The Kelly-Hopkinsville Encounter

A rural family spent half a night battling what they thought were space aliens.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Aliens & UFOs, Urban Legends

Skeptoid #331
October 9, 2012
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Kelly-Hopkinsville Encounter
Lucky Sutton and Bill Ray Taylor reenacting their ordeal for the Kentucky New Era. Public domain photo.

Today we're going to go back to 1955, to a small town in Kentucky called Hopkinsville. It was about 11:00 on a hot summer night when two cars sped up to the police station containing five adults and several children, all highly agitated and visibly frightened. "We need help," they told the police. "We've been fighting them for nearly four hours."

They went on to described what's become known to UFOlogists as the Kelly Hopkinsville Encounter. Small alien creatures had come from a spaceship and were harassing the household, and the two families inside had been holding them off with gunfire since dusk. Faces had appeared at the window, one grabbed a man's hair, and any number of the little beings had been floating around on or near the ground, flying from tree to rooftop, and evading capture. The story of an actual firefight motivated the police. Four city police, five state troopers, and three deputy sheriffs from various jurisdictions, plus four military police from the nearby US Army Fort Campbell, all descended upon the property ready to do battle. But by the time they arrived, the alien creatures were nowhere to be found.

Hopkinsville is a small town in rural Kentucky, and Kelly is just a smattering of houses a few miles north on the highway. It's hardly changed in the half century that has ensued. This part of Kentucky is green and flat, with not a knob or a hill of any kind as far as the eye can see. Plowed fields are separated only by greenery-choked hollows.

Mrs. Glennie Lankford rented the house, and her three grown sons, their wives, friend Billy Ray Taylor from Pennsylvania, and several children were there for a family supper. Around 7:00pm, Billy Ray took a bucket out to the well for some water when a light flashed overhead in the sky. According to the story as told in a number of UFO books, Billy Ray identified it as a flying saucer and watched it land behind some trees. Soon the families began to hear strange noises and the dog barking outside, and upon investigating, Lucky Sutton and Billy Ray saw the first of the creatures emerging from the trees. As the story is told, they shot it, but then others appeared and all seemed resistant to bullets. Shoot them, and they'd float to the ground, and then escape. The men went through whole boxes of ammunition. The children were hidden under the beds, and the men repeatedly fired through the windows at the faces that kept popping up, in an almost funhouse kind of way. The families estimated that some twelve to fifteen creatures were involved. They had large eyes, possibly antennas, were about a meter tall, had spindly, useless legs, and human-like hands. When a bullet would strike one it sounded like shooting a tin can.

It was only upon Mrs. Lankford trying to calm the situation that things settled down. She asserted that the creatures had not tried to harm anyone, and suggested that they drive to the police station. And so they did. The police remained for about two and a half hours, and what transpired during that time varies greatly depending upon which account you read. Most state that spent ammunition was scattered everywhere and that the house's windows were extensively damaged by the gunfire. No sign of the creatures was ever found, but one account states that some luminous green glow was discovered near a fence, and was gone by the next day. This description was consistent with that of foxfire — the folk name for bioluminescent fungus on decaying wood — so it can't be considered strong evidence of anything unusual.

Two officers who returned in the morning were told by neighbors that the families had packed up and left to spend time in Evansville, IN, after reporting that the creatures had returned about 3:30 in the morning. No shots were fired this time, but the creatures apparently scratched at the house and made noise walking on on the roof.

Ever since, the story has only grown. Like so many other alien stories we examine here on Skeptoid, the Hopkinsville case is often described as one of the best documented and most convincing. The Big Book of UFOs says:

The Kelly-Hopkinsville case is a classic of UFO literature that has puzzled both believers and debunkers alike. Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the leading UFO researcher of the early days of ufology, said the Kelly-Hopkinsville case seemed "preposterous" and offensive to "common sense". Despite this, the case as a whole is interesting and many investigators consider it a solid example of a close encounter of the third kind.

The first widely published skeptical work on the episode was done in preparation for the town of Hopkinsville's 50-year anniversary of the event, at their Little Green Men Festival in 2005. The town's chamber of commerce hired full-time paranormal investigator Joe Nickell from the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry to give a talk on the strange episode. Joe did his homework, spending a number of days interviewing surviving witnesses and going through the town's old records and newspaper archives. In addition, the Kentucky New Era newspaper published a special 12-page supplement titled "It Came from Kelly" that included all the paper's past reporting of the event along with some retrospectives.

Nickell's skepticism was well justified, in my opinion. One of the first things that struck me about this case is that there has never been any plausible reason to connect the bright light streaking overhead with the creatures. According to the 1955 reporting of the event by Kentucky New Era's Joe Dorris, Billy Ray Taylor only told the Suttons he saw a bright shooting star; only in later retellings of the story by various authors did the element appear of Billy Ray watching a spaceship come down and land. And yet the corroboration by other witnesses in other locales who also saw a fireball has been cited as evidence of a UFO. Where's the logic in that? Such reports are exactly what we'd expect to hear, and what we do hear, every time there is a meteor over a populated area. The Kappa Cygnids is a minor meteor shower that was taking place at that very time, part of the broader Perseids meteor shower. Even the Fort Campbell observers reported seeing it.

Perhaps the facet of the story that is most strongly considered to be evidence of its factual, literal nature is the involvement of the United States Air Force. Previous authors have stated that the Air Force listed the encounter as "unidentified", but rather than go on that I wanted to see what it actually says in Project Blue Book. Blue Book's archives are available online and searchable, so I did a quick search for Hopkinsville. The only significant result I found came from the undated notes for a lecture on the Air Force's UFO program. On page 10 read the following:

Hoaxes: One phase of operations which takes so much time and effort, not to say unlimited patience, is the constant flow of sightings found to be, or strongly believed to be, deliberate hoaxes... Many of these hoaxes are crude, others are devilishly clever. I should like to present only a few examples from our files - with a few comments regarding each:

A list of named cases then follows, and the last item on the list is "Hopkinsville 'Little Green Men' case". Unfortunately any accompanying slide or comments were not included, but it leaves little doubt as to what the Air Force's actual opinion of the Hopkinsville case is.

And upon digging deeper, I found that there's good reason for the Air Force to have held a dismissive attitude toward the case. Despite what's claimed in virtually all the books, apparently the Air Force was never involved at all, at least so far as I could tell; and thus the lack of any in-depth description in Project Blue Book. The claim that Air Force investigators showed up the next day at Mrs. Lankford's house has been published a number of times by later authors, but I could find no corroborating evidence of this. Reporter Joe Dorris was there the following day in 1955 and met with Mrs. Lankford, who had been shooing tourists away all day. The most notable thing he could find was that Mrs. Langford's daughter was having a lot of trouble holding her cat, which ripped up one of the screen doors. If Air Force investigators had been there as well, it seems probable that Dorris would have reported the fact.

The four military police who accompanied the police officers on the night of the event were from an Army base, not an Air Force base. Although I couldn't find any record of who called them or why, my assumption is that the police requested their assistance for their firepower, upon hearing that a gunfight had been taking place. I find no reason to conclude that there was any official military acknowledgment of an alien invasion.

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Further, it turns out that the magnitude of the gunfire and panic has been egregiously exaggerated over the many tellings and retellings of the story. While in town for the 50-year festival, Joe Nickell examined the police reports, and the contemporary news reports can be read by anyone in the Kentucky New Era's 2005 supplement. It turns out that police found only a single hole in one screen, consistent with a .22 bullet (Lucky Sutton had a shotgun, and Billy Ray Taylor had a .22 target pistol). There were plenty of neighbors within earshot during the event, and the only neighbor who reported hearing any shots fired heard only a grand total of four, which he mistook for firecrackers and ignored.

That's not to say that the family wasn't genuinely frightened. I believe they were, and I believe their report to police was absolutely honest, and from the perspective of people who had undergone a traumatic ordeal. Lucky Sutton is described by UFOlogists as having been a rock solid, no-nonsense kind of guy who would never make up a story. Well, maybe he was, maybe he wasn't, it doesn't matter; rock solid, no-nonsense guys are just as capable of being as scared or as mistaken as anyone else. So that raises the biggest question of the whole story. What were these creatures that looked so much like little big-eyed, skinny-legged aliens?

Joe Nickell was clear in his analysis, and it aligned perfectly with the enormously detailed and thorough work done by French researcher Renaud Leclet in 2001. Although it may sound cynical and dismissive, there are simply too many similarities between the creatures reported by the families and an aggressive pair of the local Great Horned Owls, which do stand about 2/3 of a meter tall. Despite the reports of 12-15 creatures, the families themselves stated that only once did anyone see as many as two at the same time. Keeping in mind that the farmhouse had no exterior lighting, the appearance of an adult Great Horned Owl is substantially the same as that of the creatures described by Sutton and Taylor. Leclet noted that during August, these owls are feeding their young, and are known to belligerently defend their nests and even attack humans who come too near. They hunt one hour after sunset, smack dab in the middle of the firefight. Nickell concluded:

In summary, allowing for the heightened expectation prompted by the earlier "flying-saucer" sighting, and for the effects of excitement and nighttime viewing, it seems likely that the famous 1955 Kelly incident is easily explained by a meteor and a pair of territorial owls. What a hoot!

Could it really have been just owls? Well, of course we'll never know. It's certainly one possibility, and seems consistent with the reports. Another possibility is that strange creatures with unprecedented superpowers, never before or since sighted in the vicinity, with no evident motive, toyed with the Sutton clan one night in 1955. No evidence was found either way. This is one for the folklore files.

Brian Dunning

© 2012 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Davis, I., Blocher, T. Close Encounter at Kelly and Others of 1955. Evanston: Center for UFO Studies, 1978. 33-34, 61-62.

Dorris, J. "Story of Space-Ship, 12 Little Men Probed Today." Kentucky New Era. 22 Apr. 1955, Volume 67, Number 236: 1.

Editors. It Came from Kelly. Hopkinsville: Kentucky New Era, 2005.

Leclet, R. "Que Cachent le Entites de Kelly/Hopkinsville?" Comité Nord-Est des Groupes Ufologiques. CNEGU, 30 Nov. 2008. Web. 5 Oct. 2012. <http://cnegu.info/manuals/KELLYBIS.pdf>

Nickell, J. "Siege of ‘Little Green Men’: The 1955 Kelly, Kentucky, Incident." Skeptical Inquirer. 1 Nov. 2006, Volume 30, Number 6.

USAF. "Lecture on the UFO Program." Project Blue Book Archive. Project Blue Book Archive, 11 Jan. 2005. Web. 8 Oct. 2012. <http://www.bluebookarchive.org/page.aspx?PageCode=NARA-PBB87-702>

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "The Kelly-Hopkinsville Encounter." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 9 Oct 2012. Web. 21 Oct 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4331>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 92 comments

Macky - you're quite right (though J Allen Hynek reports the same) - I have no independent knowledge that any police (or national guard, a la Nickell) were evr present. It should be possible to find out, but personally I find the story so ludicrous even WITH the cops that I couldn't be bothered.

Rob Horne, Colombo, SL
June 24, 2013 4:55am

Rob

I originally started by questioning the story on the basis that one simply can't blast away with a 20-gauge shotgun and not leave bits of owl, feathers even, lying around the yard.
Some Police departments have issued their woman officers with 20-gauge in lieu of the heavier 12-gauge with its greater kickback.

At the ranges Sutton was supposed to have been firing at the aliens/owls/whatever, a 20-gauge shotgun loaded even with only birdshot cartridges will drop a person to the ground and leave him there.

Frightened or not, Sutton with his shotgun should have left pieces of owls, whole owls, feathers etc on the ground all around the house.
Other damage to the house, fences etc should have been obvious and extensive.

The Officers returning to the house next day to find the families gone had a prime opportunity to examine the area in broad daylight, yet nothing was mentioned about that.

Joe Nickell's article was notable for what it did NOT say, especially about the reports that he alleged he studied.

While there is no proof of alien contact, nor even owls, the whole thing seems quite strange when one tries to tee up the different aspects of the story, and find that nothing really matches.

Brian is quite right when he states in his article that no evidence was found either way, but I think it's certainly a given that at least the Police were involved.

Why did they simply not say that there was no evidence for anything having happened, in the first place ?

Macky, Auckland
June 28, 2013 2:24pm

And what was it that prompted Project Bluebook to become involved ?
They listed the incident as a hoax, but given Bluebook's mandate at that time to debunk or at least minimise UFO's sightings etc, the hoax label to my mind is unreliable.
That of course does not prove aliens, but something strange must have prompted either the police or the military to call Bluebook into the scene, surely ?

It is probably a given that the families' appearance at the Police station took place, and that they were badly frightened.

By owls ? I hardly think so, especially over several hours, where owls would certainly have been eventually identified as the "aliens", either dead or alive.

Is there any credence to the return of the intruders early next morning, and which prompted the families to clear off the property ?

Police officers returning next day had the opportunity to examine the house and surroundings in broad daylight. Why is there nothing said about that ?

Joe Nickell's article on CSI simply glosses over possible pertinent information which could help to put an end to all the alien speculations, such as what was actually in those reports that he claims to have studied.

Joe's written a white-wash which has continued to leave the Kelly-Hopkinsville Encounter a story with many questions, but no answers at all.

There is no evidence for anything, aliens, owls, whatever, and it remains a true urban legend.

Macky, Auckland
July 1, 2013 4:07pm

Macky - I'll return your compliment by asking you on what grounds you state that Project BlueBook's 'mandate' was to debunk or minimise UFO sightings? Like all serious 'official' studies I know of, BlueBook involved analysing reports (not hard data), assessing them for national security issues, attempting more obvious and prosaic explanations where possible, and leaving the rest unanswered. BlueBook came to the conclusions that a) the ufo reports had no national security implications, and b) that all but 10% or so of reports could easily be explained by known causes. This left a residue that it was not in their remit either to pursue or to dismiss. BlueBook investigated claims that had been reported, which is all ANY study can do. Many of them were fatuous (like the Kelly Goblins), some were clear misidentifications, and some were simply lies. A few they couldn't explain, so left unexplained. The only initially sympathetic but objective study I know is Hendry's, which formed the basis of his 'UFO Handbook', which anyone remotely interested in the topic simply must read and ponder; he came to similar conclusions to Government studies (BlueBook, Project Grudge etc.) but, as his concern was purely UFOs and not national security, added that the 10% residue consisted of the most insignificant cases (unidentifiable 'lights in the sky') or the few obvious instances of fantasy, fraud or hallucination.

Rob Horne, Colombo, SL
July 6, 2013 1:02am

Rob

Apologies for the late reply.

Wiki runs what I regard as quite a thorough account of Bluebook, and while Wiki like anyone else is subject to error, my view is that it represents as close to a balanced outlook on a multitude of subjects as any.

The Captain Hardin years of Bluebook 1954-56 (which took in the Kelly incident) are notable for the "In 1955, the Air Force decided that the goal of Blue Book should be not to investigate UFO reports, but rather to reduce the number of unidentified UFO reports to a minimum" comment I made, and I think that it's safe to say that Captain Hardin's overall attitude (and even more his successor in 1956) engendered an air of debunking, even if such was not a formal mandate, which also lends an air of unreliability to it's reports, whether true or not.

The whole Bluebook operation become downsized, and was really quite useless after its initially promising start in 1952, in my opinion. Serious changes of UFO criteria and classification through the years 1954 to 1963 support a differing and uncertain attitude towards taking UFO's reports seriously, enhanced by the CIA's influence with its concerns for national security and public awareness.

Regarding Kelly, that Bluebook files it in the hoax category, while Nickell's report/article to the CSI mentions nothing about that, nor even anything about the contents of the other reports he says he studied thoroughly, only adds to the mystery of the whole incident, in my view.

Macky, Auckland
July 12, 2013 4:42pm

Thanks... this means there is no credible official argument for alien visitation?

Midrash Delinquent, Gerringong NSW Oz
July 12, 2013 10:02pm

As far as the Kelly incident is concerned, correct.

There's no (public) evidence for anything at all. Not even owls.

Macky, Auckland
July 13, 2013 1:14am

Fascinating case. I apologize if this has been mentioned in the comments previously or if the author is already aware but I found it interesting that in the PBB archives there is a letter from none other than Carl Sagan himself requesting info on the Kelly-Hopkinsville case. Based on the inquiry it seems Mr. Sagan was under the impression the USAF had a "report" on the events.

Zachary, Nashville
March 24, 2014 8:30pm

Owls? You're really putting forth owls as an explanation? You might as well just have said swamp gas. Sorry, but you're an idiot an not worth anyone's time.

Owls. Hahhahaahhahahaha.

Thanks for the laugh, but I'm going to dismiss you now as the complete moron you are.

Resinveins, PA
May 14, 2014 1:42pm

Zachary

"Based on the inquiry it seems Mr. Sagan was under the impression the USAF had a "report" on the events."

Perhaps not without foundation.
This page (sightings) references a separate folder (handwritten note). Where that folder is, and/or what it said is uncertain.

http://www.bluebookarchive.org/page.aspx?PageCode=MAXW-PBB2-366

Macky, Auckland
May 23, 2014 1:35pm

Make a comment about this episode of Skeptoid (please try to keep it brief & to the point).

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