Myth Monday: The Great Worcester MA Airship Hoax—Or Not?
By Kara Newcastle
It’s funny how little you know about your own home state until you do your research … or just pick up a book. A few years ago I bought a copy of Weird Massachusetts, one of the books in the awesome Weird series edited by Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman, and while I was familiar with a fair bit of the folklore chronicled within, one entry took me by surprise; in 1909, the city of Worcester—coincidentally, not far from my original hometown—was plagued by a huge UFO!
Apparently, 1909 was fairly busy year for unidentified flying objects, as enormous, cigar-shaped, floating vehicles were seen in Britain and New Zealand. Now, the first man-made rigid airship was introduced in 1900 by Count Fredrich von Zeppelin (hence the name), and those suckers were 420 feet long, had multiple engines for propulsion, and could carry about twenty passengers plus crew in an attached area referred to as a gondola. Since the airships were kept aloft by lighter than air gases contained within essentially a ginormous balloon, airships (zeppelins, blimps, dirigibles) were classified as “lighter than air” flying crafts.
The things that people were seeing, however, were a lot freaking bigger than a zeppelin, and appeared to be made out of solid metal, lined with glowing lights.
Whatever the thing was, the huge, cylindrical flying machine (or machines) saw whatever it was they wanted to see in New Zealand and Great Britain and struck out across the Atlantic to, of all places, Massachusetts. First appearing on December 23, it drifted over Boston, then apparently followed the railway line through what is now the Greater Boston area, into MetroWest, and finally into Central Massachusetts, traveling at about eighty miles an hour. Allegedly thousands of witnesses reported seeing at least two men moving around in the gondola, with one operating a powerful searchlight at the front of the cabin, which he would shine down on the bewildered towns below. A police officer in Athol remarked that the flying ship almost seemed to be racing one of the trains, pulling ahead, stopping to hover in midair as if to allow the train to catch up, then zipping on ahead again.
Weirdness all around.
Anyway, the mysterious airship buzzed over Worcester shortly before Christmas and again on Christmas Eve. It hung around a bit, shined the searchlight here and there, made a few circles over City Hall, then floated off and disappeared (apparently reappearing in Connecticut), leaving the residents of the Worcester in a tizzy. What was that thing? Where did it come from? Was Santa Claus trying out a new mode of transportation?
Luckily, the frightened citizens soon received their answer—Wallace Elmer Tillinghast, an engineer and businessman from Worcester, stepped forward and announced that he was the inventor, owner and pilot of the airship. He told the public that it was the world’s first heavier than air flying craft—in other words, an airplane.
Almost immediately Tillinghast was scoffed at; few people believed that he and his two mechanics—men he never would name—were able to build and fly a machine that big. Furthermore, his description of his airplane didn’t make a lot of sense; he said that it was 1,550 pounds, had a gas-powered motor, it could fly 300 miles at a speed of 120 miles an hour, could carry three passengers, had antennae like a bug … each one of which had a box kite at the end to maintain the plane’s stability in the air.
I don’t know why the kites were there. Tillinghast was an engineer, I’m sure he knew what he was talking about.
Tillinghast went on to claim that he had flown the plane roundtrip from Boston to New York and back twice that previous September (400 miles each time), saying that not only had he circled the Statue of Liberty in his machine, but it had once malfunctioned during flight and he was skilled enough to fix it in midair. When asked why no one had seen him during his test flights, Tillinghast responded that he had flown the plane at night. When asked why he would fly at night, Tillinghast said he didn’t want people to see his plane and steal his idea.
Some people believed him, as Tillinghast was known to be a respectable person, the vice president of a manufacturing company. Others thought he was full of it, not least of whom was Wilbur Wright, co-creator of the first real motorized airplane, the Wright Flyer, which flew in 1903. He went as far as to say that Tillinghast’s claims were “absurd.”
The public demanded to see Tillinghast’s plane, or at least some kind of proof that it existed. Tillinghast refused, saying it wanted to keep it secret but promising to reveal it to the world in February 1910. Well, February 1910 came and went, and Tillinghast never unveiled his top-secret heavier than air flying craft. Understandably, the good citizens of Massachusetts and the rest of the United States were cheesed off and denounced him as a hoaxer. The director of the New England Aero Club, J. Walter Flagg, declared, “I believe this man is a faker … I do not find one fact to warrant the statement that he has ever made an ascension or completed a machine in which to fly.”
So, if Tillinghast didn’t make the strange airship—and it’s safe to say that he didn’t—what the hell were people seeing? There have been many suggestions since then, from atmospheric anomalies, floating lanterns, mass hysteria and misidentified celestial objects (interestingly, the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft saw what people were claiming was the airship on December 24, 1909 in Rhode Island, but he identified it as the planet Venus.) One guy, Mr. C.D. Rawson of Worcester, claimed that he was responsible for the sightings, saying that he had tied little lanterns and reflectors to several owls and then let them loose over the city as a prank. Even then, people found that hard to believe.
What do I think? It was probably more mass hysteria than anything else, coupled with the fact that newspapers at this time were notorious for writing outlandish stories (the original fake news) just to sell papers, with very few editors taking the time to factcheck the articles before putting them to print. However, starting in 1908, the U.S. military was beginning to build a fleet of blimps to use for defense, so it’s possible that there really were airships floating around out there, manned by inexperienced crew.
And if it was a bunch of old-timey aliens flying around in space-zeppelins … let me put it this way: I’ve read a lot of stories of people faking UFO sightings to get famous. This is the only time I’ve heard of somebody trying to get famous by basically claiming that they faked a UFO that was in fact real.