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The Great Kentucky Meat Shower

Donate A rain of meat is said to have fallen in rural Kentucky one day in 1876.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Ancient Mysteries, Urban Legends

Skeptoid Podcast #653
December 11, 2018
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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:

AN ASTOUNDING PHENOMENON IN KENTUCKY — FRESH MEAT LIKE MUTTON OR VENISON FALLING FROM A CLEAR SKY

One of the first reports was in the local Bath County News, which read:

On last Friday a shower of meat fell near the house of Allen Crouch, who lives some two or three miles from the Olympian Springs in the southern portion of the county, covering a strip of ground about one hundred yards in length and fifty wide. Mrs. Crouch was out in the yard at the time, engaged in making soap, when meat which looked like beef began to fall around her. The sky was perfectly clear at the time, and she said it fell like large snow flakes, the pieces as a general thing not being much larger. One piece fell near her which was three or four inches square. Mr. Harrison Gill, whose veracity is unquestionable and from whom we obtained the above facts, hearing of the occurrence visited the locality the next day, and says he saw particles of meat sticking to the fences and scattered over the ground. The meat when it first fell appeared to be perfectly fresh.

The correspondent of the Louisville Commercial, writing from Mount Sterling, corroborates the above, and says the pieces of flesh were of various sizes and shapes, some of them being two inches square. Two gentlemen, who tasted the meat, express the opinion that it was either mutton or venison.

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:

...The specimens of the "Kentucky shower" reached New York well preserved in glycerin, and it has been comparatively easy to identify the substance and to fix its status. The Kentucky wonder is nothing more or less than the "Nostoc" of the old alchemist.

...When these spores work their way out of the gelatinous envelope they may be wafted by the winds here and there, and they may be carried great distances. Wherever they may fall, and find congenial soil, viz., dampness or recent rain, they will thrive and spread very rapidly... People almost everywhere faithfully believe the Nostoc to fall from the clouds, and ascribe to it many mysterious virtues.

... The flesh that was supposed to have fallen from the clouds in Kentucky is the flesh-colored Nostoc (N. carneum of the botanist); the flavor of it approaches frog or spring chicken legs, and it is greedily devoured by almost all domestic animals.

...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:

This specimen was, without any doubt, striated muscle fibre. Since then we have received from M. Parker himself, specimens not only of muscular fibre, but of cartilage.

The identical specimens which were examined in Brooklyn, and pronounced by Mr. Brandeis and others to be Nostoc, have been submitted to experienced histologists, who find that they are lung tissue.

...Note that: the same sample examined by Brandeis...

We therefore regard the question as to the nature of the material composing the so-called meat shower as no longer an open question. The source or origin of the meat is, however, still sub judice.

This was confirmed again in an article in the Louisville Medical News by Professor L. D. Kastenbine:

All these methods enabled me to bring out the muscular fiber... The connective and fatty tissues were also clearly shown. As the specimen was not placed in alcohol the odor was retained, which a number of meat experts pronounced without hesitation mutton. Since my examination I have learned that others have come to the same conclusion as myself, some even asserting that the wool of the animal was distinctly seen.

The only plausible theory explanatory of this anomalous shower appears to me to be that suggested by the old Ohio farmer — the disgorgement of some vultures that were sailing over the spot, and from their immense height the particles were scattered by the prevailing wind over the ground. The variety of tissue discovered — muscular, connective, fatty, structureless, etc. — can be explained only by this theory.

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:

According to Dr. Shannon Farrell of the SUNY ESF Department of Environmental and Forest Biology, Turkey vultures nest inside cracks and crevices near to the ground and if an intruder gets too close to a nest the adult vultures will defend by regurgitating or defecating on or near the intruder.

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.


By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.

 

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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Great Kentucky Meat Shower." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 11 Dec 2018. Web. 22 Jan 2019. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4653>

 

References & Further Reading

Brandeis, L. "The Kentucky Shower of Flesh." The American Journal of Microscopy. 1 Apr. 1876, Volume 1, Number 5: 54.

Crew, B. "The Great Kentucky Meat Shower mystery unwound by projectile vulture vomit." Running Ponies. Scientific American, 1 Dec. 2014. Web. 6 Dec. 2018. <https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/running-ponies/the-great-kentucky-meat-shower-mystery-unwound-by-projectile-vulture-vomit/>

Editors. "The Kentucky Meat Shower." The American Journal of Microscopy. 1 Jun. 1876, Volume 1, Number 7: 84.

Hull, E. "Turkey vultures: Why they're bald and why they vomit on trespassers." Post-Standard. Advance Local Media LLC, 15 Jul. 2014. Web. 6 Dec. 2018. <https://www.syracuse.com/outdoors/index.ssf/2014/07/turkey_vultures_why_are_they_bald_and_why_they_vomit_on_trespassers.html>

Kastenbine, L. "The Kentucky Meat Shower." Louisville Medical News. 20 May 1876, Volume 1, Number 21: 254-255.

Marcy. "Who Is Arthur Byrd?" Museum Studies & Discussion. Museum Methods, 23 Mar. 2010. Web. 6 Dec. 2018. <http://hitemuseumclass.blogspot.com/2010/03/who-is-arthur-byrd.html>

 

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