Thursday, December 10, 2015

Airship Crash in Aurora, TX - April 17, 1897

Aurora Cemetery Est. 1861
Recently, we traveled to the town of Aurora, Texas to visit the Aurora Cemetery. It is mentioned on the Texas Historical Marker at the entrance that this site is "...well-known because of the legend that a spaceship crashed nearby in 1897 and the pilot, killed in the crash, was buried here."  I had heard of this hoax for many years, and since we were in the area, we needed to visit this unique burial site.

Aurora Cemetery Historical Marker: The oldest known graves here, dating from as early as the 1860’s, are those of the Randall and Rowlett families. Finis Dudley Beauchamp (1825-1893), a confederate veteran from Mississippi, donated the 3-acre site to the newly-formed Aurora lodge No 479, A.F. & A.M., in 1877. For many years, this community burial ground was known as Masonic Cemetery. Beauchamp, his wife Caroline (1829-1915), and others in their family are buried here. 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 have been a form of meningitis. 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. Veterans of the Civil War, World Wars I and II, and Korean and Vietnam conflicts are interred here.

UFO Sightings Prior to Aurora Airship Crash

On April  19, 1897 the Dallas Morning News published an article entitled "A Windmill Demolishes It" about an airship that crashed into Judge Proctor's windmill in Aurora, TX demolishing the craft and killing the pilot.  The article went on to report that papers found on the pilot were written in "some unknown hieroglyphics, and can not be deciphered".  The wreckage was made of an "unknown metal that resembled a mixture of aluminum and silver", and since the damage was so extensive the mode of power could not be determined.  A local official, Mr. T. J. Weems, gave his opinion that the pilot was a native of the planet Mars.  The pilot's funeral would be held at noon the following day.

This was the story published on page five of the Dallas Morning News along with fifteen other stories of "airship" sightings around Texas.  This article was unique since it was the only article that mentioned a crash and a dead pilot.  Prior to this date, there had been a rash of "airship" sightings, and on the 16th of April an article appeared in the Dallas Morning News, "Sighting the Air Ship - A Mysterious Traveler of the Skies Seen at Weatherford, Corsicana, and Cresson", that included drawings of the airships spotted by several witnesses.

Drawings published in Dallas Morning News, April 16th and 17th, 1897.
The title of page five was "The Great Aerial Wanderer", and included sightings that were as diverse and different as the drawings seen above.  These articles included several encounters with the airship crews.  For example, in Stephenville, TX a witness, Mr. C. L. McIlhany, found the sixty-foot long cigar-shaped airship on the ground and even encountered the pilot and engineer, S. E. Tilman and A. E. Dolbear.  The crew reported that they "had been making an experimental trip to comply with a contract with certain capitalists of New York, who are backing them."  The crew made the necessary repairs, boarded the ship, and took off.

The next article, "A Judge Sees It", from Waxahachie, also included an encounter with the crew.  Judge Love and Mr. Beatty were on a fishing trip when they spotted a "queer-looking" machine in the woods.  As the Judge recounts, as they drew closer they saw five "peculiarly dressed men" stretched out on furs smoking pipes.  One of them called out, 'Come on and join us'.  Again the body of the airship was cigar-shaped, but only thirty-two feet long.  The leader of the group told them that the airship was capable of 250 mph, but their normal speed was 125 to 150 miles an hour.  They said that they were from a region of the north pole, and were descendants of the ten tribes of Israel.  They had built 20 of these airships and sent 10 to Europe and 10 to the United States.  These twenty airships planned to meet in Nashville at the Centennial Exposition on June 18 & 19.  After their discussion, the crew boarded their airship and took off for Waco.

Another "close encounter" was reported in Greenville, TX by C. G. Williams.  He reported that he found a thirty-foot long cigar-shaped aircraft on the ground which had apparently broken down.  The crew consisted of three men and were found working to repair their airship.  Mr. Williams interviewed the captain, and he stated that they were from a little town in New York, and were testing the airship when it encountered problems.  Before the airship took off, one of the men handed Mr. Williams some letters to mail.  He told him to keep his silence since this invention would revolutionize travel and transportation, and if C. G. kept quiet that they would return and give him a trip to Mexico and South America for his silence.

The majority of other articles on page five are sightings of airships flying overhead.  These include sightings in Savoy, Manor, Ladonia, Cameron, Granbury, West, Hillsboro, Padi, and Wortham Texas.  The next to last article on this page mentioned that some Bonham capitalists were applying for a charter for the "Bonham, Ivanhoe and Lamasco Airship Transportation Company".  They were planning to fly passengers and cargo between these cities.  One problem they had encountered was insufficient air buoyancy for a five-mile distance in the Ivanhoe area which is needed to float airships.  This article was authored by Julius (not Jules) Verne.  Bonham wasn't alone, inventor Dr. Charles Albert Smith of San Francisco formed the Atlantic and Pacific Aerial Navigation Company, and planned to fly his airship between San Francisco and New York in 40 hours.

Several reported sightings and encounters prior to the 19th were just as entertaining.  One of my favorites was the sighting in Farmersville, TX where men were seen in it and heard singing "Nearer My God to Thee". The airship contained two men, and a large Newfoundland dog.  The witness, City Marshal Brown, "was close enough to them to hear them talk, but could not understand one word of their language.  He is of the opinion they are Spaniards." The article was published in the Dallas Morning News on April 18, 1897, and authored by R. Porter.  I wonder if that name is short for RePorter.  Additionally, a Walter Williams was camped on a hill outside of Hillsboro, TX, and was awoken by music coming from an airship playing the tune "Coronation".  Could he have mistakenly heard the five-tone solf├Ęge, Re, Mi, Do, Do, So as heard in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind".

The Dawning of Manned Flight

1897 was the dawn of manned flight, and there were many legitimate reports of men building motorized airships (airplanes), and attempting to concur the air.  By this time, men such as Samuel Pierpont Langley had made several successful attempts at powered (unmanned) flight.  Yet, no one had built a manned powered flight.  This didn't occur until August 14, 1901 when Gustave Whitehead flew his Number 21 airplane in Fairfield, Connecticut.  Or, as most people accept, the Wright brothers flew 856 days later in Kitty Hawk, NC on December 17, 1903.

One inventor working on airships was federal prisoner, S. E. Knight (or S. C. McKnight), in Paris, TX. According to the Dallas Morning News, January 5, 1897, he "has interested a large motor company of New York in the scheme and they are convinced, he says, of the feasibility of his scheme to that extent that they are backing him financially."   McKnight had served a two-year sentence for murder, and was "released on bond" and under the supervision of US Marshal Williams in Paris, TX as reported on April 10, 1897. Research proved that James Shelby "Sheb" Williams was appointed US Marshal in 1894, and lived in Paris, TX at the time, but I failed to locate an S. C. or S. E. McKnight or Knight around that period of time. The April 10th article is the last mention I could find of Mr. McKnight.

The Aftermath

Like most clusters of UFO sightings, they tend to come and go, ebb and fall.  There doesn't appear to be any follow-up article on the crash of an airship in Aurora until Frank X. Tolbert, Tolbert's Texas published an article in the Dallas Morning News on January 4, 1967.  The article entitled "Did Plane Crash In Texas in 1897?" retells the original story published in 1897, and ponders the question "why did whole towns, such as the good folks in Aurora claim they saw the airship? The next time I'm in Aurora I'm going to make some inquires about that alleged funeral of the out-of-this-world pilot".  Mr. Tolbert continued to publish articles about Aurora on seven other occasions until his death in 1984.

Interest seemed to peek in the mid-seventies when curiosity seekers and the UFO group descended on the town of Aurora.  Groups searched Judge James Spencer Proctor's (1837-1917) property for pieces of wreckage.  The original article claimed that the airship had crashed into a windmill located on his property, but others claim that Judge Proctor didn't have a windmill.  Another "fact" for fodder is the Mr. T. J. Weems, US Signal Service Officer, mentioned in the article.  There was indeed a Thomas J. Weems in nearby Rhome, TX in 1910 and 1920, however, he was a grocer in one census and a blacksmith in the other.

In the article "The Tale That Wouldn't Die" by Brad Bailey published April 7, 1983 in the Dallas Morning News, Mrs. Etta Pegeus, Wise County Historian, believes that the original author of the 1897 article, S. E. Hayden, was a resident of Aurora at the time, and since the town had fallen on hard times he concocted the story to put Aurora back on the map.  Aurora had been bypassed by the railroad, and the boll weevil had wreaked havoc on the cotton crop.  To top it off, Hayden had also lost his wife and two sons to the Spotted Fever epidemic of 1891.  Mrs. Pegeus suggest that as a result of Mr. Hayden's hardships he had written the article to attract outsiders back to Aurora.
Author of  "A Windmill Demolishes It"
If Mr. Haydon had lost his wife and two sons, there is a good chance they were buried in the Aurora Cemetery or in Wise County.  This cemetery has been well-indexed, and there are no Haydon's or Hayden's buried in this cemetery, and none have been indexed in Wise County at this time.  Two families with a name similar to Hayden or Haydon were found in Wise County in 1900, but none were located in Aurora or had given names similar to S. E..  There is the possibility that S. E. Haydon is the pen name used by a local resident or reporter.

The true author of this hoax is a mystery, but if you run the name through an Anagram Server you will get the words Shady One.  It doesn't really matter, because the true author accomplished his goal after all these years because they succeeded in attracting many visitors and us to Aurora, TX.

Grave Site of Spaceman

If you plan to visit the Aurora Cemetery, you will find the supposed burial site in the southwest corner of the cemetery in a grove of live oaks.  The photos above were taken at two different angles of the same location.  In the lower photo, my wife, daughter, and dog are standing where the tombstone was located.  While you're there, look for the gravesite of Loreta - The Worlds Talking Bird (1958-1963).  We didn't have any luck finding the tombstone.

Happy Trails

1 comment:

  1. Try or any of the other online newspapers.