This may be the first UFO photo ever taken. It’s half of a stereo photograph dating from 1871, showing a cigar-shaped ship over Mount Washington, N.H.
“Mystery airships” were floating ominously over America between 1896 and World War I, but neither the ships nor the witnesses had quite got the hang of things yet. In 1897 the Washington Times suggested that the dirigibles were “a reconnoitering party from Mars”; the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch agreed that “these may be visitors from Mars, fearful, at the last, of invading the planet they have been seeking.”
But other accounts said they were terrestrial airships piloted by mysterious humans. One of these supposedly told an Arkansas state senator that he was flying to Cuba to use his “Hotchkiss gun” to “kill Spaniards.” In Texas, witnesses told of meeting “five peculiarly dressed men” who had descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel; they had learned English from British explorer Hugh Willoughby’s ill-fated 1553 expedition to the North Pole.
Much of this is documented, but newspaper writers themselves were prone to practical jokes in that era, which makes the whole thing impossible to untangle. Plus, people seem to want to believe this stuff: In April 1897, hoaxers sent up a balloon made of tissue paper over Burlington, Iowa. The Des Moines Leader received reports that the ship had “red and green lights” and that “one reputable citizen swore he heard voices.” Oh well.