1891, September 5: The Crawfordsville Monster

Ice men Marshall McIntyre and Bill Gray were hitching up their team of horses at 2AM on September 5, 1891, to go and pick up ice to deliver to the town of Crawfordsville, Indiana, USA, when they got the first glimpse of the strange object... it was approaching the barn and the town in the sky from the west.

The MonsterThe "monster." [Larger version here]

        The weird mass was three to four hundred feet up; it had no definite shape, but was estimated to be about eighteen feet long and eight feet wide, and was moving rapidly through the air. It was pure white with no visible head or tail but had "one great flaming eye." The thing resembled "a great white shroud," and had a number of "side fins" which seemed to be what propelled it through the sky. A odd sound issued from the creature, described as "a sort of wheezing, plantive sound." It "flapped like a flag" as it approached, and occasionally displayed a great squirm "as though suffering unutterable agony."

        As the great object reached the house and farm the two men were at, the thing began to sweep around the sky in a gigantic circle over the property; McIntyre and Gray retreated to the barn rather than chance the thing might come after them. After some time, the creature flew off towards the town itself, but turned back from the city limits to return to circling over the farm. The two men watched the thing until around 3AM, when they finally worked up the nerve to leave for the ice house. The object or creature, whichever it might be, remained above the farm for as long as they could see it in their departure; by the time they returned after daybreak, it was gone. The two men, having reported all this to the local paper, also let it be known they would be taking a rifle with them from now on in case they should ever see the strange monster again. Their account of this matter was published the same day in the Daily Journal of Crawfordsville.

        Two days later -- September 7 -- the Daily Journal covered the story again, because they had discovered several other people had witnessed the event as well... though they only named one in particular, the Rev. G.W. Switzer. Switzer had stepped outside on September 5 shortly after midnight to get a drink from his well. He stated that a weird sensation had crept over him as he stood outside, and somehow felt his attention drawn upward... and he saw the strange creature or object approaching in the sky from the southwest. He described it as about sixteen feet long and eight feet wide, and "resembling a mass of floating drapery."

        It was too low in the sky and traveling much too fast to be a cloud; and it was a windless night as well. The thing twisted through the sky in a manner "similar to the glide of some serpents." Switzer called his wife out to the yard, and they both watched as the thing descended close to the yard of a neighbor, as if to land, where they lost sight of it. As Switzer walked out into the street to get a better look the object rose into the air again. Switzer and his spouse watched the thing circle in the sky about town for some time before finally heading back into their house.

        The paper also reported that it was the opinion of one man that the object was some sort of spirit... and that it was the opinion of a Prof. Robert Burton that it was "a delusion which got on the optic nerve of those men who had probably been imbibing intoxicants."

A Solution to the Mystery

        Despite the professor's opinion, no one was drunk... or at least if they were, it didn't create the monster. On September 8, a new article in the Daily Journal revealed the newspaper had found two more witnesses to the event, and they turned out to be the key witnesses by far. John Hornbeck had stepped out to his yard around midnight, and saw the strange thing as it "swooped about town." He called another man, Abe Hernley, and they followed the strange object as it moved... and were able to catch up to it when it swept very close to the ground.

       It was a large flock of killdeers, which is a small bird with a white chest, a tan back, and an orange/red patch on their rumps and tails that is more visible when they are flying. It was supposed by the paper that the birds had become 'bewildered' by Crawfordsville's electric lights, and had therefore lost their way. The 'agonized cry' of the beast was just the normal call of the birds, but magnified by the hundreds in the flock. This all makes some sense because Crawfordsville's electric power services only first started in August of 1891... so early September could very well have been both the first time anyone in town saw a flock of birds lit up by the lights at night, and also the first encounter for the local wildlife with an electrically lit town. So, locally, the story of the Crawfordsville 'monster' ended.

      Not so nationally, however.

      On September 10, two days after the solution to the mystery was published, the local stories of both September 5th and 7th were released for national publication as a combined article... and, as far as I know, the article explaining the monster never was. This combined national article fails to name the "icemen" but does name the Rev. G.W. Switzer... presumably because the reverend's position made him a more believable witness. Switzer suddenly found himself something of a national celebrity, as he started to receive letters from all corners of the United States regarding the incident. The letters definitely had an interesting range of responses; everything from people who felt the monster signaled the end of the world, to a clinic for alcoholics offering Switzer a nice stay.

       Eventually, interest in the whole matter finally died down... the world not ending probably helped that some.

Egads... Again?!?

        Forty years later, the monster was revived by a man infamous for not letting facts get in the way of a good story. In his 1931 book, intriguingly titled LO!, Charles Fort laid out an incredibly brief version of the story as he had found it reported in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of September 10, 1891:

"...something that was seen, at Crawfordsville, Indiana, 2 a.m., Sept. 5th. Two icemen saw it. It was a seemingly headless monster, or it was a construction, about 20 feet long, and 8 feet wide, moving in the sky, seemingly propelled by fin-like attachments. It moved toward the icemen. The icemen moved. It sailed away, and made such a noise that the Rev. G. W. Switzer, pastor of the Methodist church, was awakened, and, looking from his window, saw the object circling in the sky."

Fort then spent a longer amount of space explaining how he had not only confirmed that a man named Rev. G.W. Switzer had indeed lived in Crawfordsville at the time, but that he had contacted Switzer who had then promised to write back with a full accounting of the matter. But, at the time of writing LO!, Fort tells us, he had still been unable to get that response from Switzer; so Fort speculated that it might be because Switzer had a last minute panic about admitting he'd seen a monster in a new print publication. Fort also then stressed the importance of the fact he'd confirmed Switzer was real... which stood in as his implied proof that the tale of the Crawfordsville Monster must, therefore, also be true.

        All of which sounds like Fort discovered it wasn't a monster... and chose not to state that fact, instead looking for 'truth by implication.' The sad part is that, by and large, he succeeded. The story of the 'Crawfordsville Monster' has popped up in anomalous literature ever since, often in relation to UFOs and theories regarding 'atmospheric life forms' (aka 'living UFOs'). The most recent publication of the story as true that I know of is in the first edition of Jerome Clark's Unexplained!, published in 1993... though the account is completely missing from the third edition of the book, released in 2013. The story was also briefly mentioned in an episode of the History Channel's series MonsterQuest in 2008, when it was considered a possible early report of a more modern monster known simply as "Rods" [check out my Monsters Here & There article on Rods for more info]. Overall, the only reason the Crawfordsville Monster dropped out of favor was that the internet opened the way to the real story, so fewer and fewer people now repeat Fort's version of the incident.

       To me, the most important thing to note with this incident is that of the national response to the story. As we now know, the four main witnesses mentioned in the national version of the story, Marshall McIntyre, Bill Gray, and Rev. G.W. Switzer and his wife, did in fact see something unusual in the sky that night, and described what they saw as best they could. And, also as we now know, it was perfectly explainable once a little more was known.

        Yet the national release of the story made several assumptions right from the start, the first being that none of these witnesses actually saw anything. In addition, McIntyre and Gray were not even named... but their jobs as icemen was used to imply they were both either of a low intelligence or of questionable habits, likely drunk, which is not implicit in the original reports at all. The witness who was named, Switzer, was clearly only shown a little more respect because of his standing within the local church as a reverend; so he was not accused of being drunk. Yet neither was his report accepted as correct.

        This happens often with stories like this; instead of a reporter actually following up on such an incident, the reports are ridiculed, questioned, and shuffled away, because they represent the possibility of something that is not accepted to be believeble. It's just one of those problems that has to be watched for when following stories; and with a response like this being normal, how many truly intriguing things were (and are) simply not reported by witnesses who don't want to be treated like idiots?

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