Beyond Roswell: 6 Other Historical UFO Sightings


"The intelligence office of the 509th Bombardment group at Roswell Army Air Field announced at noon today, that the field has come into possession of a flying saucer." So started the Daily Record front-page story 66 years ago yesterday that launched a thousand UFO conspiracy theories. Here’s a look at seven other brushes humankind has had with UFOs.

1. Burritt College, Tennessee (1859)

Early risers at Tennessee’s Burritt College spotted a pair of luminous objects (one like a “small new moon,” the other “a large star”) floating just north of the sunrise. Professor A.C. Carnes reported the sighting to Scientific American with skeptical speculation that the so-called UFO was just electricity:

"The first then became visible again, and increased rapidly in size, while the other diminished, and the two spots kept changing thus for about half an hour. There was considerable wind at the time, and light fleecy clouds passed by, showing the lights to be confined to one place."

Scientific American responded with a conjecture that “distant clouds of moisture” caused the sighting.

2. Aurora, Texas (1897)

“The town that almost wasn’t” (according to the tiny Texan town’s history book) found its claim to fame on April 17, 1897, when townsfolk watched a slow-moving airship crash into a windmill. Dallas Morning News reporter S.E. Haydon (sometimes spelled "Hayden") chronicled the crash:

About 6 o'clock this morning the early risers of Aurora were astonished at the sudden appearance of the airship… It sailed over the public square and when it reached the north part of town it collided with the tower of Judge Proctor's windmill and went into pieces with a terrific explosion….

The pilot of the ship is supposed to have been the only one aboard and, while his remains were badly disfigured, enough of the original has been picked up to show that he was not an inhabitant of this world.

The Martian (as it was deemed by an Army officer from neighbor city Fort Worth) was buried at the Aurora Cemetery, but not before townspeople gave the pilot a proper funeral with “Christian rites.”

In a 1979 Time article, however, at least one resident claimed the whole thing was a hoax: "Hayden wrote it as a joke and to bring interest to Aurora," Etta Pegues, 86, told the magazine.

3. Mount Rainier, Washington (1947)

Kenneth Arnold, an aviator and businessman, ushered in what Ufologists consider the modern UFO age on June 24, 1947. Flying over Washington’s Cascade Mountains searching for a missing aircraft, he instead found several objects which he told reporters looked like “a saucer would if you skipped it across the water.”

Arnold’s sighting—he clocked the objects’ flight from Mt. Rainier to Mt. Adams at an unprecedented 1200 miles per hour—was made immortal by newspaper reporter Bill Bequette, who coined the name “flying saucer” in his story on the Associated Press news wire. By the end of July 1947, the U.S. media covered 800 reports of UFOs.

4. Lubbock, Texas (1951)

On August 25, 1951, three professors from Texas Technological College—a geologist, a chemical engineer, and a petroleum engineer and department head—saw 20 to 30 lights flying over one of the professors' backyards at 9 p.m.

Five nights later, a Texas Tech freshman named Carl Hart, Jr. snapped five shots of the same formation of lights. A lieutenant investigating the “Lubbock Lights,” Edward J. Ruppelt, released a statement about the photos, declaring, “the photos were never proven to be a hoax, but neither were they proven to be genuine.” The official Air Force explanation? They were birds—probably ducks or plovers—with street lights reflecting off of them. 

5. Washington, D.C. (1952)

At 11:40 p.m. on July 19 in the capital, air traffic controllers noted pale blips flitting on their radarsFighter jets were dispatched to chase down the objects, leading to sensationalist headlines the next day. In the Cedar Rapids Gazette of Iowa, the front page screamed “Saucers Swarm Over Capital.”

6. Leary, Georgia (1969)

At a Lions Club in Leary, Georgia, two years before he was elected as the Peach State’s governor, Jimmy Carter reported watching a self-luminous, color-changing object arc across the sky. He’d mention it in a 1973 report, saying, “It didn't have any solid substance to it, it was just a very peculiar-looking light. None of us could understand what it was."

Years later, Carter shied away from his extraterrestrial sighting, saying that it was only a UFO because it was, in fact, unexplained, and that he knew it couldn’t be an alien ship, thanks to his background in physics (he was also an amateur astronomer). In a 2007 interview with The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, he debunked rumors that the CIA refused to give him information about UFO cover-ups.

Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
The DEA Crackdown on Thomas Jefferson's Poppy Plants
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.

The bloom has come off Papaver somniferum in recent years, as the innocuous-looking plant has come under new scrutiny for its role as a building block in many pain-blunting opiates—and, by association, the opioid epidemic. That this 3-foot-tall plant harbors a pod that can be crushed and mixed with water to produce a euphoric high has resulted in a stigma regarding its growth. Not even gardens honoring our nation's Founding Fathers are exempt, which is how the estate of Thomas Jefferson once found itself in a bizarre dialogue with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) over its poppy plants and whether the gift shop clerks were becoming inadvertent drug dealers.

Jefferson, the nation's third president, was an avowed horticulturist. He spent years tending to vegetable and flower gardens, recording the fates of more than 300 varieties of 90 different plants in meticulous detail. At Monticello, his Charlottesville, Virginia plantation, Jefferson devoted much of his free time to his sprawling soil. Among the vast selection of plants were several poppies, including the much-maligned Papaver somniferum.

The front view of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate.

"He was growing them for ornamental purposes,” Peggy Cornett, Monticello’s historic gardener and curator of plants, tells Mental Floss. “It was very common in early American gardens, early Colonial gardens. Poppies are annuals and come up easily.”

Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, the flower garden at Monticello was largely abandoned, and his estate was sold off to help repay the debts he had left behind. Around 115 years later, the Garden Club of Virginia began to restore the plot with the help of Jefferson’s own sketches of his flower borders and some highly resilient bulbs.

In 1987, Monticello’s caretakers opened the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, complete with a greenhouse, garden, and retail store. The aim was to educate period-accurate gardeners and sell rare seeds to help populate their efforts. Papaver somniferum was among the offerings.

This didn’t appear to be of concern to anyone until 1991, when local reporters began to obsess over narcotics tips following a drug bust at the University of Virginia. Suddenly, the Center for Historic Plants was fielding queries about the “opium poppies” in residence at Monticello.

The Center had never tried to hide it. “We had labels on all the plants,” says Cornett, who has worked at Monticello since 1983 and remembers the ensuing political scuffle. “We didn’t grow them at the Center. We just collected and sold the seeds that came from Monticello.”

At the time, the legality of growing the poppy was frustratingly vague for the Center’s governing board, who tried repeatedly to get clarification on whether they were breaking the law. A representative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture saw no issue with it, but couldn’t cite a specific law exempting the Center. The Office of the Attorney General in Virginia had no answer. It seemed as though no authority wanted to commit to a decision.

Eventually, the board called the DEA and insisted on instructions. Despite the ubiquity of the seeds—they can spring up anywhere, anytime—the DEA felt the Jefferson estate was playing with fire. Though they were not a clandestine opium den, they elected to take action in June of 1991.

“We pulled up the plants," Cornett says. “And we stopped selling the seeds, too.”

Today, Papaver somniferum is no longer in residence at Monticello, and its legal status is still murky at best. (While seeds can be sold and planting them should not typically land gardeners in trouble, opium poppy is a Schedule II drug and growing it is actually illegal—whether or not it's for the express purpose of making heroin or other drugs.) The Center does grow other plants in the Papaver genus, all of which have varying and usually low levels of opium.

As for Jefferson himself: While he may not have crushed his poppies personally, he did benefit from the plant’s medicinal effects. His personal physician, Robley Dunglison, prescribed laudanum, a tincture of opium, for recurring gastric issues. Jefferson took it until the day prior to his death, when he rejected another dose and told Dunglison, “No, doctor, nothing more.”

Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
Pop Culture
Mr. Rogers’s Sweater and Shoes Are on Display at the Heinz History Center
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images

To celebrate what would have been Fred Rogers’s 90th birthday on March 20, the Heinz History Center of Pittsburgh has added two new, iconic pieces to its already extensive Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood display: his trademark sweater and shoes.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Rogers's green cardigan and blue Sperry shoes are now part of the fourth-floor display at the History Center, where they join other items from the show like McFeely’s “Speedy Delivery” tricycle, the Great Oak Tree, and King Friday XIII’s castle.

The sweater and shoe combo has been in the museum’s storage area, but with Rogers’s 90th birthday and the 50th anniversary of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on deck for 2018, this was the perfect time to let the public enjoy the show's legendary props.

Fred Rogers was a mainstay in the Pittsburgh/Latrobe, Pennsylvania area, and there are numerous buildings and programs named after him, including the Fred Rogers Center and exhibits at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

If you’re in the area and want to take a look at Heinz History’s tribute to Mr. Rogers, the museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

[h/t Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]


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