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1876, March 3: The Kentucky Meat Shower

Samples

A surviving sample from the Kentucky Meat Shower [Larger version here]

As the tale is usually told, it was a clear and sunny afternoon when meat rained down in a thick shower onto a field in Kentucky, sticking to trees and fences and only covering a 100 yard by 50 yard patch of land. When scientists were forced to admit it was, in fact, meat, they came up with a ludicrous theory about vulture vomit to explain it away... which sums up Charles Fort's summary of the 'Kentucky Meat Shower' as presented in his infamous 1919 volume, The Book of the Damned. Later authors included more details, largely taken from just two contemporary articles in the New York Times... the event had been witnessed by a woman, and two men had eaten some of the meat and identified it as mutton, which implied the meat was relatively fresh.

        I start with Fort's summary and the two New York Times articles for a simple reason; most modern versions of this event start with these as well. But Charles Fort always had a simple way of making a strange story even more mystifying... he left out unwanted details. Knowing this, I dug for original sources on the matter; and now I'd like to re-tell the tale of the Kentucky Meat Shower, which most definitely did occur, except with all the details on display.

Friday, March 3, 1876

        It was a clear and sunny day. Mrs. Allen Crouch was making soap and her 11-year-old grandson Allen was playing, both in the yard of her house near the Olympian Springs in the state of Kentucky, USA, when strange flakes started to shower down around them. Allen commented that it was snowing, and so it seemed... until a large chunk of what was unmistakably meat slapped into the ground behind Mrs. Crouch. She and her grandson ran indoors as the strange shower continued.

        The odd downpour covered an area about one-hundred yards long by fifty yards wide near the house (nothing landed on the house) with flakes and chunks of tissue generally the size of snowflakes. It happened sometime between 11am and noon, and the whole shower only lasted for about a minute or two. "The largest piece that I saw was as long as my hand, and about a half an inch wide," Mrs. Crouch offered in a later interview.

        While Mrs. Crouch and Allen were the only witnesses to the actually fall of the material, two other people were in the house at the time... Miss Sallie Crouch, an ailing daughter who did not leave her room, and Miss Sadie Robertson, a schoolmistress who was boarding with the Crouchs. Robertson had rushed outside as soon as Mrs. Crouch had told her about the fall, but it had already stopped by the time she got out. She saw the meat in strips and chucks hanging from briars and sticking to the fence, as well as scattered about the ground.

        The meat lay untouched by the people in the house until later that afternoon, when Mr. Crouch and his son arrived back from their trip; but in the meantime the hogs, chickens, cat, and dog at the farm had "been eating of it freely, and seemed to like it well." When asked if any of these animals had shown signs of "any peculiar effect on them," Mrs. Crouch said that the dog had since gotten sick... but she wasn't sure if the meat was necessarily involved with that.

        Mr. Crouch said that on the chips and on the fence where chucks had fallen there appeared to be stains by something resembling blood, but Mrs. Crouch had not observed any blood falling. The matter was sparsely scattered, with some patches in the affected area having no meat at all, so it could not be described as covering the ground. Nonetheless, samples were gathered and preserved in alcohol and glycerine, and later dispersed to various authorities and scientists. By the time a reporter from the New York Herald arrived to interview people around ten days after the fall, about a half-bushel worth of chunks (about 4 gallons) remained in the town of Mount Sterling near the Olympian Springs; an unknown amount more had been sent off and left at the farm.

        Harrison Gill, owner of the Olympian Springs, heard of the fall and visited the Crouch farm on Sunday afternoon, March 5. At the time of his visit, Gill also saw and examined the chunks on the fence. The bits of matter appeared to be a variety of tissues. Gill carried samples back to the Olympian Springs to show people there, among whom was L.C. Frisbe, a local butcher, who took some of the samples and passed them on... but he also tasted one of the samples while at the springs. Frisbe had intended to just eat the chunk, but after chewing it a little he spit it out; despite having eaten many types of meat, he could think of nothing that resembled the flavor or scent of the odd piece. Visually, Frisbe said it resembled mutton. There was no blood, but a "milky, watery fluid oozed out of it" while he was handling the meat. It was tender and easily torn apart, which revealed stringy fiber running through the matter.

        Another man named Joe Jordan, who also passed samples on to authorities, had also attempted to eat a small piece of the meat; he spat it out very quickly after biting off a bit, before he could even taste it. In his defense, however, it should be noted that the meat was just over a week old by then and smelled "like a dead body", so probably was not very edible at that point (assuming it had been edible before). Jordan stated that brown mucous came from the pieces when he squeezed them; some resembled dried beef, and he described other bits as elastic and thin with a "fine, wool-like fibre running through it in all directions."

       Every person the New York Herald reporter interviewed that personally knew Mrs. Crouch -- and that was most of the people he interviewed -- stated that Mrs. Crouch was as trustworthy as a person could be, and they believed her account of the strange fall. Mrs. Crouch herself remained mystified by the whole matter.

        Also among the accounts of the incident reported by the New York Herald was that of Benjamin Franklin Elington who claimed to identify the meat as positively bear flesh... but this claim was made in a bar after drinks, and Elington also stated that he essentially fought bears to the death on a regular basis (and that this was easy for him). Elington's claims were likely only included in the article because his rough storytelling made good copy for the newspaper. The same can be said of the reporter's attempt to dare a man named Jimmy Welsh into eating a piece of the strange meat while he was 'interviewing' people in the bar, which ended in Welsh finding a variety of excuses why he could not go through with the dare.

Scientific Guesswork

        Most of the samples were sent to various authorities rather than scientists; but of the samples that went to scientists, the first to express a theory was Prof. J. Lawrence Smith. In a March 12 New York Times article Smith claimed the sample he looked at had to have been "the dried spawn of bahcachian reptiles, doubtless that of the frog [Garth Note: the author of the article misspelled the word 'batrachian', the Latin term for frogs and toads]." Smith further claimed the spawn had been picked up by wind from ponds and swamplands and thus transported to where they were dropped. He further claimed to have several examples of this odd event having happened before yet only had one he could state the date for, a fall recorded by 'Muschonbroeck' -- a reference to Pieter van Musschenbroek, a dutch scientist -- in Ireland in 1675. And, being that this is the first of heard of such a claim, I'll have to go look it up; but not right now.

        When the New York Herald reporter arrived in Mount Sterling, he asked the locals what they felt about Smith's theory. Every person who had actually seen and/or handled the meat disagreed with Smith's assessment, and felt a second opinion was needed. The New York Herald reported that, apparently, the sample sent to Smith had the appearance of being just animal fat. It was also noted that, since some of the matter had landed in the Crouchs' well, the Crouchs would probably have seen frogs in their well by that time. The New York Herald article also passed on two others theories that had been generally proposed by men the reporter had talked to in Mount Sterling. The first thought it might have been a balloonist's lunch that got dropped -- which must have been a very hungry person -- or that a flock of vultures flying high above the farm had vomited up the contents of their stomachs all at the same time.

        The next attempt at a scientific explanation came from a Mr. L. Brandeis, who shared his ideas in a May issue of Sanitarium magazine. He proclaimed the substance to be "Nostoc," a cyanobacteria that forms as large gelatinous clumps in moist environments and at the bottom of lakes and ponds. Brandeis explained that the spore of this odd growth was carried by the wind and, once deposited on the ground, would quickly grow to cover large areas; this fact had led to a belief in the past that the matter just fell out of the sky, since people were of the impression it appeared very suddenly over a short time. He further declared the Nostoc that was found in Kentucky was of the type N. carneum, which was well known for looking like meat and tasting like frog or chicken... which sounds like a great theory, if you ignore that Mrs. Crouch saw the stuff falling.

        By June and July, some better analysis was coming from several people and labs, and it was clear that the samples that had been sent actually contained various differing types of tissue. The consensus agreed there were examples of animal muscle, connective tissue, and fat, likely from sheep, and the sample of "Nostoc" was specifically re-labeled as lung tissue. Given the fact that at least five separate investigators confirmed this -- Dr. L.D. Kastenbine, Mr. A.T. Parker, a Mr. Walmsey of Philadelphia, Prof. J.W.S. Arnold, and Prof. A. Mead Edwards -- the only real problem left was the key one: why did bits of sheep rain down over a hundred by fifty yard patch of Kentucky land?

        The experts had no good explanation. One of them, Kastenbine, once again brought up the New York Herald's mention of a flock of vultures at an extremely high altitude -- high enough they wouldn't be seen by Mrs. Crouch looking up -- all suddenly disgorging the contents of their stomachs for unstated reasons. The meat would then, theoretically, spread out before hitting the ground, explaining why it would be small bits of sheep over a large area... and this is what has been reported as the cause ever since by people who want a stative explanation, though it sounds like imaginative guesswork.

        As far as the theory of vulture vomit goes, it depends on the idea that a group of vultures would all vent their stomachs at the same time. While vultures can vomit food up purposely, this is generally as a defensive maneuver... to reduce the animal's weight for a quick take off when under attack, or to project (up to ten feet!) as an acidic and foul-smelling attack that drives predators away by either the sheer odor or causing stinging in the eyes if unlucky enough to get hit in the face. But if vultures vomit defensively, what high up in the air would scare a group of them into vomiting all at the same time?

        So there you have it: YES, meat fell in Kentucky in 1876... and, NO, no one yet definitively knows why.