Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Barker and Bender on the Case-Part Four

The first monster of the flying saucer era came to Flatwoods, West Virginia, on the evening of Friday, September 12, 1952. Witnesses to the event were a beautician named Kathleen May, a seventeen-year-old national guardsman, Eugene Lemon, and five boys aged ten to fourteen. Oddly enough, one of the boys was named Shaver. What they saw above Flatwoods gave them the fright of their lives. Upon encountering the monster, they turned and ran, down the hill and into town, scared, shaken, and hysterical. One or two of the boys were so badly disturbed that they vomited as night went on and as word of what they had seen spread into Flatwoods, across Braxton County, and onto a darkened continent.

On Monday morning, twenty-seven-year-old Gray Barker was having breakfast in a restaurant practically just up the road from Flatwoods when he read of the encounter with the "Braxton Monster." The newspaper spread out in front of him variously described it as a "smelly boogie-man," a "half-man, half-dragon," and a "fire-breathing monster." Kathleen May was quoted as saying, "It looked worse than Frankenstein." She added, "It couldn't have been human." Although Barker was working in Clarksburg, West Virginia, as a booking agent for movie theaters, he originally hailed from Braxton County. His birthplace is supposed to have been Riffle, located about eight miles northwest of Flatwoods as the saucer flies. (He was counted in the censuses of 1930 and 1940 in the Otter District, just outside of Gassaway to the south.) Riffle wasn't much more than a riffle, though, and so, when Barker later wrote about the Flatwoods Monster, he called the place where it had come to earth "my home town."

At a time when people still sent telegrams, Barker contacted Fate magazine by wire, asking if it was interested in the story. Raymond Palmer was still publisher or co-publisher at the time. Whether it was he or someone else who wired back, Gray Barker had his reply:
STORY PROBABLY HOAX BUT INVESTIGATE RIGOROUSLY. DON'T SPECULATE SIMPLY STATE FACTS. 3 OR 4 PICS UP TO 3000 WORDS MONDAY DEADLINE. (1)
That Friday after work, Barker drove the fifty-five or sixty miles from Clarksburg to Flatwoods to begin his investigation. While in town, he met another investigator, the zoologist and explorer Ivan T. Sanderson, who, as he himself admitted later, also thought the story was a hoax. Both men came away from Braxton County that weekend convinced that the witnesses had really seen and experienced something extraordinary and that their sighting of the Flatwoods Monster was no hoax.

Sanderson got his story in print first. The Pittsburgh Press, for example, ran it on Wednesday, September 24, under the title "Saucer Reports Valid, Expert Says" (page 14). Gray Barker, on the other hand, had to wait until the January 1953 issue of Fate before his account, entitled "The Monster and the Saucer," saw the light of day. In the meantime, he had introduced himself by mail to Albert K. Bender of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and the two had begun corresponding and even talking by telephone. After that, things moved pretty quickly towards a strange and mysterious climax and denouement.

To be continued . . .

Note
(1) According to Albert K. Bender, Jr., in his book Flying Saucers and the Three Men, Robert N. Webster was editor of Fate when Webster wrote to Bender on August 29, 1952. (p. 40)

The drawings are undated, but these may have been the first depictions of what became known as the Flatwoods Monster. The sources are authoritative: they were three of the boys who saw the monster in its one and only visit to Earth. From The Encyclopedia of UFOs, Ronald D. Story, ed., (1980), page 128.

Here is the first or one of the first attempts to depict the actual scene that took place on the hill above Flatwoods. The monster and the witnesses are here, as is the fence, the flashlight, and the rural setting. Mrs. May is missing, though. So are the oak tree and the dog. (Maybe he has already hightailed it home.) Also missing is the glowing light or grounded saucer some of the witnesses saw in the distance. The artist was Dick Bothwell, a columnist and cartoonist with the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times. The source is the Times for October 11, 1952, page 11.

The sighting of the Flatwoods Monster opened a door for Grayson Roscoe Barker (1925-1984) of Braxton County and Clarksburg, West Virginia. Later describing himself as "a frustrated writer," he jumped on the chance to get his name in print again. (I don't know where or when he was first published.) His article "The Monster and the Saucer" appeared in Fate in January 1953, topped with a drawing of the monster, done by an unknown artist. By the end of the 1950s, Barker was one of the most well-known writers on and investigators of flying saucers in America. He also began publishing his own newsletter, The Saucerian, and he created his own publishing company, Saucerian Press or Saucerian Books, based in Clarksburg. In 1956, he published his own book, They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers (from which much of the information here is drawn). His title only hints at the mystery and rampant paranoia of the flying saucer era.

On Friday, September 19, 1952, the day on which Gray Barker arrived in Flatwoods to begin investigating the incident, Kathleen May, Gene Lemon, and newspaper publisher A. Lee Stewart, Jr., were in New York City to appear on the NBC-TV program We the People. As this undated newspaper item says, an artist in New York drew the monster from eyewitness descriptions. That unidentified artist was probably the first to have a published depiction of the Flatwoods Monster, and this is the image we now have of it, despite all attempts at revision or reinterpretation. Source: the Charleston (W. Va.) Gazette.

Gray Barker, who admitted that he was no artist, seems to have taken the New York artist's drawing and superimposed it on a photographic background. The result is pretty creepy, I think. I don't know whether the background photo was taken at the actual location or not, but there was a large white oak tree along the edge of the field in which the witnesses walked, and the monster floated under one of its branches, as shown here. The tree has since died, but there may still be a rotten stub or stump in its place. I think it deserves a historical marker.

Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

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