Author's Note: The events described here were among the first of a series of ‘Airship Hysteria’ panics leading into the decade preceding World War I. Due to the embarrassing nature of what happened, both to government and major newspaper chains, the entire event was written off as a hoax. At the express request of the Secretary of War, details and information were excised from public archives to protect vital U.S. Military interests.
New York City, Central Park 1892
Police Sergeant Robert Nelson was in the middle of a dream where everything was green when the telephone rang in the downstairs lounge of the boarding house he lived in with a half-dozen other bachelors. Never having much use for the infernal devices, he put a pillow over his head and did his best to ignore the annoying bell.
He was surprised at how well the pillow worked until he realized that someone else had picked up the telephone. All the better. If only he could get the pillow over his eyes to block out the bright green moonlight glowing from behind his window shade.
The stairs creaked as someone came walking upstairs. Nelson pulled the pillow tighter over his head, hoping that it would act as a talisman to prevent the inevitable knock on his door.
Mr. Granger, owner of the boarding house, rapped on the door with his familiar three and one knock. Nelson wanted to ignore it. He contemplated for a moment pretending to not be there, but he knew Granger saw him come in for the night. A call at this hour could only mean the incompetents at the police sub-station had managed to lock themselves in the holding jail or do some other foolish deed.
He let out a grunt, informing Mr. Granger that he was headed down to the telephone. The footsteps retreated down the hall and Nelson pulled himself out of bed. He regretted the double-night cap the moment he stood up.
“What is it?” Nelson said into the receiver.
“Ssssorry to disturb you sir.”
Nelson rolled his eyes. It was the nitwit Winfield. Nelson had been told that he only stammered in his presence, but wasn’t sure if that was a put-on or not. “What is it Lieutenant?”
“It’s, it’s about the the the light sir.”
“The light? What are you talking about?”
“We’ve been getting hundreds, hundreds of calls sir.”
“The light over Central Park. The green, the green light.”
Recognition seeped into Nelson’s mind. The green moonlight. He couldn’t remember that ever happening before. “What am I supposed to do about the light? Call an astronomer.”
“People, people, say it’s getting closer.”
“Closer,” Winfield repeated.
“People are calling to say they think it’s landing.”
“Landing? What am I supposed to do about that? Call central.”
“They called us. They said the Mayor called them. His sister can’t, can’t sleep.”
“Fine. Fine. Meet me at the east entrance. I’m two blocks away.”
Nelson put the receiver back in the cradle and shook his head. He went back upstairs and donned his police uniform over his pajamas and tucked his revolver into his belt. He wasn’t worried about the light as much as the low-lifes and drifters that tended to use the park as a kind of shanty town when nobody was looking.
As he walked out the front door he could clearly see the bright green light. His first reaction was that it was some kind of balloon lit with electrics. As he grew closer he could see that it appeared metallic and was shaped like a pie plate. The green light emanated from several portholes around the circumference of the whatever it was.
Nelson didn’t know what to make of it. He just kept walking towards the park and staring up at the sky. He nearly tripped crossing the street when his foot got caught in the gutter. When he made it to the east entrance, Winfield and Lieutenant Haywood were waiting for him, as were several hundred other people who’d gathered at that late hour to see what the light was. Most of them had dressing gowns and robes thrown over night clothes.
Winfield and Haywood were keeping people out of the park. Nelson walked over to the entrance and stared up at the thing. It was now now just a few dozen yards above the ground, just over the tree tops.
Nelson looked at Winfield. The man returned the look, expecting him to explain everything.
Nelson turned around. The crowd was silent, but waiting for him to do something.
“It’s, it’s like something put of one of those Jules Verne novels.”
Nelson grunted. He had no idea what Winfield was talking about. “I guess I should I have a closer look.” He hesitated, hoping that someone else would have a better idea. When nobody spoke up, he entered the park.
He kept his eyes on the green thing as he walked across the grass meadow. As he grew closer he could make out rivets and seems in the hull. It had to be some kind of flying contraption he decided. But whose?
He stomach began to feel a bit unsettled as he thought about the possibility of it being some kind of war machine. Perhaps a submarine of the sky?
He reached down to tap the edge of his holster when his foot hit something. There was a loud scream. Nelson fumbled with the catch to pull his gun free. Several shapes low to the ground came running past him, all of them making bleating-like sounds.
As his gun came free he realized they weren’t making bleating-like sounds, they were bleating; because they were sheep. The flying machine was hovering over the sheep’s meadow in the park. They in turn all decided at the same time that it was a good idea to leave.
Nelson put his gun back in his holster, although he wasn’t sure if the sheep had the right idea after all.
He reached the edge of the clearing where the strange object was now hovering only a few dozen yards off the ground.
Now what? Nelson wasn’t quite sure what his civic duties were at this point. Should he shout at it? Ask them to leave? Ask who to leave?
Almost in answer to his question, a large shaft of light poured out of the underside of the craft. The buzzing sound he realized that he’d heard all the way back at the boarding house had grown louder. Something was happening.
He hoped it wasn’t a bad thing, but couldn’t imagine a good thing happening under these circumstances.
The light shut off below the craft. Something now stood underneath it.
Nelson thought it was another strange device at first, then it moved. Only loosely man-shaped, it was definitely not man-sized. And it was carrying something massive in its arms.
The strange man had to be nine feet tall by Nelson’s reckoning. It had two arms, two very long legs that ended in heavy boots. For a head it had a large red globe that seemed to be filled with red gas. It looked kind of like a deep sea diving suit, with the exception of the single globe for a helmet.
Nelson was still trying to figure out what he was looking at before he realized it was walking towards him. He wanted to run away. He touched the holster of his gun again and flipped open the catch.
“Stop right where you are!” Nelson shouted.
The strange man kept walking towards him.
“Stop or I’ll shoot!” Nelson raised his gun on the strange man.
“PUT AWAY YOUR WEAPON, EARTHLING!” A loud voice echoed across the meadow.
Nelson gripped the gun with both hands.
A blinding flash of blue light shot into his eyes. Something knocked him over. When he looked up the strange man was towering over him. He raised his gun to fire then noticed the barrel was bent ninety degrees to the side.
The strange man turned the large grey object he was carrying and set it down at Nelson’s feet. It made a loud thud and sank into the grass.
“WE BRING YOU GREETINGS FROM THE MARTIAN EMPEROR!”
Nelson couldn’t tell if the sound was coming from the strange man or the craft above his head. He looked at the metal slab that was now standing at his feet. It was covered in writing.
The strange man who had placed it there turned and walked back towards the center of the meadow under the vessel. A cone of light surrounded him and then he was gone.
The buzzing sound grew louder. The craft began to lift. Nelson watched as it floated into the sky then vanished.
He was alone in the dark meadow with the metal slab. Too dark to read what was written on it, he could only make out its silhouette against the stars of the sky.
He had no idea what just happened, but was pretty sure it was important. He screamed when he felt something touch his ear. His heart tried to beat its way through his chest. He relaxed when he heard the familiar munching sound of the sheep eating grass.