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Kansas Cownapping Airship Hoax


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Keywords: UFO, unidentified flying objects, Bible, flying saucers, airship, Kansas cownapping Jacques Vallee, airship hoax





The Great Kansas Cownapping

    Webmaster's Note: When I first read somewhere else, "The Kansas airship cownapping is a hoax—the highly-respected guy who told the story was a member of a "liars club", my reaction was, "Oh, c'mon!  Who ever heard of a "liars club"???  That's ridiculous!  I can't believe the garbage these "debunkers" expect people to believe! Either that or this political bigshot didn't realize the flak he would get for telling the truth so he decided to claim it was a prank."

    However, finding out now that two witnesses confirmed that it was well-known that Hamilton belonged to the club, that Hamilton admitted it was a hoax before the story was even published and that such clubs were a common form of entertainment in rural areas in the late 1800's, I now do accept that it was a hoax.

    Source: The Great Airship Mystery: A UFO of the 1890s, Daniel Cohen. publ. Dodd, Mead, 1st ed. 1981, ISBN-13 978-0396079903,  Chapter 7, pp.92-102.






The Great Kansas Cownapping


    In the year 1966 a book entitled Flying Saucers—Serious Business spent weeks atop the bestseller list. No other UFO book has ever matched it for sales and popularity. The author, a mellow-voiced and persuasive former newsman named Frank Edwards, appeared on radio and television all over the country to plug his book and his ideas about flying saucers. He believed, or said he believed, that flying saucers were spacecraft from another world and the government knew this. Edwards and his book helped to create and profited mightily from a tremendous rise of interest in flying saucers during 1966-67.

    Edwards's book was filled with sensational accounts of some of the classic flying saucer cases, and fierce charges that the U. S. Air Force and other government agencies were covering up the "truth" about flying saucers.

    But the book began with an astonishing account that could not possibly have been covered up by the air force, for it came from a time when there was no air force, indeed no known airplanes-it is from the mystery airship era.


    Edwards quoted from what he called the original account, though he did not bother to give the source. Actually the story first appeared in print on April 23, 1897, in an obscure weekly called the Yates Center (Kansas) Farmer's Advocate.

    Edwards was a practitioner of the "gee whiz" school of journalism, and often embellished stories in the retelling. But there was no need to gild this particular lily. Though Edwards's "original" differs a bit from others that have been published, the details are essentially identical. This is the account as most Americans read it. The narrator was Alexander Hamilton, a prosperous Kansas farmer:

    "Last Monday night about 10:30 we were awakened by a noise among the cattle. I arose thinking that perhaps my bulldog was performing pranks, but upon going to the door saw to my utter astonishment that an airship was slowly descending upon my cow lot, about forty rods [600 feet] from the house.

    "Calling my tenant, Gid Heslip, and my son Wall, we seized some axes and ran to the corral. Meanwhile the ship had been gently descending until it was not more than thirty feet above the ground and we came within fifty yards of it. "It consisted of a great cigar-shaped portion, possibly three hundred feet long, with a carriage underneath. The carriage was made of glass or some other transparent substance alternating with a narrow strip of some material.

    It was brightly lighted within and everything was plainly visible-it was occupied by six of the strangest beings I ever saw. They were jabbering together but we could not understand a word they said.

    "Every part of the vessel which was not transparent was of a dark reddish color. We stood mute with wonder and fright. Then some noise attracted their attention and they turned a light directly upon us. Immediately on catching sight of us they turned on some unknown power, and a great turbine wheel, about thirty feet in diameter,  which was  revolving  slowly


below the craft, began to buzz and the vessel rose lightly as a bird. When about three hundred feet above us it seemed to pause and to hover directly above a two-year-old heifer which was bawling and jumping, apparently fast in the fence. Going to her, we found some material fastened in a slip knot around her neck and going up to the vessel from the heifer tangled in the wire fence. We tried to get it off but could not, so we cut the wire loose to see the ship, heifer and all, rise slowly, disappearing in the northwest.

    "We went home but I was so frightened I could not sleep. Rising early Tuesday I started out on my horse, hoping to find some trace of my cow. This I failed to do, but coming back in the evening found that Link Thomas, about three or four miles west of LeRoy, had found the hide, legs and head in his field that day. He, thinking that someone had butchered a stolen beast, had brought the hide to town for identification, but was greatly mystified in not being able to find any tracks in the soft ground. After identifying the hide by my brand, I went home. But every time I would drop to sleep I would see the cursed thing, with its big lights and hideous people. I don't know whether they are devils or angels or what; but we all saw them, and my whole family saw the ship, and I don't want any more to do with them."

    This amazing story was accompanied by an impressive-looking sworn affidavit.

State of Kansas
Woodson County

    As there are now, always have been and always will be skeptics and unbelievers whenever the truth or anything bordering on the improbable is presented, and knowing that some ignorant or suspicious people will doubt the truthfulness of the above statement, now, Therefore we, the undersigned, do hereby make the following affidavit That we have known Alexander Hamilton from one



The Great Airship Mystery, pp 92-94



to 30 years and that for truth and veracity we have never heard his word questioned and that we do verily believe his statement to be true and correct.

E. V. Wharton, State Oil Inspector
M. E. Hunt, Sheriff
H. H. Winter, Banker
E. K. Kellenberger, M.D.
H. S. Johnson, Pharmacist
J. H. Sticher, Attorney
Alexander Stewart, Justice of the Peace
H. Waymire, Druggist
F. W. Butler, Druggist
James L. Martin, Register of Deeds
H. D. Rollins, Postmaster
W. Lauber, Deputy Sheriff
Subscribed and sworn to before me this 21st day of
April 1897. W. C. Wille Notary Public.

    The removal of Alexander Hamilton's cow by strange beings in an airship attracted more attention than the run-of-the-mill airship tale of the day. Accounts of it appeared in several U. S. newspapers as well as some foreign ones. The Kansas cownapping was a ninety-day wonder. Alexander Hamilton died in 1912, and from time to time his family would receive letters from people who had heard of the incident and wanted more information. But in general this story, like everything else about the airship phenomenon, slipped into almost total obscurity. It was remembered locally, but the wider world knew nothing of the tale until it was rediscovered by ufologists in the mid-1960s. It was one of the first of the airship era tales to be revived, and Frank Edwards gave it wide publicity.

    Even his admirers would admit that Frank Edwards was not the most careful of journalists. He was interested in  a good story,


and was less concerned about whether the facts checked out. But other more scrupulous researchers were also attracted to the Kansas cownapping tale, and did check out the facts of the case.

    The first thing the researchers wished to establish was whether there really was an Alexander Hamilton. Indeed there was. He was a very substantial citizen of Kansas in the 1890s. A local history, published in 1901, described Hamilton's career in detail. He was, according to this history, "one of the most extensive stock dealers and leading businessmen of southeastern Kansas, and is one of the honored pioneers of the commonwealth having come to the state in its territorial days."

    Alexander Hamilton had been born in Kentucky in 1832 and had come to Kansas in the 1850s, already having established a career as a lawyer and teacher. The area he moved to was still a frontier and Hamilton served in the local militia, rising to the rank of captain. During the Civil War he was a member of the home guards; after the war he became a representative in the state legislature and helped to establish the county in which he lived. By that time Hamilton had turned from teaching and law to stock raising and trading. His business prospered. So did his family. His wife Jane had fourteen children, twelve of whom survived. Hamilton was sixty-five when the cownapping took place, hardly a teen-aged prankster or hysteric.

    According to the local history, Hamilton's "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. During the long years of his residence in Kansas he has left the impress of his individuality for good upon the communities with which he has been connected and he feels just pride in the splendid advancement made by his adopted state."


    A little exaggeration in such biographies is pardonable, but it made one thing clear. Not only did Alexander Hamilton exist, he was a splendid representative of the type that in popular belief formed the backbone of America. A more reliable witness can hardly be imagined. The same 1901 local history contained biographical sketches of most of the signers of the affidavit attesting to Hamilton's honesty. These worthies were also backbone of America types.

    Further research discovered that some of Hamilton's descendants still lived in the area. One of them, a granddaughter named Mrs. Elizabeth Hamilton Linde (daughter of Wall or Wallace Hamilton, who was also supposed to have seen the craft), confirmed that all of the affidavit signers existed and that she had personally worked for three of them.

    This was a group of solid citizens whose word had to be reckoned with. Yet these paragons of late nineteenth-century virtue were also damned liars—or if not damned liars, joyful ones. Certainly Alexander Hamilton was a liar, for the entire cownapping story is a hoax—about that there can be absolutely no doubt.

    Perhaps ufologists like Jacques Vallee and Lucius Farish, who first unearthed the story in the 1960s, should have been more suspicious of the tale. Perhaps they would have been if they had been aware of the many other wild airship tales that were told throughout the area during the time of the airship flap. But airship information was then only just beginning to emerge from obscurity. At first the Hamilton story seemed to stand almost alone, and to Lucius Farish it was "one of the most astounding to be found on record!" For years the Kansas cownapping story was told and retold in UFO books and articles. It became one of the great classics of ufology.

    Yet evidence of the hoax was in print, and had been since 1943.  Admittedly, however, this  evidence was  difficult to



The Great Airship Mystery, pp 95-97



locate. The hoax was finally exposed, not by some gimlet-eyed skeptic, but by a couple of researchers whose normal sympathies are extremely pro-UFO, but who displayed an admirable devotion to the truth, even if it destroyed a cherished piece of evidence and an awfully good story.

    As I said, before the mid-sixties the cownapping tale had been largely forgotten, except locally. Every once in a while a Kansas newspaper would revive the Hamilton cownapping as a sort of an oddity from the old days. This is what a Kansas weekly called the Buffalo Enterprise did in January of 1943. The Enterprise story brought a response from Ed F. Hudson, who said that in 1897 he had been editor of the Yates Center Farmer's Advocate, in which the cownapping tale had first appeared.

    Hudson recalled the incident well: "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 County 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 the 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 there came the various experiments in flight, but I have always maintained that Alex Hamilton was the real inventor of human flight."

    Hudson did not mention other airship accounts, but since airship sightings had been prominently reported throughout the entire Midwest during March and April, 1897, it is difficult to imagine that Hamilton was not influenced by the other reports when he made up his tale. Newspaper editor Hudson, who apparently helped to  concoct the tale,  certainly  must have


known what other papers were printing. The cownapping tale was typical of the wilder airship stories that were widely circulated. It may have been the character of Alexander Hamilton that caused this particular account to get more attention than dozens of similar tales.

    Hudson's explanation of the real origins of the famed cownapping story lay unnoticed until 1976, when the item was found by Robert Schadewald, an American correspondent of the British publication Fortean Times. Fortean Times is generally (though not uncritically) pro-UFO, indeed pro all sorts of strange claims. But Forteans are dedicated and tenacious clipping collectors, and in this case the collecting paid off.

    But how could one be sure that Ed Hudson was telling the truth about Hamilton's lie? Hamilton was long dead and could not defend himself if he had wanted to.

    Robert J M. Rickard, editor of Fortean Times, sent the clipping to Jerome Clark, an American writer and associate editor of Fate magazine who had a known interest in the airship. Clark wrote to the Yates Center News asking for further information. He got it.

    A woman from Wichita, Kansas, who responded to Clark's request said that her mother, Ethel L. Shaw, then ninety-three, recalled hearing the cownapping tale from Alexander Hamilton himself. Here, in part, was what Mrs. Shaw said: "How well I remember that beautiful afternoon, almost as though it were yesterday. I, as a young girl about fourteen 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.'"


    Mrs. Hamilton apparently was rather upset by her husband's antics, but others in town took the matter calmly. It was another of Alex Hamilton's "stories." He had a reputation for such whoppers.

    Some writers, Frank Edwards among them, made much of the sworn affidavit, implying that respectable men would never attach their names to such a document if they knew it to be false. Yet nine apparently respectable men from Yates Center, Kansas, signed a document attesting to Hamilton's truthfulness, when they were surely aware that he was a colossal liar.

    To be fair to Hamilton and his friends, they clearly meant no harm with their little joke. Everyone in the community who knew Hamilton and his reputation would have known or quickly guessed the real nature of the cownapping tale. As for outsiders, well, if they wanted to swallow that sort of story it was their lookout. No one could possibly have imagined that the story would stay alive as long as it did, and that over eighty years later it would still be discussed, though I don't doubt that Alex Hamilton would have gotten a big kick out of that knowledge. He seems to have been a man with a lively sense of humor.

    Mrs. Shaw said that Hamilton and a few of his cronies had a club they called Ananias or a liars club. They would get together once a week and try to top one another's tall tales. Said Mrs. Shaw, "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."

    Ben Hudson, the son of Farmer's Advocate editor Ed Hudson, added the detail that his father, Hamilton and a few others met regularly at a Saturday afternoon "pow-wow." It was at such a meeting that they dreamed up the cownapping tale.

    The liars club was a fairly familiar institution in small-town America at the end of the nineteenth  and in the early  twentieth



The Great Airship Mystery, pp 98-100



century. Such clubs were a form of entertainment, and no one took them seriously, though a stranger unacquainted with local customs might be taken in by the tall tales, which were always told as true with deadpan solemnity. There were still frequent references to such clubs in the Midwest as late as the 1940s, though the institution itself seems to have pretty well died out by that time.

    In discussing the airship mystery, Jerome Clark suggested that the institution of the liars club may have played a major role in a number of the more sensational airship sightings. This is difficult to document, except in this one case. However, it is well to keep in mind that telling huge lies, particularly at the expense of outsiders, was an occupation in which a thoroughly respectable man of the 1890s could engage without losing his respectability.

    The Hamilton family retained an affectionate attitude toward their ancestor's tale. It was repeated regularly at family reunions, and had brought upon the family a modest degree of fame. In the best tradition of tale telling, the veracity of the story was defended in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. Finally, however, even Hamilton's granddaughter admitted that the story was probably a hoax and that Alexander Hamilton had a "darned good imagination."

    Clark published the results of his investigation in the February 1977 issue of Fate magazine under the title "The Great Airship Hoax." Fate is a "believers" magazine, highly sympathetic even to the most bizarre UFO claims (as well as other bizarre claims). But the magazine does not hesitate to offend many of its more gullible readers with an exposé like Clark's.

    Clark's article was thorough, and devastating. It has never been seriously challenged. Fate is the country's largest magazine dealing exclusively with unexplained phenomena like UFOs. Clark's


findings should be known to everyone with a serious interest in UFOs. And the Kansas cownapping tale should be dead as evidence for the existence of a mysterious airship or UFOs in general. But it isn't. It still turns up from time to time in UFO books written after 1977 by writers who should know better, and perhaps do.

    The cownapping is a good story. Unlike most of the 1896-97 airship tales, it carried with it the aura of visitors from other worlds rather that the more mundane mysterious inventor. Because it is such a good story it will probably outlive its exposure, and if interest in UFOs continues for another thirty years or so, Hamilton's cownapping tale will be repeated while Clark's exposé will be forgotten or ignored.






The Great Airship Mystery, pp 101-102