The sky is falling: Alabama makes contact with celestial visitors

Posted 12/1/17

Two weeks ago, several people called the Daily Mountain Eagle office to report a loud boom.

At first, it seemed to be confined to the Curry area, and there was speculation that there had been an explosion at Duncan Bridge Marina. (It is amazing how specific unfounded rumors can be.)

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

E-mail
Password
Log in

Don't have an ID?


Print subscribers

If you're a print subscriber, but do not yet have an online account, click here to create one.

Non-subscribers

Click here to see your options for becoming a subscriber.

The sky is falling: Alabama makes contact with celestial visitors

Posted

Two weeks ago, several people called the Daily Mountain Eagle office to report a loud boom.

At first, it seemed to be confined to the Curry area, and there was speculation that there had been an explosion at Duncan Bridge Marina. (It is amazing how specific unfounded rumors can be.)

Then reports started trickling in from all over north Alabama. By the end of the day, the National Weather Service had ruled out explosions and earthquakes: “We don't have an answer, and can only hypothesize with you. 1) sonic boom from aircraft; 2) meteorite w/ current Leonid shower?”

Coincidentally (or perhaps not), the boom occurred two days after the 184th anniversary of the night stars fell on Alabama.

More than 30,000 meteors an hour lit up the sky on Nov. 12-13, 1833, according to a 2009 al.com article.

Some people believed that Judgment Day had arrived, according to the article. One newspaper in Georgia reported that sinners were “frightened to their knees” and began burning dice, cards and other instruments of the devil.

"The only people who weren't scared were the American Indians. They interpreted meteors as a sign of good luck," Bill Cooke, an astronomer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, told al.com.

In 1934, New Yorker Carl Carmer wrote “Stars Fell on Alabama,” a book of essays about his travels through 1920s Alabama.

A popular song of the same name was composed that same year and recorded by Guy Lombardo. Numerous other artists recorded the song in the decades that followed. Today people are more likely to hum the chorus when they hear the title than to think of the meteor storm or the book.

Sixty-three years ago this week, on Nov. 30, 1954, Alabama was in the celestial crosshairs once again.

Ann Hodges, 31, was napping on her couch when an 8.5-pound meteorite crashed through the roof, struck a radio and slammed into her hip. The incident, which occurred in an unincorporated community that later became Oak Grove, drew national attention because it was the first verifiable account of a human being injured by a meteorite.

“It looked like a black stone. It was warm, but not hot. They (neighbors) speculated on what it might be, some even suggesting it might have come from a flying saucer. The news spread rapidly. By the time (Hewlett) Hodges got home, most of the population of Sylacauga (9,600) was milling around the house,” Fred Allen wrote for the New York Daily News in 1955.

The meteorite changed hands several times after it came to rest among the Earth people.

According to an Encyclopedia of Alabama entry by University of West Alabama professor John C. Hall, the mayor and police chief of Sylacauga turned it over to officers from Maxwell Field, who quickly handed it off to Air Force specialists.

An undated Alabama Living magazine article in which Hall is also quoted gives a different account: “A military helicopter landed at a nearby high school campus. Officers demanded Hodges surrender her piece of the rock. She did.”

The article suggests that with the Cold War on and the public’s knowledge of space limited to science fiction movies, the military wanted to rule out an attack by either the Russians or little green men from Mars.

The meteorite was then sent to the Smithsonian Institution before making its way back to Alabama.

A dispute then broke out between Hodges and her husband and their landlord, Birdie Guy. Ms. Guy sued for possession of the meteorite. The couple threatened to bring a countersuit over Mrs. Hodge’s injuries, and Guy sold the meteorite to the Hodges for $500 in 1955.

However, there would be no happy ending for the Hodges.

The Smithsonian reportedly made an offer to purchase the meteorite, but Hewlett Hodges turned it down, sure that it would eventually fetch much more.

According to the Alabama Living article, it was soon being used by the Hodges as a doorstop.

Two years after the incident, with the public tired of the controversy and no other offers forthcoming, Ann Hodges donated the meteorite to the Alabama Museum of Natural History.

Hodges and her husband divorced in 1964, citing the emotional distress that followed their brush with fame as a contributing factor.

Ann Hodges died in 1972, and the house that was struck by the meteor reportedly burned down in 1998.

The only person who ended up thanking his lucky stars because of the meteorite was a farmer named Julius McKinney. On Dec. 1, 1954, one day after the meteorite struck Hodges, McKinney found a 3.2-pound fragment of the meteorite in the middle of a dirt road.

Actually, McKinney credited his mule, Polly, with the find in the New York Daily News article.

“She was calm. Then all of a sudden she sidestepped and snorted. I looked around to see if there was a snake nearby and spotted the dark rock. It looked queer, so I picked it up and took it home. It had a funny smell and seemed warm. When I read about it in the paper, I said, ‘That’s part of the rock that hit that lady,’” he said.

McKinney’s rock is now at the Smithsonian. By selling it, he earned enough to purchase a car and a farm.

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle’s features editor.