“According to the present theory of astronomers, an enormous belt of meteoric stones constantly revolves around the sun, and when the earth comes in contact with this belt she is soundly pelted…Similarly, we may suppose that there revolves about the sun a belt of venison, mutton, and other meats, divided into small fragments, which are precipitated upon the earth whenever the latter crosses their path” – William Livingston Alden
President Andrew Jackson once commented, “I have never in my life seen a Kentuckian who didn’t have a gun, a pack of cards, and a jug of whiskey,” obviously a practical and fun-loving folk, to which he should no doubt have added a fondness for meat, seeing as Kentucky is known for the highest per capita deer and turkey population in the United States, as well as the largest free-range elk herd east of the Mississippi. It should come as no surprise that when on March 3rd, 1876, a well-documented rain of animal flesh fell upon Bath County, Kentucky, the first question wasn’t “what fresh hell is this?”, rather “what kind of meat is it and can it be fried?”, a heartwarmingly “epicurious” reaction to one of the stranger incidents of unexplained weather phenomena ever reported. Originally reported in the local Bath County News, major newspapers quickly ran with the story, and one can hardly do better justice to the memory of the tale than to see the New York Times account published seven days after the incident.
Louisville, March 9. – The Bath County (Ky.) News of this date says: “On last Friday a shower of meat fell near the house of Allen Crouch who lives some two or three miles from the Olympian Springs in the southern portion of the county, covering a strip of ground about one hundred yards in length and fifty wide, Mrs. Crouch was out in the yard at the time, engaged in making soap, when meat which looked like beef began to fall around her. The sky was perfectly clear at the time, and she said it felt like large snowflakes, the pieces as a general thing not being much larger. One piece fell near her which was three or four inches square. Mr. Harrison Gill whose veracity is unquestionable, and from whom we obtained the above facts, hearing of the occurrence visited the locality the next day and says he saw particles of meat sticking to the fences and scattered over the ground. The meat when it first fell appeared to be perfectly fresh. The correspondent of the Louisville Commercial, writing from Mount Sterling, corroborates the above, and says the pieces of flesh were of various sizes and shapes, some of them being two inches square. Two gentlemen, who tasted the meat, expressed the opinion that it was either mutton or venison (New York Times, March 10, 1876).
Now, Kentuckians aren’t insane. Like the rest of us, they would consider it imprudent to taste any old thing that falls from the sky without some sign of palatability, which luckily was enthusiastically provided by local felines. As the meat rained down on the “presumably just Mrs. Crouch and her unjust cat, and the latter, conceitedly assuming that at last his merits had been signally recognized, immediately gorged himself with the public breakfast so unexpectedly tendered to him. 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. It was in a raw state, but it was obviously perfectly fresh” (New York Times, March 11, 1876). Various Kentucky gentleman, who those snarky 19th Century New York reporters assure us were “accustomed to eating raw meat” (which seems rather disturbing in and of itself), reassured by the opinions of the cats, upon sampling the substance declared somewhat surprisingly that rather than tasting like chicken, was clearly either venison (deer or a similar game animal) or mutton (adult sheep). Of peculiar interest is the fact that not only did a veritable army of contemporary scientists and scholars take an interest in the Kentucky Meat Shower, distributing and subjecting samples to extensive tests, but everyone seemed less concerned with the anomalous fact that it had rained meat on Kentucky, than on what sort of meat it was. That there were historical precedents for meat falls was more or less taken for granted. Uncommon, yes, but recorded rather blandly as far back as Classical Antiquity, and on occasion ever since.
The shower of flesh referred to by Livy and Pliny is mentioned also in a rare and curious illustrated Chronicle of Prodigies and Monsters compiled by Conrad Wolffhart (or Lycosthenes), and published in Latin at Basle in 1557, in which is incorporated all that is known of a work “De Prodigiis” by Julius Obsequens, a Roman writer in the time of Augustus. In this chronicle of Wolffhart’s (of a copy of which I am the fortunate owner) occur also the only other records of descents of flesh known to me, except the somewhat notorious ” Kentucky meat-shower” of 1875. The first of those other cases is said to have occurred in Liguria in 1456, A. D., and the last in France in 1552. As this would have been in Wolffhart’s own life-time we should naturally expect from him some particulars, but he furnishes only the bald statement, “in Francia sanguine & carne pluit” (Cox, 1885, p171).
Given the rather open-minded acceptance that odd things can fall from the sky, the mechanics of the process of weather-related meat storms are given short shrift compared to questions about what the mystery meat was composed of. Oh, whirlwinds and waterspouts made it happen, obviously.
These are sometimes taken up by waterspouts and whirlwinds, and in countries where those are prevalent are of no rare occurrence. Again, substances resembling flesh form in the atmosphere, as in the Kentucky meat shower of 1876, which was this peculiar substance (Cutting, 1877, p17).
The meat of the matter, so to speak, seems to have been in the theories propagated as to what sort of substance it actually was that fell upon the unsuspecting Kentuckians on that fateful day in 1876. While William of Ockham (1287-1347 A.D.) had been sharpening his razor for 500 years, 19th Century American scientists preferred an elaborate and wacky theory that you could really sink your teeth into. Initially, skeptical investigators proposed that the Kentucky meat shower was actually a rain of Nostoc. For those of you who aren’t up on your gelatinous cyanobacteria, Nostoc is the name for a filament and colony forming bacteria of the Nostocacase family that mostly lays around inconspicuously on moist rocks, swelling up into a jellylike mass when it rains (sometimes called “star jelly”) since people assumed it too fell from the sky.
It appears to be a law of nature that weeds should grow with ﬂowers, tares with corn, and that superstition should almost touch truth. Showers of frogs, of ﬁshes, of bloody rain and snow have frequently occurred. The last sensation, however, “the fall of ﬂesh in Kentucky,” offers some features of special interest. In 1537, while Paracelsus was engaged in the production of his “elixir of life,” he came across a very strange looking vegetable mass, to which he gave the name of “Nostoc.” The want of rapid transportation, combined with the perishable nature of the substances fallen, have hitherto prevented a complete and exhaustive examination. The specimens of the “Kentucky shower,” reached New York well preserved in glycerine, and it has been comparatively easy to identify the substance and to ﬁx its status. The Kentucky wonder is nothing more or less than the “Nostoc” of the old alchemist. The Nostoc belongs to the confervae; it consists of translucent, gelatinous bodies, joined together by threadlike tubes or seed-bearers. There are about ﬁfty species of this singular plant classiﬁed; two or three kinds have even been found in a fossil state. Like other confervae, the Nostoc propagates by self-division, as well as by seeds or spores. When these spores work their way out of the gelatinous envelope they may be wafted by the winds here and there, and they may be carried great distances. Wherever they may fall, and ﬁnd congenial soil, viz., dampness or recent rain, they will thrive and spread very rapidly, and many cases are recorded where they have covered miles of ground in a very few hours with long strings of “Nostoc”. On account of this rapidity of growth, people almost everywhere faithfully believe the Nostoc to fall from the clouds, and ascribe to it many mysterious virtues. The plant is not conﬁned to any special locality or to any climate; sown by the whirlwind, carried by a current of air, in need of moisture only for existence and support, it thrives everywhere. Icebergs aﬂoat in mid ocean have been found covered with it. In New Zealand it is found in large masses of quaking jelly, several feet in circumference, and covering miles of damp soil; and in our own country it may be found in damp woods, on meadows, and on marshy or even gravelly bottom. ..All the Nostocs are composed of a semi-liquid cellulose and vegetable proteins. The edible Nostoc is highly valued in China, where it forms an essential ingredient of the edible bird-nest soup. The ﬂesh that was supposed to have fallen from the clouds in Kentucky is the ﬂesh-colored Nostoc (N. cameum of the botanist); the ﬂavor of it approaches frog or spring chicken legs, and it is greedily devoured by almost all domestic animals. Such supposed showers are not rare, and are entirely in harmony with natural laws. In the East Indies the same Nostoc is used as an application in ulcers and scrofulous disease, while every nation in the East considers it nourishing and palatable, and uses it even for food when dried by sun heat (American Journal of Microscopy, April 1876, p54).
Just in case you were considering a little culinary experiment of your own, biochemists recommend you skip the “Nostoc” course of the meal, as it has exactly zero nutritional value and contains a toxic amino acid that can mess with your nerve cells. Nostoc sounded good, and it seemed like a cooler explanation that that of chemist J.L. Smith, one of the first researchers to examine the substance in detail and conclude that it was “frog spawn”. Chemist and doctor J.L. Kastenbine of the Kentucky School of Medicine studied a sample of the fallen flesh and concluded that it was, as had been noted by the local Kentucky gentleman with a fondness for raw meat, mutton. As a footnote to this conclusion, he proposed that it fell from the sky due to a well-choreographed group purge of a passing flock of buzzards who had recently feasted on dead sheep. Vulture vomit, that is.
The strange phenomenon which occurred on the farm of Mr. Crouch, in Bath County, last winter—a fall of quivering flesh from a cloudless sky, covering an area of more than one hundred feet, adhering to leaves, fences, etc.—elicited considerable attention at the time not only from the press, but from many learned societies and private individuals. Many were disposed to treat it as “scientific bait,” others as batrachian spawn—although a naturalist-tells me that it was not the season for spawn—scattered by a whirlwind over the land. On hearing last week that a vegetable fungus was the latest tissue “transformation,” I concluded to examine one of the five specimens given Simon N. Jones, the pharmacist, by Dr. Luke P. Blackburn. The specimen was in a morphine bottle, labeled with the following paragraph from Courier-Journal: “Five specimens of the flesh which recently fell in Bath County were given to Mr. Simon N. Jones, the druggist, on Monday last. They were first handed to Dr. L. Blackburn, who gave them to Mr. Jones to examine. Specimens are now very scarce. Those which Mr. Jones has appear dry, but resemble animal flesh, and are somewhat greasy.” On heating a small portion on a platinum spatula over a Bunsen burner, it melted and burned with a “spurting flame,” the grease running out toward the handle. The odor was distinctly like rancid mutton-suet on warming, and after ignition had the characteristic smell of burned animal tissue. Some thin sections taken from that portion which had no woody matter adhering were treated twenty-four hours with a dilute solution of chromic acid, chromate of potassa, iodine serum, and common salt. All these methods enabled me to bring out the muscular fiber, but the solution of common salt rendered the striae exceedingly distinct, showing it to be a portion of voluntary fiber. The connective and fatty tissues were also clearly shown. As the specimen was not placed in alcohol the odor was retained, which a number of meat experts pronounced without hesitation mutton. Since my examination I have learned that others have arrived at the same conclusion as myself, some even asserting that the wool of the animal was distinctly seen. The only plausible theory explanatory of this anomalous shower appears to me to be that suggested by the old Ohio farmer—the disgorgement of some vultures that were sailing over the spot, and from their immense height the particles were scattered by the then prevailing wind over the ground. The variety of tissue discovered—muscular, connective, fatty, structureless, etc.—can be explained only by this theory (Kastenbine, 1876, p254-255).
The awesomeness of the “vulture vomit” theory captured the imagination of Prof. Smith, the original advocate of the “frog spawn” postulate, and he quite modestly deferred to the expertise of more skillful microscopists like Dr. Kastenbine in a public reversal published in the Louisville Courier-Journal.
The following is Prof. Smith’s letter: “In my ﬁrst examination of this anomalous substance, I was furnished with two small specimens that had been in alcohol; one of them was so hard and dry that I did not undertake to examine it; the other being soft, I cut it across, and ﬁnding the interior of the mass gelatinous, I could see no other source of this gelatinous matter than the spawn of batrachian reptiles. I sent what I had left to Professor Putnam, of Salem, to be examined in his institution, but I have not yet heard from him his results. Since then two other specimens have been furnished me, one of which had been examined by a distinguished microscopist of Lexington, Mr. A. T. Parker, from whom I received also some specimens carefully mounted for examination. I have examined both the specimens and the preparation, and am perfectly satisﬁed that they contain muscular ﬁbre, and therefore cannot be, as I ﬁrst supposed, reptilian spawn. The matter appears to be mixed; some of it is muscular, some cartilaginous, others gelatinous and fatty. I intended examining further into the matter, when, in a conversation with Dr. Kastenbine, of this city, I learned that he had examined a specimen with similar results, and that he had no doubt of the ﬂeshy nature of the substance. Considering the results obtained by two such careful and skillful microscopists as Dr. Kastenbine and Mr. Parker conclusive, I am satisﬁed that my original theory of its being batrachian spawn must be abandoned. This, of course, is calculated to open the whole question again. Professor Robert Peter, of Lexington, through whom I obtained Mr. Parker’s specimen, thinks that the fall of ﬂesh was simply the result of a kind of postprandial disgorging by a ﬂock of buzzards who had been feasting themselves more abundantly than wisely on the carcass of a sheep; perhaps one of those animals that had undergone a strychnine preparation by some outraged Granger inimical to dogs. I am informed that it is not uncommon for buzzards thus to disgorge their overcharged stomachs, and that when in a ﬂock one commences this relief operation, the others are excited to nausea, and a general shower of half-digested meat takes place. Who knows but this is the true inwardness of the whole matter” (American Journal of Microscopy, May 1876, p69).
A fact you may want to file away to add to your list of fears is that if one buzzard throws up, they all do in a revolting case of “vulture see, vulture do”, suggesting the prudent course of never walking under flocks of vultures. Under any circumstance. Ever. In fact, just assume that there is a high probability of vultures flying over you anytime you are outside, and that at least one of those vultures is feeling a bit nauseous. On second thought, just stay indoors. At any rate, the debate made it all the way to the pages of Scientific American, where it seemed the matter was settled, or rather everyone seemed to agree that meat had inexplicably fallen on Bath County, Kentucky, and that whether this meat had precipitated from a waterspout, been disgorged from a buzzard stomach, or fallen as crumbs from the mouth of some cosmic carnivore, odds are the true mechanism for its deposit would likely always remain a mystery.
In your supplement for July 1st is an article, taken from the Sanitarian, on the Kentucky meat-shower, and, introducing the article, you express an opinion that we have therein a solution of the question as to what the substance constituting the meat-shower was, in Mr. Brandeis’ assertion that it consisted of masses of nostoc, a low form of vegetable existence. As the public seems to be still interested in the matter, and as, apparently, they have not yet learned what it really is, permit me say a few words thereon. We have in the city of Newark, N. J., an active, wide-awake organization known as the Newark Scientiﬁc Association, at the meetings of which novel scientiﬁc matters are discussed and sifted. At one of our meetings, for the ﬁrst time, the true solution of Mr. Edison’s so-called “etheric force” took place; and at our meeting in March last the Kentucky meat-shower was discussed, and at that time I made a communication reviewing what was known with regard to so called showers of meat, blood, and colored matters generally. At that time, and before I had seen any specimens from Kentucky, expressed an opinion that it would turn out to be nostoc. When, then, I saw Mr. Brandeis’ communication, I felt convinced that he had solved the problem, and knowing him well, I called on him to see if he could give me a specimen of the original article. He kindly placed his whole supply in my hands, and informed me that it had been received from Prof. Chandler, who gave it to a physician in Brooklyn, who in turn gave it to him, Mr. B. Soon after, Dr. Allan Hamilton published a letter in the New York Journal Record, wherein he said that he had received a piece of the Kentucky shower from Prof. Chandler, and a microscopic examination of it by himself and Dr. J. W. S. Arnold revealed the fact that it consisted of lung tissue either from a human infant or a horse, the structure of the organ in these two cases being very similar. At once I called on Dr. Hamilton, and he likewise placed his specimens in my hands, at the same time informing me that two morsels of the shower had been sent from Kentucky to the editor of the Agriculturist, that gentleman placed them in the hands of Prof. Chandler. One went to Dr. Hamilton, the other to Brooklyn, and eventually into the hands of Mr. Brandeis. So I evidently had the whole matter in my possession. On examination I found Dr. Hamilton’s specimen to be, as be stated, lung tissue, in one portion of which cartilage was to be seen beautifully exhibited. Mr. Brandeis’ specimen, when examined by means of the microscope, turned out to be lung tissue also, but not in as a state of preservation as the ﬁrst mentioned. Soon thereafter I was shown by Prof. J. Phin, of the American Journal of Microscopy, a prepared specimen sent from Kentucky to Mr. Walmsley, of Philadelphia which was undoubtedly striated muscular ﬁbre. And subsequent thereto he showed me another specimen sent to him by Mr. A. T. Parker, of Lexington, Ky., which was also striated muscular ﬁbre. Being determined to follow the matter up, I wrote to Mr. Parker, and he very kindly sent me three specimens, two in the natural state as they fell, and one prepared and mounted for the microscope. The last-named consists entirely of cartilage; one of the others is likewise a mass of cartilage, while the remaining portion shows a few striated muscular ﬁbres along with what appears to be dense connective tissue, but in such a condition that its exact character cannot be well made out. I am promised further specimens and information by Mr. Parker, who has been unsparing in his endeavors to elucidate the mystery, whilst he has been at the same time extremely liberal in the matter of distributing specimens. So much for the facts. Every specimen I have examined has proved to be of animal origin, showing that the Kentucky shower was a veritable “meat” shower. As to whence it came I have no theory (Edwards, 1876, p473).
The lessons we can derive from the infamous Kentucky Meat Shower are few, but some of them are very important. Clearly, sometimes strange stuff falls from the sky and it is a brave soul who will taste it in the name of science. Secondly, Nostoc and frog spawn have a similar consistency, and while it’s probably safe to eat frog spawn, stay away from the Nostoc. Finally, if a vulture tells you he’s feeling queasy, just walk away. Fast.
Cox, C.F. “On Certain So-called Prodigies”. New York Microscopical Society. Journal of the New York Microscopical Society 1:7. New York: The Society, 1885.
Cutting, Hiram Adolphus, 1832-1892. Meteorological Tables and Climatology of Vermont, With Map Showing Rainfall: Also, Suggestions And Directions About Foretelling Storms. Montpelier [Vt.]: J. & J.M. Poland, 1877.
Edwards, A.M. “The Kentucky Meat-Shower”. Scientific American, Supplement No. 30, July 22, 1876.
“Flesh Descending in a Shower”. New York Times. March 10, 1876.
Kastenbine, L.D. “The Kentucky Meat Shower”. The Louisville Medical News: A Weekly Journal of Medicine and Surgery. v.1:21. Louisville,KY, 1876.
“The Kentucky Shower of Flesh”. The American Journal of Microscopy and Popular Science 1:5 (April). New York: Handicraft Pub. Co., 1876.
“The Kentucky Meat Shower”. The American Journal of Microscopy And Popular Science 1:6 (May). New York: Handicraft Pub. Co.,1876.