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“Hot air”

Remembering when “UFOs” were first spotted in the central Illinois


Seven years before the Wright Brothers’ first flight, Americans were boggled by strange objects in the sky. The phrase “unidentified flying object” hadn’t been invented, so many observers called them “airships.”
The Great Airship Wave of 1896-1897, which has spawned books and contemporary UFO studies, started in November 1896 when an airship with a bright light was seen in Sacramento, Calif., says Thomas “Eddie” Bullard, a librarian at Indiana University, folklorist, and UFO author who researched the phenomenon extensively.
“The story went out that someone had invented a successful flying machine, and reports of this airship, or at least its supposed headlight, spread up and down California and into Nevada,” he says.
Sightings continued westward, until they hit Illinois in April. Illinois reported the most sightings of any state, Bullard says.
From Cairo to Chicago, newspapers reported sightings of “a gigantic aerial boat” or an “air ship” with colored lights.
“Airships in the sky appear to be all the rage,” the Illinois State Journal reported on April 12, 1897.
“Monday night the mysterious air ship which has been seen in Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin, paid a visit to Lincoln [Illinois],” said the April 13, 1897 Lincoln Daily Courier. Fifty people standing on Pulaski Street saw the “rapidly moving, V-shaped” ship. “It came toward Lincoln with a headlight as large as an arc electric lamp.”
The same day, Springfield’s Illinois State Register spoofed the sightings in a shameless commercial twist. “The airship that has been causing so much mystery . . . has finally been discovered and found to have been the advertising medium of that great and standard work . . . the genuine Encyclopaedia Britannica.” The “article” encouraged readers to buy the Encyclopedia at the Register’s special rate.
Two days later, however, “hundreds” of Springfieldians, including some of its elite and state legislators, saw the airship.
“A number of persons standing on the corner of Fifth and Monroe streets about 7:30 o’clock last evening saw a large, brilliant light in the heavens. The light was moving rapidly and was at a great height,” the April 16 Register said. Some observers climbed to the “roof garden” of the Odd Fellows building (one of Springfield’s tallest buildings at that time, located at the southeast corner of Fourth and Monroe streets) to get a better look.
The day before, Adolph Winkle and John Hulle (spellings varied) reported that they had seen the airship land and talked to its passengers. “Of course, no one believed the story,” retorted the April 16 Register.
The Decatur paper seemed to take them seriously, though. Its April 16 Daily Republican said: “Farmhand John Halley and local vineyard owner Adolf Wenke said that it landed three miles west of the city along the Jefferson street road. They said a long bearded man emerged and inquired where he was. Inside the car was seated another man and also the scientist’s wife. He said they usually rested during the daytime in remote parts of the country in order to conceal the vessel’s huge wings. When they asked the scientist his name, he smiled and pointed to the letter M, which was painted on the side of the car. After bidding the farmers farewell, he pressed a button and the ship flew off.”
Airship sightings died out the next month.
Theories about the sightings varied: drunken observers, hoaxes, planets or stars mistaken for ships, and Martians. However, many people hoped that they were proof that Americans had finally invented a flying machine.
In Solving the 1897 Airship Mystery (Pelican Publishing Co., 2004), author Michael Busby explains his unique conspiracy theory: that the airships were real, funded by magnate George Hearst (William Randolph Hearst’s father), who used them to get the U.S. entangled in the war with Cuba.
Bullard says the sightings were “hot air”:
“There are no genuine UFOs among the 1897 airships. . . . Many honest and reliable people reported a light in the sky, but their description of how the light sank slowly toward the horizon makes it clear they were looking at Venus or another heavenly body. Other honest people reported a structured object with lights, moving in a manner and direction no heavenly body could manage, but these people were the victims of a hoax. What they saw was a fire balloon [hot air] . . . a form of Fourth of July ‘firework’ available in drug stores year ’round. A follow-up of sightings . . . often revealed the jokesters or reported the burnt-out carcass of the balloon had landed in some farmer’s field, now and then starting a fire.”
The remaining sightings were lies, he says, concocted by locals or — gasp! — the press for the sake of entertainment and sales.

Contact Tara McClellan McAndrew at TMcand22@aol.com

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