“Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy” ― H.L. Mencken
We know that 17th Century New England Puritans got all hot and bothered about witchcraft, culminating with the frenzy of witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts from 1692-1693. Curiously, they didn’t seem overly phased about unidentified flying objects. The notion that we occasionally see weird stuff in the sky isn’t in and of itself all that controversial. In fact, throughout recorded history, the literary set has been busy noting the strange things that pop up overhead, and only ascribing significance to them if it came in the form of some sort of divine apparition, or messed up a particularly important battle. I really don’t need to see fiery chariots in the sky over Jerusalem before I sack the city. It makes me seem passé and perhaps a little redundant. Just like the puzzling aerial battles over Nuremburg in 1561 simply detracted from all that messy Catholic vs. Protestant violence afoot in Germany at the time. And it may be heartwarming to think that spectral bowmen from Agincourt were watching over British troops at the Battle of Mons, but it does seem a little convenient. I’m not saying these sterling examples of early aerial apparitions never happened, simply that it’s easy to ascribe a certain cultural compulsion and interpretation to them. It’s all about burning celestial symbols, Marian apparitions, and some sort of sign that you have the moral high ground as you blast away at your enemies, crush their bones, and salt the earth. You know, like your average Saturday.
Along comes Kenneth Arnold on June 24, 1947 with his reports interpreted as “flying saucers”, the fulcrum around which we like to talk about modern sightings of unidentified flying objects. One can certainly traipse through history and find countless examples of folks seeing airborne oddities and reinterpreting them in hindsight as alien visitations, but these critters that perpetuated the whole modernist UFO oeuvre were peculiarly technological. This worried the Cold-War kids as the contemporary competition seemed to be who could invent a way to kill the most people the fastest and then not use it. Bonus points for avoiding the whole nuclear apocalypse thing. Yet there is always the temptation to equate historical encounters with weird aerial phenomena to our notion that wacky aliens are buzzing us in their souped-up interstellar drag racers, mocking us by refusing to pose for pictures, and generally making themselves a radar nuisance. Before manned flight became the next big thing, it seems folks took apparitions in the sky in stride, certainly remarking on them, jotting down a few observations, and then turning to matters of consequence like the rising price of salted codfish. I mean, bizarre phenomena are all well and good, but you’ve got to get the crops planted, hope the crick don’t rise, and keep an eye on the restless natives.
Now, your average Puritan was pretty sober. Stoic even. You have to be if you’re going to wear those pointy shoes with the buckles. And especially if that’s what impressed the Puritan girls back then. And English Puritan lawyer John Winthrop (1587-1649) was one stoic dude. Born to a wealthy landowning and merchant family in Suffolk, England, he got hooked up with the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1629, right as the anti-Puritan King Charles I started knocking around religious non-conformist heads. In October 1629 he was elected governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and by 1630 led a bunch of Puritan colonists on a cruise to the New World. Between 1629 and his death in 1649, he served 19 annual terms as governor or lieutenant-governor and was a voice of moderation in the religiously conservative colony. His poll numbers would put modern politicians to shame. Luckily, Winthrop was also quite the prolific writer and penned one of our leading historical accounts of the early colonial period in the form of his journal. Buried amongst the copious entries in his record of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, he seemed to have noticed a spate of what today would be called “close encounters”.
1639 Entry in John Winthrop’s Journal – “In this year one James Everell, a sober, discreet man, and two others, saw a great light in the night at Muddy River. When it stood still, it flamed up, and was about three yards square; when it ran, it was contracted into the figure of a swine; it ran as swift as an arrow towards Charlton, and so up and down about two or three hours. They were come down in their lighter about a mile, and, when it was over, they found themselves carried quite back against the tide to the place they came from. Diverse other credible persons saw the same light, after, about the same place” (Winthrop, 1908 ed.).
Obviously, as most of us are not well versed in New England Puritan cultural idioms, “contracting into the figure of a swine” seems a little outside our parlance, but a general reading tells us that funky lights rose up from the Muddy River (near modern day Brookline, MA), and zipped around for a few hours, including the strange little fact of missing time (or reversal of current) reported by James Everell. If you wanted to speculate about this being the first case of alien abduction, you might find these details tantalizing. Perhaps they just dug the shoes. Five years later, Winthrop would record another sighting.
1644 Entry in John Winthrop’s Journal – “About midnight, three men, coming in a boat to Boston, saw two lights arise out of the water near the north point of the town cove, in form like a man, and went at a small distance to the town, and so to the south point, and there vanished away. They saw them about a quarter of an hour, being between the town and the governor’s garden. The like was seen by many, a week after, arising about Castle Island and in one fifth of an hour came to John Gallop’s point” (Winthrop, 1908 ed.).
Oh, now we’ve got unidentified submersible objects cruising around Boston. Curiously, they are described as “in form like a man”, which seems more ghostly than anything else. No self-respecting UFO is going to take human form. All your alien friends would make fun of you. Although, perhaps we could say the same thing for the flaming swine of Muddy River. When another strange sighting occurred a week later in 1644, Winthrop had clearly had enough, and decided to try his hand at a plausible (although still involving the preternatural) explanation.
1644 Entry in John Winthrop’s Journal (a week later) – “The 18th of this month two lights were seen near Boston, (as is before mentioned,) and a week after the like was seen again. A light like the moon arose about the N. E. point in Boston, and met the former at Nottles Island, and there they closed in one, and then parted, and closed and parted divers times, and so went over the hill in the island and vanished. Sometimes they shot out flames and sometimes sparkles. This was about eight of the clock in the evening, and was seen by many. About the same time a voice was heard upon the water between Boston and Dorchester, calling out in a most dreadful manner, boy, boy, come away, come away: and it suddenly shifted from one place to another a great distance, about twenty times. It was heard by diverse godly persons. About 14 days after, the same voice in the same dreadful manner was heard by others on the other side of the town towards Nottles Island. These prodigies having some reference to the place where Captain Chaddock’s pinnace was blown up a little before, gave occasion of speech of that man who was the cause of it, who professed himself to have skill in necromancy, and to have done some strange things in his way from Virginia hither, and was suspected to have murdered his master there; but the magistrates here had not notice of him till after he was blown up. This is to be observed that his fellows were all found, and others who were blown up in the former ship were also found, and others also who have miscarried by drowning, etc., have usually been found, but this man was never found” (Winthrop, 1908 ed.).
Crazy lights coming and going aren’t very inspiring, unless one can attach cultural significance to them. Narrative gives us something to hold on to. Perhaps this is why the famous alien abduction and contact cases are so much more important to the field of ufology than blurry pictures and radar blips. If you see a shape in the sky, it may very well be an oddity, but it’s harder to appreciate something that doesn’t explain its significance to us. And we are fundamentally lazy when it comes to bobbing for existential apples. If aliens abduct you and tell you “we come in peace” and “we’ll just take a few samples from you for science” – well you’ve got yourself a good plot line. Maybe strange visitors from other places (aliens, ghosts, interdimensional creatures, time travelers) have been dropping in for millennia. And maybe they just find us tedious. If I was a hard-partying galactic traveler and stumbled into a Puritan colony, I’d go elsewhere looking for the cool kids, too. The Cossacks were raising a ruckus on the other side of the Urals at the time, headed for the Pacific. And there ain’t no party like a Cossack party, ‘cause a Cossack party don’t stop. We’re undoubtedly the center of our own universe. Sadly, the universe probably doesn’t agree. And to us that’s likely more frightening than the prospect of (a) being alone in the universe, or (b) some grand intergalactic plan is in the works and we’re just not a consequential element of it. As Jay Leno observed, “How would it be if we discovered that aliens only stopped by earth to let their kids take a leak?”
Jameson, J. Franklin (John Franklin), 1859-1937, and American Historical Association. Original Narratives of Early American History. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1906.
Winthrop, John, 1588-1649. Winthrop’s Journal, “History of New England,” 1630-1649. New York: Scribner’s sons, 1908.