The Great Worcester Airship Hoax of 1909 - Part 1

Excerpt from the Boston Herald – December 13, 1909

“WORCESTER, Dec. 12–Wallace E. Tillinghast of this city, vice-president of a manufacturing company here, made public a story today [that] he invented, built, and tested an aeroplane capable of carrying three passengers with a weight limit of 600 pounds, a distance of about 300 miles with a stop to replenish the supply of petrol, at a rate of 120 miles an hour.

He refuses to say where his flying machine is as he wants to enter into Boston contests next year as a sure winner…”

The Great Worcester Airship Hoax of 1909

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a great time for UFO sightings. Not only was there nothing to do except stare up into the sky until TV was invented, but this was also when this newfangled thing called “aviation” was on everyone’s mind. The Wright brothers, two bicycle men out of Illinois, made their first sustained flight on December 17, 1903.  A few years before that, in 1895, a German guy by the name of Count Ferdinand von Zepplin patented his rigid airship, the “Ferdinand”. (Note to self: double check that name.)

Man, this whole thing is gonna go over like a Led Ferdinand!

With all of this flying around going on, it only stands to reason that a lot of people were going to see a lot of things that they didn’t understand. You have to realize that the W. Bros. and Ferdi were just the guys who succeeded. There were still hundreds or thousands of other people trying to do the same exact things. That meant tons of flying machines in the sky and lots of bored men and women to see them.

Case in point.

The airship sightings of 1896 and 1897

The whole thing really starts back in 1896, out in California. That’s the Pacific state that both catches on fire every year and starts shaking like a mofo for no good reason, if you were wondering.

I’m also telling you right now that this is going to be a two part series. There’s just way too much going on here to cover it all in one post.

Anyway, the first sighting comes out of Sacramento on November 17th with witnesses reporting a strange light 1,000 feet above the ground. Then there’s another sighting on November 19th with a colonel named H.G. Shaw seeing a metallic object in the sky, over his buggy. Then there are reports from April 10, 1897, April 16, 1897, and April 19, 1897, and they didn’t all stay in California. They actually progressively moved east as they occurred, ending in Kansas.

"Hi, I'm Kansas. This is pretty much my whole deal."

This isn’t about those sightings, though. That’s just the background to help you understand what this time period was like. It was really a global phenomenon, with airship sightings as far away as the U.K. and New Zealand.

Now, at first, everyone was happy to attribute these sightings to aliens from another world. There were even witnesses who claimed to see actual Martians in the windows of these things.

How they knew they were from Mars and not anywhere else is beyond me, but that’s what they said. Way to assume someone’s species, bro.

Anyway, all of that little green man talk went right out the window when, at the end of 1909, both national and international headlines were stating that the whole damned epicenter of this airship hullabaloo was… wait for it…. Worcester, Massachusetts!


All eyes on Worcester

That’s right! Everyone in the world was looking to Worcester and trying to figure out what in the hell was going on with that place. It seemed that so much of the activity was centered on the city that it had to know something no one else did.

It also didn’t help that there was a massive sighting there on December 15, 1909. Crowds of… Worcesterites?… Worcesterins?... Wocresterrieans?  were all doing their Christmas shopping and flooding the city streets. That was when a light appeared in the sky and started silently moving over the area.

This was followed by an even bigger sighting the next night. A similar light was seen over the communities of Marlborough, Natick, Groton, South Framingham, Ashland, Grafton, North Grafton, Hopedale, Upton, Northborough, and Fitchburg. (Woo!! Fitchburg!!)

In fact, it was even reported in the Christmas Eve edition of the Fitchburg Sentinel: “Over the peak of Rollstone Hill, a wonderfully bright light glowed, and hundreds watch it with wonder, not unmixed with awe.” That all set the stage for some tomfoolery, and boy was there some tomfoolin’ about to be afoot!

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Enter Wallace E. Tillinghast

This fine fellow.

So, now we start to get into the real meat of the story. Wallace E. Tillinghast was a well-liked fellow out of Worcester. He was also the vice president of the Sure Seal Manufacturing Company, and the only guy to come forward and claim responsibility for the whole airship thing.

In fact, he actually held a press conference about it back in September of 1909. It took place in Worcester and he claimed to have designed and built a “heavier than air ship” that was capable of carrying 600 pounds worth of personage… Okay that was a weird way for me to word that. Let’s just go with three people, each weighing up to 200 pounds each, not like, a vat of people or something.

Anywho, Wallace E. Tillinghast also said that his machine could fly a distance of 300 miles without having to stop to refuel. On top of that, T-dawg claimed that it could reach speeds of up to 120 miles per hour.

Keep in mind that this was back when scientists thought that you would literally melt if you went faster than 60 miles per hour. This Tillinghast fellow sure was a gas!

Pics or it didn’t happen

There’s just one problem with all of this, though. Wallace never actually produced this flying machine. He had a whole press conference for it, but didn’t even bring the damned thing with him, and it didn’t go unnoticed.

One of the reporters actually asked him why in the hell he dragged everyone out to see him without having a big reveal or something. Tillinghast just shrugged off the question and responded with something to the effect of “I totally have the machine, but it’s not here right now. It’s… uhm… being flown by someone else right now. Who? Oh, you wouldn’t know her… She’s… totally my girlfriend… but you’ve never met her… because she… ah… goes to a different school… in Canada… Yeah, that’s it.”

Okay, that’s not the actual quote, obviously, but it’s so stupidly close to the real thing that it probably caused the reporter to face palm. The guy actually tried to convince everyone that he let another person fly this marvel of technology and the indomitable human spirit somewhere else while he had his press conference. If nothing else, that’s ballsy as hell!

The real explosion

Just lots and lots of this going on.

It was after this press conference that the whole thing really exploded big. People from all over the country started seeing Wallace Tillinghast’s mysterious airship after it hit the national papers. There were sightings in Arkansas, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and many other places. Some of the reports were as simple as seeing a light high up in the sky, while others were about as detailed as they can get.

One guy, an Alex Randell of Revere, gave the most remarkable report. He told a reporter. “I saw not only the lights of the airship, but I saw the frame quite plainly, and it seems to be of unusual size. I should say the wings have a sweep of seventy feet and the tail and propeller seemed about forty-five feet in length. I could plainly hear the engines whirr and from the explosions of the motor I should say it was either a six or eight-cylinder.”

What’s amazing there is that this man was considered an expert in aeronautics and motors and not just some guy off the street. He not only knew what he was talking about, but also claimed to have never heard about Tillinghast or his flying machine before he talked to reporters.

The coolest sighting had to have taken place in Rhode Island, though. The streets of Providence were flooded with people pointing up to the night sky and claiming to see the mystery airship of Wallace Tillinghast flying high in the sky! It took the clear thinking of none other than H.P. Lovecraft to debunk it, though. He easily identified the light as the planet Venus. Then he probably scoffed a little bit before heading home to survive on his diet of nothing but candy and throw the wrappers into his bathtub because he never bathed. (True story, look it up.) So, the guy who came up with Cthulhu and popularized Eldritch Horror had to step in and tell everyone to chill the hell out. That’s fun.

"'Sup, Venus, I see you bein' all airshippy, Boo."

Lots of sightings for a hoax

So, there were a lot of sightings. If you’re an astute reader then you no doubt noticed that the title of this whole thing is The Great Airship HOAX of 1909. How could there have been so many sightings if the whole thing was faked?

Well, according to The New England Skeptical Society, it can all be attributed to a collective delusion and collective wish-fulfillment. You see, it turns out that when you read the same thing in the paper every single day, you start to get conditioned to think in a certain way. As they put it:

“Collective wish-fulfillment involves similar processes that give rise to community threats and moral panics, except the object of interest is esteemed and satisfies psychological needs. Episodes often involve the subconscious desire for the existence of an agent that can perform extraordinary feats, such as Virgin Mary appearances,’ reports of fairies in Europe and England prior to the twentieth century, and “UFO” sightings worldwide since 1947. In the case of UFO’s, many people hope that aliens are visiting earth because if they are real, their advanced technology may eradicate disease or make us immortal. In this regard, the famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung has referred to flying saucer sightings since 1947 as ‘technological angels.’”

It’s the same exact thing as seeing the same Facebook meme over and over again until you just start to believe it, no matter how stupid it really is. You just WANT it to be true, so you make it true in your perception of the world around you. It’s pretty much what modern politics is based on.

Simply put, the good people of the world just wanted Tillinghast’s flying machine to be so real that they perceived it in any way that they could. They would read about it in the daily newspaper, then mistake common occurrences as the thing they wanted to see.

Just look at what happened with H.P. Lovecraft, a few paragraphs ago and you get the idea. Maybe that’s what happened in all of the instances of sightings. Maybe it only happened in a few of them. Or, maybe, just maybe, Wallace Tillinghast was just one part of a much bigger conspiracy. We’ll talk about that in about a week on The Great Worcester Airship Hoax of 1909 –Part 2!

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See you then!


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