Friday, June 19, 2009

Aerial Mystery of 1880

Another great contribution from our friend David Domine:

When I found mention of the 1880s sighting of Spring Heeled Jack in Louisville by Jim Brandon, I went to the library and went through all the micro-fiched copies of the local papers around that time, in the hopes that I'd find the original article that spurred that reference. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find the article in question, but strangely enough, I found other articles about strange aerial phenomena at the same time. Maybe they tie in?

I think Bart Nunnelly might refer to one of them in his book, but I found several others, including reports of a flying Spring-heeled Jack kind of character seen over Coney Island and "flying towards Kentucky."

What follows are key exceprts from the Courier-Journal news stories Domine passed along.

July 29, 1880:



Between 6 and 7 o’clock last evening while Messers. C. A. Youngman and Ben Flexner were standing at a side window of Haddart’s drug store, at Second and Chestnut Streets, looking skyward, they discovered an object high up in the air, apparently immediately above the Ohio river bridge, which they at first thought was the wreck of a toy balloon. As it got nearer they observed that it had the appearance of a man surrounded by machinery, which he seemed to be working with his feet and hands. He worked his feet as though he was running a treadle, and his arms seemed to be swinging to and fro above his head, though the latter movement sometimes appeared to be executed with wings or fans. The gazers became considerably worked up by the apparition, and inspected it very closely. They could see the delicate outlines of machinery, but the object was too high up to make out its exact construction. At times it would seem to be descending, and then the man appeared to exert himself considerably, and ran the machine faster, when it would ascend and assume a horizontal position. It did not travel as fast as a paper balloon, and its course seemed to be entirely under the control of the aeronaut. At first it was traveling a southeastward direction, but when it reached a point just over the city, and it turned and went due south, until it had passed nearly over the city, when it tacked to the southwest, in which direction it was going when it passed out of sight in the twilight of the evening. The gentlemen who saw it are confident that it was a man navigating the air on a flying machine. His movements were regular and the machine was under the most perfect control. If he belonged to this mundane sphere he should have dropped his card as he passed over, to enlighten those who saw him, and that his friends, if he has any, might be informed of his whereabouts.

July 30, 1880:

Lively times prevailed at Ruddart’s drug store on Second and Chestnut streets yesterday, requiring the greatest exertion on the part of the clerks to answer the questions of visitors and telephone calls in regard to the flying machine that was seen from this place the previous evening. Inquiries began to pour in as soon as the doors were opened yesterday morning, from early readers of the COURIER-JOURNAL, asking to have the machine explained to them in all its minuteness....

By the time the shades of night began to settle over the city, fully 500 visitors had called to inquire about it, and the telephone bell kept up a constant ringing all day, and, but for the fact that hardly two persons made the same inquiries, the clerks would have broken down at the task. Among the callers, however, was a lady living in the southern part of the city, who saw the areonaut himself, and called the attention of her husband to it. They did not get a good view of it, however, but saw enough to convince them, that it was the work of a "human agency."

August 6, 1880:

Dr. D. F. Dempsey, of Madisonville, Ky., has written the following to the Madisonville Times concerning the flying machine which was observed passing over this city two weeks ago:
"I interviewed Mr. Wells, the proprietor of the marble shop, North Main street, and Mr. Royster, a workman in said shop, in regard to what he and his family saw hop over Madisonville last Wednesday, but was not positive as to the day. Mr. Wells stated that Mr. Royster told him about it the day that an account of a flying machine over Louisville was published in the COURIER-JOURNAL. I asked them both, particularly Mr. Wells, was it before we received the COURIER-JOURNAL. The reply was emphatic, that it was in the morning of the day we received said COURIER-JOURNAL. Mr. Royster stated that the evening before, which would be Wednesday, between sundown and dark, his son Johnnie, six or seven years old, called his attention to something he saw hopping over Madisonville. He, Mr. Royster, said his wife and other children went out and looked at it. They live in southeastern Madisonville, about half mile from the railroad depot. He said there seemed to be a ball at each end of the thing, and it looked as if it was about over the depot. It sometimes appeared in a circular form and changed to an oval. It passed out of sight going, as well as he could determine, directly south. Everybody knows Mr. Wells and will believe that what he said in regard to the time Mr. Royster told him these things is strictly true."

New York Times, Sept. 12, 1880:

One day last week a marvelous apparition was seen near Coney Island. At the height of at least a thousand feet in the air a strange object was in the act of flying toward the New Jersey coast. It was apparently a man with bat’s wings and improved frog’s legs. The face of which could be distinctly seen, and it wore a cruel and determined expression. The movements made by the object closely resembled those of a frog in the act of swimming with his hind legs and flying with his front legs....

About a month ago an object of precisely the same nature was seen in the air over St. Louis by a number of citizens who happened to be sober and are believed to be trustworthy. A little later it was seen by various Kentucky persons as it flew across the state.

I'm still digesting these materials and mulling 'em over, but I have to say one of my first impressions is that it gives me pause that from one day to the next, the Courier-Journal couldn't get the name of the drugstore right. On the other hand, the interconnectivity between the Courier-Journal reports and the New York Times report is a huge step towards giving this story some legs.

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