The Great Worcester Airship Hoax of 1909 – Part 2

Greetings, chaps! It is once again I, Wallace E. Tillinghast!

The Great Worcester Airship Hoax of 1909 – Part 2

Last time, (you can read part 1 here) we were talking about the explosion of airship sightings around the world, with a whole lot of them happening in the United States. There were some in Arkansas, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and many other places, with some of the reports being as simple as seeing a light high up in the sky and others being about as detailed as they can get.

So, we have the world going crazy for flying machines and Wallace Tillinghast was the only person claiming responsibility. When the newspapers finally started looking for legitimate answers that didn’t involve Martians, guess who they contacted.

"We'll see you again in the 50s, bro."

Reporters showed up at Wallace’s door, only to be turned away by his wife. She just told them all that “[Wallace] knows his business. He will talk when the proper time comes.”

She also may or may not have called them all idiots under her breath while they walked away because the fact is that Wally T was really about to jump the shark with his claims. It’s never mentioned if his wife had any real idea of what was going on, though. She was never forthcoming either way, so she may have just thought it was hilarious the whole time.

An Interrupted Journey

It was soon after people started seeking him out for answers that Wallace Tillinghast gave his most extravagant retelling of a flight. He claimed to have flown from Worcester to New York City, circled the Statue of Liberty for a full hour, flown back to Boston and finally home to Worcester. On top of that, he also said that his great airship lost power while it was doing its statue circling. His story was that a crew of mechanics got the engine working again while he just calmly flew around Lady Liberty.

Sometimes she goes by her maiden name, "Ms. Bartholdi."

Now you really have to understand the state of aviation at this time. Remember that the Wright brothers had just maintained the very first powered flight in 1903. That was only six years earlier and people in Europe were still calling them filthy liars in 1906.

Just think about that for a second. The idea of flying was so crazy to everyone back then that European newspapers were openly printing “Nah-Ah!” and calling them “bluffers” three full years after they flew! That’s how slowly technology used to progress.

The brand new phone that you just bought last week, however, is already obsolete.

Keep in mind that their first flight went for a total 852 feet! That’s a little over three football fields’ worth of flying and Wallace Tillinghast was claiming to have flown almost 500 miles! That’s 8,800 fields against the brothers’ three, so someone has to be lying here.

On top of that, here’s a photo of New York Harbor back in 1909:


See all those buildings? Those are filled with people and they all have a very clear view of the Statue of Liberty. In fact, the photo is pretty much taken from right where the statue is.

If something in the sky did in fact fly right over their heads and circle the statue for a full hour, I’m positive that someone would have seen it. Not only that, but I’d be willing to bet that the shore would be flooded with onlookers just staring at them the entire time. Can you guess what absolutely did not happen?

Pictured: What absolutely happened.

New Yorkers may like to say that they never look up, but come on. It would have been a freaking airship flying around for an hour.

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One final sighting

Anyway, the last big sighting happened on December 23rd, 1909, and was reported in the Providence Journal on Christmas Eve the next day. This one started off in Marlborough and then flew over Westborough and Worcester. Then it disappeared and reappeared in Natick. Once again, it flew out of sight and got reported one last time from the Boston Common.

Yes, the Boston Common, the place where we go to relax, and also where we keep a bunch of our dead people. Suck it, New York!

This was when Tillinghast started to get a little cagier about his statements. The final one to come from him stated that: “I was out of Worcester last night. Where I was is my own business. It may be that I flew over the city, but that’s my own business, too. When I said recently that I had flown from Boston to New York and returned, I said nothing but what was true. I have an airship which will carry three or four persons and will make the speed I claimed for it - that is, about one hundred miles an hour. When I get ready, I will speak fully and not until then.”

So the attention is clearly getting to him now. He’s been trying to one-up the sightings with even more impressive stories that no one else seems to notice. He says that he flies over New York City but no one backs him up. Then you have people in Natick, which I believe may have slightly fewer people than NYC, claiming to actually see an airship and he happily takes credit for it, but with more of a shrug. He suddenly doesn’t want to go into the kind of detail that he used to because he’s just getting tired of the game.

This was also the very last time he gave a statement on his own. Everything after this would come from a spokesperson and that’s just too damned bad. If left unsupervised, he may have just started claiming to have flown to the moon.

Worcester Business Commission

After all of this, the Worcester Business Commission decided to step in on December 30th. They had had enough of all this airship business and called Tillinghast out. They pretty much ordered him to put up or shut up. If he had an airship then he had to show it to them.

Worcester: the city of "pics or it didn't happen!"

Unsurprisingly Wallace Tillinghast decided to shut up. He released a statement through his spokesperson, William Hunt, that his airship would be displayed in Boston on the week of February 16th, 1910, and not one damned second earlier. The Business Commission had no other option but to accept his statement and move on with their lives.

The sightings just end

And that was pretty much that. There were no new sightings after that and Wallace never actually showed off his great airship. It all kind of went out with a whimper rather than a roar.

Not this time, bud.

Well, there was one thing that happened, actually. The people who were still all hopped up on Airship Uppers still needed some closure. They decided to find his damn ship if it was the last thing they did!

Shed Arrest

It turned out that a little desperate searching uncovered a mysterious shed on the property of one John G. Gough. It was a few miles outside of Worcester in West Boylston and just happened to be about 100 feet long, about the size that everyone imagined for the airship.

100 feet long? Um, sure, why the hell not?

It was also thought that John G. Gough was friends with Tillinghast. That made this shed the perfect place for him to be hiding his flying machine, and boy howdy, it sure sounded good to get a photo of it!

That’s when a reporter decided to do just that. He secreted himself onto the property to break into the shed. Luckily for the owner, but unluckily for everyone else, the reporter got caught and was just, like, super arrested. No one ever got a look at what was inside, but it didn’t really matter. Tillinghast never showed up to the big Boston reveal and he just kind of disappeared from the public eye. That was all there was to the Great Worcester Airship Hoax of 1909!

"Aww, shucks!"

The man behind the mystery

Well, maybe not. Think back to all of those airship sightings that happened before the 1900s that started out west in California in 1896. One year before those sightings took place, a man walked into a lawyer’s office in San Francisco and handed him drawings of a machine that could fly through the air. This lawyer’s name was George D. Collins and the man handing him the papers was in need of patents to secure his invention, but he also wanted something else. He needed the lawyer to pretend to be the inventor of the flying machine to the public! Sound a tiny bit familiar?

What really stands out is the fact that one of those sightings in 1896 had a very detailed description of the view inside the airship. The person who saw it claimed that he could see right inside and watched three men moving around the thing. One of those men was the spitting image of the guy who wanted to hire the lawyer as the face of his flying machine invention.

Tillinghast was in on it!

As those early sightings moved east, so did the mystery man and his drawings. Author and noted UFOlogist, John A. Keel, did a ton of research on this story and he has a theory. He thinks that this mystery guy went from California to Worcester, working on his real airship the entire way. That explains why the sightings migrated the way that they did.

Once he got to Massachusetts, he needed someone local that the community trusted to once again be the face of his invention. That’s where Tillinghast comes in!

This guy did a little looking and Wallace E. Tillinghast was a well-liked man of the people. He was also something of an inventor, so he was the perfect patsy. He would be the person to give statements and go on record about all of the fun that he was having with his flying machine. Then, when it was all said and done, and the airship was finally revealed to the public, he’d get to keep all of the money that got thrown at it from investors.

"All this just for lying?!?! I gotta get into politics!"

There was only one problem, though. Even if this mystery guy did actually have a working airship, it wasn’t very good. Maybe he could get it up in the air for a little bit, but that was it. He was unable to perfect it. That’s why it was never fully revealed. It just plain didn’t work the way that it was supposed to.

That left Tillinghast twitching in the wind like some kind of fool. He had been the one to take all of the frenzied reporter questions and he really put himself on the line for it. Then, when the week of February 16th, 1910 came and went and the mystery guy never came back with his airship, that was it. Wally’s reputation was ruined and no one ever knew that it was all really masterminded by someone that history will never remember. The end.


The guy who was actually responsible for the airship hoax got away scot free and left Tillinghast to clean up the mess behind him. Wallace passed away on November 24, 1930 at the age of 58. He was forever connected to the Great Worcester Airship Hoax of 1909 and was buried at the Rhode Island Hist. Cemetery in East Greenwich.

It's surprisingly difficult to find a photo of his headstone and gas is way too expensive to drive to Rhode Island, so here's the cemetery.

We’ll never know what happened to other guy, but you can ask Wallace all about it if you manage to channel him with one of these sweet Ouija Boards!

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