The Flatwoods Monster: The First Close Encounter of the Third Kind?

It’s the 65th anniversary of the Flatwoods Monster incident, so today I offer my take on one of West Virginia’s most famous monsters.

The story of the Flatwoods Monster bears telling because it is unique amongst UFO encounters. Depending upon who you ask, the monster is either an as-yet-unidentified cryptid (Is there any other kind?), a bona fide close encounter of the third kind, secret military technology, or an owl. The sighting occurred in the town of Flatwoods in Braxton County, West Virginia, United States, on September 12, 1952 at about 7:15 p.m.. 

An article by A. Lee Stewart of the Braxton Democrat, printed in the Washington Daily News on September 15, 1952 began with the following:

“A short time after a meteorite – or something – blazed across this town last Friday and seemed to land nearby, an evil-smelling, green bodied monster 12 feet tall with bulging eyes and clawy hands sent seven young citizens running for their lives.”

Here’s what basically happened. 

At 7:15 p.m. on September 12, 1952, two brothers, Edward May (age 13), Fred May (age 12), and their friend Tommy Hyer (age 10) saw a bright object cross the sky and then land on property belonging to local farmer G. Bailey Fisher. The boys then went to the May brothers’ home and told their mother, Kathleen May, that they’d just seen a UFO crash land in the hills on the Fisher farm. The boys and their mother were joined by Neil Nunley (age 14), Ronnie Shaver (age 10), and Eugene Lemon (age 17) as they set off to investigate the alleged crash site.

Reportedly, Lemon’s dog ran on ahead, began barking and then returned with its tail between its legs, a bit of foreshadowing as it turns out. After the group reached the top of a hill, they saw a large pulsating “ball of fire” about 50 feet to their right and noted a pungent mist that made their eyes and noses burn. Lemon shone his flashlight on two small lights underneath a nearby oak tree to the left of the ball of fire, , thinking it was a raccoon or something, at which point they saw the creature. The creature was described as at least 7 feet tall, with a shiny, metallic face, protruding eyes and a green body. Some accounts state that it had “clawy looking” hands extending from the front of its body, while others say that it moved too fast to see whether it had arms at all. The entity’s head was elongated, shaped like a sideways diamond and had a spade-shaped cowl behind it. Its body was clad in a dark pleated exoskeleton or, in later tellings, a shadow. Exposed by the light, the creature gave a shrill hiss, glided towards them, and then heading off towards the red light. Comically, Lemon fell backwards at the sight of it and the entire group fled in sheer panic. In fact, one account has Kathleen May hurdling a fence she’d had difficulty climbing over on the way up to get away from it. She was reported to have said, “It looked worse than Frankenstein. It couldn’t have been human.”

Mrs. May called the local sheriff and A. Lee Stewart from the safety of her home. Stewart picked up Bill Steorts along the way, who gave him directions to the site. After conducting a few interviews, Stewart returned to the site with Lemon that same night. Stewart reported that “there was a sickening, burnt, metallic odor still prevailing.” Sheriff Carr and his deputy also reported the smell, but found nothing else that night. The next morning Stewart returned and discovered two long tracks in the mud as well as traces of a thick black liquid, which he reported as signs of a possible saucer landing; however, it was later revealed that the tracks belonged to a 1942 Chevrolet pickup truck driven by Max Lockard, who had come by to see the area for himself prior to Stewart’s return that morning.

Several members of the original troupe reported suffering from irritation of the nose and swelling of the throat, which they claimed was due to having been exposed to the mist they encountered at the site. According to the police, they identified a rather typical fog forming at the time, which accounts for the source of the mist but not the symptoms. Lemon suffered from vomiting and convulsions throughout the night. While their symptoms were said to be similar to those experienced by victims of mustard gas, such symptoms are also commonly found in sufferers of hysteria brought on by a shocking or traumatic event. My money’s on the latter.

By the time Gray Barker and cryptozoologist Ivan T. Sanderson arrived a week later, Kathleen May and A. Lee Stewart were on their way to a live interview on the We the People TV show in New York on September 19, 1952. Sanderson intended to write an article for True magazine. Barker had contacted Ray Palmer’s Fate magazine, who had commissioned him to do an article on the creature. As a result of his investigations, Sanderson decided that “[t]he ‘Braxton County Monster’ was a spaceship. In fact, it was one of five spaceships which flew in formation across central West Virginia.” 

Neither his investigation nor his conclusions [nor Gray Barker’s, for that matter] informed the most famous rendering of the Braxton County Monster. A New York TV staff artist drew the now-famous rendition of the Flatwoods Monster based on descriptions from May and Stewart.

Well, sort of. 

In a 1956 Charleston Gazette article by Don Seagle, Mrs. May complained that “[s]ome of the people I talked to twisted what I told them to make it look as if it were some sort of living thing. It really didn’t look alive. There’s no question in my mind but what it was some kind of airplane or rocket ship.”

A 1966 article in the Charleston Sunday Gazette-Mail adds further details:

“‘It wasn’t a monster,’ Mrs. May insists today. ‘We never thought it was. It was an airplane of some type and that’s all. I received a letter from Washington — the Pentagon — telling me that it was a secret plane the government was working on. They sent me a small picture of it and it looked like what we saw that night.’”

It has to be pointed out that going from saying it was worse than Frankenstein’s monster, to saying you never thought it was a monster at all is a rather glaring change of heart. In fact, she admits that while she was in New York for her We the People television appearance, that she had “no idea” what the monster was. Yet she told Gray Barker that “in New York she had talked to scientists who had convinced her that the ‘monster’ was a rocket ship.” So what happened? Did Kathleen May really receive a letter from the government explaining the whole thing?

In They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers (1956), Gray Barker recounts a part of his investigation that was left out of his Fate magazine article (“The Monster and the Saucer,” January 1953). He stumbled upon the first mention of this elusive government letter. Gray was told by Mrs. May’s father they’d seen a letter from the government, which explained that that the “monster” was a “government rocket ship, propelled by an ammonia-like hydrazine, and nitric acid.” It also allegedly said that a report was to be released to the public that week, after which date she could talk more freely about it. Fortunately, the release date was past and Barker was directed to none other than A. Lee Stewart, whom he was informed could give him the details of that letter.

When Barker asked Stewart about the letter, “Stewart chuckled as he held up an 8×10 photo, attached to a publicity release from Collier’s magazine. The issue of October 18th was to contain the story of how a moon rocket would be constructed in the future, and the photo was the art work which was to appear on the cover. The release date for the press was during that week, he explained. He had shown the picture to the May family because there was some resemblance between the rocket ship art work and the descriptions of the “monster.” The release went on to explain how the ship could be propelled by ammonia-like hydrazine and nitric acid.”

I did some investigation on the Collier’s press release. The press release in question was advertising the second installment of Collier’s “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!” series of eight magazine articles published from 1952 to 1954 detailing Wernher von Braun’s plans for manned spaceflight. The series was formed from lectures by Wernher von Braun, Willey Ley and Heinz Haber delivered at an astronomical symposium organized by Ley and others at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City on October 12, 1951.  The Collier’s series began with the March 22, 1952 issue. It was preceded by “an elaborate publicity campaign, including window displays of the Collier’s art work in the Amerioan Express offices in Manhattan and downtown Philadelphia, press releases, kits for use by local radio and newspaper staffs and high schools and colleges, and news photos,” launched on March 13, 1952. The October 18, 1952 issue, entitled “Man on the Moon,” was the subject of Stewart’s press release and included artwork by Chesley Bonestell of a proposed lunar lander, the very craft Kathleen Mays was shown by Stewart. I have a vintage window display featuring this very cover. 

This artwork was also featured on page 32 of the October 11, 1952 issue of Collier’s as a preview of the next week’s cover. I was unable to nail down a date for a specific press release for the “Man on the Moon” issue, nor confirm whether there ever was separate press release for that issue. Nevertheless, the cover art looks remarkably like a mechanical version of the creature drawn by that New York staff artist. This coincidence requires an explanation.

So which was it? Why did the Mays mistake a press release for the second installment of Collier’s “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!” series for a government report? If a letter actually existed, where is it now? To complicate matters, the letter was allegedly given to A. Lee Stewart to be delivered to Mrs. May rather than through the mail or a government or military representative. Stewart took the letter with him after showing it to her. The fact that he took it and that it was sent to him in the first place admittedly puzzled her.

When Frank Feschino, Jr., author of The Braxton County Monster: The Cover-Up of the Flatwoods Monster Revealed (2004), asks Stewart about the letter, he claimed that his wife had packed away his records and that Feschino didn’t need to see the letter because he had Stewart’s testimony. When the investigator pressed him, noting that the letter was the only hard evidence available, Stewart became upset so he dropped the subject. Stewart was also unwilling to discuss his military background, even though Feschino noted it would help to establish him as a credible witness. During their interview, Stewart claims that Collier’s contacted him after they saw the monster drawing on We the People, noting it was very similar to the cover illustration for their forthcoming Man on the Moon issue. He claims that he was unaware of the Collier’s cover until then and that the government was not involved, only the magazine.

Feschino thinks that there were two documents. One was actually a government letter sent to alleviate Mrs. Mays’ fears about the side effects of the mist she’d been exposed to. He believes that it contained information about the rocket fuel taken from the Collier’s article and a photo of the artwork, both meant to reinforce a hypothesized “cover-up of the experimental ship explanation.” The second document was simply a Collier’s press release and the photo of the cover art. He further speculated that was contacted by officials while in New York , who convinced or coerced him to be part of their cover-up to avoid a national panic over the alleged alien encounter. Stewart showed Mays a bogus government letter, supplemented with the Collier’s information and made a switch when Gray Barker interviewed him, showing Barker the press release instead. He further speculates that after recruiting Stewart in New York, “officials wasted no time in contacting Collier’s to engineer a cover-up using the national media,” who felt obligated to help as a matter of patriotic duty or something to that effect. 

The principle of Occam’s Razor gets violated a lot when concocting UFO conspiracies. I don’t believe this case is any exception. At this point, everything points to A. Lee Stewart. Everyone agrees that he was the first person Kathleen May contacted. He was on the hilltop for an hour before the police could arrive, because they were busy investigating another bolide sighting that was thought, at first, to be a plan crash. He was with Mrs. May and Eugene Lemon on their We the People appearance. He helped the New York artist come up with the illustration that appeared on that show. He had the Collier’s press release and a photo of the cover art featuring the lunar lander that so closely resembles the Flatwoods Monster.

Add to this the intriguing confession of Bill Steorts. On December 7, 1977, Adrian Gwin wrote an article for the Charleston Daily Mail, entitled, “Was ‘Monster’ a Hoax – Are UFOS for Real? Hmmmm, A possibility,” in which he claimed he’d received a call and a letter from Bill Steorts admitting that the entire thing was a hoax that got out of hand:

“That evening in 1952, A. Lee Stewart and I went down to Heaters in Braxton County. On our way back to Sutton, we ran out of gas. We stopped at my father’s store and gas station for gas. We noticed a disturbance across the road and went to investigate. There were small children all stirred up. Having a saw-off 12-gauge in the car, we went on the hill to see what was going on. The kids had been playing in the pasture field and some of Bailey’s cows were in a nearby woods. Seeing that nothing had happened, we went on to Sutton.”

“Being slightly intoxicated, we fabricated the story of the Braxton county monster. We called the Gazette from the Braxton Democrat office. (Stewart’s dad owned that paper at the time.) The skid marks were made by Bailey’s old Ford Tractor spinning its wheels – the grease was raked from under the tractor by tall grass. We drew the artist’s picture of the monster.”

“From there it just mushroomed, Kathleen May and her children went to New York on a TV show. Scientists from all over came to investigate. We sat back and laughed. My father knew what we boys were doing but his store was doing a booming business from the tourist trade…”

From there it just mushroomed, Kathleen May and her children went to New York on a TV show. Scientists from all over came to investigate. We sat back and laughed. My father knew what we boys were doing but his store was doing a booming business from the tourist trade…”

So there’s reason to suspect that Stewart hoaxed the thing, taking the children’s stories and weaving them into something more substantial. It’s also possible that it was a happy coincidence and that he showed the press release and photo to Mrs. May, who took them to be more official than they were. He certainly maintained throughout his life that there was nothing more than a press release. One also has to wonder if there was ever a government letter at all. Twenty-five years after seeing the monster, Kathleen May was asked again what she thought it was:

“I don’t really know,” she answered. “Supposedly A. Lee Stewart Jr. has a letter from Washington identifying it as some sort of test spaceship. I took it for granted that’s what it was.”

That doesn’t sound like the sort of response one gives when they have a read a document for themselves. It definitely casts doubt on the idea that there was ever anything more than a press release. As for the Feschino’s well-intentioned speculation that there were two documents, it’s just nonsense. Why would the government contact Mrs. May to reassure her that the “gas” she and her children were exposed to was harmless when none of the chemicals mentioned are anything but hazardous? Why would the government send such a “confidential” letter through a member of the press? Why would the government send it to her alone when the other children were likewise affected? Why didn’t they get letters? Why don’t we have testimony that Stewart showed them that letter also?

Feschino alleges that the letter and press release switcheroo was meant to offer the public an explanation that was more palatable and less alarming than aliens, but to ask us to believe that government officials arranged for Collier’s to doctor the second issue of its well planned and highly publicized 8-part series as part of an elaborate misinformation campaign simply strains credulity too far. It’s equally paradoxical, on the level of getting the cart before the horse, to suggest that officials convinced Stewart to dupe Kathleen May with a fake letter supplemented with information from a Collier’s press release when they hadn’t yet asked Collier’s to help them hoax a Flatwoods beautician.

If it don’t make sense, it probably isn’t true.

At this point, we haven’t even made sense of the monster itself. In 1953, Major Donald Keyhoe wrote his second book on UFOs, and the last to be written whilst he was still a serving officer in the US military with an office inside The Pentagon: Flying Saucers from Outer Space. (Sci-fi buffs will note that the 1956 film Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is credited as being suggested by Keyhoe’s book. Squee!) In any case, Major Keyhoe stated in the book that he was told in January of 1953 that ATIC had reached the following conclusions regarding the Flatwoods incident:

“First, the glowing object seen by Mrs. May and the boys actually was a meteor; it merely appeared to be landing when it disappeared over the hill. Second, the group did see two glowing eyes, probably those of a large owl perched on a limb. Underbrush below may have given the impression of a giant figure, and in their excitement they imagined the rest. Third, the boys’ illness was a physical effect brought on by their fright. Fourth, the flattened grass and supposed tracks were caused by the first villagers when they came to investigate.”

Feschino in takes issue with this assessment. He has six stated objections, which can be boiled down to five, since his second and third objection amount to the same charge: 

1. It couldn’t have been a meteor because he didn’t find any official record of a meteorite in any astronomical history or record book, such as the Harvard Meteor Project. This is a case of special pleading because we do have the reports of the Akron Astronomy Club mentioned in Project Blue Book and countless mentions of meteorites in newspapers. Feschino would have us believe that if meteorites weren’t mentioned in sources he will accept, then what people saw must not have been meteorites; no, they must have been saucers!

2. He notes that the Air Force’s conclusion that that it was an owl perched on a limb, with underbrush giving the impression of a much bigger figure is simply speculation. I say, pots and kettles, Feschino! Point in fact, Feschino spends the last half of his book on the Flatwoods Monster speculating about a battle over U.S. soil between U.S. fighter planes and alien ships, one of which he claims was shot down in Flatwoods! 

The suggestion that the Phantom of Flatwoods was an owl was first put forth by none other than A. Lee Stewart himself when the story broke: 

“I don’t know what they saw, but they sure saw something on that hill. Of course, at twilight, you can see lots of things. They could have been seen an owl sitting up there in a tree, and put a body under it.” 

This was also the opinion of Joe Nickell of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), then known as CSICOP, who in 2000 concluded the creature described by eyewitnesses most closely resembles the silhouette, flight pattern, and call of a startled barn owl, seen with “claw-like hands” and a face shaped “like the Ace of Spades,” perched on a tree limb, with the creature’s body and “green pleated skirt” being formed of the shadows of nearby foliage. Three flashing red aircraft beacons were also visible from the area of the sightings, likely accounting for the creature’s red face. Hysteria filled in the rest of the details. 

The Mothman and the Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter have also been dismissed by skeptics as owl sightings. It’s certainly more reasonable speculation than spacecraft; we can confirm the existence of owls, but if we had physical proof of extraterrestrial vehicles, books like this one wouldn’t even be necessary.

3. Feschino objects that every eyewitness couldn’t have “imagined” (and, yes, he uses scare quotes in his book) the same description of the creature. Unfortunately, we have to ask ourselves if they really know what they saw that night at all. Even Gray Barker was forced to ask, 

“If Lemon had dropped the flashlight, as he claimed, how did they get an apparently longer look at the ‘monster?’” 

“At the most, the ‘monster’ was seen for one to five seconds. How much can you see in that length of time?”

Furthermore, the witnesses differed in details such as whether it had arms, its color scheme, its texture, how it moved, etc. A. Lee Stewart did get eyewitness sketches from five of the boys (Neil Nunley, Fred May, Edison May, Tommy Hyer, and Ron Shaver), and they are remarkably similar. They are also undeniably subjective in their simplicity, consisting of a circle with eyes nested in a leaf shape pointing up, all resting on an upside-down U… all of which could just as easily and more logically represent a barn owl in a threat posture seen for the briefest of moments.

It certainly makes more sense than an alien or alien vehicle of such uniqueness that we have never really seen it’s like since then. Well, not outside of a cameo in a book that Gray Barker helped write later to further his Men in Black mythos, but that’s a tale for another time. The Flatwoods Monster’s very uniqueness against the backdrop of other extraterrestrial accounts speaks to the fact that it is extremely unlikely to be anything of the sort!

4. Feschino objects that fright would not be enough to cause anyone to vomit for hours afterward, as Eugene Lemon did. Of course, Lemon is the self-same fellow that seemed to be the most terrified the most, the older boy who shrieked in terror, fell over backwards and dropped his flashlight when he spotted the creature, inciting the others to flee in panic. Barker further noted that a half hour after the incident, “most of them appeared too greatly terrified to talk coherently.” Nevertheless, A. Lee Stewart was able to persuade Lemon to accompany him back up the hill to investigate the “fragmentary story.” That night, he vomited for hours, but what was the cause? No gas was detected at the site. The only odor detected was attributed by Ivan Sanderson to a type of grass that commonly grows in the area. There’s no evidence to suggest anything other than fear-induced symptoms.

5. His final objection is that the local residents didn’t “flatten the grass into specific marking with a well-defined pattern.” Not with their feet, certainly not; however, he dismisses the testimony which makes it obvious that the tracks were made by Max Lockard’s vehicle.

Freschino’s objections fall apart upon closer examination, but he’s a true believer. He will not be convinced that the whole thing was a comedy of errors and that he’s only chasing a phantasm.

Which is to say, I don’t think the Flatwoods Monsters was a hoax. I don’t really think anyone believes Bill Steorts’ confession, because it’s as incredible in its own right as the idea an alien crash-landed in Flatwoods, WV. 

Commenting on Bill Steorts’ hoax confession, Rosemary Ellen Guiley, whom I met at a Mothman Festival a few years back, wrote:

“As is often the case in hoax claims, no substantiation was offered, just the claim itself. Oddly, many people will believe a claim such as this despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It’s as though human beings are uncomfortable with evidence of unknown creatures in our midst and thus will grab at any straw to convince themselves otherwise.”

While I do think that human beings are naturally and quite reasonably uncomfortable with the idea of unknown creatures in their midst, I don’t think it’s grasping at straws to consider the possibility that something half-seen in the dark and fueled by flying saucer fueled imaginations might’ve been further developed by hoaxers. The fact of the matter is that the overwhelming majority of these cases turn out to have much more mundane answer. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that the unexplained cases might have a more mundane answer that we haven’t stumbled upon or for which we have insufficient evidence for at present. 

While the Flatwoods Monster turns out not to be a hoax but rather a case of mistaken identity that took on a life of its own, it serves as an object lesson. We aren’t solving a puzzle. The UFO enigma is a battle between competing conspiracies. At the very least, we are dealing with different paradigms. Thomas Kuhn noted that the “proponents of competing paradigms… are bound partly to talk through each other. Though each may hope to convert the other… neither may hope to prove his case. The competition between paradigms is not the sort of battle that can be resolved by proofs.”

While the Flatwoods Monster incident gives us a textbook example of the Psychosocial Hypothesis of UFO in action, those who favor the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis will filter the evidence through their paradigm to make it fit somehow. Likewise thosr with a New Age supernatural bent will be more likely to accept aliens as ultraterrestrials or interdimensional beings, more likely to accept hypnotic regression as a reliable means of investigation and more likely to accept tales of tales of telepathic messages and psychic journeys to and from other planets – and their position is basically unfalsifiable like any good conspiracy theory. A naturalist skeptic will accept no evidence of actual extraterrestrials from this dimension or any other; quite naturally, they tend to find themselves favoring either theories of man-made saucers or a pattern of dismissing every case as misidentified but natural until confirmed as identified but natural. Many Christians tend to see supernatural forces at work, but find themselves reluctant to affirm extraterrestrials. Kathleen May herself said that one of the reasons she didn’t think the Flatwoods Monster was an alien was because of her religious beliefs:

“‘I don’t believe in that outer space stuff,’ she said. ‘It’s contrary to Scripture.’”

I’ve often heard the old adage that all truth is God’s truth. I won’t dispute the essence of that statement. If it turns out to be true that intelligent aliens exist, it won’t contradict Scripture; it will only contradict an erroneous interpretation of the Bible. Certainly, there are some who think that the idea of intelligent extraterrestrial life is contrary to the Bible, but, as we shall see, this isn’t necessarily the case, any more than it turned out that the “monster” was anything of the sort. The Bible promises that truth is objective; we will know the truth and it will set us free [John 8:32].

The truth is out there, but are we prepared to accept it? 

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