Airship explanations

Michael Busby. Solving the 1897 Airship Mystery. Pelican Publishing, 2004.

First the good news, Michael Busby here provides detailed transcripts of newspaper reports/folk tales of the airship taken from the Texas newspapers of 1897. These provide a rich vein of source material for ufologists and folklorists alike. The less good news is that Busby, an engineer of course, takes all these stories at face value. These include such well known hoaxes as the Aurora crash, relocated traditional tales such as the aerial sailor of Merkel and stories obviously written with tongue very much in cheek, as though they were all po faced accounts of actual physical events. These events are then used as the building bricks of a vast narrative construction involving the real human operators of real humanly built airships.

As with modern theories of terrestrial secret projects this raises the obvious question of why nothing much was done with this amazing technology, other than faff around entertaining or scaring the pants off the locals. Busby produces a scenario in which the majority of the airships crash, killing the pilots, and the rest are silenced by the railroad interests to account for this. However, as among the survivors were a couple of characters close to the military industrial complex of the period, this seems rather unlikely. One of these guys was later involved with military planning during the US’s involvement in the Great War; one wonders why the mystery airships weren’t brought in on the allied side then. And what happened to them between 1897 and their reappearance in 1909.

Most ufologists have come to the view that the 1897 airship stories were largely hoaxes concocted by the press and by telegraph operators. Busby will have none of this, but many of his arguments suggest he has a rather anachronistic view of the 19th century press as sober journals of record. Of course in the pre-cinema days they were often the main source of entertainment. Busby also cannot see that these stories were not 'hoaxes' played on an unsuspecting public, but satire, commentary, in jokes etc. which the readership would have been in on from the start.

However, Busby does demonstrate that several of the 'inventors' named by the 'witnesses' were indeed real people, who he has been able to track through a variety of genealogical records. This suggests that if these stories were all fictions, there was rather more planning behind their appearance than has been assumed. Whether some of these stories were planted as part of a commercial scam, or a propaganda campaign aimed at the Spanish, or as part of some political agenda is unclear. I suspect that to find the answer to that we would have to know a lot more than we do about the editors and proprietors of the newspapers involved, and their social, business and political circles.

It’s also more than possible that rather more of these stories than has been assumed are based on the sort of visionary, dreamlike experiences that we encounter in today’s studies of anomalous personal experience. The airship was a prime symbol of ambivalent modernity, and the stories came at a time of mounting war hysteria and domestic social unrest. The November 1896 presidential election had been the first ideological contest between the major candidates since the civil war. The gold standard and imperialist candidate William McKinley had beaten the silver standard and anti-imperialist William Jennings Bryan, who had electrified the country with his famous 'Cross of Gold' speech.

One of the great themes of the airship stories was its use as a weapon of mass destruction to be used against Cuba, the modern American technological world versus the old world of Catholic Spain. In these dreams, visions, satires, short stories, hoaxes and urban legends one encounters a mixture of edging humour and an undercurrent of real menace. Reading them you understand that through them people are encountering the promise and menace of the coming century, unable to tell if it will make its people angels or devils. -- Peter Rogerson

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