BIZARRE BOSTON: Phantom airships over Boston

People have been seeing strange things in the skies for thousands of years. The Biblical prophets saw angels and mysterious wheels. In the Middle Ages, Europeans saw phantom armies and demons, and since the 1940s, people around the world have seen flying saucers and other strange machines.

Strange phenomena have been seen hovering over Boston as well. The Puritans saw mysterious glowing lights in the 1600s, and in the late fall of 1909, a strange airship was seen over eastern Massachusetts. Or perhaps it was a giant airplane? Witnesses were uncertain. The Wright brothers had only made the first powered airplane six years earlier so the concepts and terminology of aviation were still quite new.

Whatever it was, it caused great excitement. The machine was seen over Boston in the early evening shortly before Christmas. The December 24, 1909 issue of the Boston Globe quotes several witnesses:

“W.W. Davis and his wife were among the crowd that watched the journey of the bright light in the heavens north of Riverbank Court (a residential hotel in Cambridge). ‘It was 10 times as large as any star,’ said Mr. Davis, ‘and it seemed to stand still just over Cottage Farm, or perhaps in Brookline or Brighton. It was undoubtedly a searchlight of an airship, for it certainly moved and at times it seemed as if the operator of the machine described a complete circle.’”

A meeting of the Somerville aldermen adjourned to watch the strange light in the sky and the offices of the Globe received phone calls about the mysterious machine late into the night.

Most people only saw a moving light, but residents of Revere were able to make out more details of the strange aerial vehicle. Samuel Gibby, chairman of Revere’s board of sewer commissioners, described the following:

“The lights were reflected upon the wings of the airship and caused them to look like two great pillows. One was above the other, and from between the two bright lights flashed another, which appeared like the searchlight of a powerful automobile … The lights disappeared when the ship turned away. It went over Winthrop and then disappeared rapidly to the westward.”

Arthur Kimball, Revere’s fire chief, also saw the airship. He claimed it was flying at an altitude of 1,000 to 2,000 feet and that he could clearly see its wings. Chief Kimball speculated that the ship was a secret war machine being built by the government, but the most popular explanation was that it was the creation of Wallace Tillinghast, an eccentric Worcester businessman.

Tillinghast himself claimed he had built the world’s first “heavier-than-air” flying machine and had flown to the Statue of Liberty from his Worcester headquarters at a speed of 120 miles per hour. These claims are tame by today’s standards, but at the time they were outrageous. The Wright brothers had only flown hundreds of feet at a speed of six miles an hour.

Tillinghast’s claims were outrageous because they weren’t true. His airship turned out to be a hoax, but New Englanders continued to see the strange lights into the early months of 1910. The true identity of the airship, if that’s what it was, has never been discovered.





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