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Mysterious Entities of the Pacific Northwest, Part II

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 31.2, March / April 2007

In Part I (SI, January/February 2007), Joe Nickell examined claims of two legendary Pacific Northwest creatures, Sasquatch and Cadborosaurus. Part II continues with aliens (including a fresh look at the historic 1947 Arnold “flying saucer” sighting) and ghosts (featuring an on-site investigation of the “haunted” Alaskan Hotel in Juneau.

Aliens

Some assume that UFOs are a modern invention, but since ancient times men have reported seeing strange things in the sky. An increasing interest in air machines no doubt helped promote reports of strange “airships” in the 1890s. After World War I, “the world’s first ufologist,” Charles Fort, stirred interest in mysterious phenomena, including unidentified objects in the sky that Fort believed indicated visits from space aliens (Clark 1992, 21—23). In the 1920s through the 1940s, science-fiction pulp magazines became popular, especially Amazing Stories which debuted in 1929. When its circulation lagged, a new editor, Ray Palmer, boosted sales with wild stories of extraterrestrial visitations and decorated the covers with occasional illustrations of strange, circular spaceships (Baker and Nickell 1992, 186—187, 261—266; Clark 1992, 78).

The term flying saucers was coined after a sighting—in the Pacific Northwest—that triggered the modern wave of UFOs. On June 24, 1947, businessman Kenneth Arnold was flying his private airplane over the Cascade Mountains in Washington State when he saw a chain of nine tailless objects streaking south over Mount Baker and heading for Mount Rainier, each flying with a motion like “a saucer skipped across water” (quoted in Ruppelt 1956, 27). The name “flying saucers” was thus born, and Ray Palmer’s fiction had become a reality. By the following year, Palmer had helped create Fate, a mystery-mongering magazine that promoted UFOs and other “true” mysteries (as it continues to do today) (Clark 1992, 6—8; Nickell 1995, 192; Baker and Nickell 1992, 186—187). Palmer went on to co-author a book with Arnold, The Coming of the Saucers (1952).

Skeptics have put forth numerous explanations for Arnold’s UFOs: balloons, airplanes, hoaxes, hallucinations, mountain-top mirages, birds, droplets of water on the plane’s windshield, etc. (Maccabee 1995; Story 2001, 87—89). Arnold claimed he had viewed the objects carefully, even opening his window and taking off his glasses. He calculated the objects’ speed at 1,200 to 1,700 mph, an incredible figure.

Edward J. Ruppelt, former head of the U.S. Air Force’s Project Blue Book, which investigated UFOs, wrote of the controversy, noting two factions’ arguments at the Air Technical Intelligence Center (ATIC). One side thought Arnold simply saw jet airplanes flying in formation:

The “Arnold-saw-airplanes” faction maintained that since Arnold said that the objects were 45 to 50 feet long they would have had to be much closer than he had estimated or he couldn’t even have seen them at all. Since they were much closer than he estimated, Arnold’s timed speed was all wrong and instead of going 1,700 miles per hour the objects were traveling at a speed closer to 400 miles per hour, the speed of a jet. There was no reason to believe they weren’t jets. The jets appeared to have a skipping motion because Arnold had looked at them through layers of warm and cold air, like heat waves coming from a hot pavement that cause an object to shimmer. (Ruppelt 1956, 28)

The other faction at ATIC noted Arnold’s claim that the UFOs had passed behind one mountain peak, thus supposedly helping establish their correct distance from him. (This faction thus thought the objects must have been about 210 feet long instead of Arnold’s estimated 45 to 50 feet [Ruppelt 1956, 28—29]). However, physicist/UFOlogist Dr. Bruce Maccabee (1995, I:15) has noted: “Geological survey maps show that mountain peaks behind which the objects could have disappeared have altitudes of 5,000 to 6,000 feet. Thus it appears that they were lower than 6,000 feet and that Arnold overestimated their altitude.” More recently, other evidence has shown that Arnold must have been mistaken about the objects traveling behind a peak (Easton 2000).

Ruppelt himself noted that Arnold’s story had been “warped, twisted, and changed” by the “bards of saucerism.” He added (1956, 27): “Even some points in Arnold’s own account of his sighting as published in his book The Coming of the Saucers, do not jibe with what the official files say he told the Air Force in 1947.” Moreover, Arnold’s sighting is significantly different from that of another alleged eyewitness, one Fred Johnson, a prospector who claimed to have witnessed a string of UFOs when he was in the Cascade Mountains on the same day and at about the same time as Arnold flew over.

Johnson’s description of the objects differed significantly from Arnold’s in their number and appearance. He reported seeing five or six similar objects, one of which he looked at with his telescope. It was reflective, “oval,” an estimated thirty feet in length, and had a pointed end and apparent “tail” (that shifted from side to side). He estimated the objects were about one thousand feet above him (who was then about five thousand feet above sea level), making their altitude approximately six thousand feet. Johnson wrote that the “Last view I got of the objects they were standing on edge Banking in a Cloud,” [1] although Arnold’s account implies a cloudless sky.

Even if Johnson’s contradictory report is put aside—he may well have been a publicity-seeking false claimant—Arnold’s report alone demonstrates that there is no precise set of facts on which to draw a definitive conclusion as to what the “objects” were. It seems plausible that Arnold could have mistaken jet airplanes for unusual flying objects. He himself thought he had seen some newly developed government aircraft (Maccabee 1995, 1:14). However, the Air Force disavowed ownership of the objects.

James Easton (2000) has ventured an explanation that begins with Arnold’s obvious distance-size-speed misperceptions and his likening the objects’ flight characteristics to “a formation of geese” (Arnold and Palmer 1952, 11). Easton’s suspects are the very large American white pelicans, who are among the largest birds in the world, are “highly reflective,” fly at high altitudes, and employ a distinctive undulating flying motion, flapping and gliding, that compares well with Arnold’s statement that the UFOs “fluttered and sailed” (qtd. in Maccabee 1995, 1:16).

Indeed, not longer after the Arnold-Johnson sightings, on July 2, “a veteran Northwest Airlines pilot who has flown over the Pacific northwest’s ‘flying saucer’ country for 15 years” spotted nine “big round discs weaving northward two thousand feet below us.” Capt. Gordon Moore (1947) stated, “We investigated and found they were real all right—real pelicans.”

Still, not only UFO proponents but also many skeptics doubt the pelican scenario. I interviewed Major James McGaha (USAF ret.)—a pilot, UFO expert, and director of the Grasslands Observatory in Tucson, Arizona. He thinks a much more likely explanation for Arnold’s UFOs (he dismisses Johnson as a probable copycat) is “mountain-top mirages” (see Hendry 1979, 69). McGaha notes that the conditions under which Arnold saw the strange objects—clear skies, smooth air, a potential temperature inversion—were ideal for producing mirage effects. So was the angle of the sun: 50.4 degrees from the horizon. Arnold’s insistence that the objects were “flying very close to the mountain tops” and seemingly “swerved in and out of the high mountain peaks” (Arnold and Palmer 1952, 10, 12) is fully consistent with the mirage hypothesis, states McGaha (2006).

In any event, the Arnold case is instructive. The implication of UFO proponents that—because the objects are “unidentified” and the incident “unexplained”—the Arnold sighting is therefore evidence of extraterrestrial visitation is absurd. Not only is such an attitude mystery mongering, but it is also an example of a logical fallacy called arguing from ignorance: One cannot draw a conclusion from a lack of knowledge. The problem is not a failure of science nor of excessive skepticism but rather Arnold’s own conflicting versions of what he saw and the serious misperceptions he quite obviously made. Such is often the case with reports of alien sightings.

Ghosts

Spirits of the dead are among the supernatural beings historically encountered by Native Americans. Alaskan Eskimos, according to a Smithsonian ethnography report (Murdoch 1885), often used weapons to fend off ghosts, even carrying a drawn knife for protection when traveling at night. One villager had set up a contrivance to protect his house: it had a dangling cord with a handle, supposedly helping a ghost get inside, but then pulling down on its head a large knife fastened to the wall. In 1883 U.S. Army Lieutenant P.H. Ray witnessed Eskimo villagers at Point Barrow engaged in expelling a ghost from a house. Several women stood at the door, swinging knives and clubs, while people inside worked to chase the ghost outside.

Today, not even weapons, apparently, can rid Juneau’s Alaskan Hotel of its ghosts, one of whom was allegedly even created by an angry man’s vengeful axe. Built in 1913 as a hotel and bordello (legalized prostitution only ended in 1956), the Alaskan experienced a colorful history before declining (under the name Northlander Hotel, beginning in 1961) and finally being condemned in 1977. It was subsequently restored and, in 1981, placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

On May 31, 2006, when our cruise ship made a stopover in Juneau (and I gave a scheduled talk and radio interview), I was able to tour the area courtesy of Michael S. Stekoll, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, University of Alaska Southeast. We stopped to investigate the historic “haunted” hotel, where we were given a tour by owner Bettye Adams and her son Joshua (see figure 1).

The Adamses and their excitable staff report various ghostly goings-on in several rooms of the Alaskan. In number 311, a manager having died there the previous February, staff members believe they can sense a ghostly presence, a subjective impression I was unable to share. Room 313 had yielded a photo by a former resident that showed several “orbs,” bright spheres believed by many to be a form of “spirit energy”; actually, however, when they are not mere reflections from shiny surfaces, orbs commonly result from the camera’s flash having rebounded from dust particles or water droplets close to the lens (Nickell 2006, 25).

It is room 315, however, that is most discussed, although the phantom habitué is supposedly the same as “the specter in room 321” and elsewhere in the hotel, according to the author of Haunted Alaska, Ron Wendt (2002, 71). He elaborates (2002, 73):

The ghost of the Alaskan Hotel carries a tragic story. In life, she was once the bride of a gold prospector. The man told her he was going to the Haines area to search for gold. He put her up at the Alaskan Hotel and said he would return in three weeks.

When her husband failed to return, the woman became desperate. She was out of money and had nowhere to run. An acquaintance told her there was a way she could support herself, and so she turned to prostitution.

About three months later, the miner returned. When he found out that his wife had been working as a prostitute, he killed her at the hotel.

Although the names of these dramatis personae are unrecorded, someone has, somehow, learned the woman’s name was Alice and that her husband killed her with “a hatchet” dislodged “from beneath his waistcoat” (Adams 2006, 5—6). But wait: maybe it was really a revolver with which he “shot her dead in that very room”—room 315 (Adams n.d., 56). Sources are also unsure whether the man was really the woman’s husband or merely her suitor; they are equally uncertain as to whether he was indeed a miner or instead “captain of his own fishing boat” who “went out to fish and possibly to whale” [2] (Adams n.d., 55).

According to the latter version, inexplicably, while at sea, this captain heard rumors of his girlfriend’s infidelity, and attempted to return to Juneau in a storm. According to a version of the story that does not involve murder (Adams n.d., 55—56):

Death came quickly to all beneath the turbulent waves, but the man continued, unhindered by flesh. He knocked, bodiless at the door, but none answered. So they say that the man simply stays there, waiting for his love to answer him, right around the time of month that he died.

Or so “they say.”

That there are proliferating versions of this story is at once evidence of folklore in the making and reason to be skeptical of its historicity. Its basic folk motifs (or story elements)—involving unfaithfulness, revenge, tragedy, and haunting [3]—persist, even when the factual details are questionable.

Figure 2. Joe Nickell looks for ghosts at the Alaskan Hotel. (Author’s photo by Michael S. Stekoll.)

Figure 2. Joe Nickell looks for ghosts at the Alaskan Hotel. (Author’s photo by Michael S. Stekoll.)

Some form of the ghost tale apparently traces back at least to the time the building was called The Northlander Hotel and Marguerite Franklin was owner. She gave a discounted rate on the “haunted” room to a young, poor employee who worked the “graveyard” shift (midnight to eight a.m.). That woman soon reportedly sensed the presence of a “smelly fisherman,” even hearing his creaking footsteps and heavy breathing as well as smelling him. She seems to have been an impressionable, possibly even “fantasy-prone,” young lady who may have had “waking dreams,” which occur in the twilight between being fully asleep or awake (Nickell 1995, 40—42). Or, since she slept during the daytime, one wonders if she might merely have perceived the occasional hotel guest in the hallway. Supposedly the incidents occurred from the 24th to the 30th of each month, but there is no convincing record of such consistency (Adams n.d., 55—56).

As to reported apparitions, those are said to be of the legendary woman-turned-prostitute. States Wendt (2002, 71), “Witnesses have observed her walking down the hall, then simply vanishing from sight.” My own investigations as well as research data demonstrates that such experiences often derive from altered states of consciousness, such as when a person is tired or in a relaxed state or performing routine chores, etc. In imaginative individuals a mental image might be superimposed upon the visual scene, sort of a mental double exposure (Nickell 2000, 18).

Certainly, the Alaskan Hotel’s ghosts seem to have much in common with those alleged at other “haunted” sites as well as with other mysterious entities—monsters and aliens—of the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere. “Where do entities come from?” asked noted psychologist Robert A. Baker (in an afterword to Nickell 1995, 275). He answered, “from within the human head, where they are produced by the ever-active, image-creating human mind.”

Acknowledgments

In addition to individuals mentioned in the text, I appreciate the assistance of those who helped make the Alaskan cruise a success, notably Toni Van Pelt and Pat Beauchamp. I am also grateful to Susan Fitzgerald and Jeff Brown of KTOO-FM, Juneau. Also, CFI Libraries Director Timothy Binga once again provided valuable research assistance.

Notes

  1. Johnson gave two slightly differing and confusing accounts, one briefly written, the other summarized by an FBI agent who interviewed him at the request of the Air Force (Maccabee 1995, 3:6—7). I have attempted to harmonize the two versions. In the second Johnson stated he had a combination watch and compass and that, while the craft flew over, the compass needle oscillated unaccountably.
  2. Adams (2006) has also given the conflicting stories as two different incidents, attributing one to room 315, the other to 318.
  3. See for example, “Ghosts haunts place of great accident or misfortune” (motif E275), in Thompson 1955, 2:428.

References

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.