Early UFO sightings? “ . . . it’s form appeared globular” in the moonlit sky

by Bruce Cherney

Manitobans have had a long fascination with “ghoulies, ghosties, long-leggetty beasties and things that go bump in the night” (Pollperro Proverbs and Others, 1926).

Hallowe’en started out as a major pre-Christian holiday of the Celts. During Hallowe’en, it was said by the Celts that spirits freely roamed the world to communicate and party with living relatives.

Samhain, or summer’s end (pronounced sow-in with sow rhyming with cow), was the most important event on the Celtic calendar, marking the end of the old year and the beginning of the new year.

The coming of Christianity meant that a feast for the dead wasn’t in the cards unless it was limited to the blessed dead in God’s eyes, thus All Hallow’s (converted later into the word Hallowe’en) or All Saints, the day before All Soul’s Day. And because the church recognized the concept of heaven and hell, demons and benevolent spirits could walk the earth to taunt mankind. This prompted the Cornish prayer to protect people from “things that go bump in the night.”

Although it has pagan origins, Hallowe’en has since been sanitized to its present form with laughing children dressed up in costumes to go trick-or-treating and adults getting to party hearty. 

The changes to today’s Hallowe’en has also introduced a whole new pantheon of “things that go bump in  the night,” typified by the horror film genre such as the creature in the movie Alien, and slashers such as Michael Meyers from the movie Halloween. 

The world of “beasties” and the unexplained are a common theme among Manitobans with an interest in the paranormal and the so-called unexplained dating back for generations. 

In Winnipeg, the best example of an early paranormal investigator was Dr. Thomas Glenning Hamilton, whose house on Henderson Highway is now an historic site. Dr. Hamilton, a well-respected physician, was a spiritualist who led a group of equally-respected professionals in the pursuit of communicating with the dead.

His investigations attracted so much interest that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, made a journey in 1923 to Winnipeg to participate in seances held in the Hamilton home.

Doyle was also interested in spiritualism and became its most renowned proponent. While in Winnipeg, the author attended seances that featured table rapping by the medium and Scottish immigrant Elizabeth Poole.

Dr. Hamilton is also noted for having collected photographs of ectoplasm that suspiciously looks like cotton gauze emitting from people. The photos have since been shown to be faked, though by whom remains a mystery.

“Spiritualism will have swept the globe before the younger generation passes,” predicted Doyle to journalists who followed his every move while the author was in Winnipeg.

He was wrong. Spiritualism was eventually dismissed by most people as just so much hokey, but another so-called phenomena would later reinstate Winnipeg  as a centre for the the unexplained.

University of Manitoba media relations co-ordinator, Chris Rutkowski, has gained quite a reputation as a ufologist (researcher into Unidentified Flying Objects) and is now known as the “Fox Mulder of Canada,” a tribute to the Fox Mulder character  in the 1990s’ TV series The X-Files.

During the publicity campaign for his newest book, The Canadian UFO Report, Rutkowski, who has a BA in astronomy and a MA in science education, said that there were 763 UFO sightings across the nation last year. 

The member of Ufology Research of Manitoba (UFOROM), which was established in Winnipeg in 1975 as a non-profit organization, has also used quite a bit of ink to spread the tale of the famous encounter — at least in the believers’ network — of the May 20, 1967, incident at Falcon Lake, Manitoba, during which Winnipeg-based prospector Stefan Michalak was alleged to have been strangely burnt when an alien craft lifted off in his presence. 

“UFOROM is devoted to the rational and objective study of UFOs and related phenomena,” according to the Ufology Research of Manitoba website, “as well as other controversial phenomena as crop circles. All views on these phenonema, including the proponent and contrary standpoints are considered. In this regard, UFOROM associates tend to engage in dialogue with both ‘believers, and ‘debunkers.’ It is hoped that such attempts to ‘bridge the gap’ between the two sides of the debate will encourage more constructive discourse.”

Manitoba believers in UFOs have continually used a 1792 incident as the first written encounter involving a UFO’s presence in this province.

North West Company explorer David Thompson (1770-1857) in his journal said that in November 1792 he and a companion saw ‘a brilliant light ... of globular form” while travelling in northern Manitoba.

While it makes good reading to imagine the “globular form” as a UFO, Thompson had no such illusions. Selectively taking snippets of text from his journal does not allow the reader to understand that Thompson only referred to the eerie shape as a “meteor” possessing somewhat strange properties.

He said the meteor was brighter than the moon, which was full on that night, and that, “It was a meteor of globular form, it seemed to come directly at us, lowering as it came, when within three hundred yards from me, it struck the River (entering Landing Land near today’s Thicket Portage, approximately 540 kilometres directly north of Winnipeg) ice, with a sound like a mass of jelly, was dashed into innumerable luminous pieces and instantly expired. Andrew would have run away but he had no time to do so; curiosity chained me to the spot.”

The two men investigated the 

meteor’s crash site the next morning and the marks it made on the ice. Thompson reported that they “could not discover that a single particle was marked, or removed; it’s form appeared globular, and from its size must have had some weight; it had no tail, and no luminous sparks came  from it until it dashed to pieces.” He said that the meteor  lacked the fiery nature commonly associated with meteor reports from Europe and hadn’t “exploded with a loud noise.” 

It was because of the lack of a fiery tail and noise that today’s ufologists believe it was a UFO. 

Two nights later, Thompson said he encountered another meteor, which appeared larger than the first, though not as bright in the sky. He said, “as it struck the trees, pieces flew from it, and went out; as it passed by me striking the trees with the sound of a mass of jelly,  I noticed them; although it must have lost much of its size from the many trees it struck, it went out of my sight, a large mass ... the next day I examined the Aspins (sic) struck by the meteor, but even this fine flour on the bark was not marked; I was at a loss what to think of it, it’s stroke gave sound, and therefore must have substance.”

A shock wave whipping up particles without leaving a mark is a quite plausible explanation of its passage among the trees.

He went on to speculated that the “two meteors were, perhaps, compressed bodies of phospheric air; but without the least heat, for had there been any, the second Meteor passed so near to me I must have felt it.”

If Thompson had been exposed to today’s media reports and movies, he may have reported a UFO. Not having the benefit of being inundated with such out-of-world beliefs, he simply related what he knew existed and could be scientifically explained. Despite the apparent mysteries he reported about his two encounters, he did not waver from the belief that what he saw had merely been meteors and nothing more.

Similar encounters with meteors over lakes have been reported in recent years, the most famous being the Taglish Lake, British Columbia, incident of January 18, 2000. An exceptionally long and bright fireball (something lacking in the Thompson account) appeared over the Yukon, Northern B.C., parts of Alaska and the Northwest Territories.

An Atlin, B.C. resident found fragments of the now meteorite (meteors only when they enter the earth’s atmosphere; meteorites when they are found on the ground) on the snow-covered ice of Taglish Lake.

The Taglish meteorite was a rare form known as a Carbonaceous chrondrite.  These meteors, with a high portion of carbon, are known to have formed at the beginning of our solar system. 

Another early meteor report comes from a letter written by Thomas Simpson to James Hargrave on December 19, 1832. This account from the Red River Settlement (modern-day Winnipeg) resident told his friend at York Factory (along the Hudson’s Bay coast in Manitoba) that he saw, “On the second instant at daybreak a most extraordinary meteor” that was witnessed by the “bishop and other credible witnesses in various parts of the settlement ...

“Passing up from Lake Winnipeg, its body appeared about the size of a nine-gallon keg but differently shaped, being elliptical, with a long bushy tale emitting fiery sparks.

“Its course was steady and regular, travelling very slightly above the earth at the rate of a horse on the gallop.”

Simpson said as the meteor passed “Mr. (James) Sutherland’s (a retired HBC fur trader living in Red River) it descended so low as to brush the top of the willows and desperately frightened a woman who was standing at the woodpile. She threw herself down expecting the whole world would be in conflagration about her.

“Near the Forks (of the Assiniboine and Red rivers) it was observed to shape its course up the Assiniboine and was subsequently seen at (Lake) Manitobah. It has given rise among the knowing ones to diverse fearful prognostics of cholera and other terrible Calamities.”

Now there’s an example of weird travel. Low flying object coming from Lake Winnipeg’s direction and then taking a jag “to shape its course up the Assiniboine and was subsequently seen at (Lake) Manitobah?”

Although there is no reason to discount the basics of Simpson’s account of the incident, the man was not without his own foibles and strange behaviours. Simpson was the co-leader of an Arctic expedition in 1836-39, pursuing the fabled Northwest Passage and fame. But he is actually best known as a murder victim under mysterious circumstances on June 14, 1840, when en route to the Red River Settlement from the U.S. 

A day before his death, an increasingly paranoid — some called him unhinged — Simpson shot first John Bird and then Antoine Legros, senior. Six men returned to Simpson’s camp the next day and shots were fired. Simpson was later found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot, according to witnesses. How he actuallly died is still disputed. Perhaps Simpson’s mysterious death could be translated into a new horror film of a deranged killer let loose upon the world? 

Yet, Simpson was highly educated in Scotland, excelling in mathematics and science, thus despite the supposed erratic course of the meteor he took it as only a celestial object and nothing more, just as Thompson had done when he reported his own strange observances.

The first portion of Simpson’s account follows the direct path of a 

meteor — it travelled from Lake Winnipeg to The Forks. Where the mystery arises is the claim that it changed its course to follow the Assiniboine River. Perhaps, its course depended more on an observer’s angle of viewing. It should also be pointed out that Simpson reported its course to be “steady and regular,” despite the contradictory evidence 

obtained from some witnesses.

Early UFOs over Manitoba?

At first glance, the reports by Thompson and Simpson seem to uphold this claim, but it must be pointed out they reported these incidents within the narrow parameters of the existing and sketchy knowledge of meteors during their time. To their minds, what had been observed were meteors and they made that clear. Aliens in space craft had not descended to earth.

As far as the meteor over the settlement being the portent of calamity, that was a safe guess. Cholera was common in the 19th century until it was determined that its source was tainted water. And in an era of limited medical and scientific breakthroughs to battle pestilence, diseases and natural disasters, it wasn’t a stretch to predict another calamity looming around the corner. After all, the Red River settlement had been visited by a very destructive flood in 1826 — much larger than the 1997 Flood of the Century — and smallpox epidemics had periodically ravaged the inhabitants of Canada’s West. 

What their accounts do make is a good Hallowe’en story.