Foreign Relations: 12 Notorious, Alleged UFO Incidents

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Long before Leonardo da Vinci sketched a flying machine or the Wright Brothers took flight at Kitty Hawk, there were reports of aircrafts soaring through the sky. Though some of those stories of Unidentified Flying Objects (or UFOs) may date as far back as Ancient Egypt, they are firmly ensconced in today's pop culture and accounts of their sightings remain fascinating for believers and skeptics alike. Here are 12 of the most intriguing incidents of alleged UFO sightings.

1. EGYPT // MID-1400S BCE

According to the Tulli Papyrus—the reported writings of Thutmose III, who reigned in the 1400s BCE—something unexplainable was spotted. An excerpt from the annals detailing the incident reads:

In the year 22, in the 3rd month of winter, in the sixth hour of the day, the scribes of House of Life noticed a circle of fire that was coming from the sky. From the mouth it emitted a foul breath. It had no head. Its body was one rod long and one rod wide. It had no voice. And from that the hearts of the scribes became confused and they threw themselves down on their bellies, then they reported the thing to the Pharaoh. … It was recorded in the scrolls of the House of Life.

His Majesty was meditating upon what happened. Now after some days had passed, these things became more numerous in the sky than ever. They shone more in the sky than the brightness of the sun, and extended to the limits of the four supports of the heavens … Powerful was the position of the fire circles. The army of the Pharaoh looked on with him in their midst. It was after supper. Thereupon, these fire circles ascended higher in the sky towards the south … The Pharaoh caused incense to be brought to make peace on the hearth … And what happened was ordered by the Pharaoh to be written in the annals of the House of Life … so that it be remembered for ever.

The validity of these writings remains uncertain. The original papyrus was lost and only copies of copies of it remain.

2. ROME // 218 BCE

One of the earliest reported UFO sightings can be traced back to about 218 BCE. Around 200 years later, Roman historian Livy recorded a number of strange incidents, likely using some lost list of those earlier sightings. One of the historian's writings included “A spectacle of ships (navium) gleamed in the sky” in Rome. In a report on UFOs [PDF], NASA’s Richard Stothers deemed these sightings "trustworthy and accurate," due to the time-consuming and costly nature of investigations into omens during this era.

3. SPAIN // 1433

On January 5, 1433, the entire court of King Juan II of Castile allegedly claimed to have seen a UFO. Fernán Gómez de Cibdarreal, the king’s physician, reportedly detailed the sighting in a letter. While its authenticity is uncertain, here is an excerpt:

I shall not tire your lordship with this narration, since we had just arrived [to Ciudad Rodrigo] when, walking on Wednesday the 5th of this month of January [1433], we suddenly saw a great flame of yellow fire attached to the sky move from one end to the other; it had inside like a black root and all its borders were more whitish than the middle; and it left with a great roar, causing horses and mules to ran in fear, and my own mule didn’t stop until it touched another mule.

4. NUREMBERG, GERMANY // 1561

BY HANS GLASER, 1561. IMAGE CREDIT: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS // PUBLIC DOMAIN

This famous alleged UFO sighting is documented not only in words, but in a woodcut by Hans Glaser. The piece shows the sky full of strange objects and “immense” smoke rising from the earth. Glaser and many others reportedly claimed to have witnessed the occurrence in Nuremberg on April 14, 1561.

The artist included a description with his work as well as a message to skeptics. He wrote: "Although we have seen, shortly one after another, many kinds of signs on the heaven, which are sent to us by the almighty God, to bring us to repentance, we still are, unfortunately, so ungrateful that we despise such high signs and miracles of God. Or we speak of them with ridicule and discard them to the wind, in order that God may send us a frightening punishment on account of our ungratefulness."

5. TEXAS // 1897

"Texas’ most famous UFO crash" occurred in April 1897. On that day, a cigar-shaped object reportedly crashed into a windmill in Aurora, a small town just north of Fort Worth. The legend has conflicting claims. Some say the alien inside the craft survived, while others believe it died and the residents of the town gave it a Christian burial.

At the time of the crash, E.E. Hayden (sometimes reported as S.E. Haydon), a reporter from the Dallas Morning News, wrote that the spaceship “collided with the tower of Judge Proctor's windmill and went into pieces with a terrific explosion, scattering debris over several acres of ground, wrecking the windmill and water tank and destroying the judge's flower garden. 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."

6. MISSOURI // 1941

One 20th-century incident became a hidden family secret. In April 1941, Rev. William Huffman of Red Star Baptist Church in Cape Girardeau, Missouri was asked to minister at the site of a plane crash. There, Huffman said, he found a saucer with three alien bodies. His granddaughter later recounted the story to local news outlet KFVS, claiming that her grandfather had been sworn to secrecy after the incident.

7. WASHINGTON // 1947

Kenneth Arnold’s reported 1947 sighting is well-known for many reasons, including coining the phrase "flying disc." Just weeks before Roswell—one of the most famous incidents of all time—Arnold was flying his plane near Mount Rainier in Washington State when he said he observed a line of crescent-shaped objects in the sky. He estimated that they were clocking 1700 MPH and described their movements as being like "a saucer if you skip it across water."

8. ROSWELL, NEW MEXICO // 1947

Arnold’s sighting was the first in a series, which also includes the famous Roswell UFO report. According to CNN, the Air Force initially claimed to have found remnants of a flying saucer at the site in New Mexico. Later, they claimed the debris was from a weather balloon and then, much later, that it was an apparatus to detect Soviet nuclear tests. Today, the sighting has cult status, inspiring movies and TV, including the show Roswell. Conspiracy theorists consider it to be one of the most famous UFO cover-ups in history.

9. WEST VIRGINIA // 1952

From UFO reporting to urban legend: As the tale goes, on September 12, 1952, a fireball reportedly fell from the sky and a monster with fiery eyes was found at the crash site in Flatwoods, West Virginia. Descriptions of the Flatwoods Monster vary, though it’s believed to be 10 feet tall, with a glowing green body.

10. BRAZIL // 1957

Antonio Vilas (sometimes spelled "Villas") Boas’ report is one of the first recorded alien abductions in the modern age. On October 16, 1957, Boas, a Brazilian farmer, was working alone in a field when he says a reddish light in the sky zoomed toward him. He ran toward his tractor, but four small figures lifted him off the ground.

He gave a long, detailed description of the encounter, including the way the creatures communicated: "No resemblance whatever to human speech ... I can think of no attempt to describe those sounds, so different were they from anything I have ever heard before ... Those sounds still make me shiver when I think of them! It isn't even possible for me to reproduce them ... my vocal organs are not made for it."

He also claims to have had sexual relations with a naked female in the aircraft, although the two did not kiss. He reportedly was returned to his field about four hours after the abduction and was found to have suffered from radiation poisoning.

11. NEW HAMPSHIRE // 1961

Married couple Barney and Betty Hill also claimed to have been abducted by aliens. Under hypnosis, the pair shared similar accounts of the incident. Betty said, "I was taken on board. Barney was taken into one room and I was taken into another. The one who did the testing we called 'The Examiner.' First, they put me on a stool and they checked my eyes, ears, nose, throat. They put me on a table and said they wanted to check my nervous system. Then, they tried to insert a needle-like instrument in my navel, which caused pain so they stopped doing it. Barney's exam was very much like mine in the beginning except they were interested in his bone structure."

Betty also claims the creatures showed her a star map depicting where they came from. She even redrew it under hypnosis, but at the time, it didn’t correlate with any known area of space. However, years later, statistician David Saunders claimed her drawing resembles the Zeta Reticuli system in the constellation Reticulum, confirming (at least in the eyes of her supporters) some of Hill’s story.

12. KENTUCKY // 1976

On January 6, 1976, three women claimed to have been abducted from a car. In 2010, Mona Stafford, the only living witness, recalled her story to Central Kentucky News. She claimed the three women were driving when they thought they saw a plane crash. Wanting to help, they drove closer, only to find an object in a treetop. The car seemed drawn toward the craft, and hours later the women came to the Hustonville city limits. Their eyes and skin were burning, and the hood of the car had bubbled up.

Separated, the women each detailed identical accounts of the incident. And under hypnosis, they recounted the same tale of being removed from the car and examined.

In the years that followed, Stafford claims she and one of the other women were unable to use the telephone. The women were drawn to high places and often watched the sky, with Stafford explaining, "I still feel like that. Like something’s calling me, and I go out. I’m not a prophet, I’m not predicting nothing, but there’s something in me that says something’s going to happen this time."

In 1959, the U.S. Postal Service Attempted to Deliver Mail via Missile

Smithsonian National Postal Museum
Smithsonian National Postal Museum

In the late 1950s, the future was up in the air. The space race was just getting started, and the U.S. military was working on missiles that could reach around the world—and even to the Moon. The U.S. government didn’t just see new flight capabilities as military priorities, though. It also thought they could be used to carry mail, as we recently learned from Today I Found Out. Yes, the Postal Service once tried sending letters by missile mail.

In June 1959, the U.S. Navy sent 3000 letters on a guided missile toward a naval auxiliary air station in Mayport, Florida. Launched from the USS Barbero, a submarine that was stationed 100 miles off the U.S. coast in international waters, the 36-foot Regulus I missile made it to Mayport in 22 minutes. Held in two metal containers in what was supposed to be the missile’s warhead chamber, the letters on board were copies of a letter from Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield to then-President Eisenhower, Vice President Richard Nixon, individual representatives of Congress, members of the Supreme Court, the crew of the Barbero, and more. The letters carried regular mail stamps—“not even air mail,” as the AP story that day noted.

The Postal Service heralded it as the first successful delivery of mail by missile. (There had been previous attempts, like a thwarted 1936 delivery on a rocket-powered plane across a lake between New York and New Jersey [PDF]. Despite several attempts, that one never fully made a successful delivery.) But “delivery” was a bit of an overstatement: Most of those letters had to be sent by regular mail service at a post office in nearby Jacksonville, since the 3000 recipients weren’t sitting around at a naval base in Florida waiting for their letter.

An envelope that reads 'First Official Missile Mail'
Smithsonian National Postal Museum

“Now that we know we can do it,” Summerfield told the press, “we plan a series of discussions to determine the practical extent to which the method can be used and under what conditions.” It never did become practical, as we now know. Summerfield’s successor, J. Edward Day, killed the program, pointing out that the letters sent from the USS Barbero ended up taking some eight days to reach their intended recipients. Not exactly rocket speed.

Even if missile mail wasn't a financially or logistically feasible way to send the mail on a regular basis, the test likely proved worthwhile just for the bragging rights. “Ostensibly an experiment in communication transportation,” Nancy A. Pope writes on the National Postal Museum’s blog, “the Regulus’ mail flight sent a subtle signal that in the midst of the Cold War, the U.S. military was capable of such accuracy in missile flight that it could be considered for use by the post office.”

And it wasn’t so strange that the USPS was trying out newfangled technology in its quest to get mail across the country as fast as possible. As the rail industry declined, it was becoming more expensive and less efficient to send mail by train. Throughout the early 20th century, the U.S. Postal Service looked into a number of alternatives, including post office buses that would travel from town to town sorting mail along the way, intercity helicopter mail, and other ideas that harnessed ways of delivering mail that would have been unthinkable a few decades before. But in the end, improving roads to make it easier to send trucks around the country proved a better financial plan than using guided military missiles.

[h/t Today I Found Out]

8 Cures That Did More Harm Than Good

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iStock.com/powerofforever

No one likes to be sick or suffering. But in the course of trying to find new cures for medical problems, or perceived medical problems, we’ve stumbled more than a few times. Most of the time, treatments simply didn't work and were no more harmful than what they were meant to “cure.” Sometimes, though, the medicine was even worse than the condition itself.

1. RAW MEAT AND HOG FAT FOR A RABIES BITE

To his credit, Pliny the Elder discounted many purely magical folk cures in his Natural Histories (not to mention writing entire chapters against the eating of infant brains). He was also a proponent of several treatments which we now know to have some merit, such as aloe vera to dress burns.

Still, his advice was often more questionable than credible. His cures for bites from a mad (rabid) human or dog were the same—raw veal or she-goat dung placed over the wound for no less than four days, while the patient takes only lime and hog’s fat internally. If this doesn’t sound so bad, imagine eating nothing but antacids and lard, while having an open wound get more and more infected. If you weren’t dead by the time the rabies actually manifested, you probably wished you were.

2. SMACKING A BIBLE ON A GANGLION CYST

Hit them with a book. A heavy book. The use of Bibles to cure ganglion cysts provided the colloquial terms for this benign lump on the hand or wrist: Bible cysts, Gideon’s disease, or Bible bumps.

Really, you shouldn’t do this, however. While in some circumstances the lump may disappear or be reabsorbed after being thwacked, this method of treatment is second only to puncturing them in an unsterile environment when it comes to causing recurrence and complications. Most ganglion cysts cause no complications on their own, and many will disappear after a few months if left alone [PDF].

3. WHIPPING FOR "DRAPETOMANIA" OR "DYSAETHESIA AETHIOPICA"

Drapetomania and dysaethesia aethiopica were two different but related “conditions” that one Samuel Cartwright saw as prevalent among slaves during the mid-19th century. Drapetomania supposedly caused an “insanity” that drove slaves to run away, while dysaethesia aethiopica caused “partial numbness of the skin,” and “great hebetude” (mental dullness and lethargy).

To cure either condition, you needed only to whip the patient. The concept caught on in the South, as it lent an air of science and self-justification to slave owners—Cartwright’s work suggested that the only moral thing to do was to keep slaves in their place for their own good, lest they become afflicted with one of these conditions (he noted how “common” dysaethesia aethiopica was among “Free Negros”). Of course, this quackery was not hard to spot by his contemporaries outside of the South. Frederick Douglass once sarcastically remarked that, since white indentured servants run away, too, “drapetomania” was probably a European condition that had been introduced to Africans by white slave traders.

4. SMOKING FOR ASTHMA

Smoke a cigarette! Not a tobacco cigarette (though those were advertised as “healthy” for decades), but an herbal remedy. While a few components of these cigarettes may have caused a degree of temporary relief for those with bronchitis or asthma, the long-term effects of smoking anything are known to be detrimental, especially to those whose lungs are already diseased. 

Long-term effects aside, many of the “asthma cigarettes” contained ingredients that were immediately and seriously harmful. Several brands boasted adding arsenic to their papers. Two of the staple ingredients for many companies were stramonium, an extract from the deadly Jimson weed (Datura stramonium) plant, and belladonna, extracted from deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna).

5. HEROIN TO CURE A MORPHINE HABIT

“Morphinism,” or morphine addiction, was perceived to be such a pervasive habit, and seen as such a scourge in polite society, that quack cures and treatments were easy to convince people to try, and rarely got reported or noticed when they didn’t work.

While unlabeled patent medicines in the U.S. were forced to reveal their ingredients after the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, many dangerous concoctions were still sold and advertised falsely. The tale of Bayer’s Heroin being used to “cure” morphine addiction (with a much more addictive and refined opiate) is pretty well-known, but it never caught on as much as Habitina (also known as Morphina-Cura) did. Habitina became known for its paid testimonials and dodgy advertising claims (“Non-Addictive! Cures the morphine habit!”), and was one of the most significant examples of the shortcomings of the Pure Food and Drug Act.

Habitina not only didn't give the patient a cure, it combined the worst sides of the pharmaceutical industry into one bottle—its main ingredients were morphine sulfate (does it count as a cure if you call the same drug by a different name?), heroin, and caffeine.

6. RADIUM TO PREVENT INSANITY AND OLD AGE

“The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off” has to be one of the best Wall Street Journal headlines of all time. The “radium water” in question was called Radithor, and the jaw in question belonged to one Eben Byers: industrialist, socialite, and amateur golf champion.

Radium and radiation were all the rage around the turn of the 20th century. People who went to natural hot springs seemed “invigorated and renewed,” and scientists noted that many of these natural springs were high in naturally-occurring radon. The radon seemed to be to water what oxygen was to air; without it, water was “dead.” Looking to profit off of this discovery, companies first bottled water directly from the springs, and later produced “invigorating” crocks (containing internal radon discs or coatings) to irradiate water. Just fill the crock before you go to sleep, and have healthy, stimulating water all day long!

Unfortunately for those who consumed the radon, the radiation in the water did the opposite of what it was supposed to do. Eben Byers bought into the claims, and drank three bottles of Radithor a day, beginning in 1930. In 1932, his teeth began to fall out, holes began to appear in his jaw, and he became generally unwell. He was dying of aggressive cancer brought on by the radon (not radiation poisoning, as is commonly believed, but still directly attributable to the Radithor). He died at age 51 and was buried in a lead-lined coffin. His was one of the cases used to substantially increase the FDA’s ability to regulate medical claims, when the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act passed.

7. GOAT GLANDS TO CURE IMPOTENCE

Some people will do anything to get their “potency” back, and there are plenty of people out there who are willing to take advantage of that. John R. Brinkley was one of the myriad snake-oil salesmen at the turn of the century, but a medical degree bought from a diploma mill led the now-“Dr.” Brinkley to pursue grander matters.

Early on in Brinkley’s career, Bill Stittsworth, a farmer with “no lead in his pencil, no powder in his pistol” consulted him. The story goes that Brinkley jokingly remarked that it was too bad the farmer didn’t have the glands of the frisky billy goats outside, but Stittsworth, taking Brinkley seriously, said “Doctor, I want you to transplant [the goat glands] into me.” The doctor did as much, and nine months later, Bill Stittsworth’s wife reportedly bore a son, appropriately named “Billy.”

Seeing the potential to profit from this venture, John Brinkley set up a major advertising campaign centered on “Billy,” and “goat-gland transplantation” took off. Over 16,000 men had their scrotums cut open and tissue plugs from the goat testicles inserted. In the best-case scenario, the men’s bodies simply broke down the goat tissues and healed up, but many patients weren’t so lucky.

The fact that Brinkley was a mediocre medical man at best led to dozens of deaths that were directly attributable to his operation, but hundreds more are believed to have been killed by infection, gangrene, or surgical mishaps. Those deaths also helped lead to the revocation of Brinkley’s license to practice medicine in Kansas in 1930. Unfortunately for the easily swayed, he remained in the goat-gland business for another decade in Texas.

8. THALIDOMIDE TO CURE MORNING SICKNESS AND SLEEPLESSNESS

The 1950s were an era of innovation, new discoveries, and excitement about the potential that science had to improve our lives. Drug companies were thriving on this outlook, and developing cures for even the smallest of ailments. Sleeplessness was a major problem, according to contemporary doctors, but the only reliable sedatives were barbiturates, which had a host of known addiction problems and side effects.

In 1957, the German drug company Grunenthal developed a non-barbiturate, non-habit-forming sleep aid called Thalidomide. It was sold over the counter, and touted as “safe for everyone.” Grunenthal’s adverts boasted that they could not find a dose high enough to kill a rat. By 1960, its sales in Europe and the Commonwealth countries nearly matched that of aspirin. Down in Australia, Dr. William McBride noticed that women who took the drug were often alleviated of their morning sickness, and sales boomed even higher.

It was too good to be true. By 1961, babies were beginning to be born to mothers who had taken Thalidomide in early pregnancy. Many of them had shortened or absent “flipper” limbs. Dr. McBride realized his mistake, and did everything he could to retract his endorsements of the drug, but it was too late for over 12,000 infants. By 1961, the drug was pulled off the market, but Grunenthal offered no recompense or statement regarding its inadequate testing and irresponsible promotion.

Interestingly, the story of Thalidomide had a rather different turn in the United States. Though it technically passed the requirements of the FDA testing authority at the time, FDA inspector Frances Kelsey would not approve its distribution. Ms. Kelsey felt the company provided insufficient data on the efficacy and safety of the drug on its applications, and despite pressure from pharmaceutical companies and other FDA supervisors, she refused to budge on the issue. President John F. Kennedy eventually heralded her as a heroine, after the scandal of the “Thalidomide babies” broke overseas.

This incident further strengthened the testing requirements of the FDA, and greatly increased the oversight and regulation of equivalent organizations in other countries. Interestingly, Thalidomide is once again being used as a drug, albeit with extreme restrictions on who can take it. It’s a chemotherapeutic agent that has significant benefits for multiple myeloma patients, and it has also been used in the treatment of Hansen’s disease (leprosy). Patients on the drug must have pregnancy tests and use reliable contraception if they are sexually active, and must not become pregnant within 4 weeks of coming off the drug.

This story first ran in 2013.

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