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Debunked: The Kentucky Meat Storm of 1876

A sample of the meat, From the Arthur Byrd Cabinet
at Transylvania University

From frogs to fish, a variety of bizarre things have fallen from the sky throughout history, but on March 3, 1876, residents of Bath County in Kentucky were amazed to see flakes of meat falling from the sky. The meat storm lasted for several minutes, covering an small 100 by 50 yard area of the Allen Crouch farm, approximately two miles south of Olympia Springs. There was enough meat to fill a large wagon. Or, at least, that's how the story goes.

Some of the locals actually took it upon themselves to taste the fleshy substance. Even though it appeared similar to beef, those who tasted it claim that its flavor resembled that of lamb, mutton or venison. Mr. Leopold Brandeis delivered a sample of the substance to the Newark Scientific Association for analysis. Dr. Allan McLane, who examined the sample, announced that the meat had been identified as lung tissue from either a horse or a human infant. Further scientific study corroborated Dr. McLane's claim that some of the meat flakes were lung tissue, as well as muscle tissue and cartilage.

So what was it that really fell from the Kentucky sky that day and why?

Nearly 140 years after the Kentucky Meat Storm the mystery officially remains unsolved, although there have been some interesting theories. Some claim that the meat was "vomited" by buzzards during flight. Others insist that the substance was nostoc, a cyanobacteria that forms slimy, jelly-like colonies. This theory was soon disproved by scientific analysis.

According to many newspaper accounts, the meat did not fall in pieces of a uniform size. The Oakland Tribune reported: The meat was served in the shape of hash, and its particles ranged in size from a delicate shred as light as a snowflake to a solid lump three inches square. This would seem to suggest a violent episode, such as an explosion. Could it be possible that some poor sheep had strayed too close to a distant volcano at the time of an eruption, having particles of its carcass carried for hundreds of miles in a plume of debris? Or could it be an even more unlikely scenario with a natural explanation, such as a meteor striking a bird as it fell to earth? One must also consider the possibility of a prank or hoax. Perhaps a Kentucky farmer, with too much time on his hands, decided to insert a stick of dynamite into a goat (just to see what would happen).

If you're the betting type, we'd advise you to put your money on the possibility of a hoax or practical joke.

As with many stories born in places like the rugged hills of rural eastern Kentucky, numerous re-tellings tend to inflate even the most insignificant minnow into a giant whale. Newspaper reporters, in a perpetual state of salivation over the next big headline, do their part in order to hype the mystery until, finally, the story becomes engrained in the public consciousness and becomes a fixture of myth and local folklore. This is precisely what happened in Bath County.

Those who take the time to research the famous Kentucky meat shower will see that the details surrounding the event were greatly exaggerated. For instance, the meat shower was not seen by hundreds of people, or even dozens. In fact, there were only two "witnesses" who claimed to have actually seen the meat flakes fall from the sky: Mrs. Crouch and her grandson.

On March 30, 1876, the Oskaloosa Independent printed an interview with a Mrs. Houston, which she had given to a reporter from the New York Herald who had come to interview neighbors and witnesses about the mysterious meat storm. Mrs. Houston, who had nothing to lose or gain, insisted that the whole story was a fabrication.

Mrs. Crouch, upon whose farm the meat storm occurred, was interviewed by the same New York Herald reporter. She stated that "the storm, by measure, would not go into a half bushel". That's a far cry from a horsewagon full of meat, as other sources claim. In other words, this miraculous meat storm was less like manna from heaven, and more like a crouton or a bread crumb. A half bushel is 15.14 liters, or 512 ounces, which is about 32 pounds. Thirty-two pounds of meat isn't very much; it's roughly the equivalent of 2 large groundhogs, 2 wild turkeys, one small lamb, or a pygmy goat. In other words, there wasn't even a fully grown goat's worth of meat on the ground.

Mrs. Crouch, the only adult witness to the event, said that she saw the meat coming down at a straight or sloping angle, where some of it was promptly eaten by the family dog (who became seriously ill afterwards). She also saw a blood-like substance on the fence rails.

One person who examined the meat was a local hunter named B.F. Ellington. Ellington, whose diet consisted mostly of wild game that he caught himself, declared with the utmost confidence that it was bear meat. He told reporters: "I have seen some of this meat that fell on old man Crouch's farm and if it's meat at all it's bear meat... This meat that fell from the heavens on Allen Crouch's farm has got that uncommon greasy feel that I am so well acquainted with... I know bear grease when I see it and that's the kind of fluid what come outen [sic] that meat at old Allen's and got all over my hands when I was examining it. I smelt it, too, and I know that smell as well as I know the smell of liquor. Gentlemen, it's bear meat certain, or else my name is not Benjamin Franklin Ellington."

The old hunter probably hit the nail right on the head. The Crouch farm was located in a region of Bath County which is virtually surrounded on all sides by the Daniele Boone National Forest, which is a haven for all kinds of wildlife- including bears and buzzards. In all likelihood, the meat that rained down from the sky was probably bear meat disgorged by a vulture of the Coragyps atratus or Cathartes aura varieties while flying over the farm. Vultures, when threatened, regurgitate semi-digested meat. This meat missile, laden with bacteria, is the vulture's way of waging biological warfare against its enemies. Vultures also vomit undigested meat when they need to make a quick escape from predators. This bacteria-tainted meat explains why Mrs. Crouch's dog became ill after eating it, and the "vulture vomit" theory also explains the blood-like ooze which landed atop Mrs. Crouch's fence.

So there you have it, a logical explanation for the famous Kentucky Meat Storm of 1876. Once you remove the outlandish claims made by the sensationalistic press and take out the embellishments added by generations of backwoods Kentucky locals and then examine the facts of the case, it's easy to see that this unsolved mystery isn't much of a mystery at all.

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