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.
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.