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Siege of ‘Little Green Men’: The 1955 Kelly, Kentucky, Incident

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 30.6, November / December 2006

On the night of August 21, 1955, during the heyday of flying-saucer reports, a western Kentucky family encountered—well, that is the question: what were the humanoid-like creatures that terrified a family at their farmhouse? What actually happened at Kelly, Kentucky, that evening?

For the fiftieth anniversary of the incident, I was invited to give a talk at a Little Green Men Festival in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, staged by its Chamber of Commerce. I determined to investigate the story that had caught the attention of the U.S. Air Force’s “Project Blue Book” (which investigated 12,000 UFO reports from 1952 to 1969) and that also inspired a novel (Karyl 2004), a video documentary (“Monsters” 2005), and even an X-Files comic book (“Crop” 1997).

My investigation included visiting the site in the company of UFOlogist and fellow invited speaker Peter Davenport. (We were each given a key to the city by Hopkinsville mayor Richard G. Liebe and chauffeured in his car on research jaunts by Rob Dollar.) I also obtained copies of original newspaper clippings at the Hopkinsville Public Library, conducted further research at the local museum, talked with witnesses to the events, studied detailed reports on the case, and much more. I even attended a Holiness Church tent revival, just down the road from the site of the Kelly incident, held in response to the Little Green Men Festival. Many of the congregation wore green T-shirts with the slogan “Son of Man Is Coming Back.” Pastor Wendell “Birdie” McCord (2005) told me, “I don’t know whether the green men is [sic] coming back, but I know the Son of Man is coming back.”

Background

On the evening of Sunday, August 21, 1955, present at the Sutton farmhouse at Kelly were eleven people: widowed family matriarch Glennie Lankford (50); her children, Lonnie (12), Charlton (10), and Mary (7); two sons from her previous marriage, Elmer “Lucky” Sutton (25) and John Charley “J.C.” Sutton (21), and their respective wives, Vera (29) and Alene (27); Alene’s brother, O.P. Baker (30 or 35); and a Pennsylvania couple, Billy Ray Taylor (21) and June Taylor (18). The Taylors, along with “Lucky” and Vera Sutton, had been visiting for a while, being occasional carnival workers.

Not all of the eleven were eyewitnesses to the most significant events. One of the women, apparently June Taylor, had been “too frightened to look” (Davis and Bloecher 1978, 14), and Lonnie Lankford (2005), speaking to me at age 62, said that, during the fracas, his mother had hidden him and his brother and sister under a bed.

About seven o’clock, Billy Ray Taylor was drawing water from the well when he saw a bright light streak across the sky and disappear beyond a tree line some distance from the house. According to researcher Isabel Davis, who investigated the case in 1956 (Davis and Bloecher 1978, 15), Billy Ray Taylor was different from the other eyewitnesses:

He had looked at the creatures with extravagant success. He was the only member of the group who appeared to arouse immediate doubt in everyone who talked to him. . . . Even among the family he had a low standing; when he first came into the house and reported a “spaceship,” they paid him no attention. Later, during the investigations, he basked in the limelight of publicity. He elaborated and embroidered his description of the creatures (though not his description of the “spaceship”) and eventually produced the most imaginative and least credible of the little-men sketches. Several skeptics who labeled the story a hoax referred to him as the probable originator. His behavior was in sharp contrast to that of the other witnesses, none of whom aroused such prompt suspicion in the investigators.

About an hour after Taylor reported his “flying saucer” sighting, a barking dog attracted him and “Lucky” Sutton outside. Spotting a creature, they darted into the house for a .22 rifle and shotgun, thus beginning a series of encounters that spanned the next three hours. Sometimes, the men fired at a scary face that appeared at a window; sometimes, they went outside, whereupon, on one occasion, Taylor’s hair was grabbed by a huge, clawlike hand. Once, the pair shot at a little creature that was on the roof and at another “in a nearby tree” that then “floated” to the ground. Either the creatures were impervious to gun blasts or the men’s aim was poor, since no creature was killed.

After a lull in the “battle,” everyone piled into their cars and drove eight miles south to Hopkinsville’s police headquarters. Soon, more than a dozen officers—from city, county, and state law-enforcement agencies—had converged on the site. Their search yielded nothing, apart from a hole in a window screen. There were “no tracks of ‘little men,’ nor was there any mark indicating anything had landed at the described spot behind the house.” By the following day, reportedly, the U.S. Air Force was involved ([Dorris] 1955) but ultimately listed the case as “unidentified” (Clark 1998).

Aliens?

Figure 2. Lonnie Lankford was only twelve when the “Little Green Men” incident occurred.

Figure 2. Lonnie Lankford was only twelve when the “Little Green Men” incident occurred.

The earliest articles on the incident did not refer to “Little green men.” That color was apparently later injected by the national media, although “Lucky” Sutton’s son now says his father described them as “silver” with “a greenish silver glow” (“It Came” 2005, 8, 10).

Other details are also somewhat fuzzy. The beings were described in the first newspaper story as “about four feet tall,” having “big heads” with “huge eyes,” and “long arms” ([Dorris] 1955). However, they were downsized by Glennie Lankford (1955) to “two and a half feet tall” and were said to have large pointed ears, clawlike hands (with talons at the fingers’ ends), and eyes that glowed (or shone) yellow. They also had “spindly,” inflexible legs (Clark 1998; Davis and Bloecher 1978, 1, 28).

Although the earliest published story claims there were twelve to fifteen creatures, the fact is that in only one instance did the eyewitnesses see more than one creature, and that was the time (mentioned earlier) when a pair was spotted (one on the roof, one in a tree) (Clark 1998; Davis and Bloecher 1978, 18, 27).

From the outset, people offered their proposed solutions to the mystery. In addition to those who thought it was a hoax, some attributed the affair to alcohol intoxication. I talked with one of the original investigators, former Kentucky state trooper R.N. Ferguson (2005), who thought people there had been drinking, although he conceded he saw no evidence of that at the site. He told me he believed the monsters “came in a container” (i.e., a can or bottle of alcohol). A visitor to the farm the next day did notice “a few beer cans in a rubbish basket” (Davis and Bloecher 1978, 35). Whether or not drinking was involved, it was not responsible for the “saucer” sighting; other UFOs were witnessed in the area that evening (Davis and Bloecher 1978, 33). (More on this later.)

Monkeys represented another “theory.” Supposedly, one or more monkeys had escaped either from a zoo or a traveling circus. However, there was never any credible evidence of such an escape (Clark 1998; Carlton 2005). The search for a terrestrial explanation of the incident would have to continue.

Solution

Figure 3. The author is “kidnapped” by “aliens” at the fiftieth-anniversary festival of the incident in Kelly, Kentucky.

Figure 3. The author is “kidnapped” by “aliens” at the fiftieth-anniversary festival of the incident in Kelly, Kentucky.

I long ago recognized the Kelly flap as being very similar to two alleged alien-encounter incidents that occurred in West Virginia, the 1952 appearance of the “Flatwoods Monster” and the 1966 “Mothman” sightings—the first convincingly identified as a barn owl (Nickell 2000), the second as a barred owl (Nickell 2002).

A year after my Flatwoods Monster article appeared in Skeptical Inquirer, a young French UFOlogist, Renaud Leclet, wrote articles on the Flatwoods and Kelly cases. He concurred with my determination in the former case, and now I can return the favor in the latter. I had suspected owls in the Kelly case, but—since I prefer to investigate on site—I was awaiting an opportunity to visit the area; that came with my invitation to speak at the fiftieth-anniversary celebration of the event. By then, Leclet had ventured to identify the Kelly entities from afar.

Although he and I have reached the same conclusion, he refers to the creature as an “eagle owl” (Leclet 2001), a designation for the genus Bubo that is not generally used by most authorities when specifically referring to the species Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)—popularly called a “hoot owl.” (See, for example, National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Eastern Region [Bull and Ferrand 1994].) Confusion can thus occur. [1]

Echoing descriptions of the Kelly “little men,” the Great Horned Owl has a height of some 25 inches; very large, staring, yellow eyes; long ear tufts; a large head, set (without apparent neck) on its shoulders; a light-grey underside; long wings that, seen on edge, could be mistaken for arms; spindly legs; claws with talons; and so on (“Great” 2006; Bull and Ferrand 1994). An owl could be on a roof or in a tree and be perceived to “float” to the ground. As to their behavior, Great Horned Owls are “extremely aggressive when defending the nest,” and their activity typically “begins at dusk” (“Great” 2006).

Although some accounts claim the little beings “glowed,” Glennie Lankford, in her statement (1955), actually used the word shining. That might have been simply an effect caused by the farm lights.

As to the “flying saucer” sighting that preceded the encounter, there were area sightings of “meteors” at the time (Davis and Bloecher 1978, 33—34, 61—62). Most likely what was witnessed was a very bright meteor (or “fireball”).

In summary, allowing for the heightened expectation prompted by the earlier “flying-saucer” sighting, and for the effects of excitement and nighttime viewing, it seems likely that the famous 1955 Kelly incident is easily explained by a meteor and a pair of territorial owls.

What a hoot!

Acknowledgments

In addition to those mentioned in the text, I am grateful to Betsy Bond and her colleagues at the Hopkinsville-Christian County Chamber of Commerce and all the other area folk who assisted me in my work, notably Donna K. Stone of the Pennyroyal Area Museum in Hopkinsville and William Turner, county historian with the Christian County Historical Society. I am as usual grateful to CFI Libraries director Tim Binga, and also library assistant Lisa Nolan, for research assistance.

Note

  1. For example, somehow Leclet (2001) reports “eagle owls” as having facial discs that are “white,” whereas those of Great Horned Owls are yellow (or “tawny-buff”: see “Great” 2006).

References

Joe Nickell

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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.