicities has led me to feeling that I need to dig into alien lore and history a bit more.
Because of that, last month I started reading Jacques Vallée’s seminal 1969 book Passport to Magonia, which is all about the connections between fairy lore and UFO sightings.
Passport to Magonia is so famous that a lot of its contents felt very familiar to me. It’s a remarkable read, because I can’t imagine compiling the amount of information that he did—strange sightings both in folklore and in more modern times—in an era before the internet. (I also think about this all the time with regards to Charles Fort's research. I know he practically took up residence at the New York Public Library.)
The appendix of Passport to Magonia, a list of sightings from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, takes up half the book. I can only imagine how valuable a resource that was prior to the internet. To be honest, it's helpful even now, when I can easily search sightings online.
It’s completely unsurprising to me that the book is as iconic as it is. I ended up taking so many notes while reading the book that it took me a while to finish. During the time it took me to read it, I kept coming across different references to sightings that he talked about in the book. That happened in podcasts I was listening to, other books I was reading simultaneously, and conversations I saw online.
Normally, if I were reading something and then suddenly started seeing the specific things the book was about come up again and again everywhere, it would say it was synchronicity. To be clear, it wasn't that similar subjects appeared in my information diet. Again and again, I noticed people citing specific cases that appeared in Passport to Magonia (which are now so famous that in most cases, I didn't see the book mentioned as a source; that stuff's just in the zeitgeist now.)
But to bring us back to the subject at hand: The 1897 airship sightings that I had made a note to research someday popped up a lot in the book. That was another thing that felt like synchronicity, but was probably more of an indication of how significant the book is and how much of an influence it still has on conversations about the paranormal today.
While the book doesn’t talk about sightings in Denton, Texas, it does talk about some other nearby sightings that year. So I took this as a sign that I should dust off the 1897 airship topic and look into it.
When I was reading about some of the Denton airship cases online, I also came across a strange UFO case[^1] in Aurora, Texas, in a county that borders Denton County. This particular UFO crash was so significant that it's become the thing that Aurora is now known for.
This time, I'm looking at the 1897 airship flap in general as well as the Aurora UFO crash.[^2] Next time, I’ll talk about the Denton County sightings.
The 1897 airship flap
First, let’s look at how Vallée describes the events of 1897 in Passport to Magonia:
To present in an orderly fashion all the accounts of that period would itself take a book. My object here is only to review the most detailed observations of the behavior of the airship's occupants on the ground. But first, how did the object itself behave? It maneuvered very much in the way UFO's are said to maneuver, except that airships were never seen flying in formation or performing "aerial dances." Usually, an airship flew rather slowly and majestically—of course, such an object, in 1897, ran no risk of being pursued—except in a few close-proximity cases when it was reported to depart "as a shot out of a gun." Another difference from modern UFO's lies in the fact that its leisurely trajectory often took it over large urban areas. Omaha, Milwaukee, Chicago, and other cities were thus visited; each time, large crowds gathered to watch the object. Otherwise, the airship exhibited all the typical activities of UFO's: hovering, dropping "probes"—on Newton, Iowa, on April 10, for example—changing course abruptly, changing altitude at great speed, circling, landing and taking off, sweeping the countryside with powerful light beams. . . .
All the operators who engaged in discussions with human witnesses were indistinguishable from the average American population of the time.
So there’re a few interesting things here.
First, he points out that the UFOs seemed to be slow moving and didn’t shy away from urban areas. That feels like a far cry from how many sightings are described nowadays, but his point about how transportation methods have changed since then feels important.
Basically, today, we have technology that allows us to move quickly in pursuit of any kind of flying object in the sky. But back then, that wasn’t a concern—human tech just wasn't there. So, theoretically, any extraterrestrial visitors could take their time and know that they weren’t about to get chased down by some jets.
I also wonder how much of this has to do with the differences in technology from a practical standpoint (people theoretically being able to chase slow-moving aliens down) versus from a cultural standpoint.
What I mean by that is: How much of the difference in sightings is due to calculations on the part of the craft’s pilots, and how much of it is due to how people perceive things at the time? In a world where there aren’t jets and airplanes, a even slow-moving object in the sky might seem nearly magical.
How much of our experience of UFOs is about the actual objects in the sky? How much of it is about our own perception and the culture that we live in?
In Passport to Magonia, Vallée addresses that specifically:
In the Flying Saucer Review, Jerome Clark observes that "the 1897 wave indicates the futility of any attempt to divorce flying objects from the general situation in which they operate." This makes the study of such objects infinitely broader than the simple investigation, in scientific terms, of a new phenomenon; for if the appearance and behavior of the objects are functions of our interpretation at any particular time in the development of our culture, then what chances can we have of ever knowing the truth?
I love this question. I’m not interested in the nuts-and-bolts interpretation of UFOs; I like weird, paranormal, magical theories about UFOs. So it’s fascinating how our perception of flying objects changes over time.
The mystery airship wave began in 1896 in California. After that, reports began to appear throughout the country, apparently moving eastward. (Passport to Magonia includes a helpful map of sightings.)
Some of the sightings seemed to be unidentified lights, but a lot of them sound reminiscent of dirigibles or airships. Typically, the reports said that the pilots seemed basically human. Many people thought that these airships were the work of some sort of genius inventor. Apparently so many people believed that Thomas Edison was behind them that he actually had to issue a statement saying that he was not involved. That being said, there were some people who had more outlandish theories, such as the idea that the airships had flown here from Mars.
While some (mundane) airships had been flown before this flap, no airships existed that were able to maneuver the way these crafts did.
At the time, skeptics tried to claim that these were just hoaxes and pranks or that people were hallucinating or that they were seeing huge swarms of fireflies and thinking they were airships. It definitely seems like there could have been some yellow journalism going on here, because this was the era of making up stories to sell newspapers.
Do I think that every airship report in 1897 was true? No. Do I think that all of the airship reports were made up? Also no.
The 1897 Aurora, Texas, UFO crash
This brings us to Aurora, Texas.
Despite being from the area, I had not been familiar with Aurora at all before doing this research. For reference, the town is about 20 miles northwest of Dallas.
Aurora is a small town of only about 1,400 people (as of 2020). People know about Aurora because of the UFO crash, which happened in April 1897. Local legend has it that the pilot of the UFO was even buried in the local cemetery.
Interestingly, the town seems to have fully embraced the urban legend. According to Wikipedia, at some point, the official city website mentioned the UFO story and contained images of an alien, though the website has since been updated with a new logo that contains just a windmill (though a windmill is involved in the UFO story).
But you can still find the more far-out logo elsewhere online. If you search Aurora, Texas, one of the main things that comes up is a smallish billboard of the town logo, which is in a sort of stenciled serif type with some swirls. One of the swoops on the logo leads to the UFO, almost as if it's a trail left by the craft. Then in small type down below, it says "a legendary western town." Also, in the picture I found, the billboard with the logo stands next to a metal UFO sculpture, a windmill, and a cutout of an alien waving or maybe flashing a peace sign.
Outside the town cemetery, there's also a historical marker that includes a mention of the UFO as well as some of the town's other tragedies. In reading this, I noticed there were a lot of rough moments in the town's history. I wondered whether the story of the UFO was just a nicer way to connect to and be proud of the town's history. I recently read an excellent article in Smithsonian Magazine by Joseph P. Laycock about cryptid festivals and small towns with tragic histories, and I think something similar might be in play here:
To me, what makes monster festivals strange are not the creatures they celebrate, but rather the way they facilitate the intermingling of cultures that have traditionally defined themselves in opposition to each other.
The conventional wisdom is that struggling small towns should appeal to a nostalgic time when America was more conservative, more Christian and simpler – not stranger. To be sure, monster festivals always attract local families with smiling children. But to bring in tourism dollars, they have to draw other elements not easily reconciled with what architecture professor Kirin J. Maker calls “the myth of main street.”
There certainly exists what might be called a “cryptozoology tribe” that turns out for these festivals – cryptid fan culture has heavy overlap with horror movie fans, conspiracy theorists and a “psychobilly” aesthetic. Black T-shirts, tattoos and patches for “The Misfits” abound.
These eccentric tastes may be part of the reason small towns usually don’t invest in monster festivals until they have to. The mutation of monsters from bizarre police reports into emblems of the community seems to go hand in hand with the destruction of small town economies by the forces of globalization and urbanization.
. . . At the same time, these festivals draw middle-class urbanites like myself who want to learn more about places that many Americans have forgotten about or fail to understand.
While there isn't (to my knowledge) a UFO-related festival in Aurora, their UFO sculpture has a similar vibe.
To get a sense of some sadder parts of Aurora's history, here's a little bit of what the historical marker says:
An epidemic which struck the village in 1891 added hundreds of graves to the plot. Called "Spotted Fever" by the settlers, the disease is now thought to be a form of meingitis [sic]. Located in Aurora Cemetery is the gravestone of the infant Nellie Burris (1891-1893) with its often-quoted epitaph: "As I was so soon done, I don't know why I was begun." This site is also well-known because of the legend that a spaceship crashed nearby in 1897 and the pilot, killed in the crash, was buried here. Struck by epidemic and crop failure and bypassed by the railroad, the original town of Aurora almost disappeared, but the cemetery remains in use with over 800 graves.
So what happened in Aurora? The story goes that in April 1897, in the middle of this pretty big flap of UFO sightings around the country, a UFO came to Aurora (which at the time was an even smaller town with a population of 237 people).
Apparently the craft was damaged. It was chugging along at 10 to 12 miles an hour and was losing altitude. Some accounts said that the craft was shaped like a cigar and that it emitted a bright light.
The UFO went over the public square, and then exploded when it hit the windmill of Judge Proctor, scattering debris everywhere. It also destroyed the windmill, a water tank, and the judge's flower garden.
There were also some vague descriptions of the alien's remains. He was "badly disfigured" in the accident, but observers were able to see enough of him to believe that he was not from Earth. (I'm not sure how they determined that.) A local signal service officer claimed that the alien was from Mars.
Also, papers with a sort of hieroglyphic text were supposedly found on the pilot's body.[^3] The craft was made out of an unknown metal that looked kind of like a mix of silver and aluminum, and it was said to weigh several tons. Everyone in the area came out to see the crash, and then they held a funeral for the pilot the next day.
In 1973, a reporter named Jim Marrs[^4] visited the Aurora Cemetery in search of the pilot's grave. He said he found it; it was a rough headstone made out of rock that was half missing. But he said that the half that remained bore a carved design that looked like part of a saucer with little portholes (so like the standard 20th century flying saucer image). That struck me as a bit odd, if the tombstone was supposed to have dated to the 19th century. He said the grave was not full size, but would have fit a child.
Another journalist brought a metal detector to the grave and said he suspected that it contained "at least three large pieces of metal." Later on, though, that same journalist went back to the grave—again with a metal detector—and he couldn't detect anything anymore. He saw a metal pipe that had been stuck into the ground and he suspected that someone had maybe used that to get the metal pieces out of the grave. (Though I have no idea how that'd work.)
Then, sometime in the 1970s, someone stole the grave marker and the plot's location was lost. Investigators have used radar to find an unmarked grave in that general area that they think he was buried. But the Aurora Cemetery Association has said they don't want researchers to exhume the grave (which seems fair to me).
Over the years, there have been various debunkings. One theory about the 1897 flap claimed that it was actually caused by a secret society of airship builders, the Sonora Aero Club, who were based in California.
Apparently the club was kept secret for decades, and only came to light when someone found intricate drawings of airships in an antique store in Houston in the 1960s. The 2004 book Solving the 1897 Airship Mystery by Michael Busby apparently talks about that in detail, so check that out for details.
It's worth noting, however, that the existence of the club is up for debate; The Atlantic published an article about it in 2013 called The Airship Club That Might Never Have Existed (paywalled).
The article gives a basic rundown of the supposed club:
They called themselves the Sonora Aero Club and, over time, they counted some 60 members, possibly many more. Their ranks included great characters, such as Peter Mennis, inventor of the Club's secret "Lifting Fluid," later described as "a rough Man, whit as kind a heart as to be found in verry few living beengs," despite being "adicted to strong drink" and "Flat brocke." The Aero Club's rules: Roughly once a quarter, each member had to stand before the gathered group and "thoroughly exercise their jaws" in telling how he would build an airship.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I wasn't able to read the whole article; it's paywalled and I wasn't able to access it through any of the New York Public Library's newspaper databases.)
Another story goes that S.E. Hayden, the man who first wrote the article about the crash, made it up. According to a 1979 Time magazine article, an 86-year-old resident name Etta Pegues said: "Hayden wrote it as a joke and to bring interest to Aurora. . . . The railroad bypassed us, and the town was dying. . . . People wish so hard the story was true they really start believing it. Why, the judge never even had a windmill."
Was she right, and it was all a hoax? Who knows, but it's perhaps worth nothing that she was four years old at the time of the crash, so probably didn't have clear memories of the event itself. My guess is that she relied on the stories that her family and neighbors told her when she got older, and who knows whether those individuals had a vested interest in hiding the truth. (I wonder whether, after excitement about the initial 1897 flap faded away, people might have been embarrassed to have talked about their own visitor, and started to deny it. But I'm just speculating here.)
Whether or not it's true, it's still a fascinating bit of a small town's history. And it leads us right into the Denton airship sightings, which I'll talk about in the next episode, the week after next.
[^1] The Aurora case is well-known enough to have inspired a 1986 movie about it called The Aurora Encounter.
[^2] By the way, I will talk a bit more about the Aurora case in the next episode, because after I was done recording this week's episode, I realized that I completely forgot to talk about the MUFON report on the Aurora crash. I literally had it open in a tab on my browser, and yet . . . forgot about it. ADHD is wild, y'all.
[^3] A quick source note: a lot of the info in this episode came from a great article in TexasHillCountry.com. I included that in the show notes, so check that out for more info. It's a really interesting read.
[^4] I didn't realize how funny it is that a man named Marrs investigated the case of this possible UFO pilot from Mars until I read this out loud for the episode. Is this a wild synchronicity, or possibly a thematic pseudonym?