The cemetery in Aurora, Texas
(Photo credit: Public domain)
You can drive right through the hamlet of Aurora, Texas in only one minute, and never know anything ever happened there. Highway 114 winds through the low rolling country, carrying trucks and people between more important cities, passing right by the hardly a dozen storefronts. Twelve hundred quiet residents and some lazy insects mostly watch the rest of the world go by, and things are pretty slow and relaxed here. This is a small story from a small town, one you've probably never heard; and at the same time, it just might be the biggest story you ever will.
It's not the place you'd expect television crews to descend upon, but so they have, and in force. In 2005, an episode of The History Channel's UFO Files was shot here, as was a 2008 episode of its spinoff UFO Hunters. These television shows dramatized Aurora's one claim to fame: That on April 17, 1897, an alien spacecraft crashed, killing one occupant, who was then buried in Aurora's small, quiet cemetery. Today, the grave remains, undisturbed and unopened below the bent limb of an overhanging tree, purportedly containing the remains of an alien visitor.
The story was reported in the newspaper in 1897, and many decades later, modern UFOlogists took a big interest in it. In 1973, some of the biggest names in UFOlogy spent months in Aurora checking up on the old story. The were led by Bill Case and Earl Watts of MUFON (the Mutual UFO Network, then known as the Midwest UFO Network), Hayden Hewes and Tommy Blann of the International UFO Bureau, and Fred Kelley, a professional treasure hunter. MUFON produced a 199-page report you can download containing the history, newspaper reports, metallurgy reports, interviews with Aurora residents, and just about anything else you can think of. The MUFON UFOlogists have concluded that the evidence indicates the story is true as told in the newspaper.
It sounds like one of those mysteries that should be the world's easiest to solve: Simply exhume the grave and see what we find. But it's not as simple as that. The existence of the grave is known only by metal detector readings once taken by Earl Watts. Near where the readings are believed to have been found was a piece of native sandstone with what's variously described as either a triangular carving or a V-shaped crack in it, believed by the UFOlogists to have been a gravestone. But the town removed the rock to hamper any potential efforts to dig up the graveyard, and nobody's been able to find anything on a metal detector ever since.
According to the story, the airship struck the windmill of one Judge Proctor, destroying both and killing the pilot. The UFOlogists combed the property looking for evidence of the century-old crash, and they found many bits of assorted types of metal scattered in such a way that they believe they must have been driven forcefully into their current locations by an explosion. The MUFON report acknowledges the obvious difficulty with this conclusion, that people had been living and working here for over 100 years and one could only expect to find junk and debris everywhere. (During the search, a boy even found a half dollar from 1856.) They finally focused on a single specimen of recovered metal which was found to be mostly aluminum with some iron, a finding that they declare to be anomalous since aluminum alloys usually contain copper. But two minutes on Google reveal that aluminum iron alloy is widely available from any number of suppliers, in various purities up to 99.999%, and with virtually any ratio of aluminum to iron that you want. MUFON also declined to give any information about who performed the alleged analysis.
They make much of the sample's appearing to have been exposed to heat, which they attribute to the alleged explosion; but who knows what engine block or other piece of hot machinery this piece may have been a part of. MUFON's whole report reads (to me) as if they're starting from the presumption that a spaceship exploded over Judge Proctor's property, and they're looking for things that might be consistent with their "artist's impression" of such an event.
So if we want to know what really happened in Aurora in 1897, we're going to have to do it without the obvious testable evidence. We're going to have to dig not into the ground, but into the newspapers.
It turns out that for four days prior to the Aurora crash, Texas newspapers had been abuzz with reports of balloons and airships. By 1897, when this happened, hot air balloons had been flying for more than a century, and their appearance over Texas may well have been a curiosity but hardly unknown. But Texas newspapers were in the habit of outdoing each other. The Texas Almanac gives this account of 38 newspaper reports covering 23 counties:
Newspapers of the day reported the sightings straight-faced, although one can read more than a little tongue-in-cheek writing into some of the dispatches from community correspondents... In Farmersville, an eyewitness saw three men in the cabin and heard them singing "Nearer My God to Thee." The trio reportedly also was passing out temperance tracts... Texans always have to one-up each other, and the "airship" craze provided a perfect setting.
And so it was only after nearly a week of this colorful storytelling that the Dallas Morning News decided to run a full page featuring the best of all these stories. Page 5 of the April 19, 1897 edition contained the editors' sixteen favorite yarns, each a silly story from a different town. In one, an "aerial monster" landed in a field, piloted by men from New York. In another, the crew consisted of lost Jews from the ten tribes of Israel who told a judge they'd come from the North Pole. Another of the stories was the following, given here in its entirety:
About 6 o'clock this morning the early risers of Aurora were astonished at the sudden appearance of the airship which has been sailing through the country.
It was traveling due north, and much closer to the ground than ever before. Evidently some of the machinery was out of order, for it was making a speed of only ten or twelve miles an hour and gradually settling toward the earth. It sailed directly over the public square, and when it reached the north part of the town collided with the tower of Judge Proctor's windmill and went to pieces with a terrific explosion, scattering debris over several acres of ground, wrecking the windmill and water tank and destroying the judge's flower garden.
The pilot of the ship is supposed to have been the only one on board, and while his remains are badly disfigured, enough of the original has been picked up to show that he was not an inhabitant of this world.
Mr. T. J. Weems, the United States signal service officer at this place and an authority on astronomy, gives it as his opinion that he was an inhabitant of the planet Mars.
Papers found on his person — evidently the record of his travels — are written in some unknown hieroglyphics, and can not be deciphered.
The ship was too badly wrecked to form any conclusion as to its construction or motive power. It was built of an unknown metal, resembling somewhat a mixture of aluminum and silver, and it must have weighed several tons.
The town is full of people to-day who are viewing the wreck and gathering specimens of the strange metal from the debris. The pilot's funeral will take place at noon to-morrow.
Why the UFOlogists decided that this one story out of all the dozens was a literal true account, while the others were obvious jokes, is a secret known only to themselves. Author Bill Porterfield spent some time in Aurora in 1973 while the UFOlogists were doing their investigation. Porterfield checked up on the people mentioned in the news story, and he detailed what he learned in one chapter of his 1978 book A Loose Herd of Texans.
The 1897 article was written by S. E. Haydon, a cotton buyer in Aurora, left over from the town's boom times prior to 1890. Judge J. S. Proctor, upon whose property the crash took place, was a local justice of the peace and a friend of Haydon's. Both men often submitted satirical essays and poems to local papers. Proctor even wrote his own version of Haydon's alien tale and published it in his own paper called the Aurora News, and when town constable J. D. Reynolds read it, he "roared with laughter" and said "The judge has really outdone himself this time."
Porterfield even tracked down T. J. Weems, described in Haydon's article as a "United States signal service officer... and an authority on astronomy." This was, evidently, a joke on a friend; as T. Jeffrey Weems was Aurora's blacksmith and farrier, and knew no more about astronomy than his average equine customer.
Along with Haydon and Proctor, Weems had been about the only businessman left in the town. The 1890s had been cruel to Aurora. Two epidemics, reported as either yellow fever or spotted fever, had killed many, including Haydon's wife and two of his four sons. The Burlington Northern Railroad canceled plans to extend the Rock Island line to Aurora. A boll weevil infestation decimated Aurora's principal industry, cotton, thus ravaging Haydon's business. Finally a fire destroyed much of Aurora's small downtown. By 1897 nearly everyone still alive had left, leaving only a few hardy souls. Porterfield concluded that what sustained Haydon and Proctor was their sense of humor.
All the evidence points to the story being nothing more than Haydon and Proctor's contribution to a running joke that swept Texas one spring, a long time ago. The other evidence we'd expect to exist if the story were true — the "several tons" of wreckage, the papers written in hieroglyphics, reports of the funeral taking place, records of T. J. Weems actually being an Army officer — conspicuously do not exist. What does exist is a small town, unimportant to all but those who live there, that's exactly as we'd expect it to be if no aliens ever crashed into Proctor's apocryphal windmill and cost him his flower garden.
That is indeed a small story, to be sure. It's a glimpse into a few sturdy men with dashed dreams. It's a boom that went bust and hopes that never came to be. The one element common to both versions of Aurora's history is that each ended in the town's cemetery. Porterfield was never able to track down what finally became of Haydon or Proctor, but in one way or another, they're in the cemetery too; either in body, or in the spirit of the joke they concocted to make some hard times just a little easier.