Sunday, January 20, 2019

History's Project Blue Book - The Flatwoods Monster

Well, I have posted a review of the second episode of Project Blue Book from the point of view of someone who is watching the show for its entertainment value. Now, I’ll look at it from the other side of the fence and that is as a glimpse of history.

This episode is about the Flatwoods, West Virginia, landing of September 12, 1952, and it bears little resemblance to the actual case. It was not a crash as shown, but a landing. There were several people involved in the original sighting and the subsequent events, none of whom are actually portrayed here. There were no townspeople with shotguns surrounding the house like villagers with torches and pitchforks at Frankenstein Castle. There were townspeople with shotguns who went in search of the creature that had been reported, which is not the same thing.
There was no woman held in a hospital to be tossed through the second-floor window to her death. To suggest that this is a fiction based on truth is to stretch the truth to its breaking point. Had they not told me up front, or in the previews, I might not have recognized the situation for what it was. That is, I wouldn’t have known that this was about the Flatwoods Monster.

In fact, they get into more conspiracy here than there was in the real world and this is where I jump to that other side of the fence. This would seem to validate those out there who see conspiracy behind every bush. While I understand the necessity for creating conflict, this one aspect of the show, I fear, is going to prove problematic. In all my years of UFO research, I have never run into anything quite like this. The conspiracy aspect is overblown and gives us the X-Files vibe. The only thing missing is The Smoking Man, but in this show, set in the 1950s, everyone is smoking.

Although they provide information about the case at the end of the episode and on the History website, I try to look at it from the work I have done on the case and what I have written about it. In Encounters in the Desert, I do examine the landing and provide some insight as to who did what and when. Briefly (well not all that briefly), I wrote:

One of the first of the occupant or creature reports to reach Project Blue Book was made from Flatwoods, West Virginia, on September 12, 1952. The Air Force file on the Flatwoods case 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 and very little else. According to the project card for the Flatwoods sighting, it was a 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. There is also a note that the meteor (or meteoroid moving through the Solar System 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 all the reports of physical evidence by the witnesses.

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 of the occupant sighting, 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 and might be valuable, 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 climbed the hill.

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
Flatwoods Monster
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. 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 back the way they had come.

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 at the house. Most of them didn’t bother to mount any sort of search that night, and the sheriff, who was clearly skeptical, refused to investigate further than talking to May and the boys. It is important to note here that the sheriff had been searching for a downed small aircraft reported to him earlier that evening. 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 which provided a partial confirmation of the story.

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. Steward returned early the next morning and found what he said looked like skid marks about ten feet apart heading down the hill.
The next day, there were follow-up investigations. During some of these additional trips up the hill, it was 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. People don’t take basic steps to ensure evidence is preserved in some fashion even if it is just a photograph.

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 on the night of the landing. 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 of the object and the direction in which it appears.

When this story is reported, it always seems to end here, with the one group, led by May and Lemon, seeing the strange creature or entity. The investigations, carried out by various civilian agencies, always fail 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.

As often happens, continued research produced others who said they had seen something strange that night in that area. Alice Williams said that about 7:00 p.m. she saw a slow-moving, glowing object at a low altitude west of Charleston, West Virginia. She, along with Clarence McClane and his wife said they saw ashes falling to the ground as the object seemed to come apart in the sky.

Woodrow Eagle, who was nearing Sutton, West Virginia, not all that far from Flatwoods, said that he had seen what he thought was a small airplane crash into a hillside. He turned around and then stopped at a service station to call the sheriff. The sheriff drove to the site, but he didn’t find the downed aircraft. This was the case the sheriff was investigating before he headed out to May’s house.

The trouble here is that both these witnesses, Williams and Eagle, were apparently members of a group that included Sanderson, and Sanderson had called others in that group to investigate the Flatwoods landing. Given that, a good case for cross contamination can be made. It doesn’t mean that there was any confabulation involved, only that these witnesses were not completely independent of other another as it seemed before those connections were made.

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 after the fact.

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.

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 optical illusions. 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. 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 about what they thought they saw, but not that they saw an extraterrestrial being.

As I reviewed 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 any such 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 if not thousands 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, this isn’t a perfect resolution. It makes too many assumptions. But the evidence for a UFO sighting and a landing with an alien creature or maybe some sort of an alien robot 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.

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.

This then is the story of the Flatwoods monster. There was another sighting nearby that night but it is not relevant to our discussion. I covered it in Encounters in the Desert. Since History’s Project Blue Book did not mention it, I have left it out of this.

I will point out that the idea that the Air Force had sent in investigators is not corroborated by the Project Blue Book files. In fact, the entire Blue Book file on the case, as noted, consists of two pages, the project card and a one-page synopsis of the sightings. The idea that there were two Air Force investigators in the area surfaced much later.

I look forward to the next episode, which looks to be about the Lubbock Lights. I can tell you all right now that the lights did not affect the power grid in Lubbock, but the graphic in the preview did look interesting


Unknown said...


If you like this show, how wildly do you roll your eyes at "Roswell"?

Just wondering.

William Langman

KRandle said...

Haven't seen Roswell and have no plans to watch it.

RedTornado2008 said...

Frank Feschino has written the definitive book on the Braxton County Monster (aka Flatwoods) case. I have read it and there is nothing in there about a woman being thrown out of a hospital or the other stuff in this episode.

I'm glad you are watching this so we don't have to, Dr Randle.