The Great Kentucky Meat Shower
It's one of those Ripley's Believe It or Not type of stories: Something that sounds hard to believe, but that seems to be supported by enough literature that we have to stop and wonder if an event stranger than strange may have actually taken place. This one was in 1876 in rural Olympian Springs, Kentucky. Out of a clear sky, for a period of several minutes, came an unexpected rainstorm of what appeared to be scraps of red meat. Samples were even collected, studied, and preserved. What could have been the explanation for this famous moment of weirdness?
The New York Times trumpeted in all caps:
One of the first reports was in the local Bath County News, which read:
Well, since Mr. Harrison Gill's veracity is unquestionable, I guess we're not allowed to question it; so let's proceed to find out what happened after this extraordinary event took place.
I'll begin with pointing out that two skeptical explanations arose right away, and they remain the leading theories. The first is that the meat did in fact fall, having been vomited up by passing buzzards. The second is that nothing fell other than a bit of rain, which moistened and activated existing patches of cyanobacteria called Nostoc — which, as you may recall from Skeptoid #299, is one possible explanation for some reports of star jelly. There are a variety of such slime bacteria, and also types of fungi and slime molds, that can potentially behave this way: you don't notice them because they're small and dried up, but when it rains they can grow and suddenly be noticed. Some might be taken for scraps of meat, when unexpectedly found on the ground.
This general category of potential solution is all about stuff that is found by a person where one would not expect to find anything — such as, in this case, an open field of grass. An average person, scratching their head and wondering what this thing might be doing here, might wonder if there's some way it could have fallen from the sky. If some rain preceded it, the illusion can be very compelling. We do know that this is already the explanation for historical falls of frogs and fish from the sky, as discussed in detail in Skeptoid #170.
These two explanations were put forth in short order, and by legitimate scientists who actually analyzed preserved samples, no less. The first such report came in the American Journal of Microscopy by Leopold Brandeis:
...and also by brave individuals who think it tastes like mutton or venison, apparently.
But then, a subsequent article in the same publication appeared to turn Brandeis' identification on its head:
...Note that: the same sample examined by Brandeis...
This was confirmed again in an article in the Louisville Medical News by Professor L. D. Kastenbine:
It didn't take long to find a reasonably authoritative acknowledgement of this theory. From an article on the website for the Syracuse, NY Post-Standard:
So it does appear to be a perfectly logical and prosaic explanation. If Mrs. Crouch was making her soap near some local turkey vulture's nest, maybe over a period of time, there may have been many, many instances of vulture regurgitation, scattering bits of sheep carcasses over that large area. Possibly one fell near enough to her that she noticed it, then discovered all the other scraps that had been getting dropped at her for a long time.
But lest we dive too far into trying to determine exactly what it was that the beset-upon Mrs. Crouch found all over her yard that day so many years ago, let's revisit our three Cs: Challenge, Consider, and Conclude, as defined in Skeptoid's 2017 film Principles of Curiosity. The very first step is to Challenge the story: did it ever actually happen at all? And if we go back to the 1876 newspaper reports, we find a lot to be skeptical about.
First, there don't seem to be any firsthand reports available. All the stories source back to this Harrison Gill character, a guy who says that he heard about it, and then described what he says he saw. It was an anecdotal secondhand report, with no evidence. The two guys who it is claimed tasted the meat were never even named anywhere. The evidence that the story is anything but made-up by Harrison Gill is virtually nonexistent — I'm not claiming it was made up; just pointing out that it's a valid possibility that can't be discounted.
Second, we have no chain of custody of the preserved samples said to have been tested. No published report mentioned in any of the extant literature that I could find ever says who collected it, or where or when or how. Neither is there sufficient description of when or how it was supposedly sent from one scientist to another; though the bottle tested by Kastenbine had some of this info (but not all) written on its label.
Third, we have very strong reason to suspect this chain of custody was broken. Brandeis took the very same samples he had microscopically identified as Nostoc and sent them on to the other histologists who identified them as various types of meat and flesh. These were all competent, published professionals. However, if you do an Internet search for microscopic pictures of the types of animal tissue described, and compare them with an image of Nostoc cells, it's clear they're radically different. A kindergartner would be able to easily tell them apart. Either these were not the same samples, or something else in this process was fatally broken. The best band-aid for this is to assume Brandeis was hopelessly incompetent and dismiss his role in the story, but he remains the pivotal link in the chain of custody.
There is one popular photo of one of the samples floating around the Internet, part of The Arthur Byrd Cabinet of Curiosities — a tongue-in-cheek collection of weird oddities from all over — at Transylvania University in Kentucky. It's a shred of something that looks like bacon marinating in a stew of brown liquid, in a small glass bottle that's corked, with the remnants of a commercial product label on the front with the word Olympia barely visible. Clearly it was neither collected nor stored in a scientific or sterile manner, and sure looks an awful lot like what a propmaker would create for a creepy Victorian vial from Olympian Springs. The cork appears brand new. Considering the sample's lack of a chain of custody, I would not regard this existing sample as anything other than a novelty, with no compelling reason to suspect its provenance actually does go all the way back to Mrs. Crouch's soap-making yard.
So we're not going to solve this particular mystery today. Legitimate scientists did legitimate published study of something sent to them in little jars of glycerin — but where those jars came from, and whether the newspapers' correspondent Harrison Gill is still laughing to himself, or whether he actually did know some people named the Crouches, and whether a turkey vulture ever did disgorge above their yard one day, we're not likely to ever know. So I'm going to write this one off and file it away, as I find its facts of falling meat — be it mutton, venison, or other — a bit too hard to swallow.
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