Although we may consider that the Men in Black are a modern phenomenon of the UFO age—think John Keel and The Mothman Prophecies–their roots go back to the 16th and 17th centuries where a visit from “The Black Man” or the dark-visaged man dressed in black meant an encounter with the Devil.
In the 19th century, too, we find mysterious visitations from men dressed in black, and, in the following case, accompanied by the same bizarre, poltergeist-like events Keel and others experienced when the Men in Black came to call.
This account, from 1863, contains motifs found in later UFO cases (Hopkinsville, for example): shooting at intruders without effect, a frightened dog, doors mysteriously malfunctioning, showers of missiles on the roof. The skeptical editor satirically suggests a political (“Union” vs. Confederate”) explanation.
Very Strange If True! Two Ghosts in Wapello County!
We learn, by a gentleman of unquestionable veracity, that great consternation prevails in Adams Township, in this county, occasioned by the nightly visitations of two seeming men, at the residence of Mr. Wm. Spaulding, who lives five miles east of Blakesburg. These visitors, be they who they may, and whether in the flesh or spirits in human shape, make their appearance about seven o’clock in the evening, and remain until about five in the morning, their first appearance being on Friday night, a week ago. They seem medium sized, heavy set men, dressed in black! On their first appearance, on Friday night, the family and some of the neighbors, were boiling molasses about forty rods from the house, when about seven o’clock, suddenly, clubs, cobs, (they had been shelling corn during the day) and small sticks, began to fly in a shower, from a certain direction, occasionally hitting some one of the persons present, but generally falling in one small place. Once a candlestick, held by Mrs. Spaulding, was hit, nearly knocking it out of her hand. No person was then visible, but they heard something walking about with a heavy tread. About one o’clock, they quit boiling, and two of the men, Harmon Wellman and J.M. Spaulding, started out in the direction from whence the missiles seemed to come, armed with clubs and brickbats, to find and chastise these strange and curious intruders. No sooner had the men started than the missiles came, larger and thicker. The fire of missiles was returned by the men, but without evidence of their hitting anybody. The party about the kettles returned about this time (one o’clock) to the house. After their return, the missiles seemed to strike the fence and the house with great violence. Spaulding and one of the men went out to turn out the horses, taking their guns with them. No sooner were they out of the house, than a large club fell near them, seemingly coming from behind. One of the men wheeled, and saw a man standing near enough to be distinguished in a dark night, at whom he instantly shot. The man ran and disappeared. They turned out the horses and returned to the house. Nothing more was seen of the men that night, although they were heard walking near the house. The next night, and for the four succeeding nights, the same state of things existed, two being seen on Tuesday night. Missiles struck the fence and house, but left no dents and marks distinguishable by daylight. In the meantime, Mr. Spaulding and his neighbors became alarmed by such strange phenomenon, and from time to time, met at Spaulding’s house to try and solve the mystery. On Monday night, J.W. Wellman, Wm. Hayne, Wm. Spaulding and his son, spent the night watching. Sometime in the night, one of the men looked out of the window and distinctly saw, by the light of a bright moon, a man standing before the door. After sitting awhile, they looked out again, and saw the man prostrate on a plank, lighting a dark lantern with a match. Getting their revolvers and guns ready, the party prepared to open the door, but strange to say, the four powerful men could not open it. They afterwards remained quietly in the house until 5 o’clock in the morning. One night, Mr. E.B. Day took his dog, a very sagacious animal, and tried to set her on, but she trembled, ran between her master’s legs, and refused to make any demonstrations against the ghosts.
The above are the leading facts as related to us, of the most strange phenomenon. Mr. Spaulding at first attributed the persecution to political enmity, but certain evidence of the absence, in other places, of those he only could suspect, at times when the visitors were seen and engaged in their operations, satisfied him that he must look for some other solution of the mystery.
We give the facts precisely as they are related to us, merely expressing, by way of comment, our decided conviction that no Union men, in or out of the flesh, have resorted to that mode of converting Mr. Spaulding and his political friends from the error of their political ways. The story is a strange one, and we await, with considerable anxiety, further developments. In the meantime, an opportunity is afforded to the curious to speculate on the subject of ghosts! We don’t believe in ghosts, and if we did, it is against all ghostly rules to visit in couples, and they have generally been clothed in white, invariably so as far as our recollection serves us. It is barely possible that some evil disposed persons have been playing rather a fatiguing and protracted trick upon Mr. Spaulding and his friends. Most of the phenomena can be accounted for without resort to the supernatural. To persons laboring under apprehension of danger, everything, particularly in the night, seems unnatural and distorted. Ghosts can be manufactured with the greatest ease. It is also extremely difficult to aim accurately under such circumstances, and a person would stand many chances of escaping to one of being hit. And so we might speculate upon all these occurrences, supposing them to be real occurrences. As to that we repeat, we merely give what is related to us. Ottumwa Courier. quoted in Burlington [IA] Hawk Eye October 31, 1863: p. 2
The showers of corn-cobs are echoed in this 1880 account from Belle Center, Ohio, which also tells of a mysterious gnome-like creature seen on the farm just before the cobs began falling.
DOINGS OF SPOOKS IN LOGAN COUNTY
SHOWERS OF CORN-COBS, CLUBS, STONES AND OTHER MISSILES FLYING MYSTERIOUSLY THROUGH THE AIR
Belle Center, Ohio, July 23. About three miles north-west of town there is a farm known as the Zahller Place, one of the oldest in the State, and owned by the heirs, one of whom occupies it. On last Friday afternoon the folks went blackberrying and two of the children went to a picnic nearby. About five o’clock the children returned, and they say as they came into the yard a man of small stature, bow-legged and very ragged, came out of the kitchen, walked past them, opened the garden gate and went in. He then jumped over the picket-fence into the barn-yard and disappeared in the barn. The children becoming frightened at his strange actions, went to a neighbor’s house about half a mile distant and returned home in the evening. When their parents returned, they related their story. Mr. Zahller tracked the man through the garden and barn-yard by noticing three large-headed nails in the impression of his boot-heel. At the barn all traces were lost.
Now comes the mystery: Mrs. Zahller went to the barn-yard to milk; corn-cobs commenced falling near like someone was throwing at her. Mr. Zahller was standing nearby but didn’t notice them. She asked him if he saw that. He answered no. Just then a large one hit near him, but he could not see where it came from. During Saturday the children were hit with corn-cobs, pieces of bark and small stones every time they attempted to go into the barn yard. Two of the family—one a boy of seven, and the other a young lady of eighteen—seemed to attract the most. When they came near the missiles were sure to fly. The boy, especially, was hurt about the face with small stones.
One of the neighbors, coming to witness the shower, was hit in the back by a wooden pin that had been used to fasten a large gate. A trace-chain that had been plowed up and was hung on a corner of the corn-crib, near the barn, also went sailing in the air in search of something to light on. Hundreds of people have been to see this sight since Saturday and all came away satisfied that they saw chips, small stones, corn-cobs, &c., falling near them, but unable to explain where they came from. One man says he saw corn-cobs start from the ground and soar over his head and light on the ground without the least noise. Another one says he was standing near a chicken house, the door of which was open, when some half dozen cobs came flying out. The house was searched, but nothing found…Some say the flying pieces are not noticed until they either strike them or fall on the ground nearby. The strangest thing is that they light as easy as a feather, no matter how large the article is. One man brought home a piece of an old walnut rail about a foot long and two by four inches thick. That, he says, he tried to aggravate the spirits, and said in a loud voice, “Don’t throw anymore corn-cobs; throw a club this time.” Just then this piece lit on his shoulder as easy as a feather and rolled to the ground. The whole neighborhood is excited, and watch the barn from morning until night, trying not to believe it, but at the same time convinced that they saw something, they know not what. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 24 July 1880: p. 7
(This account, accompanied by a follow-up story, which includes a ghostly woman in white seen in the vicinity, is found in The Face in the Window: Haunting Ohio Tales.)
The UFO-MIB connection is even more pronounced in this 1873 letter to a Zanesville, Ohio newspaper.
VERY LIKE A WHALE
Zanesville, Ohio April 5, 1873
To the Editor of the Herald:
A most extraordinary phenomenon was observed near the village of Taylorsville, a few miles from this city, about a week ago. Mr. Thomas Inman, whom your reporter can vouch for as a respectable farmer of unquestionable truth and veracity, related the circumstances to the writer, and, with his son, who was also an eye witness, is willing to make oath to the truth of this statement.
One evening about two weeks ago, while Mr. Inman and his son, a young man, were returning to their home from Taylorsville, they saw a light, which they describe as looking like a “burning brush pile,” near the zenith, descending rapidly towards the earth, with a loud, roaring noise. It struck the ground in the road a short distance from them. The blazing object flickered and flared for a few moments and then faded into darkness, as a man dressed in a complete suit of black and carrying a lantern emerged from it. The man walked a few paces and stepped into a buggy, which had not been observed before by either Mr. Inman or his son. There was no horse attached to this supernatural vehicle, but no sooner had the man taken his seat than it started to run, noiselessly, but with great velocity along the highway and this it continued to do until it reached a steep gully, into which it plunged, when buggy, man, and lantern suddenly disappeared as mysteriously as they came.
This phenomenon is certainly an extraordinary and unexplainable one, and sounds more like the vagary of a crazed brain than anything else. But both Mr. Inman and his son, who are sober men and not given to superstitious notions, agree precisely in their statements and maintain that they are strictly true. If it was an optical delusion, superinduced by a meteor or “Jack o’ lantern,” is it not strange that the same fancied appearances could be conjured up in the minds of two men at the same time? Here is a chance for scientists to explain the fantastical optical and other illusions and delusions which follow in the train of, and are suggested by, some strange and unexpected sight or occurrence.
W. A. Taylor.
New York Herald 8 April 1873: p. 7
The title is drawn from a dialog between Hamlet and Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act iii Sc. 2, where the two men are looking at clouds:
Ham. Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in the shape of a camel?
Pol. By the mass, and ’t is like a camel, indeed.
Ham. Methinks it is like a weasel.
Pol. It is backed like a weasel.
Ham. Or like a whale?
Pol. Very like a whale.
Like the headline writer, I am more than a little skeptical of this tale. The horseless buggy and the falling, blazing brush pile sound like something out of a novel by Jules Verne. Still, it is odd that the narrator specifies that the alien man appears dressed in black. This, in an era when many men wore black as a matter of course, seems a peculiar distinction to make, as if to point out the high strangeness of the man.
This account is included in my book, The Headless Horror: Strange and Ghostly Ohio Tales, which is also available for Kindle. The Wapello County Men in Black are found in The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales from the Past, also available for Kindle.
Any other early Men in Black stories? Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com.