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May 20, 2022

In 1952, the Flatwoods Monster Appeared and Terrified People in Braxton County, West Virginia

On Friday evening, September 12, 1952, two brothers, Edward and Fred May, and their friend Tommy Hyer, said that they saw a bright object cross the sky and land on the property of local farmer G. Bailey Fisher. The boys went to the home of Kathleen May, where they told their story. May, accompanied by the three boys, local children Neil Nunley and Ronnie Shaver, and West Virginia National Guardsman Eugene Lemon, went to the Fisher farm in an effort to locate whatever it was that the boys had said they had seen. The group reached the top of a hill, where Nunley said they saw a pulsing red light. Lemon said he aimed a flashlight in that direction and momentarily saw a tall “man-like figure with a round, red face surrounded by a pointed, hood-like shape.”

A clipping from the Charleston, West Virginia, Gazette from Tuesday, September 23, 1952, page 3, eleven days after the sighting of the Flatwoods Monster in Braxton County. Kathleen May and Gene Lemon were the only two adults to see the monster. All of the other witnesses were children. A week after the sighting, Mrs. May, Gene Lemon, and A. Lee Stewart, Jr., co-editor of the Braxton Democrat, appeared on the NBC television show We the People in New York City to talk about the incident. Note that the photograph above was taken at the Charleston bus station. Presumably, that was on the trip to or from New York.

“One of the boys peed his pants,” said John Gibson, a high-school freshman at the time, who knew them all. “Their dog (Rickie) ran with his tail between his legs.”

Descriptions varied. In an article for Fate Magazine based on his tape-recorded interviews, UFO writer Gray Barker described the figure as approximately 10 feet (3 m) tall, with a round blood-red face, a large pointed “hood-like shape” around the face, eye-like shapes which emitted greenish-orange light, and a dark black or green body. May described the figure as having “small, claw-like hands,” clothing-like folds, and “a head that resembled the ace of spades.” According to the story, when the figure made a hissing sound and “glided toward the group,” Lemon screamed and dropped his flashlight, causing the group to run away.

The original drawing of the Flatwoods Monster, commissioned by Lee Steward, and drawn by a New York sketch artist, based on Kathleen May’s description.

The group said they had smelled a “pungent mist” and some later said they were nauseated. The local sheriff and a deputy had been investigating reports of a crashed aircraft in the area. They searched the site of the reported monster but “saw, heard and smelled nothing.” According to Barker’s account, the next day, A. Lee Stewart Jr. of the Braxton Democrat claimed to have discovered “skid marks” in the field and an “odd, gummy deposit” which were subsequently attributed by UFO enthusiast groups as evidence of a “saucer” landing.

“Those people were the most scared people I’ve ever seen,” said A. Lee Stewart. Stewart himself had marched up that hill with a shotgun after witnesses told what they saw. “People don’t make up that kind of story that quickly,” Stewart said then.

Newspaper stories were carried throughout the country, radio broadcasts were carried on large networks, and hundreds of phone calls were received from all parts of the country. The national press services rated the story “No. 11 for the year.” A minister from Brooklyn came to question the May family. A Pittsburgh paper sent a special reporter. UFO and Fortean writers like Gray Barker and Ivan T. Sanderson arrived to investigate.

September 14, 1952, news clip from the Charleston Daily Mail.

Gray Barker wrote his account of the encounter with the Flatwoods Monster for Fate magazine. It was published in January 1953.

Albert K. Bender’s letter in Other Worlds Science Stories, December 1952, page 156. This is almost certainly the letter that prompted Gray Barker to write to Bender on November 20, 1952. Barker’s letter was his introduction to Bender and to the whole mystery that would soon surround him, including the Mystery of the Three Men in Black.

After investigating the case in 2000, Joe Nickell of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry concluded that the bright light in the sky reported by the witnesses on September 12 was most likely a meteor, that the pulsating red light was likely an aircraft navigation or hazard beacon, and that the creature described by witnesses closely resembled an owl. Nickell suggested that witnesses' perceptions were distorted by their heightened state of anxiety. Nickell’s conclusions are shared by a number of other investigators, including those of the Air Force.

The night of the September 12 sighting, a meteor had been observed across three states—Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. According to Nickell, three flashing red aircraft beacons were also visible from the area of the sightings, which could account for descriptions of a pulsating red light and red tint on the face of the supposed monster.

Nickell concluded that the shape, movement, and sounds reported by witnesses were also consistent with the silhouette, flight pattern, and call of a startled barn owl perched on a tree limb, leading researchers to conclude that foliage beneath the owl may have created the illusion of the lower portions of the creature (described as being a pleated green skirt). Researchers also concluded that the witnesses’ inability to agree on whether the creature had arms, combined with May’s report of it having “small, claw-like hands” which “extended in front of it,” also matched the description of a barn owl with its talons gripping a tree branch.


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