The Great Airship Hoax


By Jerome Clark

The following article appeared in the February 1977 edition of FATE Magazine.

0n April 23, 1897, the Yates Center (Kans.) Farmer’s Advocate published an amazing story which in the following weeks would be reprinted in newspapers all over America and Europe.

A prominent local rancher, Alexander Hamilton, testified that four days before, he, his son Wallace and hired man Gid Heslip had observed “an airship slowly descending upon my cow lot, about 40 rods from the house.”

Startled, the three men had rushed out to the corral, where they discovered a calf caught in the fence, with some sort of rope or cable tied around its neck. The rope led up to the airship, which was “cigar-shaped…with a carriage underneath…occupied by six of the strangest beings I ever saw. There were two men, a woman and three children. They were jabbering together but we could not understand a syllable they said.” The beings turned a powerful searchlight on the men below, then flew away with the calf in tow.

The next day Lank Thomas, who lived several miles from the Hamilton place, found the hide, legs and head of a calf in his field. He recognized Hamilton’s brand but he could not understand why there were no tracks in the soft ground around the remains. The explanation, of course, was that the airship’s occupants had dropped them from the sky.

Hamilton’s first-person narrative was backed up by an impressive affidavit.

“As there are now, always have been, and always will be skeptics and unbelievers, whenever the truth of anything bordering on the improbable is presented, and knowing that some ignorant or suspicious people will doubt the truthfulness of the above account, now, therefore, we, the undersigned, do hereby make the following affidavit. That we have known Alex Hamilton from 15 to 30 years and that for truth and veracity have never heard his word questioned and that we do verity believe his statement to be true and correct.”

Five residents of nearby Burlington, Kans., also signed a statement which attested to Hamilton’s honesty. In addition the Advocate noted that “Mr. Hamilton looked as if he had not entirely recovered from the shock and everyone who knew him was convinced he was sincere in every word.”

In 1901, The History of Allen and Woodson Counties, Kansas described Hamilton, a former member of the state House of Representatives, as “one who has served the county faithfully and well…(His) popularity in the community is unmistakable not only on account of his fidelity to duty in public office but also because of his honorable business career, his fidelity to manly principles and his reliability in private life.”

One could hardly ask for a more reliable witness to a UFO sighting.

Over the years the story was never quite forgotten and from time to time Kansas newspapers would revive it, featuring it as a marvelous episode from the old days. During the 1920s an English nobleman wrote members of the Hamilton family (Alex himself had died in 1912) and said he was thinking of writing a book about it. Wallace Hamilton’s daughter Elizabeth Linde, who still lives in Yates Center, remembers that the story survived as a family legend and an inevitable topic of conversation at reunions. She says, “We always believed it was a true story,” but she does not remember ever hearing her father or grandfather discuss it.

In 1965, Jacques Vallée brought the story into the UFO Age and in Anatomy of a Phenomenon called it an incident “we will all have to remember.” The next year, in an article in the April 1966 FATE, Lucius Farish concluded that “this case (is) one of the most astounding to be found on record!” In the following decade practically every book on the subject of UFOs mentioned it and the Kansas “calfnapping” became a classic UFO report

It is, however, a hoax.

The truth about the affair was published in the January 28, 1943, issue of an obscure Kansas weekly newspaper, the Buffalo Enterprise.

The week before it had reprinted Hamilton’s account, which brought this letter from Ed F. Hudson, who in 1897 had been editor of the Yates Center Farmer’s Advocate:

“I had just bought and installed a little gasoline engine, the first I believe to come to Yates Center, using it to run my machinery replacing the hand-power on the old Country Campbell press and kicking the job presses. I invited many of my friends into the back shop to see the engine work. Hamilton was one of them. He exclaimed, ‘Now they can fly,’ hence the airship story that we made up. After we had published it, the story was copied in many of the largest newspapers in this country, England, France and Germany, some illustrating it with pen-drawn (imaginings by) their staff artists. There were also hundreds of inquiries from every part of the globe. Soon afterwards their (sic) came the various experiments in flight, but I have always maintained that Alex Hamilton was the real inventor of human flight.”

Ben S. Hudson, Ed Hudson’s son and the publisher of the Fredonia Daily Herald, explained in an accompanying note that his father and Hamilton had “concocted that story following a Saturday afternoon powwow which was customary for Saturdays in those days.”

An American correspondent of R. J. M. Rickard, editor of England’s Fortean Times, discovered the article in 1976 while engaged in an historical research project. Rickard in turn sent me a copy of the story. Seeking confirmation for Hudson’s claims, I published a letter in the September 16, 1976, Yates Center News soliciting further information.

In reply, Mrs. Donna Steeby of Wichita, Kans., wrote that her 93-year-old mother, Ethel L. Shaw, had actually heard the tale from Alexander Hamilton himself. Mrs. Shaw, who is hard of hearing but otherwise fully alert, supplied this statement:

“How well I remember that beautiful afternoon almost as though it were yesterday. I, as a young girl about 14 years old, was visiting in the Hamilton home with Mrs. Hamilton and their daughter Nell when Mr. Hamilton came home from town, put up his team and came into the sitting room where we were visiting. He pulled up a chair and almost immediately began relating this story by saying, ‘Ma, I fixed up quite a story and told the boys in town and it will come out in the Advocate this weekend.’

“He seemed quite elated over what he had done but Mrs. Hamilton was rather shocked at what he had told them and at times would remark, ‘Oh, Alex,’ or ‘Why, Alex!’ But it didn’t disturb us girls as we felt it was just a fabricated story, yet I pondered a little over it as I walked along on my way home that evening. I told my parents about it but they gave it no concern saying, ‘Pay no attention to it as it’s just another of his stories.’

“It seems there were a few men round about who had formed a club which they called ‘Ananias’ (Liars’ Club). They would get together once in a while to see which one could tell the biggest story they’d concocted since their last meeting. Well, to my knowledge, the club soon broke up after the ‘airship and cow’ story. I guess that one had topped them all and the Hamilton family went down in history.”

Mrs. Steeby adds that the men who signed the affidavit, friends of Hamilton’s, “knew it to be a falsehood but simply went along with it for the fun.”

Together they fooled the whole world and perpetrated the biggest hoax ever known in UFO history.

EDITORS’ NOTE: Lucius Farish has asked us to convey his apologies to FATE readers for his unwitting role in publicizing this fallacious incident. He, like a great many other people (including us), was fooled by the story and until recently thought it was an authentic UFO encounter.