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 . . .
(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)
Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley