They Came From Outer Space: Killer Meteors

Vintage meteor fall

The Leonid Meteor Shower over Niagara Falls, 1833.

Today’s post originally was going to be about ghostly disembodied hands, but the meteor fall in Russia proved too tempting to ignore. I have been fascinated by human-meteor interaction since my pal Nick Reiter showed me a rough stone in an Ohio cemetery, claimed to be the meteor that killed the man buried beneath.  So here, compiled in blazing haste from my files, are some choice specimens of sky falls. I shouldn’t have to caution you that the literal truth of any/all of these ripping yarns is suspect. What is striking, however, is that even in obvious journalistic hoaxes, patterns of damage and phenomena very similar to the Russian meteor fall are being reported.

The 19th-century papers revelled in stories about falling stars and meteors. Interesting as these are, I am more interested in the human-aerolite interactions reported. There was a silly-season popularity for stories of houses set on fire by meteors or people killed by them. The 1880s was the golden age of “serious” meteor reports as well as spoofs. Starting even earlier (from the 1870s onward, although there was an isolated 1860s report from New South Wales) several men were claimed to have been killed by meteors: David Misenthaler (we find several variants on his last name like Melsenthaler), also Leonidas Grover and Roman Cruz, a Mexican sheep-herder, Julius Rabb/Robb and “M. Garcia” and family.

The shockingly high toll of aerolite victims is explained by the fact that identical stories were recycled in newspapers all over the country, with a little editing to make the setting local. Like this plausible-sounding piece:

ONLY MAN EVER KILLED BY A METEOR

   To the writer’s certain knowledge there is but one case on record where a human being has been killed by an aerolite or fall of meteoric stone. The fatality mentioned occurred in Whetstone Township, Crawford County, O., in 1815, and is recorded in the Bucyrus Journal as follows:

As David Misenthaler, the famous stockman of Whetstone Township was driving his cows to the barn about daylight this morning he was struck by an aerolite and instantly killed. It appears as if the stone had come down from a direction a little west of south, striking the man just under or on the right shoulder, passing obliquely through him from the right shoulder to just above the left hip, burying the greater portion of his body under itself in the soft earth. The stone is about the size of a wooden water bucket, and appears to be composed of pyrites of iron. Sandusky [OH] Daily Register 22 July 1892: p. 2

This story was also reported from “Whitestone, Kansas” in the 1870s.

Julius Robb, a Montgomery Co., Ark. Farmer, killed by a meteor, which cut off a limb of a tree under which he was standing and then went through his body. It was composed of iron pyrite and was about the size of a teacup. Cincinnati [OH] Post 25 November 1884: p. 1

Killed by a Meteor

Covington, Ind., Jan. 15. On Tuesday night last, Leonidas Grover, who resided in the vicinity of Newtown, Fountain county, met his death in a way that is probably without parallel in this or any other country. Mr. Grover was a widower living on his farm with a married daughter and her husband. On the evening referred to, the married couple had been absent on a visit to some neighbors, and upon  returning at a late hour, entered the house, finding everything, to all appearances, in usual order, and supposing that Mr. Grover had already retired, went to bed themselves. Next morning the daughter arose, and having prepared breakfast, went to the adjoining room to call her father, and was horrified to find him lying upon his shattered bed, a mutilated corpse. Her screams brought the husband quickly to the bedroom and an inspection disclosed a ragged opening in the roof, directly over the breast of the unfortunate man, which was torn through as if by a cannon-shot, and extending downward through the bedding and floor: other holes showing the direction taken by the deadly missile. Subsequent search revealed the fact that the awful calamity was caused by the fall of a meteoric stone, and the stone itself pyramidal in shape and weighing twenty-two pounds and a few ounces, avoirdupois, and stained with blood, was unearthed from a depth of nearly five feet, thus showing the fearful impetus with which it struck the dwelling. The position of the corpse, with other surroundings, when found showed that the victim was asleep when stricken and that death, to him, was painless. Plain Dealer  [Cleveland, OH] 20 January 1879: p. 1

I’m particularly fond of this account telling of the immense meteor towering seventy feet above its impact point. 

KILLED BY A METEOR

Seven Persons Crushed by a Monster Aerolite.

A Frightful Occurrence

New York, April 16. A Sun special from Ft. Worth, Texas, of April 15th says: A dispatch from Williams’ ranch says that at about 2 o’clock this morning a great meteor fell in the outskirts of the town, killing several head of cattle and destroying the dwelling house of Martinez Garcia, a Mexican herder, who with his whole family, consisting of a wife and five children, were buried beneath the ruins. In its descent the meteor resembled a massive ball of fire, and the shock was similar to that of an earthquake. It is probably one hundred feet long, and towers above the surface about seventy feet, and will cover about one acre of ground. The concussion was terrific, nearly every window in the town being shattered. People were hurled violently from their beds, and in storehouses the goods were thrown from the shelves. No lives were lost, as far as known, except those of the Mexican and his family, although several buildings fell to the ground. Cattle fled in terror in all directions. The air was filled with sulphurous gas. The wildest confusion prevailed, as it was a long time before anybody could even conjecture what it was. This is the largest meteor that has ever fallen. It has already been visited by a great many people, and will doubtless continue to attract much attention. The excitement, not only here but all over the surrounding country, is intense. Idaho Statesman [Boise, ID] 24 April 1883: p. 1

This meteor-fire tragedy was widely reported:

Woman, Babe Killed by Meteor Blaze

Greendale, N.Y., Dec. 22 (UP) Residents of Greendale reported today that a meteor fell from the sky last night and set fire to a farm house, burning a woman and year-old baby to death and injuring six others painfully.

Scientists say such a thing happens once in 500 years.

J.R. Hicks, storekeeper, related today that he stood in front of his store and saw a ball of fire shooting from the sky. It landed on the roof of William Peator’s house, he said.

Mrs. William Peator, 43, and Raymond Ford, Jr., her one-year-old nephew, were killed. Others in the house, Minnie and Doris Peator, 5-year-old twins; Ruth Peator, 16 and Mrs. Raymond Ford, 28, were painfully burned. The Ogden [UT] Standard-Examiner 23 December 1928

Even animals were subject to murderous meteor attacks:

Three Dogs Killed By Meteor in Alaska

Dawson, Y.T. Dec. 14 Three dogs which were drawing Andrew Johnson, a telegraph lineman, were killed by a giant metear [sic] which fell on the Yukon telegraph line, south of Atlin, according to word reaching here yesterday.

Johnson, who was traveling 50 feet behind the animals, was stunned for several hours as a result of the impact. The meteorite made a hole almost 50 feet in diameter. The earth all about appeared subjected to intense heat. Bakersfield Californian 11 December 1915

Was the Horse Killed by a Meteor?

From the Galveston Daily News: Last night about 9:30 o’clock as Mr. Cain, who lives about four miles east of here, was going home in his wagon, and about 600 yards from his house, something like a meteor struck one of his horses. It struck the horse on the right side of the ribs, making a hole the size of a hen’s egg, and breaking some ribs loose from the spine, going forward up the spine till nearly the head. Mr. Cain says at the report he fell or dropped in the wagon bed and the horses ran home. The horse was taken out of the wagon before he died. Parties cried for more [illegible] thinking someone had tried to waylaid [sic] Cain and shot the horse, but upon close inspection of the ground no sign of any one being secreted could be found. The horse was dissected, and no lead or anything that would go to show the horse was shot could be found. Two parties say they saw the meteor, and say it made quite a display of colors, and they heard the explosion. Sterling [IL] Standard 29 July 1887

There were also non-lethal aerolite events as in this story of a  London gentleman who thought he had been hit by a meteor, which, frankly, would not have been my first explanation:

STRUCK BY A FALLING STAR

Letter to the London Times.

As a gentleman, a well-known public official, was passing from St. James’s Park into Pall mall by the garden wall of Marlborough House, on Saturday last, at 4:45 in the afternoon he suddenly receive don the right shoulder a violent blow, accompanied by a loud crackling noise, which caused him great pain and to stumble forward as he walked. On recovering his footing, and turning round to see who had so unceremoniously struck him, he found that there was no one on the pavement but himself and the policemen on duty at the park end of it. On reaching home the shoulder was submitted to examination, but nothing was at first discovered to account for the pain in it. But in a little while the servant who had taken away the coat to brush brought it back to point out that over the right shoulder the nap was pressed down flat in a long, straight line, exactly as if a hot wire had been sharply drawn across the cloth. The accident is therefore explained as having been caused by the explosion of a minute falling star or meteor. It is an unprecedented and most interesting occurrence, and deserves, I think, to be placed on public record. New York Times 28 June 1886

This next story is also found in my book The Headless Horror.

A VESPER SMOKE DISTURBED.

MR. M’MULLEN CAPTURES A REAL AEROLITE

Cleveland, Ohio, May 29. As Mr. I.N. McMullen was enjoying his vesper smoke last evening in his house yard on Seelye Avenue his attention was arrested by a blazing object in the sky shooting his way. He called to his wife to step out and see it, and as she responded to the call, an aerolite imbedded itself in the ground within 10 feet of where he stood. When it struck, the mass of fire resolved itself into a ball large as a football and burned for a few seconds. The atmosphere was filled with a strong sulphurous odor. For a moment Mr. McMullen was struck dumb with amazement and terror, but on recovering he hastened to the spot where the mass had fallen. He found a hole in the ground from which a considerable amount of heat issued. Resolved at all hazards to find out what had entered the ground, he procured a light, and seizing a small hatchet, dug down for a distance of two feet, when he found a substance about as large as a small apple too hot to handle. He threw it out on the ground to cool, which took about half an hour.

After being sufficiently cooled to handle he took it into the house and proceeded to examine it. It is a half sphere in shape, weighs about 12 ounces and has the appearance of copper coated with a thin black substance. It is so hard that a sharp knife will not cut it. The bottom, which is flat, is punctured with small holes, making it somewhat resemble a sponge. One side is corrugated and has the appearance of beaten brass, only the color is a duller, coarser one. The mass is covered in spots with a thin, melted substance, which causes it to resemble a new casting. Mr. McMullen will place it in the hands of Prof. Morley of Adelbert College for analysis. The New York Times 30 May 1888

 Perhaps Prof. Morley was included to add verisimilitude to a spoof, but he was the very real chemistry professor Edward Morley of the Michelson-Morley experiments on the speed of light. Adelbert College eventually became Case Western Reserve University.

Then there is this 1890s account of a ship being struck. When I read the name of the schooner, I thought this must be a hoax to drum up business for Barnum’s Museum. It may still be, but the schooner was reported to have been built in 1890 with Mr. Barnum as principal owner; the ship bore a figurehead of the great showman. Barnum died in 1891. Captain Blake was a genuine ship’s captain. I can’t find any record (in an admittedly quick search) that any meteors were ever on display at his museums, nor a follow-up article about the “bushel-sized” fragments.

TOPMAST WAS TRUCK BY A METEOR

A Connecticut Skipper’s Story of an Incident in Squad Inlet.

Bridgeport, Conn., Nov. 19 Capt. Blake of the schooner P.T. Barnum, hailing from this port, has returned from a trip to Philadelphia with a story about the vessel being struck by a meteor.

The schooner was plowing along under good sail and wind in Squad Inlet, when suddenly the decks of the vessel were illuminated as bright as day, and the crew were thrown to the deck, stunned. The topmast had been struck by a meteor and flames were thrown in every direction.

Harry Neilson, one of the crew, was aloft taking in sail at the time. He says he heard the hissing sound preceding the contact with the ropes.

The rigging where the meteor struck was instantly set afire and though Neilson made all haste to reach the deck, before he could do so he was badly burned about the legs. The sailor had a narrow escape. If he had been a little lower in the rigging he would have been hit.

When the meteor struck, it broke and fell to the deck in pieces as large as bushel baskets. The crew were panic-stricken for a time, but order was secured, and the flames put out. The only damage done was to the rigging, and the vessel continued on her voyage. Capt. Blake says that in all his seafaring experience he never heard of such a thing before. The New York Times 20 November 1894

While reports of lethal meteors declined after the 1880s, in 1929, a French scientist suggested some new ways meteors could menace the public:

Meteors Cause Plane Crashes is French Idea

Paris, Dec. 14 (AP) Meteors may be to blame for mysterious airplane accidents, strange explosions, forest fires [there were rumors that the Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871 was caused by a meteorite fall] and even bad weather, a noted French authority, General Frederic Chapel, retired, has affirmed in a special interview with The Associated Press.

He is the author of several works on meteors and astronomy and evolved his theory from investigation of many queer occurrences.

Red-hot meteors, or “falling stars,” he thinks probably set up electrical disturbances as they sizzle through space. To illustrate their power he has calculated that a little two-ounce meteor, the size of a hazel nut, would travel thirty miles a second when approaching earth and have the force of a 500-ton train.

Meteors, says the general, are so numerous that they often form “bombardments.” Most of them go into space or hit other planets but on earth enough arrive to cause accidents such as that at Budapest recently when a Hungarian girl was killed by a meteor on her way to a wedding. [I have not tracked down this reference.]

In such fashion, the general reasons, airplanes may have been struck down or ships destroyed. He suggests also that meteors might explain many other phenomena such as the recent explosion at Toul [sic - Toulouse?] of an army magazine when fifty tons of powder blew up without any apparent cause. [nor this.] Florence [SC] Morning News 15 December 1929

Given the prevalence of hoax meteor stories in the previous century, what are we to make of this 1951 report?

12 Killed by Meteor “Shower”

Tehran, Iran, Aug .16 (UP) A “downpour” of meteorites killed 12 persons, injured 19 and flattened 62 buildings near the south Iranian city of Shiraz last Monday, Terhan [sic] newspapers reported today.

About 300 cows, sheep and donkeys also were reported to have been killed in the meteoric shower. Lowell [MA] Sun 16 August 1951: p. 19

Keep your eyes on the skies….

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