The Braxton County Monster
by Ryan Haupt
Today we tackle a terrifying tale of an alien encounter that goes by many names: "The Braxton County Monster", "The Sutton Monster", "The Green Monster" and "The Phantom of Flatwoods," just to name a few. Growing up as I did in nearby Kanawha County, I had always heard the tale told using the Braxton County Monster moniker, so that's what I'll keep using here to avoid confusion. The story goes that in the evening of September 12th, 1952 seven witnesses saw a light from the sky land in the hills outside the town of Flatwoods, West Virginia, and when they went to investigate they came upon a being which frightened them to their very core. So was the Braxton County Monster a true case of an alien encounter in the hills of West Virginia? Or did a confluence of unlikely events lead to a group getting the fright of their lives?
The Night of the Sighting
Even contemporary reports made within days of the incident vary in some details of the actual event, but most agree roughly on the following points. Around 7:15pm several local boys (reports differ on exactly how many there were and their identities) were playing football at the nearby elementary school. They noticed a bright light streak across the sky and over a hill, seeming to touch down on the property of the farm owned by a Mr. Bailey Fischer. The boys then raced to the home of Kathleen May, a local beautician and mother of Edison and Fred, possibly two of the boys playing football, to report their sighting of a UFO. The group recruited a few more local boys, including 17-year-old national guardsman Eugene Lemon and his dog. The group, now made up of, Kathleen May, Eugene 'Gene' Lemon (17), Neil Nunley (14), Teddie Neal (13), Edison 'Eddie' May (13), Fred 'Freddy' May (12), Ronnie Shaver (10), and possibly Tommy Hyer (10), headed outside of town and up the hill towards the farm.
Upon cresting the hill to a ridge, they were engulfed in a malodorous mist and spotted a pulsing red light emitting from a ball-shaped object hovering just above the ground. Gene's dog growled at something to their left side, where whomever was holding the flashlight, reports differ, immediately pointed the beam. What the light fell upon was terrible to behold. A large creature, between seven and 12 tall, stood hovering next to a nearby oak tree. It appeared to be wearing some sort of green armor, and a black cowl shaped like a spade from a playing card over its blood read head and bright glowing red eyes. Some of the witnesses reported seeing two claw-like hands near the creature's head, one of which may have been holding a device. Upon seeing the group, the being let out a shrill hiss and started towards them in a slow gliding motion.
The group, gripped with terror, ran headlong down the hill back into town, whereupon they immediately called Braxton County Sheriff Robert Carr. The sheriff was not at his station in nearby Sutton, because he had been called out to investigate a plane crash reported by Woodrow Eagle, who had also seen a light in the sky disappear into the mountains along the Elk River south of Gassaway. By the time Sheriff Carr was able to make it to Flatwoods, local newspaperman A. Stewart Lee of the Braxton Democrat was also on the scene. While the entire group of witnesses was visibly shaken, Gene worked up the nerve to lead a gun-toting posse back to the scene to investigate. The craft and the creature were gone, all that remained was a faint sulfuric odor, some track marks in the grass, and some oily residue along with bits of a black rubber-like substance. In the aftermath of the event, several members of the group described suffering from irritation and swelling of the nose and throat, followed by vomiting and convulsions for another few weeks. These were said to be symptoms of exposure to mustard gas and were attributed to the mist surrounding the area the craft and creature had been spotted in. Whatever had happened, it had clearly make an impact, both emotionally and physiologically, on the witnesses.
UFO investigators, Gray Barker, who actually grew up in Braxton County, and naturalist Ivan T. Sanderson both went to Flatwoods to research the events of September 12th, with Sanderson arriving as early as September 18th. They explored the site, interviewed witnesses, and wrote reports of their findings that were later published. They both concluded that the group had encountered an extraterrestrial craft and its occupant. In the case of Sanderson's 36 page report, he states that, "at least five objects came over traveling in a straight line from Northwest to Southeast..." Several of the crafts crashed and were never recovered, but one craft landed outside Flatwoods and its occupant was able to exit the ship while wearing a protective suit before the craft disintegrated. More skeptical thinking from the time includes several possible alternative explanations: a school teacher suggested that a "combination of the light from a nearby plane beacon and the fiery trail of the blazing meteor reflected in some manner to take the shape of a glowing monster." Another, supposedly put forth by a noted scientist, said that if the meteor broke up over Flatwoods, a piece could have fallen to the ground, disintegrating into vapor that might rise up in the form of a monster. Still others suggested that the apparition was a religious sign sent by god. Finally, a cheese company in Wisconsin wondered if everything could have been caused by an inflated rubber cow which had been launched about ten days before as a publicity stunt. Sanderson rejected all of these explanations, and I think it's safe for us to do so as well.
The Skeptical Approach
Our first goal when looking critically at an event like this is to determine if the event in question actually occurred. In this instance it seems reasonable to surmise that it did. There was definitely something in the skies over West Virginia that night, and a group of seven did go up a hill and get the fright of their lives. The happenstance style of the group's formation does not seem to fit the pattern of a hoax. Our next task is to see if the group's interpretation of what they saw that night, namely, an alien being and its craft, is the most parsimonious explanation given the known facts of the case.
Chronologically, the first thing that needs to be explained is the sighting of something in the sky. It is important to remember that this sighting took place in between Kenneth Arnold's report of seeing unidentified crafts from his plane dubbed by the media as "flying saucers" and the eve of the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union. People were looking to the heavens expecting to see 'something' more than ever before. A meteor overheard was indeed reported that same night in at least three states (West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland). Since the object was sighted prior to Sputnik 1's launch in 1957, it is unlikely that the craft was a terrestrial rocket launched from Earth. However, the assumption that there were five ships flying in formation is based on the idea that they were relatively low to the ground. Another interpretation is that one meteor entered Earth's atmosphere, glowing red hot as it was heated by friction from the air, and was seen across an entire region. due to a lack of frame of reference, it was thought to be much lower to the ground than it actually was. Thus, the downed airplane reported by Woodrow Eagle may have been the same object spotted in Flatwoods by the boys playing football.
Next, we need to explain the sulfuric mist and the pulsing red globe, both of which occurred around the same time. The mist part is simple enough: the Appalachian mountains often have fog. The fog can roll in on a cool evening and last until morning. I've flown out of the airport in Charleston and seen channels of fog that look like rivulets of white water pulsing through every valley and holler. The weather report for Braxton County called for evening fog the same week this year in September that the incident occurred in 1952. The sulfur smell is more troubling. Gunpowder, and some versions of solid rocket fuel, do contain sulfur; but for an interstellar or even an interplanetary craft, chemical fuel would be a horribly inefficient method for traversing the spaceways. From a more earthbound perspective, West Virginia is home to a number of different natural sulphur springs: Green Sulphur Springs, White Sulphur Springs, and Blue Sulphur Springs, amongst others in the state and surrounding areas. I think it's reasonable that a nearby but unknown cave or spring could have produced the odor reported by the witnesses. Why it was so strong when they were there but lesso later could be due to their heightened awareness brought on by the fear of what they might encounter chasing after a crashed UFO. As to the pulsing red globe, there are three airplane beacons in the Flatwoods area, which each produce a bright red signal to help alert and guide nearby aircraft. Being turned around in unfamiliar woods coupled with a loss of perspective, it's possible that a beacon on a nearby hill was interpreted as hovering right before them.
Lastly, we have the being itself. Either the group truly did see the monster as described, or something more mundane, interpreted via the lens of fright, was responsible. In this case, investigator for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry Joe Nickell has suggested that what the group saw may have been a barn owl. The creature was spotted near a tree, and being perched on a branch seven to 12 feet off the ground may have given the illusion of great height, with foliage beneath it representing the green body. Given the time of day, an owl would just be getting active and ready for the hunt. While male barn owls typically have white faces, females can be more reddish-brown in plumage, and had a flashlight shined in her face, her eyes would have definitely glowed in the darkness. Startled and annoyed, she may have taken flight from her branch, and cried out at the intruders in her territory. Rather than the gentle hoo-ing we tend to associate with owls, a barn owl's cry sounds quite different and scary.
I think that in their situation I would have been running down the hill back to town right beside them. Afterwards, investigators found track marks at the site of the encounter and even though local boy Max Lockard admitted to driving his Chevy truck up to and around the area hoping to see something himself, the paranormal investigators instead concluded that the tracks, oily residue, and bits of a rubbery substance must have been left by the creature and not the truck. As to the strange illness amongst some of the witnesses? These symptoms are consistent with hysteria and over-exertion. We need not invoke alien mustard gas.
I will admit that the odds of all these events occurring over the course of an evening are unlikely, but is it any more unlikely than a series of five alien craft from another world visiting and crashing to earth in a single night without any physical evidence left behind for us to examine? To me it seems like each element of the story has a plausible explanation given the circumstances, timing, and geography of the event. I have no doubt that everyone involved in witnessing the craft and creature were being honest in their testimony, but anxiety and fright could have colored their interpretation of normal, yet still scary, events into something truly fantastic.
By Ryan Haupt
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