Strange objects in the sky have existed since ancient times. Yet, most people believe that the modern phenomenon of UFO sightings all began with the Roswell incident in the 1940s. However, sightings of what we have come to think of as “flying saucers” had a heyday long before Roswell and were concentrated in an area in and around central Illinois.
125 years ago, central Illinois was riveted by a string of UFO sightings. Although they were not called that, the term “UFO” was not coined until the 1950s, and many of the sightings remain “unidentified” and explained. The incidents were part of a nationwide phenomenon, as flying crafts were reported from the Midwest to the West Coast.
Among the most noteworthy sightings in Illinois was an incident involving three men on a farm one mile north of Nilwood at 2:30 p.m. April 13, 1897. There, the Macoupin County Enquirer reported the landing of a “cigar or boat-shaped” object with “oars” running from the bottom and a “picnic canopy on top.” This odd-looking craft sat down in a field for 15-20 minutes, then flew off in a northerly direction.
The ship was also spotted around 6 p.m. in nearby Green Ridge, two miles south of Girard. That sighting had an added twist, as the Enquirer wrote that “a man stepped forth,” apparently from the craft itself, “and began to do some repairing on the strange machine” for about 10 minutes.
The work of this stranger seemed to do the trick, as the craft was then seen two hours later in Sherman, north of Springfield. At 8:45, the craft was spotted over Williamsville, still heading north.
Apparently, the odd craft could fly with incredible speed, or there were more than one of them. Around 9 p.m., the ship was witnessed over Edwardsville and also seen “circling about St. Louis,” over 100 miles south of the Springfield area, where it was sighted just minutes earlier.
Similar reports came from Hillsboro, where “the airship was seen in the western heavens by a number of respectable citizens.” Other sightings in Illinois were received from Carlyle, Nashville, Moline, Rock Island, Lincoln, Mount Vernon, and Elburn.
The 1897 wave was a national event. Sightings were reported in Iowa, Missouri, and Nebraska, where at least 200 reports were received.
Though airplanes being commonplace was still decades away, in 1897, flight was not a new concept to humanity. The Wright Brothers’ flight of 1903 was only six years away, and countless inventors had tried to launch aircraft with various power sources.
Balloons had been in the public consciousness for decades by the time of the spate of sightings and had been used with some success in Civil War operations. In Germany, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin concocted a rigid airship in 1874, and by July 1900, his ideas had resulted in the first flight of the airships that bore his name and evolved into a global sensation, with the beloved Graf Zeppelin and the infamous Hindenburg.
In Kansas, on March 28, around a thousand residents of Topeka reported a red light in the sky west of the city. Similar reports were received in the areas around the Kansas capital.
Between April 13 and April 17, 38 sightings were reported across 23 counties in Texas, most notably in Aurora, where a UFO allegedly crashed into a windmill on April 17.
There, an alien body was reportedly taken from the wreckage and buried in a local cemetery. The Aurora incident has become one of the most famous in UFO history and the subject of intense speculation, though many have dismissed the event as a hoax.
UFOs were also seen over California, beginning with a slow-moving craft at an altitude of 1,000 feet over Sacramento in late 1896.
But what were these people seeing?
It seems as far back as UFO sightings go, so go related hoaxes. At least, as far as the ones in Illinois are concerned, the Enquire uncovered the truth to be a clever advertising campaign.
The paper’s coverage of the Nilwood sighting was described under the headline “That Elusive Air Ship,” which had spawned “the query about town yesterday … ‘have you seen the airship?'” The Enquirer, though, declared that “some syndicate is creating this excitement by sending up balloons shaped like ships with lights attached” as part of a big publicity stunt.
These imposters were “secretly sent up from different points,” so “in a month or so, the newspapers of the country will come out with glaring headlines: ‘Air Ship Discovered! Startling Expose of a Mammoth Advertising Scheme of the Podunk Corn Cure Co. … on the New Sensational Method.'” Then, claimed the Enquirer, “the Podunk Corn salve will be sold in every large city and little hamlet.”
The following week, the Enquirer hammered the point home in a follow-up entitled “The Faithful Duped.” This article told of a few “young fellows relying on the credulity of the people [who] had sent up several toy balloons,” causing the “faithful who for many evenings had searched the heavens for a glimpse of the airship” to have their dreams “sadly shattered.”