I’m planning to give a talk about meteors in Chcago next week, for which I found myself searching through old newspapers looking for stories about meteor falls. I’ve often read that, despite the damage meteors have done, history has no recorded instance of anyone killed by a meteor.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across this story from page 6 of the Chicago Daily Tribune for 18 January 1879:
An Official Dispatched to Fountain County to Get the Strange Visitor.
Special Dispatch to The Tribune.
INDIANAPOLIS, Jan. 17– State Geologist Cox has dispatched Maj. J. J. Palmer to Fountain County to procure for the State Museum the meteoric stone reported as having fallen near Newton last Tuesday night, killing Leonidas Glover, a farmer, while asleep in his bed, coming through the roof of his house and going through his body, bedding, and the floor, and penetrating the earth beneath to the depth of five feet. The stone is said to be of twenty pounds’ weight, and pyramidal in shape. Prof. Cox does not entirely credit the story, but cannot believe that any one would invent a hoax of this character.
Holy smoke! Had I discovered a previously-overlooked fatality? Will meteoriticists celebrate my contribution to their history, once I inform them? Did Major Palmer manage to obtain the deadly meteorite for posterity? Did the Internet hold any further information about the sad fate of Leonidas Glover?
Yes, indeed—Google informs me he is mentioned in the Indianapolis Journal for 29 November 1891, on page 7! Let’s read:
FAMOUS SCIENTIFIC HOAX
Story of Leonidas Glover’s Celebrated Meteorite Still on Its Travels.
Learned Man Who Had Just Heard of It—
Joke in Which Many Prominent Men Played the Part of Conspirator.
There are scientists and scientists. Some of them read the daily papers, but many do not; they are investigating some profound problem, and the mad world may rush along as it will without any notice from them. This latter class of scientific searchers is gullible to the last degree, and unless closely guarded liable to fall into the hands of bunco men or gold-brick artists. Information in the field of science is naturally disseminated slowly. Scientists of the plodding variety have all heard the maxim, “Art is long, life is short.” and yet make no haste.
The other day a well-known gentleman of scientific bias of this city received a letter from a member of the guild somewhere up in Massachusetts asking whether the meteorite that fell in Indiana in January, 1879, was in the State Museum, and if not, what had become of it. Plainly the Massachusetts savant bad seen the original account of the meteorite, and the subsequent revelations had not reached him. It is quite likely that he was at that time engaged in some other line of scientific research and it took him twelve years to get to meteors.
The story of that meteor is the history of one of the most ludicrous and successful hoaxes ever perpetrated in this country, and as it had for its victims the learned men of the country geologists, metallurgists, and scientists of various degrees, the discovery of the hoax brought a great guffaw from the unscientific and much mortification to the toilers in the field of knowledge.
It was in January, 1879, that a special telegraphic dispatch came to the Indianapolis Journal describing the fall of a meteorite near Attica, Fountain county, a large stone of unknown composition, that, whirling through space, came crashing through the roof of the farm-houso of Leonidas Glover, a widower, who lived alone. The meteorite falling through the roof struck Leonidas Glover, widower, who was in bed supposedly asleep, and horribly mutilating him, continued its course and buried itself in the earth beneath the house. Of course the lonely widower was instantly killed, and when the neighbors the following morning discovered the remains, there was great excitement, all of which was given in harrowing detail in the dispatch.
The news stirred all the local scientists, and the State Geologist, Professor Cox, at once took measures to secure the meteorite. Maj. J. J. Palmer was dispatched to Fountain county with instructions to buy the stone, no matter, what it might cost. Meantime the State Geologist was overwhelmed with letters inquiring about the meteorite and asking for all information possible regarding it.
The State Geologist wrote an exhaustive article on meteorites, leaving a hole in which to place the heavenly bowlder when Major Palmer should return with it. Prof. J. Lawrence Smith was greatly interested in the matter, and it was understood that he was willing to give $500 for it. When the Major returned he reported that he could find no one in Fountain county who knew Leonidas Glover, widower; there was no demolished roof, no desolated household, no hole in the ground.
A demand went up from the scientific world for the impious wretch or wretches who had hoaxed them. But the practical jokers took counsel of their fears and kept quiet until the storm of scientific wrath bad passed by. It then leaked out that the hoaxers were two young men of Crawfordsville, one of them a newspaper man. It may be said that one of these, the newspaper man. was sufficiently punished for his connection with the affair. He lost caste in his profession, and it took him several years to regain the confidence he had lost as an honest chronicler of the news.
Well, it was exciting for a little while.
I can’t escape the feeling that a Hoosier journalist is mocking me, personally, in that gleeful lede paragraph:
This latter class of scientific searchers is gullible to the last degree, and unless closely guarded liable to fall into the hands of bunco men or gold-brick artists.
Thank goodness I found the 1891 article—snide though it may be—before I told the world about the 1879 article. I shall have to seek glory for myself elsewhere. Or maybe make friends with Humility.