Worse Than Frankenstein
the story of West Virginia's second-most-famous monster
On Friday, September 12, 1952 a meteor entered the Earth’s atmosphere somewhere above central Pennsylvania. Hundreds of thousands of people witnessed it blaze a path across the sky as it traveled southwest along the Appalachians over West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky before finally flaming out somewhere over Tennessee.
It made quite the impression. Contemporary reports describe it as huge, a veritable Roman candle spitting a long tail of bluish flame. Several commercial airline pilots reported that the fireball had “just barely” missed them (if only by a few thousand miles). A dozen more witnesses watched it disappear over the horizon and called it in to the police as a plane crash.
Newspapers splashed the story of the meteor across the front page, but it was competing for column inches with dozens of other developing stories: renewed hostilities in Korea, the upcoming presidential election between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, and of course, the National League pennant race. The meteor vanished from the headlines as quickly as it had blazed across the sky, and was forgotten.
Except in the town of Flatwoods, West Virginia.
Close Encounter of the Third Kind
Dusk was falling in the small mountain town, and a group of young boys were trying to wrap up their football game before it became too dark to see. Their final play was rudely interrupted when the giant fireball came streaking through the sky. The boys watched it disappear out of sight behind a hill on the nearby farm owned by C. Bailey Fisher. Then there was a bright flash of orange light from behind the hilltop, which quickly faded to a pulsating reddish glow.
The boys dropped their football and ran home to tell their parents what they had seen. Many of those parents had been distracted, cleaning up after dinner or tuning the Zenith over to Perry Como on CBS, and had missed the fireball entirely. It sure sounded like they’d missed a spectacular astronomical light show.
As the adults stood around chattering, fourteen-year-old Neil Nunley spoke up and said that if the meteor had crashed on the Fisher farm they should go collect the fragments and send them off to the state geological department. After all, that was what they had been told to do at school. Ten-year-old Ronnie Shaver and six-year-old Tommy Hyer immediately volunteered to go get it. The May boys, thirteen-year-old Eddie and eleven-year-old Freddie, pestered their mother to let them go, too. Mrs. Kathleen May was tired from a long day of work at the beauty salon, but she just couldn’t say no to her boys after seeing how excited they were.
Now, boys, we’ll just go… We won’t go clear up to it. We’ll just go to get the direction and location of where it landed and then we’ll just come back and call the law, and let them go up and investigate.Kathleen May
She wasn’t keen about going up that hill alone, though. She sent her boys down the street to fetch her cousin, seventeen-year-old Eugene Lemon, who had just enlisted in the West Virginia National Guard. Minutes later Eddie and Freddie returned with Gene, a flashlight, and the Lemon family’s faithful dog.
Mrs. May and the six boys started up the hill at around 8:00 PM. It wasn’t a long hike, maybe half a mile at most. The older boys, Gene and Neil, took the lead, along with the dog. The rest of the party trailed about fifty feet behind, with Mrs. May, Eddie, and Ronnie in the middle of the pack. Freddy and Tommy brought up the rear.
It was dark now, the sort of darkness you just don’t get any more in this age of omnipresent light pollution. They had to find their way guided only by the pale light cast by a tiny sliver of waning moon, the beam of Lemon’s flashlight, and the pulsing red light that beckoned them ever onward.
As the seven intrepid explorers approached the top of the hill, a strange mist began to spill over the edge towards them. At first it seemed like a normal fog, but it had an acrid odor with a metallic tang which reminded them of a burned-out vacuum tube from the back of the television. It made Mrs. May and the younger boys queasy.
Wading through the mist they reached the fence that ran along the property line, and a gate held shut by a heavy chain. They undid the chain, passed through the gate, and re-secured it behind them.
Now that they were in the farm proper, the children in front could see something on the other end of the field. What it was, they had no idea. From this distance it was just a faint glow, orange-red in color, and pulsing in intensity. Some of them thought they heard a faint hiss or whine.
Suddenly, the dog growled. It ran out of sight into the underbrush ahead… and moments later ran past the group and back down the hill. Peering into the mist, Gene Lemon thought he saw a pair of shining eyes in the bushes ahead and to the right. Thinking it was a possum or raccoon, he swung his flashlight in its direction to scare it off.
That’s when they all saw the monster from outer space.
I turned the flashlight on and the thing lit up from the inside. I turned on my flashlight and it lit up like a Christmas tree.Gene Lemon
…a fire-breathing monster, 10 feet tall with a bright green body and a blood red face… If I’d known what I was going to see I’d never have gone…Kathleen May
…about ten feet tall, with a face of fiery red, a green body and a headpiece which looked like the ace of spades…contemporary newspaper account
It looked worse than Frankenstein. It couldn’t have been human.Kathleen May
It was vaguely man-like, and at the same time not man-like at all. It was at least 7′ tall, maybe taller, with a long cylindrical torso. No one really got a good look at the body, though, because they were all focused on its hideous face. It was a vivid blood-red color and perfectly round, with no nose, no ears, no mouth — no features at all beyond those terrible shining eyes. Behind the head was a dark cowl or hood, shaped like the ace of spades.
The monster had not been paying any attention to the search party, but it swiveled in their direction when the flashlight touched it. It hissed, raised two long spindly arms capped by thin claws and began, not walking, but gliding in their direction.
Gene Lemon freaked out. He shrieked, dropped the flashlight, and fainted. Neil Nunley and Eddie May dragged Lemon to his feet, and they all joined the mad scramble back down the hill to safety. They didn’t bother to unlatch the gate this time — they just dove over the fence, even Mrs. May in her housedress. Presumably poor Gene Lemon was just hurled over the fence by the other boys.
Once they reached the May house they brought Gene back around, though he was panicky and incoherent. Everyone was as pale as a ghost, and they felt nauseated and upset — though no one could say whether it was due to the foul-smelling mist or the fatigue from running the fastest half-mile any of them had ever run.
At 8:15 PM they made a call to the Braxton County sheriff in nearby Sutton. Sheriff Carr and his deputies weren’t there to answer — they were off to investigate reports of a plane crash on the banks of Sugar Creek, downriver between Gassaway and Frametown. There only person left behind to tend the phones was jailer Cecil Rose, who was unable to leave his post for obvious reasons.
Rose asked a local newspaper reporter and editor, A. Lee Stewart, Jr. of the Braxton Democrat, to go check things out. It took Stewart some time to pull together an armed posse and make the quick drive down Sutton Lane to Flatwoods. He arrived the May at house at 9:15 PM and was greeted by the the terrified explorers and a crowd of curious neighbors. And also the dog, cowering in fear under the porch.
Stewart listened to their tale of terror, and somehow convinced Gene Lemon and Neil Nunley to lead him back up to the hill. Whatever had been up there before wasn’t up there now. The only trace of its existence was a lingering odor, though it was so faint Stewart had to kneel down and stick his nose in the underbrush to catch it.
Sheriff Carr and his deputies arrived on the scene at around 10:00 PM. They had just spent two hours searching for a non-existent plane crash — the eyewitness had been fooled by the unusually bright meteor — and weren’t in the mood for shenanigans. Carr listened to the story and dismissed it as a bunch of excitable kids and a hysterical housewife getting worked up over nothing. He stuck around for about half an hour and left around 10:30 PM.
Stewart stuck around for another half hour or to get some quotes for the newspaper. There wasn’t much to go on, but he was convinced the search party had seen something.
I hate to say I believe it, but I hate to say I don’t believe it. Those people were scared — badly scared, and I sure smelled something.A. Lee Stewart
On Saturday morning Carr and Stewart returned to the Fisher farm to examine it in the cold light of day. There was nothing there — well, almost nothing. Stewart stumbled across strange grooves in a nearby field and an “odd gummy deposit” on the ground.
Plainclothes investigators from the Air Force also made a brief appearance. They had been sent down to check out the Sugar Creek plane crash, but since there was no crash to investigate they decided to swing by and check out the Flatwoods site. They bagged up some metal shavings, a strange rubbery substance, and some of the local vegetation and sent them off to a lab for testing.
On Saturday afternoon, the Braxton Democrat ran the story of good, honest small town folk and their terrifying encounter with the strange monster.
Now, you can criticize A. Lee Stewart for a lot of things but you have to give him credit for being a hell of a writer. He somehow managed to take a total nothingburger of a story — seven locals go up a hill looking for a meteor, only to be frightened off by something that startled them — and craft it into a gripping campfire tale about an encounter with the unknown. You couldn’t stop reading it, and after you were done, well, you wanted to share it.
On Monday the article was reprinted by the regional papers. The following day it was redistributed by the national wire services. By the end of the week Stewart, Kathleen May, and Gene Lemon were flying to New York to tell the tale on the evening talk show “We The People.” It would be the pinnacle of their lives, their fifteen minutes of fame.
Under normal circumstances, our tale would end here because this story just doesn’t have legs. The whole strange encounter with the Flatwoods Monster had lasted, what, fifteen seconds at most? How could you turn fifteen seconds into a story that would last for days, weeks, years?
These weren’t normal circumstances, though. As May and Lemon were recalling their encounter on national television, the myth makers were converging on Flatwoods.
First to arrive was Ivan T. Sanderson.
British-born Sanderson was the proud holder of degrees in biology and ethnology from Cambridge University. He spent the first few years after graduation assisting on scientific expeditions through West Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. He quickly realized, though, that his real talent was not science but writing. He published several books about his experiences which were less like scientific treatises and more like breathless travelogues, full of purple prose and prone to exoticizing foreign countries. They sold well enough.
After a stint in British Naval Intelligence during World War II, Sanderson emigrated to America and settled in the New York area. He quickly became established as one of the country’s top science and nature, sort of the Mary Roach of his day. He had a syndicated newspaper column, wrote for magazines from Argosy to the Saturday Evening Post, and was a frequent guest on radio and television talk shows.
In spite of that initial burst of success, Sanderson’s career was now entering a long, slow decline. He had always been fascinated by Forteana, the unexplained and paranormal, especially when it intersected with his chosen field of biology. He was obsessed with the abominable snowman, sea serpents, and extraterrestrials. Sanderson may have even been the first person to use the word “cryptozoology.”
In and of itself, this wasn’t a problem. The problem was that when writing on these subjects he frequently was not writing from the dispassionate, analytical perspective of a scientist and more from the perspective of an entertainer and true believer. He did nothing to signal to his audience that he was lowering his standards for evidence and indulging in wild, unsupported speculation.
That devotion to the paranormal would eventually destroy Sanderson’s reputation as a serious scientist. His books and articles would always remain popular with the general public, who were blissfully unaware that there was even a controversy.
To his credit, Sanderson arrived in Flatwoods with a healthy attitude of skepticism. He thought the whole monster story was silly and unbelievable, an incident of mass hysteria at best or a deliberate hoax at worst.
His first impressions did little to change his mind. Hiking up to the Fisher farm, he quickly identified the source of the smell that had nauseated the search party: a particularly stinky patch of native grass. At the top of the hill he found no signs of anything unusual. A slight depression identified as the landing site for the meteor was just subsidence over top of a buried cistern. Vegetation nearby which had purportedly been burned by the heat of the meteor was in fact suffering from a fungal blight. Curious organic materials recovered from the site of the Sugar Creek “plane crash” were nothing more than salamander eggs.
Sanderson’s skepticism began to waver, though, as he interviewed the locals.
Now, you know and I know that eyewitness testimony is unreliable. In the moment your preconceptions shape how you interpret your senses. As time passes memories get edited to match what you want to believe, or what you’ve been told. And memories get even more unreliable when, say, three of your neighbors have just been flown to the big city to appear on national television and become famous.
Sanderson had an unfortunate tendency to prioritize eyewitness testimony over other forms of evidence, even when that testimony was contradictory. His witnesses could not agree on even basic facts like what time the meteor had appeared, what direction it was traveling in, even what color it was. It didn’t help that Sanderson also a poor grasp of the regional dialect; when told that the meteor had “come round the hill” he understood that to mean that it had made some sort of incredible aerial maneuver, when it was more likely the interviewee was just indicating the direction it had appeared from.
Based on the testimony he compiled, Sanderson jumped to the unsupported conclusion that there had been not one meteor, but five of them flying in formation low over the mountains. This was an astonishing conclusion to make because no witness had seen more than one meteor at a time, despite their purported trajectories making that a virtual impossibility.
At some point during their flight, four of the meteors had crashed or exploded. One landed more-or-less intact on the Fisher farm. A second had exploded on the banks of Sugar Creek. A third made a hard turn and crashed into a mountain. A fourth had made it as far west as Charleston before it disintegrated in mid-air. The final meteor made it all the way to Kingsport, TN before disappearing.
Of course, these were not meteors at all but spaceships. Which means the Flatwoods monster was no monster, but an alien.
After the crash landing on the Fisher farm, the pilot emerged from its spaceship and began investigating its environment. Sanderson did not think the pilot’s true appearance had ever been observed. Instead, the search party had only seen its space suit. It was not a red face, but a red helmet; it did not have glowing eyes but but spotlights shining through portholes; and the trademark ace of spades cowl was actually the a semi-translucent onion-shaped dome.
After startling (and being startled by) the search party, the pilot and his ship had then just… boiled away, either through prolonged contact with Earth’s hostile environment or by deliberate self-destruction. Their constituent atoms were then scattered to the four winds, leaving no trace of their existence behind. Which is conveniently both impossible to prove and impossible to disprove.
Sanderson first put forward this version of events in newspaper and magazine articles, and then presented a heavily revised version in his 1967 book Uninvited Visitors: A Biologist Looks at UFOs.
There’s a big problem with Sanderson’s account: he’s not playing fair, even by his own standards. He treats the testimony of eyewitnesses who saw the meteor or meteors as sacrosanct, but discards the eyewitness testimony of the search party whenever it’s inconvenient for him.
For instance, he describes the ship as “cone-shaped” even though the children who saw it always said it was ovoid or spherical. He alters the description of the monster, making the cowl or dome transparent, making the eyes portholes, and adding details like the lower body being covered in a suit made of “rubberized silk” — all changes unsupported by testimony but logical to extrapolate if you are assuming the monster was wearing a space suit made with 1952 technology. He even pointlessly changed the color of the monster’s eyes from the greenish-orange described by witnesses to a more acceptable blue.
It was a pretty typical performance for Sanderson: ignoring evidence that contradicted his narrative, embracing questionable evidence that agreed with it, and making up facts to lend everything an air of verisimillitude. It fails on just about every level. But he was the one with a newspaper column and a book contract, so his version was one of the ones that spread widely.
The Cynical Hack
Sanderson wasn’t the only myth-maker gallivanting around Flatwoods. His arrival was almost simultaneous with that of Gray Barker.
Barker was not a famous science writer with a prestigious degree from Cambridge. He was a West Virginia boy from Riffle, only about eight miles away from Flatwoods as the crow flies. He had aspired to be writer, but after years of failure he had given up and was working as a movie booking agent. That all changed when the story of the Flatwoods monster went national, and the media started to descend on his figurative back yard.
Now Barker had no particular interest in flying saucers, but he saw a chance to kick-start his writing career. He reached out to the editors of FATE magazine to see if they’d be interested in the story. They very much were, but told him that they wouldn’t cover any of his expenses and that he needed to send them 4,000 words by Monday. Barker immediately drove to Flatwoods and began interviewing everyone who would talk to him. His initial results were not great.
He found two local twenty-somethings, Junior Edwards and Joey Martin, who had gone up the hill after the search party and before Stewart, but saw nothing out of the ordinary.
He found another resident, appliance dealer Max Lockhart, who confessed that he’d driven his pick-up truck to the farm after the sheriff left that night. The strange ruts Stewart had seen were his skid marks, the gummy deposit was a leak from his oil pan, and the weird detritus collected by the Air Force had been tire and frame fragments shed by his decrepit truck.
Other locals, like the mayor and the sheriff, just flat out refused to talk to him.
He had some small successes. He found a local resident who claimed to see the fireball rise up from the mountain after the supposed close encounter, though he never questioned why it took this resident a week and a half to speak up. He was even able to coax Neil Nunley and the other children into providing more detail about that night than anyone else who ever asked — though it also seems like he may have been coaching the boys to give him the answers he wanted.
It was something, but it was still pretty thin. So Barker fell back on some rhetorical tricks. He rewrote and embellished news stories written by other reporters. Since he was unable to find proof, he wrote about the controversy instead. He shifted the focus of the story to himself, making it about his quest for the truth and thereby obfuscating his inability to unearth anything new. Finally, he dressed up his thin outline with the same sort of folksy showmanship that A. Lee Stewart had first brought to the tale.
Barker’s article, “The Monster and the Saucer,” ran in the January 1953 issue of FATE magazine. The payday from that article helped him launch his own newsletter, Saucerian and a long career as one the country’s most famous (and most cynical) UFOlogist. He revisited the story of the Flatwoods monster numerous times over the years, and told the comprehensive version in his 1956 book They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers.
The Barker version of the story may not have brought anything new to the table, but its timing was impeccable. Barker’s books were some of the earliest “serious” UFO literature, and their wide distribution allowed them to make a real impact. Even though his version lacks the veneer of pseudo-science that bolsters Sanderson’s version, it reads better as a story. You can see why someone stumbling across one of his articles in a moldering old magazine or a dusty old book would latch on to it.
The Fame Hungry
Sanderson and Barker’s involvement helped keep the story of the Flatwoods monster alive… but not for long. By the end of 1953 it had vanished completely from the headlines.
For those who had been the focus of the media attention it was an uncomfortable shock. They had become used it, and not all of them were coping well with its loss. Understandably, the following years saw several attempts by the search party, the residents of Braxton County, and other interested parties to resurrect the story.
The first real attempt was made by a Mr. George Snitowski of Queens, NY. He claimed to have encountered the creature on September 13th, 1952 — the day after the famous encounter. While driving though West Virginia in the wee hours of the morning Snitowski was startled by the appearance of a “luminescent spheroid” and a malodorous fog, and then noticed the Flatwoods monster watching him from the side of the road like a creeper. That’s it. It it felt Snitowski had just just grafted elements of the Flatwoods mythology onto an unrelated UFO story. He could provide no coherent reason why he’d waited several years to tell the tale — or why when he did tell it, he’d chosen to tell it to the editors of tawdry men’s adventure mag MALE for their July 1955 issue (cover story: “Madams of the Old West”).
Later Kathleen May got into the act. She began claiming that weeks after her close encounter, men from the Pentagon had shown her photos of a top-secret “moon landing vehicle.” They told her difficulties during a test flight had forced the vehicle to make an emergency landing in Flatwoods, and that’s what she and the boys had stumbled across. This is an incredible story — and in the bad sense of the word, as in “not credible.” In 1952 NASA was just a gleam in Wernher von Braun’s eye, and the Apollo program was still a decade away. There’s also the question of why the Pentagon would reveal classified information to a West Virginia beautician, even if she had seen their spaceship.
A. Lee Stewart would later make claims that he had recovered metal fragments from the site. He and a friend had gone to town on them with a welding torch to no effect. Of course, the fragment had since been lost or possibly stolen, which mean that no one could test his claims…
Other residents were happy to talk to any would-be UFOlogist who crossed their path. You couldn’t help but notice, though, their accounts now all sounded strikingly similar to the version of events presented by either Sanderson or Barker. Memories were revised, timelines changed, even the most trivial of details were replaced with details provided by out-of-town authors. Of course, as the years went by, the details also became ever more elaborate. Shining eyes became glowing eyes became jets of flame. I guess when the truth gets buried by the legend, you print the legend.
There was a brief attempt to create a new monster in 1960. That winter newspapers reported multiple encounters with a hairy wild man wandering the back roads of Braxton County, terrorizing sleepy truck drivers, burning hunters with electrical discharges, and trying to carry off local housewives. It sounds like aliens were out, and Bigfoot was in. The new monster didn’t catch on, though.
Over time even the eyewitnesses tired of telling their story over and over and over again. Kathleen May and the boys got just wanted to stop being harassed by UFOlogists and get on with their lives. Well, at least until they needed money or wanted attention. Then they were okay with it again until they weren’t.
The Crazy Conspiracist
The worst was yet to come.
In his 2004 book The Braxton County Monster, UFOlogist Frank Feschino, Jr. put the most unbelievable spin of all on the tale of the Flatwoods monster. In Feschino’s telling, the three flying saucers that crashed near Flatwoods were the vanguard of an alien armada, intent on destroying Oak Ridge National Laboratory and crippling America’s nuclear program. Their destruction was not accidental, but the result of a pitched dogfight between and Air Force fighter jets.
Feschino has absolutely no evidence to back up these assertions, only what he calls “mysterious omissions” in official Air Force records and dubious second-hand accounts relayed by highly unreliable witnesses who are trying to keep the legend alive so they can have their 16th, 17th, or 18th minute of fame.
Without evidence the story is literally unbelievable. It requires the general public to have somehow not seen a massive battle involving half a dozen alien craft and two dozen fighter jets taking place over the most densely populated part of the United States in broad daylight.
At least Feschino has a knack for the dramatic. His version of the Flatwoods monster is right out of a modern horror movie, wreathed in unholy light and gliding about on an apron of flames. It’s also highly radioactive and kills several local residents with its burning touch, though those murders are subsequently covered up as accidents and suicides.
It’s all horse hockey, of course. Not even good horse hockey.
But Here’s What Really Happened
I’ve spent the last six minutes tearing down everyone else’s take about what happened that night. It’s only fair to ask, then, what do I think happened up there at the Fisher farm on that cold September night?
The short answer is, I don’t know. No one knows. In all likelihood even the people who were there have no idea.
Think about it. They started up the hill at around 8:00 PM, and were back down again by 8:15 PM. In that time they had to hike half a mile up a hill; unlock, pass through, and resecure a fence; encounter the monster; and then run back down the hill. That means they spent maybe a minute, two minutes tops at the top of the hill.
Did they see a glowing fireball at the far side of the field? Possibly. The younger and shorter boys, who were in the rear of the party, didn’t see the fireball at all. Kathleen May, Gene Lemon, and Neil Nunley offered widely differing accounts of how big the fireball was, how far away it was, even what color it was.
ome skeptics have suggested the “fireball” was an aircraft navigation beacon situated on a nearby mountain, whose light was diffused in strange ways by the evening fog. That seems possible, but firsthand accounts seem to suggest the night wasn’t quite that foggy.
How about the monster itself? It was only illuminated by for a few seconds before Gene Lemon dropped his flashlight. All anyone really saw was a round red shape with a spade-like hood with shining eyes. It may or may not have had long spindly arms with claws. Its lower body was hard to see, indistinct at best, but the few impressions jotted down at the time said it was “cylindrical” and “greenish.”
I hate to say it, but that sounds like some kind of owl. The shining eyes are well, just the flashlight reflecting off the owl’s eyes, the hood would be the flattened portion of its facial disc, and the spindly arms would be dangling claws. The lower body probably never existed, and those who saw it were confused by the flashlight beam reflecting off a moss-covered tree or stump.
Odds are the search party startled an owl, which flew straight at Gene Lemon’s head. Lemon then freaked out before he could process what he was seeing, which made everyone else panic. Everything other detail about the evening is a false memory, extrapolated from fleeting impressions and codified later by careless suggestions.
Having said that, I wasn’t there, and so I can’t make pronouncements with 100% certainty. Nor would I want to! There may not have been an alien on top of that hill that night, but what was up there remains a mystery.
And the world needs a little mystery now and then.
(All corrections from the errata have been incorporated into this article, but not into the published audio.)
Gray Barker was investigating the Flatwoods monster for Fate Magazine. Fate was founded Raymond A. Palmer, who you may remember for his role in the infamous Shaver Mystery hoax (“A Warning to Future Man”).
Ivan T. Sanderson was also one of the key parties in the Minnesota Iceman Affair (“The Ape-Man Creature of Whiteface Customized My Van”).
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