Of Meteors and Martians: UFO Hoaxing in Nineteenth-Century Latin America

Like Fox Mulder of the X-Files, “I want to believe.” But it’s not an easy thing. Take, for example the peculiar story of a nineteenth-century, Latin American UFO hoax involving a meteor, a Martian and strange artefacts reminiscent of more contemporary UFO mythology.

UFO enthusiasts have known for a long time about the Airship Wave of 1896 and 1897 (and this), when western and midwestern newspapers were filled with dramatic stories of city and country dwellers observing slow-moving UFOs and their eccentric pilots (who seemed to be human and weird in mundane, not extraterrestial, ways.) Some journalists back then believed that these visitors were from Mars. Indeed, H.G. Wells published his seminal novel about a Martian invasion, War of the Worlds, around the same time, in 1897. More recently, others have argued that these airships were early flying machines piloted by forward-thinking human inventors (and this) who never took credit for the UFO flap. I’m no expert on the subject (is there such a thing as an airship mystery expert?) but my opinion is that the airship phenomena was a kind of journalistic chain letter that caught the imagination of newspaper editors and spread like wild fire with little or no basis in reality. At least, this is a reasonable supposition if we consider a very interesting nineteenth-century UFO hoax from Latin America.

Where to begin? For years now, as a scholar of literature, I’ve been reading nineteenth-century Mexican newspapers. I love working with such newspapers because they are full of random stuff: advertisements for shaving cream or pomades, irate letters, gruesome bits about murder and other forms of misbehavior. Digging through old newspapers is really like digging through an antique store. You may be looking for X, but you will come across A, B, C, D, E… etc. Since I am interested in Astronomy, items about meteors, comets and other aerial phenomena have caught my eye. For example, there’s the 1880 story about a moon-sized meteor illuminating everything in its wake in January of 1880 and the 1896 story about two children who died in a house that was hit by a meteor. In July of 1871, the newspaper El Siglo XIX republished a short article signed E.L. Abogado (translation: T.H.E. Lawyer) from the paper El Ferrocarril, stating that on the 21st of July a “very curious” phenomenon was observed in the night sky: a bluish meteor shaped like a small comet was seen arcing southward while leaving a light and luminiscent trail.

Peculiar aerial phenomenon sometimes appear in these pages as well, but in my experience, mostly referring to other countries. The great earthquake of 1842 in Haiti, according to El Siglo XIX, was preceded y an extraordinary meteor moving eastward over Port-Au-Prince. I wonder if this is confirmed by the historical record. In an excerpt from Le Courier des E-Unis (a French language newspaper published in the U.S.?), we learn that the moon went red over Fort Leavenworth, Missouri in June of 1843, a black cross appeared on its face and rainbows were seen surrounding it. In an 1873 article about weird happenings in Haiti, the author digresses about the wonders of science and tells us about the intelligent, cat-like ball of electricity that hovered around a French tailor, going this way and that before climbing through a chimney and exploding, and the strange meteor that fell in Wisconsin only to remain suspended over the ground and then fly upwards again.

Enough digressing, though. The UFO article that caught my eye was titled Enormous Meteor (Enorme Aerolito) and was published in November of 1878 in El Siglo XIX. It’s a short piece, no more than ten lines or so, stating that, in Central America, a hollow meteor had been found containing an amphora and a small, shrouded human body. I got to googling key words and, by sheer coincidence I stumbled upon a fascinating blog post titled “Ovni caído en Carcarañá,” from the Otras Alternativas blog, which belongs to a Radio Program out of the city of Rosario, Argentina. Apparently, and sadly (although why am I surprised I don’t know), the article was unceremoniously lifted, without attribution, from an earlier article by Fabio Picasso published in 2004 in the Revista Investigación website. (Why do people do that? It’s very sad.) At any rate, Picasso does a fine job of documenting his archival research. Let’s see some highlights of what he says.

In 1877, an article appeared in a Rosario newspaper called La Capital titled Eureka, Eureka! In it, a man calling himself “A. Serarg” reports coming to the town of Carcarañá for health reasons and discovering a “colossal,” black meteorite in a field. It measured over one hundred feet in length and almost one hundred in diameter (the precise measurements given were in varas, 45 long and 30 diameter, and I’m calculating about 3 feet per vara which is about right from what I’ve been able to gather.) Mr. Serarg gets a geologist, Mr. David, a man called Mr. Paxton, and a local peasant called Jesús Villegas to return with him to the meteor. The men are able to break through the exterior of the black meteor and discover a chamber inside the meteor. In this chamber, tucked in a corner, they find an amphora made out of silvery metal, pocked with many tiny holes and containing strange inscriptions. They discover another chamber in which they find a small, strange, shrouded body of a bald person with a flat face, a small mouth with fourteen teeth and a little trunk or protuberance for a nose. Nearby they locate a piece of silver containing a picture of a rhinoceros, a palm tree, our sun and our solar system’s planets. What is curious is that Mars is given prominence in this elementary, child-like picture, establishing that the meteor or craft was Martian in origin, the body that of an inhabitant of that planet and the divine message that God had not only populated earth but also other planets. Wow. A Roswell Crash from 1878 Argentina! Could it be for real?

But Picasso has done some astonishingly good detective work. I won’t rehash it all here but let me get to the most important part. Picasso discovers that this story originated in France in 1874 and travelled to Argentina three years later, appearing in Rosario’s aforementioned newspaper La Capital. In its French incarnation, the Martian story, is identical to the one that appeared in La Capital, with the exception that the incident takes place in the United States! One year later, in the summer of 1878, the story travels from Argentina to Mexico, where it appears in the newspaper titled El Defensor de la Constitución, of the state of Zacatecas. This version, which I have not seen, apparently locates the incident in Carcarañá, so it appears that the editors heard about it somehow from La Capital. Several months later, yet another version appears in Mexico, the tale that I found in the fall issue El Siglo XIX, but this time the setting of the tale is somewhere in Central America. It’s almost as if someone had vaguely remembered reading the article from Zacatecas and decided that Carcarañá was in Central America and not Argentina. Or then again, maybe the Martian story also appeared in a Central American newspaper. Be this as it may, the Central America version of the story returns to Argentina in 1879, where it appears in the newspaper El Constitucional of Mendoza. Thanks to Picasso’s detective work, and new evidence from El Siglo XIX, it is clear that the Latin American Martian was just a tall tale.

There are some native informants from Carcarañá who remembered hearing about a “rain of fire” or a meteorite falling near the town from their elders. But no one seems to remember much else, and definitely nothing about a small mummy from Mars. It would seem that the most logical story would be that someone invented the Martian story and planted it in the newspaper La Capital, and somehow, purposefully or not, it found new incarnations in Mexico.

It would be hasty to generalize too much about the lessons we can learn from this case, but it is not farfetched to think about the ways in which newspapers recycled unreliable news and outright invention in the nineteenth century. Maybe the Airships of 1896-1897 were nothing more than a tall tale. I rather they be real, to be honest, because “I want to believe”. But, fact or fiction, they constitute one of the most interesting chapters in UFO history, along with the Latin American Martian of Carcarañá.

3 thoughts on “Of Meteors and Martians: UFO Hoaxing in Nineteenth-Century Latin America

  1. Pingback: Marcianitos Verdes » Fraudes ovni en América Latina del siglo XIX
  2. “is there such a thing as an airship mystery expert?”

    I perhaps wouldn’t go so far as to call myself an expert🙂 but I have studied the British equivalents from the years just before the First World War, as part of my PhD research. It was actually something of a worldwide phenomenon — you may be interested in a post I wrote on the subject last year: http://airminded.org/2006/12/22/the-scareship-age/

    I agree that the role of the press was crucial: along with distorting, exaggerating and sometimes fabricating stories, it passed them on to a wide audience which then went out and looked for phantom airships, and inevitably saw them. The recycling of stories that you discuss here may be another aspect, although not one I’ve seen in the British press.

  3. Prof.Conway , thanks a lot for your precise mention of my article. There are a few researchers that put credits in your works.
    Your discover on El Siglo XIX confirms my investigations.
    Best regards
    Dr.Fabio Picasso
    Buenos Aires
    Argentina

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