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1950, September 26: The Purple Mass

The officers were not really sure how to explain the situation to the reporters without sounding ridiculous. To be honest, the reporters probably weren't making it any easier.

        It was around 10pm on September 26, 1950, in the city of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, USA... Patrolmen John Collins and Joseph Keenan were driving on Vare Boulevard near 26th street when they saw something resembling a parachute at treetop level and drifting down into a field near 26th street. They estimated the 'parachute' looked to be about six feet across. The officers called in backup -- Sgt. Joseph Cook and his driver, Patrolman James Casper -- and once they arrived, all four men went to investigate the parachute.

        It wasn't a parachute.

A purple mass... [Larger version here]

        The odd object was draped across the weeds, and so light that it wasn't bending the plants. The officers' flashlights made the strange mass give off a sort of misty, purplish glow that made it look as if the object contained crystals. Collins tried to pick the thing up but the part of the object he touched just dissolved, leaving a slightly sticky and odorless residue on his hand. As the four officers watched over the next twenty-five minutes or so, the whole object just slowly evaporated away.

        Sgt. Cook dutifully notified the FBI of the strange matter, and the next day reporters were told the story... and what they thought of it can probably be inferred from what they titled the article: "Pfft -- It's Gone: Flying 'Saucer' Just Dissolves."

Beware... The Variants!

        The story appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on September 27th... and apparently was released through one of the news services as well, as somewhat trimmed down versions appeared in newspapers across the United States on the same day.

        It seems that the further the story spread, the more simple the re-tellings were; most papers skipped the description of the object's shape as a "parachute," going instead with phrases like "mysterious object." Most also left out all information about the color of the object, but still stressed it was quite light in weight. By the next day the story was already being forgotten by everyone because newspapers were full of headlines from the Korean War, which had broken out in June of the year; so the whole incident of the strange purple object in Philadelphia was only a minor distraction from the much larger national story at the time. Still, it was such a strange little occurrence...

        I own a lot of FATE Magazines. FATE was the premiere magazine on strange and paranormal topics through the fifties, and would be an expected place to find the purple mass mentioned; but they only strated publication in 1949, and the first few years are exactly the issues I'm thinnest on... so I don't know if FATE Magazine mentioned the incident at the time. I do know, however, that the magazine mentioned the incident in an 1954 issue. Poorly.

        As part of a larger article on strange meteors written by a man named John Phillup Bessor, Bessor summed up the whole Philadelphia matter as:

"In October, 1950, during a strange period of the (as yet unexplained) lavender sun, a purple-glowing, six-foot globe settled lightly onto a field in Philadelphia, PA., scarcely bending the grass with its weight. One policeman who observed its fall from the sky touched it with his finger, whereupon the weird object commenced to dematerialize. Within an hour or so it was a shapeless, gelatinous mass. The Federal Bureau of Investigation was called in but their conclusion (or lack of conclusion) was not released to the public."

... which is very basically a whole different story. The date is wrong, the object's shape is wrong, it was not glowing, it took less time to dematerialize, and it left nothing behind. And you can hardly say the FBI were "called in" if they never physically showed up. About the only good thing I can say about FATE's version of the story is that not too many people repeated it.

        Unfortunately, lots of people have repeated the next messed up version of the story I have, and many of them are still doing it today. That's because of who presented it this time... 1950's radio personality Frank Edwards.

It's a Strange World

        Frank Edwards became a household name in the United States of the late forties and fifties as a radio personality. In the mid-fifties, he combined his interests in odd things with his job in radio in a program he called "Stranger Than Science," where he would weekly tell tales of strange but true events from around the world and throughout history. Not surprisingly, when this was well received, Edwards eventually decided to start publishing the stories he told on the radio as books, and they sold great!

        Unfortunately for us, however, Edwards had a tendency to change stories he was telling to make them more exciting... and the story of the Philadelphia purple mass was no exception. It appeared in his 1964 book, Strange World, fourteen years after the incident had occurred, and needs to be examined because many, many authors have taken Edwards account as the correct version of the story since.

        To summarize: Edwards tells us that Patrolmen Collins and Keenan were cruising in their "prowl car" (an old slang term for a patrol-car) when they saw the object drifting down to a nearby field; they parked the car and went to investigate, alone. The object was about six feet in diameter, and a foot thick in the middle tapering down to just a couple of inches on the edges... and it was glowing purple, even when their flashlights were off. It "quivered as though it were alive." At this point, Collins and Keenan called in Sgt. Cook and Patrolman Cooper because they felt they needed more witnesses.

        At this point, Sgt. Cook suggested to Patrolman Collins that he should try to pick the object up, and Collins obliged... only to have the object disintegrate where he touched it, like "some kind of gelatin." The few bits that stayed on Collins' hand soon evaporated or dissolved, leaving a thin, sticky, and odorless residue. Just around a half hour later, the whole mass had dissolved or evaporated away. Finally, Edwards tells us that when the officers talked to reporters the following day, "the officers made it plain that they felt that the object was alive."

        So, once again, very different from the original report... though there may be an obvious reason for the differences this time, because much of Edwards tale seems to be inspired by a movie that came out six years earlier, in 1958: "The Blob." This was one of the earliest color monster movies, and ran on a straightforward premise: a meteor from space delivers a strange pink blob of gel that starts to consume and dissolve all animal matter it gets it slime on, growing larger and larger as it goes. Essentially, the monster in the movie was a giant bulbous alien amoeba; and that is essentially what Frank Edwards turned the Philadelphia purple mass into in his version of the story.

        Ironically, many people now argue that the movie "The Blob" was in fact inspired by the story of the Philadelphia incident; but they make this argument on the false assumption that Frank Edwards' version of the story is a historically accurate description of the original event... which, of course, it isn't.

Particularly Paranormal

       Ignoring all the strange changes that occurred after the fact with this account's re-tellings, I want to make note of just how odd the initial report actually is. If we assume the officers were being truthful in what they described, then it's safe to say there is currently no known weather phenomena or living matter that could explain what they described seeing and touching.

        If the object was indeed round and thin, and came down like a parachute, it's very odd indeed. This is because a round sheet thrown into the air does not just flatten out and drift down like a parachute... it either needs to have a stiff structure to hold it open, or the sheet needs to be spinning so it's own centrifugal force keeps it open as it falls. So the purple mass either had a stiff structure -- which might be implied by the mention of crystals -- or the object was spinning as it fell, which would not be obvious to witnesses late at night.

        Oh, and one more quick thought before we leave this account entirely: why did Sgt. Cook call the FBI when he knew there was no physical evidence for them to see? I have two thoughts on this question.

       First, the whole public idea of UFOs (or "flying saucers," as was more common then) had only existed since 1947 when Kenneth Arnold reported seeing strange objects in the skies over Washington... so UFOs were still a new topic and anything related to them was of public interest.

       Secondly, remember this was during the Korean War; any strange object seen in the skies over the USA could imply either a new unknown weapon or a possible invasion of an enemy. So, no matter how strange the report, it may have been felt it needed to be passed to an agency that could better assess if the matter related to those possibilities.