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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"
Meteorite

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
The telegraphic news flashed across America and the world like a shooting star - a huge meteorite had hit Texas, falling in Brown County.

"A great meteor fell near William's Ranch at 2 o'clock Sunday morning," the Daily News in Newport, RI reported on April 16, 1883. The giant object from the heavens had a hellish impact, "killing several head of cattle and destroying the dwelling of Martinez Garcia, a Mexican herdsman, who with his wife and five children were burned in the ruins."

The report went on to describe the meteor as "a massive ball of fire" that created an earthquake-like shock as it embedded itself "nearly a hundred feet in the ground."

The force of the impact, the news item continued, shattered nearly every window in Williams Ranch (now in present Mills County, created in 1887), tossing people from their beds, tumbling merchandise from store shelves and collapsing several buildings. Afterward, "the air was filled with sulphurous gas."

A few days later, the April 20 issue of The Forest News in Jackson County, GA amplified on the startling news from Central Texas: The Garcia family had not been burned in the ruins, but buried in the ruins. Whether they were dead or alive was not mentioned.

"This is the largest meteor that has ever fallen and it has already been visited by many people and doubtless will continue to attract great attention for months to come," the Georgia newspaper went on. "It has occasioned great excitement not only here but in all the surrounding county."

The Williams Ranch meteorite was not the only astronomical phenomena in the news that year. Only 12 days before the Texas incident made the wires, the April 5, 1883 edition of the Decatur Daily Republic informed its readers that a large meteorite had splashed into Muskegon Lake in Illinois. Interestingly, it, too, left the odor of sulphur in the air.

The 1883 news coverage must have seemed far-fetched, but meteors do fall to earth. When that happens, they are called meteorites. (In the 19th century, the more common term was aerolites.) Less common is a meteorite actually hitting something other than the ground or water.


A Web site that records confirmed accounts of meteorites striking man-made objects, humans or animals lists only 101 such incidents since 1790. Of those, two occurred in the Lone Star state. The first was Sept. 9, 1961, when a meteorite crashed into a building in Bells, a North Texas community in Grayson County. The second confirmed strike happened March 22, 1998, when a small meteorite pinged a street in Monahans, in West Texas.

Interestingly, the Web site makes no mention of the spectacular Mills County incident. That's because it never happened.

"There seems to be some person in the associated press who makes it his business or pastime to invent aerolite discoveries," ranted a letter writer identified only by the initials W.E.H. in the Statesville, N.C. Landmark on June 24, 1886. "The first instance I can now recall was the alleged fall near Fort Worth, Texas, of an aerolite a mile in width. (The Williams Ranch stories all had a Fort Worth dateline.) When I read the press dispatch I telegraphed to Fort Worth and ascertained that the statement was a lie out of the whole cloth."

The letter-to-the-editor went on to describe three other recent aerolite hoaxes, concluding, "These canards have cost some expense for correspondence and telegraphy, and the fiend should be killed."

One-time Comanche Chief editor Sidney J. Thomas later solved the mystery in his now-rare book, "Scrapbook," a self-published collection of musings he brought out in the early 1900s. The "fiend" who made up the Mills County meteorite was one Joe Mulhatton, a reporter for an Eastern newspaper who happened to be traveling between Austin and Fort Worth. That would have taken him through Williams Ranch, then an important cow town and stagecoach stop.

A group of rowdy cowboys, spotting a fancy-dressed greenhorn arriving on the stage, took him in charge at gunpoint and made him dance to the tune of exploding .45s.

"He was then," Thomas revealed, "forced to drink an overdose of tangle-foot, and while under its influence to write for his paper some startling imaginary occurrence that would attract attention to Williams Ranch."

According to Thomas, the "ruffians" held Mulhatton captive "pending the determination (of) the effect of the dispatch...on the world. The document was promptly published and a great sensation instantly produced.... Scientists hurried to the scene to investigate the phenomenon, only to find the whole story a canard."

The 1883 incident, Thomas concluded, gave rise to a popular Mills County expression that endured for a generation: To "lie like a Mulhatton" meant prevarication "in the superlative degree."


Mike Cox
March 20 , 2004
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