Airships, Dirigibles, 1896 airship scare

Mysterious Airships Seen Across the U.S. 50 Years Before Roswell

Some 125 years ago, there was a string of unexplained airship sightings, some of which took place in central Illinois, an “area-wide trend,” writes The Jacksonville Journal-Courier. Indeed, the airships were seen by hundreds of well-respected citizens in cities all over the state. 

Around the same time starting in 1896, hundreds of other reports of airships came in from the Midwest to the West Coast, starting in California.

Illustrations: Mystery airship illustrated in the San Francisco Call, November 1896, Wikimedia Commons, Public domain with screenshots via YouTube/Think Anomalous

Airships 50 Years Before Airplanes

It would be exactly 50 years before the Roswell UFO reports of 1947, in its 75th anniversary in 2022. At the time, there were no airplanes, six years before Wilbur and Orville Wright’s first flight in Kitty Hawk in 1903, lasting 12 seconds.

In Germany, the Zeppelin airship would not take to the air until 1900. However, balloons and dirigibles were featured in popular fiction and cartoons, like Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Balloon Hoax” from 1844. In the story, a group of men crossed the Atlantic Ocean from the UK in a “new type of lighter-than-air balloon,” landing in South Carolina.

Hundreds of Witnesses See Airships

On the evening of April 10, 1897, hundreds of people, including police officers and firemen saw an airship fly over Jacksonville. Then, on the night of April 11, a foreman at the Sangamon County Jail and a witness saw a UFO with “a radiating light not unlike a locomotive headlight.” In another incident, passengers on a train near Quincy reported an airship with two lights, “one white, the other red.” Not seeing any threat, they “raced for 15 minutes” with the ship.

At 2:30 pm on April 13, three men on a farm near Nilwoood, Illinois saw the “landing of a ‘cigar or boat-shaped’ object with ‘oars’ running from the bottom and a ‘picnic canopy on top,'” as reported by the Macoupin County Enquirer. The title of the article: That Elusive Air Ship.

According to The Courier, “this odd-looking craft sat down in a field for 15-20 minutes, then flew off in a northernly direction.”

From there, many others saw the ship, with sightings in nearby Green Ridge around 6 pm. This time, “a man stepped forth” from the airship, seemingly repairing the craft for ten minutes or so. Then, the airship was seen two hours later north of Springfield, and at 8:45 over Williamsville, headed north.

Just fifteen minutes later at 9 pm, the ship was spotted in Edwardsville and then “circling over St. Louis,” which was 100 miles south of Springfield. Thus, if there was one airship, it was traveling extremely fast, impossibly so at the time.

Airships Flying at High Speed

The next day, April 14, hundreds of people saw the airship or a similar UFO in the city of White Hall. Amazingly, they estimated it flew at nearly “150 mph.”

Meanwhile, in the Capital of Springfield, civic leaders and a newspaper editor at the top of Odd Fellows hall witnessed a UFO together. According to the report, they thought it could be “a star of unusual brilliancy” but then it started moving, causing them to debate what they witnessed.

Media Response to the Airships

Despite the number of sightings and witnesses, the Macoupin County Enquirer’s view of the airships was it was part of a clever publicity stunt. Perhaps, the report suggested, a “syndicate” wanted to create excitement as part of an advertising scheme for a new product, deploying “toy balloons.” Mockingly, they dubbed the product “Podunk Corn Salve.”

Strangely, other reports detailed by the Courier suggest the airship may have been a “mad scientist” with a long beard who claimed to be traveling the country. However, it’s unclear how the pilot traveled 100 miles in under 30 minutes, “an impossibility for an aerial object of the time,” reports The Guardian. On the other hand, there could have been multiple “mystery dirigibles” flying “a few years ahead of their time.” 

Related: The Strangest Evidence: UFOs, Pancakes, and Connections to Fairy Lore

Excellent video by Think Anomalous:

Airship Scares Coincided with Spy Scares

Were the airships part of some strange marketing publicity stunt as suggested by Illinois newspapers from 1897? If we assume the airships were of this world, could there be another motive? Twelve years later, an airship scare took place in the UK.

In the journal Magonia, UFO researcher Nigel Watson analyzed 1909 and 1913 airship waves in “Airships and Invaders – Background to a Social Panic.” He noticed the airship sightings in the UK and Europe happened simultaneously as documented German “spy scares” before the World War.

“Whether any of the spy or airship sightings had any basis, in reality, is subject to further research and speculation, but it is clear that they had a dramatic effect on the general public,” he wrote.

A Time of Social Unrest and Cultural Changes

It was a time of big cultural change due to science, technology, and new religious “cults” (The Theosophical Society and Christian Science), which challenged the Church of England. At the same time, stories fueling public anxiety about German spies were common. Fueling the fire, “new mass-circulation newspapers and fictional writings of the period stirred up feelings of public discontent.” 

Possibly, the airships and spy scares were a way “to maintain social cohesion in Britain,” through constant reminders of real or perceived enemies. By inciting fear, it would focus peoples’ attention on reliance on the government for a powerful military force to protect them from scary foreign intruders, Watson suggests.

Curiously, airships were seen near military sites, much as they are today.

“In an examination of the two airship waves, it will be interesting to note the incidence of airships seen in the vicinity of locations of military importance.”

Elaborating, he wrote:

“A brief review of the 1913 wave, in particular, seems to support the view that the airships were indeed attempting to [reconnoiter] military locations. Conversely, one could argue that people living in ‘strategic’ areas would be more sensitive to invasion scares.”

Sounds Familiar to Today?

After analyzing the available evidence, Watson drew conclusions that, once again, resonate today.

“While researching this material, I was struck by just how little the world situation has changed,” he wrote.

Were the airships a way to instill public fear of invaders to advance military goals?

“To conclude, we can surmise that politicians and journalists were equally guilty of enhancing the public fear of invasion, in order to secure more funds for military invasion. The generation of rumors of war were turned into actuality by a process of self-suggestion. In this state of mind the European powers marched inexorably towards the most bloody and destructive war in the history of mankind,” Watson wrote.

Airships, Dirigibles, 1896 airship scare

Stopping a UFO Hoax Invasion

More recently, Nigel Watson says he helped stop “an international conspiracy to fool people in the UK, America, France and South Africa by flying customized drones over major cities.” 

After discovering a plan by international drone hobby groups to fly drones outfitted with LED lights on April 5, (initially a more obvious April Fools Day), he wrote about it, foiling the hoax. He came across the plan on a then-public forum for remote-controlled drone hobbyists.

“I don’t agree with hoaxing,” he says. “Nonetheless, some people have secretly conducted hoaxes to ‘scientifically’ test the reactions of UFO investigators and the public.”

Interestingly, the Daily Star recalled an earlier hoax from 1938 that caused a panic at the time of Nazi Germany:

“When Orson Welles broadcast a ‘documentary style’ adaptation of Martian invasion novel War of the Worlds, it caused a significant panic, with calls flooding into the CBS switchboard. The news even reached Germany, with Adolf Hitler mentioning the panic as an example of the ‘western decadence’ he hoped to sweep away.”

Related: Gov. Official ‘Taking Bets’ New Balloons Lead to UFO Reports