Mystery Airships

Daniel Cohen. The Great Airship Mystery: a UFO of the 1890s. Dodd and Meard, 1981.

Daniel Cohen is a sympathetic sceptic, and in this first full-length study of the airship phenomenon of the 1890's he takes a view of the subject not dissimilar from that of Magonia, and despite the popular treatment, the book deals with all the most important features of the 'wave', from the San Francisco sightings to the Aurora 'crash'. The role of early science fiction, and popular speculation about 'mystery inventors' is highlighted.

There were many tales of encounters with airship occupants. One of the most interesting comes from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat of April 23rd, 1897, which reported that a St. Louis resident named Joseph Joslin was "walking along Skinner Road at Forrest Park when he came upon an airship". A short time later a strange creature, "two legged but shorter than the average man" appeared, and hypnotised Joslin into following it aboard the airship. He was held captive for three weeks, but because of the hypnotism he was unable to remember much of what happened, or how he was returned to earth. Joslin was dismissed as an alcoholic.

Also included are many classics, such as W. G. Hopkins and his nude 'Adam and Eve from Mars'; Judge Love and the visitors from the twelve lost tribes of Israel at the North Pole; the airship at Farmington, whose crew handed out temperance tracts; and the ever-present hint of the coming war with Spain.

It is a pity that in popular books like this important areas do get obscured. For example there is little discussion of the political and social background. The role of traditional folkloric themes is underplayed: for example some of the 'obviously ridiculous' airship reports contain motifs from contemporary tall-tales, themselves descendants of a once much more serious folklore. To assess such cases one would need to know the extent to which the small-town newspaper was the medium of a transformation from an oral to a literary story telling.

It is difficult to resist the observation that some of the apparently jocular tales conceal a hidden moral Hamilton's depiction of an all-American family rendered "hideous" and betwixt angel and devil, in the glare of the new machine.

Cohen convincingly argues that the 1897 airship and modern UFO stories can be explained as an amalgam of misperception, hoax and tall story, yet admits of a nagging doubt which exactly echoes my own feelings after compiling INTCAT. -- Peter Rogerson, Magonia 18, January 1985.


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