Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Flatwoods Monster

Since I was asked about this case, I thought that I would review it and see where we are on it today. I will tell you that the first thing I found was a web site promoting a book about the case (or the follow on book that is an outgrowth of this case as seen here) that I hadn’t read, though I knew about it. I wouldn’t have mentioned this, but the first thing I saw was a quote, from me, endorsing the book, using language that I wouldn’t use and failing to identify me as a retired Army officer.

Given this, I’m more than a little concerned about the validity of anything that appears in the book, or the research that produced it. Using me to endorse the book when I did no such thing suggests someone who is less than candid in other areas of research. The only question is who is responsible for the quote and why was it even put up. I’ll have more on this in a later post.

That said, I did make a new survey of various sources about the case. The Air Force file on the Flatwoods, West Virginia sighting of September 12, 1952, contains a project card, that form created at ATIC that holds a brief summary of the sighting, what the solution is if one has been offered, and other such easily condensed data. According to the project card for the Flatwoods sighting there is the notation that the case was solved by the meteor that had been reported over the east coast of the United States on September 12. In fact, the only reference to anything suggesting a creature was on the ATIC Project Card where there is the note about the "West Virginia monster, so called."

All this presents a curious problem. Clearly the Air Force had heard of the case, and just as clearly they had written it off as a very bright meteor that had been reported over the eastern sea board on September 12. There is also a note that the meteor (or meteoroid for those of a precise and technical nature) landed somewhere in West Virginia (becoming a meteorite). Apparently the Air Force believed that the "landing" of the meteorite was enough to inspire local residents to imagine a creature on the ground. And, apparently, they believed that the meteorite would account for the reports of physical evidence.

Ufologist and biologist Ivan T. Sanderson, writing in his UFO book, Uninvited Visitors was aware of both the Air Force explanation and the meteorite that had been reported. Sanderson wrote,

"...we met two people who had seen a slow-moving reddish object pass over from the east to west. This was later described and ‘explained’ by a Mr. P.M. Reese of the Maryland Academy of Sciences staff, as a ‘fireball meteor.’ He concluded - incorrectly we believe - that it was ‘traveling at a height of from 60 to 70 miles’ and was about the ‘size of your fist.’... However, a similar, if not the same object was seen over both Frederick and Hagerstown. Also, something comparable was reported about the same time from Kingsport, Tennessee, and from Wheeling and Parkersburg, West Virginia."

The whole story, as it is usually told, begins with several boys playing on a football field in Flatwoods. About 7:15 p.m., a bright red light,"rounded the corner of a hill" crossed the valley, seemed to hover above a hilltop and then fell behind the hill. One of the boys, Neil (or sometimes Neal) Nunley, said that he thought the glowing object might have been a meteorite. He knew that fragments of meteorites were collected by scientists, so he suggested they all go look for it.

As they watched, there was a bright orange flare that faded to a dull cherry glow near where the object had disappeared. As three of the boys started up the hill, toward the lights, they saw them cycle through the sequence a couple of times. The lights provided a beacon for them, showing them where the object was.

They ran up the main street, crossed a set of railroad tracks and came to a point where there were three houses, one of them belonging to the May family. Kathleen May came out of the house to learn what was happening and where the boys were going. Told about the lights on the hill, and that "A flying saucer has landed," she said that she wanted to go with them. Before they left, May suggested that Eugene Lemon, a seventeen-year old member of the National Guard (which has no real relevance to the story, but is a fact that is always carefully reported) went to look for a flashlight.

They found the path that lead up the hill, opened and then closed a gate, and continued along the winding path. Lemon and Nunley were in the lead with May, her son Eddie, following, and they were trailed by others including Ronald Shaver and Ted Neal. Tommy Hyer was in the rear, not far behind the others.

As they approached the final bend in the path, Lemon’s large dog, which had been running ahead, began barking and howling, and then reappeared, running down the hill, obviously frightened. Lemon noticed, as the dog passed him, that a mist was spreading around them. As they got closer to the top of the hill, they all smelled a foul odor. Their eyes began to water.

Some of them reported that they saw, on the ground in front of them, a big ball of fire, described as the size of an outhouse, or about twenty feet across. It was pulsating orange to red. Interestingly, although it was big and bright, not everyone in the tiny party saw it.

Kathleen May spotted something in a nearby tree. She thought they were the eyes of an owl or other animal. Nunley, who was carrying the flashlight, turned it toward the eyes. What they saw was not an animal, but some sort of creature, at least in their perception. The being was large, described as about the size of a full grown man to the waist. They could see no arms or legs, but did see a head that was shaped like an ace of spades. That was a description that would reoccur with all these witnesses. No one was sure if there were eyes on the creature, or if there was a clear space on the head, resembling a window, and that the eyes were somehow behind the that window and behind the face.

Lemon reacted most violently of the small party when he saw the object. He passed out. There was confusion, they were all scared, and no one sure what to do. The boys grabbed the unconscious Lemon and then ran.

They finally reached May’s house. Inside, they managed to bring Lemon back to full consciousness. They called others, and a number of adults arrived at the May house. The group, armed with rifles and flashlights, headed back up the hill, to search for the strange creature. None of the men seemed to be too excited about going up the hill, and in less than a half an hour, they were back, claiming they had found nothing at all.

Still others, including the sheriff, eventually arrived. Most of them didn’t bother to mount any sort of search, and the sheriff, who was clearly skeptical, refused to investigate further than talking to May and the boys. I think it is important to note here that the sheriff had been searching for a downed small aircraft reported earlier. He found no evidence of an aircraft accident and no one reported any airplanes missing. The relevance of this will become clear later.

Two newspaper reporters, apparently from rival newspapers, did, at least, walk up the hill, but they saw nothing. They did, however, note the heavy, metallic odor that had been described by May and her group.

A. Lee Stewart, Jr., one of the editors of The Braxton Democrat convinced Lemon to lead them back to the spot of the sighting. Given Lemon’s initial reaction, it says something about the kid that he agreed to do so. They found nothing and saw nothing but did smell that strange odor.

The next day, there were some follow-up investigations. Some people reported that they had found an area where the grass had been crushed in a circular pattern. Sanderson, who visited the scene a week later, said that he and his fellow investigators were able to see the crushed grass and a slight depression in the ground. No one bothered to photograph this reported physical evidence which is one of the problems that seem to flow through UFO research. No one thinks to gather the evidence when the opportunity is there even if that evidence is a photograph of the ground.

Sanderson pointed out that the other physical evidence that had been reported, skid marks on the ground, an oily substance on the grass, and the foul odor, might have been part of the environment. The type of grass growing wild in that area gave off a similar odor and the grass seemed to be the source of the oil. Sanderson said that he couldn’t find the skid marks, and knew of no one who had photographed them.

Gray Barker, a UFO researcher, also arrived a week later and coincidently on the same day as Sanderson, found others to interview. He talked with A. M. Jordan, Neil Nunley’s grandfather who said that he had seen an elongated object flash overhead. It was shooting red balls of fire from the rear and it seemed to hover before it fell toward the hilltop.

Barker also interviewed Nunley, whose description of the craft disagreed with that of his grandfather though he did say the object seemed to stop and hover before falling to the hill. I wonder if the disparity came from the different perspectives of the witnesses. Sometimes the angles from which something is viewed seems to change the shape and the direction.

When this story is reported, it always seems to end here, with the one group, lead by May and Lemon, seeing the strange creature or entity. The investigations, carried out by various civilian agencies always fails to find any proof. Many believe that if there was some corroboration, if someone else, not associated with May and her group, had seen the creature, it would strengthen the report. Several years later, a men’s magazine carried another story of the Flatwoods monster. Paul Lieb wrote that George Snitowski, was driving in the Flatwoods area with his wife, Edith, when he saw the thing on the ground.

Snitowski didn’t tell his tale until two or three years after the fact. He then told it to an officer of the Flying Saucer Research Institute who published the account in the magazine. Looking at it from that point of view, that is, a tale told long after the national publicity that was provided for May and the others, there certainly is the hint that Snitowski was influenced by those articles. There is no proof he was, only the very real possibility.

Snitowski was, according to his story, returning home with his wife and their baby when, near Sutton, West Virginia, which is not far from Flatwoods, his car engine stalled. He tried, but couldn’t get it to start and because it was getting dark, he didn’t want to leave his wife and baby alone on the semi-deserted highway. He thought they would wait for morning, and then he would walk the ten or twelve miles to the closest town, if someone didn’t come along to give them a hand before then.

Snitowski said that a foul odor began to seep into the car making the baby cry. Snitowski didn’t know what this odor was but suspected it might be a sulfur plant nearby burning waste. It was then that a bright light flashed overhead and both Snitowski and his wife were confused by it. He said later, that looking down, into the woods, he could see what he thought of as some kind of dimly lighted sphere.

Snitowski finally got out of the car and started walking toward some nearby woods where he believed the earlier light flash had originated. Inside the tree line sat the sphere. As he moved deeper into the woods, closer to the sphere, he said that his legs began to tingle, almost as if they had gone to sleep. Slightly sickened by a foul odor, barely able to walk, he began to retreat, heading toward the car.

His wife screamed, and Snitowski yelled, "Edith, for God’s sake. What’s the matter."

She was unable to speak and Snitowski saw, leaning against the hood of the car, a strange creature. He couldn’t see it well because of the lack of lighting around the area, but he thought it was eight or nine feet tall, was generally shaped like a human, with arms and a head attached to a bloated body.

Snitowski reached the car, climbed in, and grabbed a kitchen knife that he had in the glove box. He forced his wife down, to the floor and begged her to silence the crying baby. He didn’t know what to do and said that the odor was now overpowering. But then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the object, the sphere, beginning to climb erratically into the sky. It stopped to hover several times, and eventually disappeared. Suddenly it swooped, climbed upward in a bright, dazzling light, and vanished. When he looked outside the car, the creature was gone.

Not knowing why, Snitowski tried to start the car now that the object was gone. Without trouble the engine started. They drove away, found a motel and checked in. The next morning they heard about the sighting from Flatwoods, but neither wanted to tell authorities what they had seen. Snitowski said that he didn’t want his friends and neighbors to think that he was crazy. Besides, he didn’t have any evidence about the creature or the UFO. There was only his story, corroborated by his wife.

If his report is true, and there is no way, today, to learn if it is, then it makes a nice corroboration for the Flatwoods case. The problem, however, and as outlined earlier, is that the Flatwoods case was national news the day after it happened. At that point, the story was contaminated because an investigator could never be sure that Snitowski, or anyone else who came forward with a report, hadn’t been primed by the story as published in the newspapers or even seen on television.

These two reports, by Snitowski and those in Flatwoods, were not the only ones made about that strange, tall, smelly, creature. About a week earlier, according to an investigation conducted by two Californians, William and Donna Smith, a twenty-one-year-old woman, who lived about eleven miles from Flatwoods, said that she had seen the creature that gave off the horrible odor. She was so upset by the encounter, that she was hospitalized for three weeks. Like Snitowski, she wasn’t interested in publicity at the time, so when the report from Flatwoods made the news, she elected to remain silent. There was no corroborating tales to support her.

Years later, in the mid-1990s, Kathleen May Horner, was interviewed about the sighting. She told investigators that the two men that everyone thought were newspaper reporters were, in fact, government agents. She also remembered that a local reporter received a letter from some unidentified government agency that revealed the creature was some sort of rocket experiment that had gone wrong that day. There had been four such "rockets" and all of them fell back to earth.

The government agents were able to recover all but one and that one had been seen in Flatwoods. It must be noted here that there is no corroboration for this story of government intervention and that it did not surface until forty years later.

There are few points of corroboration for this tale, even among those who were together that night. The descriptions of the craft in flight sound more like a bolide, that is, a very bright meteor. Newspapers from other communities in the region report on just such a meteor. P. M. Reese from the Maryland Academy of Sciences suggested the red fireball was relatively slow moving and 60 to 70 miles high.

We know, from our studies and from the various compilations of meteor falls on YouTube, that meteors can look just like aircraft crashing. We have seen how, as they break up, it seems there is a fuselage with lighted windows on it. They look remarkably like the descriptions of some famous UFO sightings including the 1948 Chiles-Whitted UFO case.

And we know that meteors can seem to climb, though that is an optical illusion, that they can seem to hover briefly, and that they can seem to maneuver, again an optical illusion. The witness testimony here is not sufficient to reject meteor, especially when it is remembered that the object was seen over a large region, suggesting something that was very bright and very high. People looking up into the night sky are simply unable to judge height and speed with any degree of accuracy. A meteor of sufficient size and brightness was seen that night.

Even if we reject, for whatever reason, the theory that any of the Flatwoods witnesses saw a meteor, we can look at the descriptions and how they vary. Even those who trekked up the hill report things differently, from the color and shape of the craft to even whether anything was sitting on the ground up there. Sanderson reported that the object was black but glowing red and shaped like the ace of spades, but Barker said it was spherical and some of those he interviewed said they hadn’t seen it at all.

Jerry Clark reported that the witnesses stuck to their stories but that doesn’t mean what they saw was grounded in our shared reality. That they were truly frightened only suggests they were telling the truth, but not that they saw an extraterrestrial being.

As I review the literature on this, I am struck by the disparity of the witness descriptions and how these sorts of things can be overlooked. I am surprised that there are descriptions of physical remains but there is little to document evidence. I am struck by a number of witnesses who said they saw the bolide and that the bolide was what everyone saw... and yes, many believe that a bolide has landed close by when it has either burned out and not touched down or it landed hundreds of miles away. In fact, several bolides have been reported to authorities as aircraft accidents... just like the one the sheriff investigated that night.

This case seems to be the result of the bolide and the hysteria brought on UFO sightings that were headline news around the country including the impressive sightings from Washington, D.C. It seems that those who climbed the hill, believing they were going to find a landed flying saucer, talked themselves into the hysteria and when they saw something in a tree with eyes that glowed in the light of their flashlights, convinced themselves they had seen an alien creature.

And, no, I’m not happy with this resolution. It seems that it makes too many assumptions. But the evidence for a UFO sighting and a landing is very weak at best. Given the timing of the sighting, given the lack of physical evidence, given the conflicting witness statements and given the well-known bias of the original investigators, and there isn’t much left here.

But there is that quote attributed to me on one of the sites that promotes this case as extraterrestrial and fair or not, that influences my perspective. If they would manufacture this quote, what else has been manufactured and who is responsible. I have tried to communicate with them but I have heard nothing from them.

In the end, I’m afraid that the terrestrial explanation is more likely the correct one here. I’m not completely sold on it but it seems that the preponderance of the evidence suggests that. Until something changes, that’s probably where it is going to stay.


Alfred Lehmberg said...


I handle the Flatwoods Monster site in question and am aware of said quote...

The attribution for same has gotten fuzzy over the years and I am at this point unable to provide provenance for it. Mea Culpa has been declared and the quote has been taken down with prejudice as a result.

I'm getting together with Frank Feschino today and pains will be taken to get to the bottom of it, I assure you.

That said, and presuming a mistake has been made? All apologies are extended, no qualifications are offered, and sincere regrets are regretfully tendered.
>> AVG Blog --
>>> U F O M a g a z i n e --

Nick Redfern said...

Most people think my take on Flatwoods is crazy, but here it is anyway:


Alfred Lehmberg said...

My mea culpa is appropriate... and the error is _entirely_ mine.

It is based on a March 2010 thread at UFO UpDates:

"Willingham And The Del Rio Crash"

...The thread of which was prosecuted by Greg Boone, Kevin Randle, and myself.

The offending comment was _mine_ actually, and falsely attributed to Kevin Randle. I say again: Kevin Randle did _not_ make said quote.

I regret any confusion that this may have caused, my part in it, and the offended sensibilities of Kevin Randle.

All this said, Mr. Randle, Frank Feschino deeply regrets this incident also, and as a way of making amends offers you a free copy of his, still landmark, book so you might yet find a way to think something complementary about it, still.

Please E-mail me if _remotely_ interested...

All regrets and apologies, again,
>> AVG Blog --
>>> U F O M a g a z i n e --

cda said...

Wasn't Frank Feschino the one who wrote about an aerial battle the USAF had with ET craft off the east coast at about the time of the Flatwoods affair? A 'landmark' book indeed.

Alfred Lehmberg said...


>> AVG Blog --
>>> U F O M a g a z i n e --

starman said...

Kevin, what do you mean by "eyes that glowed in the light of their flashlights"? The account made it clear that they weren't sure if the creature or thing had eyes.
It wouldn't be surprising if Nick's take is crazy--what else is new, lol? I just heard he now thinks the "mars face" is real.

Nick Redfern said...


Personally, I don't think the theory in my post is crazy - or some certainly do. And yep, I do think the Face on Mars is artificial. I don't care in the slightest if people think I'm crazy or not! Far too many people in Ufology worry about what people think of them!

cda said...

It was established long ago that the 'face on Mars' is that of the guy who built the Martian canals.

But I digress from the main topic.

Lance said...

Alfred Lehmberg's (unintentional) celebration of the high standards of UFO journalism provided much amusement.


KRandle said...

There was some discussion among the witnesses if the creature had eyes or if the eyes were hidden behind a plate of glass... In a helmet?

I thought of all those nature programs filmed at night with the glow in the lights of the film makers... or those hunting crocs using lights to highlight the eyes because they glow.

So, yes, there was discussion of eyes in the material.

Paul Kimball said...

You know what's really amusing, Lance - your complete lack of empathy. So the guy made a mistake. It happens. He owned up to it, and apologized, when it was brought to his attention. What more could one ask for in the circumstances?

UFO believers might be looney at times, but it's generally speaking a good natured looniness. Disbelievers, however, seem to positively revel in being petty and mean-spirited.

Alfred Lehmberg said...

I don't "believe" in UFO's, and I'm not splitting hairs, but *something* haunts the skies above, and shames us _well_ down here.

Lance said...

I think Paul is probably right to chide me for my comment. I should have celebrated Alfred for his admission and correction.

Alfred, I offer my apology.


steve sawyer said...


Thanks for taking the time and making the effort to detail your findings and review the case of the Braxton County "Flatwoods Monster."

It's always interesting to read your take on the overall picture of such "high strangeness" cases like this one, and the Hopkinsville case, and the little-known details thereof.

Much appreciated. I guess, like the "goblins" case, this too should be put into either the gray basket, or perhaps left to rest quietly, as so much time has passed, and little new is likely to be revealed of significance at this late date about either case other than that perhaps they did not happen as originally portrayed, and may have more to do with human reactions and memory affect when confronted with the stressful, imagined unknown.

Randel Smith said...

a late comment that no one may ever see, from me . .

A favorite case of mine, but some further investigation would be good. I've read Feschino's book and Barker's too. The name 'Snitowski' sounds a bit like a joke, i.e., being in a 'snit'. Hmm. And published in an adventure magazine, too. I wonder if it is possible to find some record of the couple and child, now grown and getting old. Phone books in the reference department of local libraries, genealogical records, marriage, death, etc... are available. I just did all that on my own folks in Oklahoma and found the local volunteer genealogical society staff incredibly helpful. The would-be witnesses story is a great one. I've seen tellings of it that say the hood of their car was burned by the touch of the monster's hand. So he got into the car and had to pass real close to the thing to do that? And he's a local and didn't have a gun in the car like everyone else in them thar parts?? Hmm.

I draw the line at the gal that has a three (!) week hospital stay on account of Mr. Alien. THAT is expensive; coulda been the state/county mental ward; if true the patient might have been a known person with mental problems so severe they required long stays... I would think that if some one showed up so severely shocked by an event that they would provoke some investigation or other, by some one. It is also hard to imagine anyone being quite so shook up that they really needed three whole weeks in a hospital to recover from it. Sounds like a script for a horror movie, not real life.

Isn't it frustrating how witnesses to such events go and run away in a hurry? I wish I had been there as I am not the runaway type. I might back off and take cover, and not try to touch something that could hurt you, but just up and run off at the site of something scary? Nope. And I usually have a good camera and other means of persuasion too . . .

Randel Smith

Kevin has done a good job of comparing the various writings on the case. It's a great story.

lady said...
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qwadro_fx said...
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mm s said...

I think that the "witnesses" that saw the "alien" made up the entire story. I have read and read about the Braxton county monster for years. I live in WV and have been hearing these stories since I was a child in the 70s. A bunch of lies and nonsense. But fun to read about anyway.:)

Alfred Lehmberg said...

Well, 1952 saw the biggest UFO flap is US History (fact). Given repeated incursions by multi-observed and bona fide UFOs into critical and so restricted airspaces in the Washington area that summer (fact!), orders to shoot down these intruders WERE issued (fact!). Furious UFO and Military air activity occurred in and around West Virginia on September 12, 1952 subsequent to these orders of deadly force (fact!), and a heavy, loaded-to-the-gills-battalion of Army infantry led by Colonel Dale Leavitt of boots, boats, and bazookas was dispatched to look for _something_ peculiar in the Flatwoods and Frametown WV area that night, NOT barn owls or cross-dressing space ghosts seen by impressionable hillbilly kids. Fact. Flatwoods is the end of the story. What you may fail to take into account is all that had factually occurred beforehand. Too much, perhaps, for mere "lies and nonsense."

Alfred Lehmberg said...

More on the story...