Today, “unidentified flying objects” are usually associated with extraterrestrial spacecraft, but in the pre-space race days of the 1940’s, they also had a different interpretation: the Cold War was raging, and it was assumed by many that the “discs” were actually some sort of secret Soviet aircraft, on surveillance missions over the US. By the 1950s, however, thanks to scifi movies and sensational books, the idea of UFOs as ET spacecraft was firmly fixed in the public’s imagination. And it was sealed forever by a famous report from Kentucky which made the phrase “Little Green Men” world-famous.
"Hidden History" is a diary series that explores forgotten and little-known areas of history.
The incident happened on August 21, 1955. On that day, Billy Ray Taylor had arrived from Pennsylvania to visit with his friend Elmer “Lucky” Sutton: the two had worked together as circus carnies. Sutton and nine other family members lived in a small wood-frame house without electricity or plumbing in the tiny village of Kelly KY, just outside the town of Hopkinsville. If anyone had ever heard of Hopkinsville before, it was because the Ebolite Factory there produced over half of all the bowling balls made in the USA.
At about 7 that night, Taylor went outside to get water from the well, and saw a glowing object streak across the sky. He told the police it was “real bright, with an exhaust all the colors of the rainbow”, and it silently crossed the sky before hovering and landing behind a ridge in the backyard. He told the newspapers it had made a “semi-hissing sound”.
In any case, Taylor says he went back inside and told the others, who didn’t believe him. About an hour later, however, after it got dark, the dogs started barking, and Taylor and Lucky Sutton went outside to investigate. In the fading sunlight (the house had no electric lights) they saw a small creature, a little over three feet tall, moving towards them. They later told the newspaper it had an “oversized head... almost perfectly round... arms extended almost to the ground... hands had talons... and eyes glowed with a yellowish light.”
Running back inside, the pair grabbed a 20-gauge shotgun and a .22 rifle and confronted the creature. It had its arms raised over its head, and the moonlight seemed to be reflecting off some sort of “silver metal” suit. Another description said it had “large pointed ears, clawlike hands, eyes that glowed yellow and spindly legs”. When the men shot at it, the creature reportedly flipped to the ground, then got up and retreated into the darkness.
As Lucky and Taylor ran back into the house, another creature appeared in the window, looking inside. Glennie Lankford told investigators: “It looked like a five-gallon gasoline can with a head on top and small legs. It was a shimmering bright metal like on my refrigerator.” Another creature was then seen walking towards the door and, like the others, when it was shot at it “flipped” and retreated. At one point as Lucky was standing on the porch, a clawlike hand reached down and tried to grab his hair, and shortly later Lucky shot at another creature in a tree, which, he said, floated to the ground and disappeared into the dark.
After that, everyone retreated into the house, where they stayed for the next several hours, seeing nothing more but reportedly hearing occasional scratching on the roof.
At around 11pm, they decided it was safe enough to run outside, get in their cars and drive into town. When they reached the police station they were, the police reports noted, all visibly terrified (one person had their pulse measured at 140 beats a minute). “We need help,” one of them said. “We’ve been fighting them for nearly four hours.”
The police, not knowing what to make of the story but concerned over the gunfire, dispatched a group of about a dozen men to the house, consisting of local police chief Russell Greenwell, two Kentucky State Troopers, a Deputy Sheriff, and four US Army MPs from nearby Fort Campbell (later mistakenly reported as “Air Force investigators”). They saw no aliens or spaceship or any kind of prints, but the early newspaper accounts said they found one bullet hole in the window screen. The police later declared it looked like it had come from a .22-caliber bullet.
During the search, one newspaper reported, one of the officers accidentally stepped on a cat in the dark, which let out a loud yowl. “For a few seconds,” the paper said, “there was much activity and scurrying around on the part of those present.”
The cops all left at about 2am, after having found nothing. Then, about 90 minutes later, Glennie Lankford saw another little creature peering into her bedroom window with a clawlike hand resting on the window screen. It disappeared when she screamed, and there were no further incidents.
The next morning, the story was covered in the local newspaper, the Kentucky New Era, and was picked up by the news services and went out all over the world. Newspapermen from all over the country poured into Hopkinsville, and many more people game to gawk. The Suttons quickly cashed in on the opportunity and began charging admission for people to tour the property and see where the “Little Green Men” had landed. (The original reports did not mention green aliens, but later press reports, particularly those who referred to the diminutive creatures as “Goblins”, embellished the tale with that detail, and the phrase quickly entered UFO lore.)
Many of the accounts presented later in various books and movies have been exaggerated. Some stories have at least ten or twelve “aliens” surrounding the house, but the original accounts never mentioned seeing more than two at any one time. Later stories also described a wild firefight that lasted for hours, but according to the original reports the police found only one bullet hole and the neighbor had only heard four shots, which he thought were just firecrackers. Despite the fact that there were a dozen people in the house, including several children, it has never been clear exactly how many of them actually saw any “goblins” or “aliens”. Apparently Sutton, Taylor and Lankford were the only ones who gave written descriptions to the police.
Skeptics have found explanations for at least parts of the story. The Perseids meteor shower happened to be going on in August 1955, and many people in Kentucky reported seeing meteors and fireballs that night. Some investigators have pointed to some details, such as the small stature, claws, large ears, yellow eyes, “arms” held over the head, scratching on the roof, and the apparent ability of the aliens to “float” silently from tree to ground, as indicating that the “creatures” were actually Great Horned Owls. Adult Horned Owls stand about two feet tall, with strikingly large yellow eyes, and breeding pairs will often vigorously defend their nests, going so far as to attack the heads of human interlopers.
Since the Hopkinsville incident was the first widely-known report that described presumed space aliens (most of the previous sightings were of typical flying saucer craft and did not mention any occupants, though some prominent scifi authors had written stories with little space-suited aliens), it quickly became the cultural archetype for nearly all future “close encounters”, and most witnesses who described space aliens in later incidents depicted them as little humanoids in silvery suits, sometimes with reptilian green skin. This would continue until Betty and Barney Hill had their world-famous alien abduction, and especially after the 1977 blockbuster movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. After this, the most common description of space aliens and UFO occupants changed abruptly from Hopkinsville’s “little green men” to Hill and Hollywood’s “grey aliens”. The fact that the appearance of reported space aliens seems to change as the popular cultural image changes, may have implications for their presumed reality.
The little town of Kelly KY, meanwhile, now throws a “Little Green Men Days” Festival every August.
NOTE: As some of you already know, all of my diaries here are draft chapters for a number of books I am working on. So I welcome any corrections you may have, whether it's typos or places that are unclear or factual errors. I think of y'all as my pre-publication editors and proofreaders. ;)