Airship in Vincennes Sky, April 16, 1897
Source: The Valley Advance, Vincennes, Indiana, March 18,
1980 Vol. 16, No. 28,
UFOs and the Media
Vincennes Morning Commercial
April 16, 1897
Unidentified flying objects are nothing new for the people of
Vincennes. In 1897 a mysterious airship passed over the city twice on
the night of Friday, April 16. According to the Vincennes Morning
Commercial, the airship first appeared about nine oclock, traveling
along the extreme eastern portion of the horizon: A sphere of golden
light was first seen in the vicinity of the Union Depot, from down in
the city. Those near the ship claimed they could clearly see the dark
lines of its car, although no passengers were observed.
Many reputable citizens witnessed the flight. From his home on
Burnetts Heights, Sam Judah said he could plainly see the ship with its
fluttering wings, its movements resembling a side wheeler steam-boat,
sailing through the air with incredible velocity.
From his doorway, where he had gone to look at his thermometer,
Col. Ewing saw the light, which he at first thought was a falling star,
but as it moved so slowly, soon became convinced that it was the
inevitable airship. Ewing watched it for about four minutes.
Anton Simon noticed a ball of fire, moving in a north-westerly to
southeasterly course, which he later realized was an airship.
Victor Schonfeld, somewhat of an expert observer, having made
airships and balloons, a life-long study, and having even made several
ascensions in his time, testified that this was a genuine airship.
Among many others who saw the airship were Col. M.P. Ghee, Thomas
Eastham, Judge DeWolf, Will Mason, Scott Emison, Jesse Foulks, all
highly reputable witnesses.
The airship first passed rapidly overhead in a southwesterly
direction. An hour and a half later, it was seen again, passing over
the northern portion of the city, traveling in a northwesterly
The last time it seemed to pass directly over the fairgrounds
(present-day Gregg Park) and traveled more slowly than in its first
swift passage straight over the city.
It is thought that the navigator turned his flying machine around
and started back, or that the ship landed near the city and started
Some say voices could be heard in the airship, and one gentleman,
who saw it from Burnetts Heights says he could see a man moving about
in the ship and that he appeared to be adjusting the machinery.
The Commercial concluded: Other cities have seen the airship and
now Vincennes is strictly up to date'.
In fact, the Vincennes encounter was only one of some 200
sightings made by thousands of people in 19 states, during our nations
first UFO flap of 1896-1897.
In his article, Close Encounters of the Earliest Kind, in the
December, 1979 issue of American Heritage magazine, Ron Genini
described the beginning of the flap in (where else?) California, in
November of 1896. There were elements of hoax in some of the accounts,
but many people believed they saw something. Many of the eyewitness
accounts agreed that a traveling light or airship moved against the
wind at an altitude of from 50 to 2,000 feet. It was cigar- or
egg-shaped, with wing-like propellers or fan-like wheels revolving
rapidly . . . and a doubly powerful arc light at its bottom center.
Soon, hoaxters got into the act, claiming to have ridden the
flying machine, or to have talked with its crew, or even to have
invented it. When some of these hoaxes were exposed, newspapers became
skeptical, questioning the veracity or sobriety of witnesses, and
making the airship the butt of jokes. After the excitement died down on
the West Coast, the airship reappeared in the skies of the Midwest and
South in April, 1897. In the first chapter of his book The UFO
Controversy in America, David Michael Jacobs details the many sightings
over Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Omaha, Kansas City, Dallas, and
many other cities and towns.
Colored or intensely bright white lights were the most
characteristic feature of the airship descriptions; in many other
particulars the descriptions agreed with those from California--a
cylindrical, or cigar-shaped body with a propeller or propellers.
As Jacobs points out, the first modern airship or dirigible was
built in France in 1898, but there is no record of any American
inventor producing an airship at this time. And the speeds attributed
to the mysterious airship--estimated at up to 200 miles per hour--far
exceeded anything possible at the time. Again, there were some
hoaxters, and again the newspapers were skeptical.
In Vincennes, the evening Western Sun, having been scooped by the
morning paper, wrote a kind of tongue-in-cheek parody:
The Air Ship Sails the Azure Depths like a Tongue of Light; It
Floats through Space Leaving Multitudes of Worshipping People on the
Earth Beneath-- Supposed to Contain Five Passengers and to be Enroute
to Jacksonville, Fla.
The Sun described the effects upon the supposed superstitious
inhabitants of that aristocratic colored suburb known as Idaho,who were
scared to death.
A few days later the airship lent itself to advertising:
The airship seems to be an assured fact. But it is not attracting
so much attention as the slashing prices that are being made on
hardware and bicycles at Scott & Sons. Millers Drug Store on Main
Street used the airship to draw attention to its ice cream and sodas.
There was not another sighting flap until 1946.
The chief difference was that while people in 1896-7 thought that
the UFOs were man-made objects, in the modern ear the tendency is to
believe that they are not of this earth.
A winged ship in the sky was how the San Francisco Call described
a mysterious airship seen at Sacramento on Nov. 17, 1896. The
illustration closely matches the description of one seen over Vincennes
in April, 1897.
FLYING MATTRESS? -- With wings like mattress ticking, a California
airship is depicted shining its light earthward. Also shown is a
four-man crew in a canopied cockpit. Singing to the accompaniment of a
phonograph supposedly could be heard coming from the craft.