Thomas Jefferson and the UFO

Thomas Jefferson, president of the United States, author of the Declaration of Independence and early ufologist.
Thomas Jefferson, president of the United States, author of the Declaration of Independence and early ufologist.

While I normally write on paranormal topics rather than on UFO’s, where they involve a Dixie mystery, I sometimes make a detour to investigate various unexplained aerial phenomena.  For example, in Strange Tales I researched the time one or more UFO’s buzzed the Tennessee Valley at the beginning of the twentieth century (multiple reports of that) and also rare Fortean falls of blood and gore in Tennessee and Kentucky.  In Dixie Spirits I reported on a close encounter in West Virginia that Joe Nichol and his professional cynics have tried to explain away with a unique combination of arrogance and ignorance.  Moreover, down in Pascagoula, Mississippi, I have written about the “singing river” mystery, of which I reported only a fraction of the weirdness known from that area; while I didn’t bring in any theories about alien beings being responsible, others have, citing numerous UFO, USO and close encounters in the area; what the truth behind all that phenomena around Pascagoula may be is still unresolved, but definitely something is, or has been, going on there that defies ordinary scientific explanation.

While there is a certain overlap between paranormal phenomena, cryptozoology and UFO’s, as a rule these are discrete and separate fields of inquiry.  For one thing, most scientists do not take paranormal or supernatural accounts seriously and tend to dismiss them all, either as hoaxes or “delusions of the masses” when they can’t rationalize them away; whereas most scientists take the possibility of extraterrestrial life quite seriously, even if they might not accept the evidence of UFO investigators.  The SETI program is quite well funded and other scientific programs have also been searching the skies for proof of life elsewhere in the universe—even on mars.

So when I learned of Thomas Jefferson’s own interest in unsolved celestial phenomena, it piqued my interest. Jefferson was very much a man of the enlightenment and he kept an open mind to many mysteries that lacked easy answers.  He was one of the first, for example, to recognize that mammoths and mastodons roamed America and it is not generally appreciated that one of the goals of the Lewis and Clarke expedition was to go “looking for the elephant” and see if any still lived in the unexplored western territories at that time.

So we should not be surprised when, in 1800, Jefferson learned of a strange aerial sighting, he was moved to publish a report of it in a scholarly journal.  We are beholden to Thomas J. for an accurate account of one sighting in Louisiana.  Jefferson’s original correspondent was a gentleman planter named William Dunbar, a Scotsman by birth and a naturalist, astronomer, ethnologist and explorer living in Natchez, Mississippi at the time.  In searching the Jefferson Papers, it turns out that one part of Dunbar’s missive to Jefferson survived, on Indian sign language, but not apparently his separate enclosure on the UFO, so we just have Jefferson’s summary of it.  Like Jefferson, however, I will attempt to give an objective account of the sighting without too much speculation.

On night of April 5, 1800, an object was seen pass over Baton Rouge.  It came from the southwest, flying low overhead and moved at an extremely high rate of speed, disappearing out of sight within a quarter of a minute.  Eyewitnesses described it as being “as big as a house” and 70-80 feet long and being only some 200 feet above their heads when it passed.

It was described as being “wholly luminous but not emitting sparks” and Jefferson gives a vivid description of its luminosity: “of a colour resembling the sun near the horizon in a cold frosty evening, which may be called a crimson red.”  When it passed overhead a considerable degree of heat was felt “but no electrical sensation,” by which I take Jefferson to mean that it was not ball lightening or similar phenomena.  Immediately after it passed to the northeast a violent rushing noise was heard, indicating it was passing faster than the speed of sound; apparently the force of its passage bent trees before it and a few seconds later a loud crash was heard, “similar to that of the largest piece of ordinance” and a shock, like an earthquake, was felt as well.

Observers rushed to where the object landed and while the area plant life was burnt to a crisp and the ground much torn up, apparently there was no object found and Jefferson’s description does not indicate an impact crater either.  What was it?  Well, the simple answer would be a meteor of some sort.  But if so, why was no debris from it found.  Curious onlookers swarmed the area apparently, but no follow up report of finding a meteorite or fragments thereof were found.  It was obviously very large and low flying, so one would expect a considerable zone of destruction if it had exploded above the ground, along the lines of the Tunguska explosion in 1909.  Yet apparently that was not the case, since the nearby witnesses lived to tell the tale.  Another curious fact emerges from Jefferson’s report; it sounds as if it were flying almost parallel to the ground; surely most meteors or other space debris would be falling at an acute angle, if not a near vertical angle.

I myself have seen a bright object come down a few years back.  To the best of my knowledge no one else saw or reported it and it made no sound; like Jefferson’s UFO it disappeared within a few seconds.  But it descended at a forty-five degree angle and while luminous it was not close to the ground.  It may have been a small, bright meteorite, for if it been the size of Jefferson’s object it would have been noticed when it impacted.  Of course, we cannot be certain that Jefferson’s object did indeed crash; it may have exploded mid-air and disintegrated into nothingness.  Then too, it may have pulled up at the last moment and climbed up out of its gradual but supersonic descent; but if the latter, it would have to have been a manned craft and not simply some inert rock or fragment of a comet.  This may have been the first such sighting, but apparently it was not the last.  Checking recent accounts, there are evidently quite a few sightings of strange lights and aerial phenomena in the Baton Rouge area, pretty much ongoing, some of which have been recorded by camera or cellphone.

In an article on the University of Chicago website, Penelope, the blogger makes a similar point to mine, only does some interesting calculations:

Distance from impact: 6 km
Projectile diameter: 75 feet
Projectile density:

porous stone: 1500 kg/m3
maybe a bit more if some kind of craft, i.e., a semi-hollow metal object

Impact velocity: 0.6 km/s
Impact angle: 1.9°
Target type: Sedimentary rock

The U. of C. blogger notes that:  “if it was a house-sized object coming in at a meteoric speed, it would have been a huge event, with no survivors for miles, flattened trees, etc.”  They point out that the object which created Arizona’s Meteor Crater would have been about 50 meters in size, or only about twice the size of the object reported by Dunbar.  So, where’s the beef, as it were?

In the end, Jefferson’s report of a UFO leaves more questions than answers.  What was it?  Did it somehow recover from its rapid descent and peel off, leaving only burnt vegetation and blasted ground behind?  Well, the honest answer is we simply don’t know and unless more information surfaces, we must continue to categorize it as an unidentified flying object.

 

William Dunbar was also an early ufologist.
William Dunbar, naturalist, astronomer and explorer, was descended from titled nobility, but settled in Natchez and corresponded with Jefferson and other leading intellectuals of his day.

Sources:

Thomas Jefferson, Transactions, American Philosophical Society, vol. 6 Part 1 (Philadelphia, 1804), p. 25.  Jefferson mentions an illustration, but none of the sources I consulted had it.

The Penelope website at the University of Chicago: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/TAPS/6/Baton_Rouge_Phenomenon*.html

National Archives, Founders online: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-32-02-0037

For more unexplained phenomena, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Dixie Spirits.

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Abraham Lincoln and Ancient Aliens

President Lincoln was one of the many prominent men of his day who attended séances; he also believed in prophecy and other psychic phenomena
President Lincoln was one of the many prominent men of his day who attended séances; he also believed in prophecy and other psychic phenomena

I normally don’t write about UFO’s and Alien sightings, restricting my researches to paranormal phenomena, but I have delved into the subject on occasion as it relates to the South. In Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, for example, I investigated the UFO sightings over the Tennessee Valley in the early 1900’s and a “dark day” in Memphis, while in Dixie Spirits I also chronicled a very credible close encounter in West Virginia.

Then there are those strange events which may not be supernatural but which certainly defy all attempts at rational explanation, such as rains of blood and gore, aerial showers of snakes and other land going animals, as well as the Mothman enigma, which itself seems to transcend traditional categories. So while I have an abiding interest in UFO’s and the possibility of Aliens visiting our planet, I generally have left those investigations to those with the resources to properly probe them.

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Artist’s conception of a mothership. Did one such ship hover over Memphis, Tennessee in 1904? See Chapter 37 of Strange Tales of the Dark & Bloody Ground.

That is why, when I was contacted by the folks at the Ancient Aliens series on The History Channel to come on their show and discuss my researches on Abraham Lincoln and the paranormal as published in The Paranormal Presidency, I was a bit bewildered how I might fit into their show’s format. Nevertheless, last summer I did an interview with the folks at Ancient Aliens and discussed quite a bit about Lincoln’s beliefs in the paranormal and allied subjects, as well as also discussing Ambrose Bierce, whose Civil War career I have researched extensively, the results of which should be published later this year or early next. Bierce, although known as a cynic, in fact was fascinated by the bizarre, the unexplained and the unusual—in other words, a man after my own heart. As honored as I was to be on their show, however, I wondered how my own expertise would fit into their show’s concept. Well, the wait is over; earlier this month the History Channel aired an episode entitled “Aliens and the Civil War.”

Ambrose Bierce as he looked during the Civil War.  Was his war wound a source of his interests in the bizarre and unexplained?  The Ancient Aliens show thinks so.
Ambrose Bierce as he looked during the Civil War. Was his war wound a source of his interests in the bizarre and unexplained? The Ancient Aliens show thinks so.

First off, I must say they did an excellent job of dovetailing what I had to say about Lincoln with other material relating to Alien contact and the Civil War. As is usual for this show, much of what they have to say is highly speculative; nevertheless, I thought much of what they argued was interesting, making connections between events and phenomena which I had not previously thought related to one another.

Besides the Lincoln segment that I was on, they also discussed some other unusual phenomena which I have previously written about in Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, although my take on the incidents was different. There was, for example, the vision of Washington at Valley Forge and his later appearance at the Battle of Gettysburg, which I discussed in the Chapter “Behold a Pale Rider”—although their account of Washington’s visitation at Gettysburg differs from my research.

While attending one seance Lincoln was given a "ride" on a piano by, a "physical" medium.
While attending one seance Lincoln was given a “ride” on a piano by, a “physical” medium.

The part of The Paranormal Presidency which they chose to excerpt from my longer interview revolved about Lincoln’s involvement with Spiritualism, in particular with a young psychic named Nettie Colburn—better known under her married name, Nettie Colburn Maynard.

Although mainstream historians frequently label Nettie as a “charlatan,” my extensive research in the archives and other primary sources proves otherwise.  Similarly, some of the claims of other spiritualists about Lincoln’s involvement with his having visited them have been verified, at least in part. How deeply Lincoln was involved in the movement, however, remains subject to debate, but there is no question that he did attend séances and visit psychics, not with, but also without, his wife.

That the “spirits” that contacted Lincoln’s psychics and advised the President could possibly be Alien life forms is something I had never thought of, but Ancient Aliens makes a case for these and other psychic encounters being due to the remote telepathic actions of extraterrestrials. Likewise, their tying Ambrose Bierce’s traumatic head wound into a possible cause of his being psychically informed by Aliens may seem a stretch, but not totally dissimilar to Lincoln’s own near death experience being the possible cause of his belief in premonitions and similar paranormal experiences.

Were Aliens in contact with Lincoln through the medium Nettie Colburn? (artist' s conception of an alien somewhat upset with the Bad Hair Guy).
Were Aliens in contact with Lincoln through the medium Nettie Colburn? (artist’ s conception of an alien somewhat upset with the Bad Hair Guy).

Bear in mind, the Ancient Aliens theories remain highly speculative, but some of the ideas they put forth in the episode “Aliens and the Civil War” are highly original and in some cases I think worthy of further investigation. Traditionally, UFO’s and the belief in Ghosts and the paranormal have been regarded as mutually exclusive. For one thing, most scientists accept the premise that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe; most of them have yet to accept the premise that earth has been visited by them.

Scientists as a group reject the supernatural or anything that resembles it and most reject any aspect of the paranormal as “delusions of the masses.”

However, as theoretical physicists delve deeper into such things as Quantum Mechanics, and posit parallel worlds, alternate realities and similar “fringe science,” some scientists are no longer smugly scoffing at many types of paranormal phenomena, such as remote sensing, precognition, telekinesis and other things hitherto rejected as impossible. The possibility is growing that psychic communication at a distance, or foretelling the future may eventually be found to have a basis in reality, no matter how fantastic they may seem today.

All this reminds me of something that William Herndon, Abraham Lincoln’s law partner, once said about Lincoln’s unorthodox beliefs. He said that Lincoln did not so much believe in the supernatural as in the supra-natural; that what we may regard as defying the laws of nature may just be a part of the natural world which we cannot yet comprehend. Have aliens been in contact with us, by psychic or other means? Who is to say; what today may seem fantastic, may yet prove true.

“Aliens and the Civil War” aired on April 10, 2015 but you can see it on the Ancient Aliens Website: http://www.history.com/shows/ancient-aliens/videos/aliens-and-the-civil-war

My latest book, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife is now in print with The University of Tennessee Press.  Look for it at better bookstores everywhere.

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife covers the military career of famous American author and curmudgeon.
Paranormal Presidency cover suitable for online use 96dpi
The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln documents the beliefs and experiences of Abraham Lincoln with the paranormal, including his prophetic dreams, presentiments, encounters with Spiritualism and other uncanny and unusual events.

 

Memphis and the Mothership

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Artist’s conception of a mothership. Did one hover over Memphis, Tennessee in 1904?

December 2, 1904, dawned clear and cold over the Bluff City. People in the city were going about their normal Friday morning activities, rich and poor, black and white.

Then, around nine a.m., something strange happened. Without warning the sun was blotted out of the sky. In the space of a minute or so, the day went from a bright, sunlight autumn morn to utter and complete darkness. Work came to a crashing halt; laborers and others scramble to turn on gas lamps, oil lamps or incandescent bulbs. It soon became apparent that this was no ordinary event.

The “inky darkness” was sudden and complete; there had been no warning, no approaching storm. The schools, which relied on daylight for illumination, were plunged into darkness, throngs of children terrified. Adults too were scared out of their wits, both at home and at work. One longshoreman hugged a telegraph pole for dear life, too frightened to let go.

All in all, the eerie darkness lasted more than half an hour, then disappeared as quickly as it had begun. The mysterious blackout was soon followed by a real storm, which was itself awful in its ferocity. For days the people of Memphis, Tennessee, were bothered and bewildered by what had happened.

A sudden "inky blackness" descends on Memphis without warning.
A sudden “inky blackness” descends on Memphis without warning.

Of course, there were the usual naysayers who tried to dismiss it as just a dark storm cloud passing over. But those who experienced knew that was a lie. The storm came after the blackness, not before or during it. It was an eclipse then; unexpected but nothing more? Well, neither the sun nor moon make special side trips for eclipses; no solar eclipse was scheduled for that day in that place.

Having myself experienced a number of total eclipses in my lifetime, from the written accounts it is clear that it couldn’t have been a natural eclipse. For one thing, the sky gradually gets darker, like a cloudy day, before the total eclipse and even then the blackness only lasts few minutes at most. This was different: it was sudden, it was total and it lasted a long time. The object blotting out the sun had to have been in stationary orbit between the earth and sun to create such an effect. No natural celestial body could have done that.

Though no one at the time voiced the opinion, only a UFO of massive size and capable of maintaining a stationary orbit above the city could have done that: in effect, a “mothership.”

Now this event is but one of the many strange things that has been know to happen in Memphis. Aside from a surfeit of haunted houses and similar apparitions, there was the case on January, 15, 1877, when it rained snakes on the city. They were not little hatchlings either: the snakes were all dark brown—thousands and thousands of them—a foot to a foot and a half in length.

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In January, 1877 thousands of snakes rained down on Memphis, one of the weirdest Fortean Falls on record.

Again scientists tried to explain away the unexplainable: they had been picked up by a “hurricane” and somehow deposited by the tens of thousands on the city. The fact that hurricanes don’t occur in January, that Memphis, Tennessee is too far inland for a hurricane to reach or the fact that snakes, being cold-blooded animals, would be hibernating securely underground in January did not seem to phase the professional debunkers then, any more than it does now.

For more true accounts of high strangeness in the Mid-South, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground.