In this special Black Friday edition of RVA Reader, Phil Ford tells us all about his long-running obsession with the time so long ago that meat rained down from a clear sky in Kentucky.
It is that obsessive moment when you discover something you are compelled to completely explore, no matter how twisted or odd, and perhaps consistently look back toward the rest of your life. I have had this problem with the Kennedy Assassination, Jack the Ripper, Bigfoot, and Area 51. I may need to place blame on one of the first non-fiction books I read in my youth. That one summer when I was thirteen, sitting by the community swimming pool reading Vincent Bugliosi’s book on the Manson Family murders. Helter Skelter may have warped me for life. Such are the paths of our interests.
Still, I never thought being in a rock band would lead me to learning so much about the rare weather event known as a meat rain. Our rehearsal space was in a long standing garage door business warehouse called Garbers of Richmond. Each space was about the size of a bedroom, and we all shacked up and shared so that in any given spot, you can have 6-8 bands in the space, working out schedules and sharing rent. There was a degree of camaraderie in multiple complaints of the carpet smelling of beer and baby diapers, which nothing is done to remedy.
It was a mold dungeon; cold in winter, sweaty in summer. Tacked set-lists randomly splayed on the walls between precariously stacked gear and hand written notes to the fellow rent sharers about recycling the beer cans with the appropriate header, “Hey, Space People.” On any given evening, you could hear tons of bands belting their mood from the wood-paneled catacombs of the basement. From obnoxious redneck metal to pirate ballad folk punk to the robotic synth pop of some guy looking to be the next big thing – the spot was absolutely communal.
After practice one evening, our bassist showed me the set list of his other band. As I read through the weird titles of their songs, the glorious moment of my first knowledge of the Kentucky Meat Shower happened.
The general story goes like this this: At two in the afternoon on March 3rd, 1876 on Allen Crouch’s farm, just south of Olympia Springs Kentucky, it rained bits of flesh over a pasture about the size of a football field for a few minutes. According to the first report, taken from the March 10th, 1876 special dispatch of the New York Times, Mrs. Crouch was making soap in the yard when the meat began to fall around her. She said they were like “large snowflakes” but one piece that fell near her was “three or four inches square.”
Wait, what? Did I just hear that it rained meat? Getting past the initial reaction that perhaps many of us may feel, which is a resounding “Ew” (extend vocally as long as you like), my next reaction was curiosity. I have heard the familiar, well-documented supernatural tales such as frogs falling from the sky, or even fish, but flesh showers has an abhorrent apocalyptic vibe to it.
I picture myself being there during that awfully glorious moment. It’s a nice spring day, the sun is out, the cows are mooing in the distance, and I am making soap. I start to hear the familiar subtle moist plops of rain and think a nice sun shower may be in the works; perhaps I’ll see a rainbow as I look up to the heavens. There must have been a strange combination of horror and confusion upon seeing flesh land on the clothes, the wire fences, the chicken coop, a forehead. How on earth would a 19th century person process this?
Amazement? Confusion? The reaction must be similar to how anyone would hear the story, but curiosity seems to be what struck the folks of Bath County, Kentucky the most. Where did it come from? What kind of meat was it?
As the news spread, all sorts of theories began to be published. This has not changed in over 130 years. I did the trusty Google search at my first opportunity, because, yes, I must know more about this. In fact, I must know everything possible about this.
The story is well-trodden ground in the kitschy media outlets these days, with television spots on MSNBC and the Travel Channel, blog bits on web junkie fodder sites like “Mental Floss,” and yes, even “America’s Test Kitchen” did a radio broadcast of the incident. In this day and age of flash-pan news reporting, I am bound to miss a story here and there, so I think the strange spring occurrence of 1876 was best learned through the yarn of a friend. The piquing of my interest was heightened to learn that the incident fell (so to speak) a day away from my birthday.
As I began to deepen my search, I found it had quite the press back in the day, and through the years, with articles in newspapers and Scientific American. I even found a photograph of a collected specimen. (It looks like a big chunk of bacon.) Therefore it is no surprise to learn that, on that spring day so long ago, two people actually tasted the meat. They came to the opinion that it may have been mutton or venison.
Okay, stop right there, I said to myself. Two gentlemen actually had the gall to put meat that fell from the sky, that looks like fatback, into their mouths?
My mind raced. Did they eat it raw? Cook it on a fire? Perhaps season it with a little pepper or garlic and butter?
Imagine the logic of those two fellows. They had a level of curiosity that crosses a boundary I would have never ventured past. They needed to know. They had a wonder with such impetus that eating this strange flesh was the only answer to their burning question: What is it?
Or maybe they were just the willing local hicks that would eat anything.
“Hey y’all, you heard that weird flesh bits rained all over the farm? Be careful not to step on any of it. Oh and by the way, Mutt and Jeff over there? They’re going to give it a swallow.” Those brave, stupid men. If you think about the long line of adventurous humans in the world, these two must fall somewhere between Sir John Franklin’s doomed Artic expedition to find the Northwest Passage and the American television show Jackass.
The ultimate question in all of this is, of course, what happened that would cause meat to rain? Did a sheep get sucked up into a tornado miles away, explode, then get scattered over the Crouch homestead? Did the regional army have an artillery battery of mess hall leftovers and they thought it would be really hilarious to shoot entrails at the locals?
There are several speculations, but I personally have two favorites — one being a reasonable answer, the other being the most fantastic.
The reasonable answer is that there was a flock of vultures flying overhead. The thing about certain vultures is that if one in the flock has eaten something bad, and starts to throw up, the others in the group follow suit. I get this great image of the scene in the film Stand By Me, where everyone begins to vomit at the end of a pie-eating contest. This is how I imagined the vultures — with little bibs on, having a complete barf-o-rama.
The more fantastic explanation, and the answer that I wish were really the truth, was speculated by a certain pioneer in anomalous phenomena named Charles Hoy Fort. Fort was one of the first persons to use scientific methods to find rational explanations for the unexplained. Parapsychology, cryptozoology, and even ufology all owe a nod to Fort’s efforts, the style of which has since earned the moniker Fortean.
In his first published nonfiction work, The Book of the Damned, he attempts to explain the unexplained. “A procession of the damned. By the damned, I mean excluded. We shall have a procession of data that Science has excluded.”
I love it – knowing this book will get weird, and it does. It is a thick dense read and full of pages upon pages of documentation of everything from strange lights in the sky to our beloved topic at hand, dubbed “The Kentucky Phenomenon.” Published in 1919, it is New Age wacky even before New Age was a thing.
Fort’s answer is astounding and hilarious, fantastic fodder that authors like Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft gorged upon. He begins his argument by referring to several speculative articles to answer the burning question about the incident. Theories are vast and far-reaching, from the New York Times hypothesizing that it was the dried spawn of a reptile, to the Scientific American postulating it to be those puking vultures. All are fairly reasonable for my modern tastes.
Then Fort waxes into the metaphysical realm: outer space, gelatinous skies. “That the twinkling of stars is penetration of light through something that quivers.” It is at this moment that my mind scrambles, I lose track of time and space, and I want to believe everything he tells me, because, well… real science is boring.
“Larval nexus,” “nostoc,” and “spawn” are not words to be taken lightly. His answer through all of this vocabulary of metaphysics is: meteorite. Or more creatively, sky jelly.
My revelation that a lot of fiction can be based on fact comes to bear, in my American culture, with the movie Creepshow. I think of Stephen King, in the role of the hick in “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” during the scene when he touches some ooze from a fallen meteor and comically delivers the line, “Meteor shit!”
It speaks to my inner child, screams at him to wake up. The kid that still lives in a world of fantasy, magic and imagination. The kid that wants to find the yeti while on expedition in the Far East, or reel in the Loch Ness Monster on a research boat in Scotland. The part of me that didn’t grow up learning facts, and wasn’t compromised by the complications of reality. Spin the yarn, tall the tale — believe in the unbelievable.
I most certainly have gotten a lot of mileage from the subject of the Kentucky Meat Rain. Not only have I passed the moistened tale along to anyone willing to listen, but I have also featured it in a radio show I co-host called Death Club Radio, in the Daily Something Weird segment of the program. The story truly is a jaw-dropper, and that is generally the first reaction.
I like to think of this story as the underbelly of Americana that Carl Sandberg may have intentionally overlooked when compiling his Treasury Of American Folklore. Fortunately, the legend lives on — and thrives, now that it has found a wider audience in Google searches, obscure diversionary media, and my own word of mouth. The stuff we take for granted in our culture often has an origin most strange, and it is only when we learn the history of them that they take on a deeper importance, no matter how bizarre it may be.
“Flesh Descending In A Shower.; An Astounding Phenomenon In Kentucky–Fresh Meat Like Mutton Or Venison Falling From A Clear Sky,” The New York Times. March 10, 1876.
“The Great Kentucky Meat Shower mystery unwound by projectile vulture vomit,” By Bec Crew, Scientific American, December 1, 2014.
The Book of the Damned: the Collected Works of Charles Fort, pages 44-50. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin Edition, 2008.
Top Photo via allthatsinteresting.com