The 1879 Mothership UFO And Early New York Close Encounters

Marcus Lowth
Published Date
July 1, 2019
Last Updated
October 6, 2021
Estimated Reading Time
11 min read
Posted in
UFOs, Close Encounters

New York, the city and the state, has had its fair share of UFO sightings over the years. Needless to say, it consistently ranks high on the list of states in America to see such an event. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us, then, that such sightings are also on record dating back to the late 1700s over the Empire State.

A depiction of a UFO over late 1800s New York

A depiction of a UFO over late 1800s New York

An incident in 1879 is perhaps one of the most significant of these early UFO and alien encounters in the state of New York as it was made public by the witness, himself a person of considerable standing in the community at the time. He essentially, risked his reputation to make the incident public knowledge.

Furthermore, the details of the incident perhaps suggest a presence with an interest in the affairs of humanity. One that goes back considerably longer than most might even begin to suspect. And what’s more, as well as the plethora of “lights in the sky” sightings, are accounts of nuts-and-bolts crafts, strange creatures, and even allegations of secret technology being utilized in an equally secret way.

The 1879 “Mothership” Incident

Without a doubt, one of the most intriguing such sightings took place over the skies of New York City on the evening of 12th going into the 13th April 1879. That evening, with clear skies, Henry Harrison, a Jersey City astronomer would spot a “glowing circular-shaped object” that appeared to hover high in the night sky.

However, as the object was seemingly remaining in position, Harrison theorized that it must, in fact, be “moving at great speed” [1] in order not to move out of sight like the stars, moon, and planets do as the Earth turns. Intrigued by this apparent aerial anomaly, Harrison would maintain watch over it for almost three hours before it would suddenly move to the east with great speed and a sharp, precise change of direction.

Henry Harrison blended into a depiction of a UFO

Did Henry Harrison witness a UFO in the late 1800s?

After ruling out a recent comet, Harrison would make the decision to report the sighting to an “established scientific authority”. As he himself was a member of the Toronto Astronomical Society, he not only believed it to be his duty but believed his report would be taken seriously.

The following day – on the 13th April – he would send a telegram of his report to the United States Naval Observatory in the nation’s capital, Washington D.C. However, rather than the serious investigation he expected, the director of the observatory, Asaph Hall III would simply ignore the telegram.

This would cause Harrison to take matters into his own hands, and very much into the public arena.

A Very Public Debate

In the 17th April 1879 edition of the New York Tribune, a “letter” of the sighting from Harrison was published. Furthermore, just short of a month later in the 10th May 1879 edition of Scientific American, Harrison’s letter was published once again, and perhaps more importantly to a much more concentrated scientific and influential audience.

While they were not always favorable, a landslide of letters and correspondence would arrive with Harrison following these publications. And although some accused him of “sloppy scientific reporting” or of simply mistakenly identifying Brorsen’s Comet (which he had actively dismissed), many other fellow astronomers were eager to learn more of the sighting and share their own thoughts.

A depiction of a UFO over late 1800s New York

A depiction of a UFO over late 1800s New York

Harrison would state that as well as circular the object he witnessed had a bell-shape to it. Furthermore, and most important in terms of dismissing the comet explanation, Harrison was adamant that the object was “moving under intelligent control”.

Far from being a lone voice, two other astronomers in the New York region, Spencer Devoe and Henry Pankhurst, would also report and make public their sightings of a very similar object on the same night in question.

Incidentally, when researcher, Morris K. Jessup later reexamined the incident, it was estimated the craft was around 80 to 100 miles above the surface of the city. Furthermore, it was estimated the craft was around half-a-mile across, hence researchers refer to the craft as a “mothership”.

If such a huge extraterrestrial craft was hovering over what would become the busiest metropolis in the world over the coming decades, just what was the purpose of their presence? And might they be the same intelligence behind the sightings that would begin in abundance from the late-1940s?

The 1790 Schoharie County Sighting

Almost a hundred years earlier on the evening of 30th June 1790 in the Schoharie County region of New York, a sighting of a “bright shining light” was reported. At a little after 9 pm, a local resident who had only recently settled in America from Germany [2] was sat on his porch enjoying the warm summer night while playing his fiddle, suddenly noticed the bright light while at the same time hearing a “great roar”.

The light continued to grow in brightness. So much so that the witness would liken it to the same brightness as the “noonday sun”.  The witness would further state that the object at first appeared similar to a meteorite as moved across the sky. However, it would soon level out and maintain the same altitude, at first disappearing on to the other side of a hollow (from which he could see its glow) and rising slightly to just above the treetops.

A depiction of a UFO over late 1800s New York

A depiction of a UFO over late 1800s New York

Furthermore, the speed of the object was similar to a “galloping horse” as it made its way over Owelus Sowless Hill (which would cause a further rise in its altitude) before disappearing into the distance.

Perhaps bizarrely – although we should remember the witness would have had to use objects familiar to him – is the physical description of the object. The German settler would claim it was around 300 yards in length and of a shape similar to a snake. However, instead of a head was a shape that looked similar to “the roots of a tree plucked up by force”. Even more intriguing is the description that the object also “closely resembled a welding hot iron and sparked similar to it”.

Indeed, to us in the modern age, this would certainly suggest some kind of technological propulsion system.

“Fabulous Stories” Of UFOs Commonplace As Far Back As The Late-Eighteenth Century

Perhaps even more remarkable are the witness’s remarks of a strange smell of “burning sulfur” (which comes up in many contemporary close encounters). Furthermore, this smell, also similar to burning tar, was still in the air for much of the following day, which is an indicator as to just how strong and thick the aroma must have been.

As was the considerable heat he felt from the object, as far away as he was from it, in his home. So hot, in fact, was this wave of heat, that his entire house was warmed through considerably.

A depiction of a UFO over late 1800s New York

A depiction of a UFO over late 1800s New York

The witness, who was part of the first wave of German settlers to the region, would make an official statement of the sighting on 23rd August 1823 to the Historical and Philosophical Society of the State of New York.

As a quick side note, whether of interest or not, the witness also mentioned that “superstitions and fabulous stories are often told of meteors, apparitions, and ghosts”. Not only, then, are such “meteors”, or UFOs, seemingly commonplace even back in the late-1700s, but other such anomalies as ghosts and apparitions are also closely tied to them. And given the source is from a German settler, this was almost certainly the case in Europe as well as the early days of America.

The Coney Island Mysteries

Maybe the sound of it, Coney Island, gives it a slightly ominous feel. The location, however, houses some of the most bizarre and unnerving pre-twentieth century encounters. The following are not strictly UFO incidents. They are, however, simply too intriguing and strange, in equal measure, to miss out. Especially when we consider the nearby location of the stomping ground of the Jersey Devil, for example.

According to a letter printed in the 12th December 1885 edition of The Carbon Advocate, an incident beginning ten days earlier “would show that the mermen of the sea are not all dead”.

According to the account, witnesses would see the merman on Coney Island Beach. Seemingly entering and leaving the water at pleasure. The strange creature had waist length, yellow hair, as well as yellow hair on his body that resembled a “horse’s mane”.

A depiction of a winged humanoid

A depiction of a winged humanoid

Perhaps even stranger are the reports from people at night. Who claim to have witnessed the strange man walking along the sand. However, when these witnesses would approach the man, he would into the waters and then simply disappear.

There was much debate among the local population as to whether there was a danger. Would the strange man carry off a child or attack a young man or woman. However, there was also a fear that the perpetrator could be a “harmless lunatic”. And so consequently, there was a reluctance to open fire by many in the community. Even if they did meet this strange man.

Whether this strange creature was some kind of anomalous aquatic-based humanoid or not, is perhaps open to debate for some. Others suggest that the sightings were likely secret testing of underwater swimming equipment. A previous incident at Coney Island had similar circumstances around it.

The Mysterious Flying Figure Off Coney Island’s Coast

Five years earlier, according to an account in the 12th September 1880 edition of the New York Times, a seemingly even more bizarre incident would unfold off Coney Island. The previous week, at an altitude of around 1,000 feet, a “man with a bat’s wings and improved frog’s legs” was witnessed by multiple people apparently flying towards New Jersey.

So clear was the day that many of witnesses could see the facial expressions on the aerial creature. These were described being of a “determined expression”. The story would also highlight the movements of the creature. And how they were completely in sympathy with the apparently feared Coney Island Monster.

A depiction of a winged humanoid

A depiction of a winged humanoid

Furthermore, the story would continue that a similar creature was witnessed over the skies of St. Louis, Missouri only a month previously. And shortly following that incident, reports of an identical sighting would come from around the state of Kentucky.

Perhaps interestingly, though, despite the comparisons to the Coney Island Monster, the writer of the article asserts that “there is no doubt” that the “creature” is, in fact, “a man fitted with practicable wings”. The writer would even go as far as to offer that the problem of “aerial navigation” had seemingly been solved.

One might expect, however, particularly given the age, that such a person had they truly made such an invention, would have shouted about it from the rooftops. Whether for the notoriety or the wealth, a quick patent of the invention would assure comfortability for life.

The theories as to why are almost as intriguing as the sightings themselves.

Aerial Technology Decades In Advance?

Why had no such technology or aerial invention not been patented? Why was there no public demonstrations? Indeed, if such an invention was true, why was the scientific world not aware of even prototypes before now? According to the writer of the New York Times article, the answer was obvious. They would claim them to be “engaged in some undertaking which he cannot safely proclaim”.

To put it bluntly, they were involved in criminal activity. Specifically, criminal activity from the air. However, such common crimes as burglary or theft would seemingly be impossible for the aerial villain to carry out. Not least as they would surely have difficulty in carrying off their loot. Besides, no crimes of such a nature were (at the time) unsolved.

What, then, might the reason be for such a secretive invention to take to the skies? The writer of the article at the time appears to suggest some kind of spying on the population. In order to highlight “immorality” and other questionable behaviors. Perhaps of more concern is the apparent endorsement of this alleged activity.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the sightings are indeed intriguing. And sit nicely in the many legends of the New York area. Only a very small amount we have examined here.

The 1904 “Devil Owl” Of The Bronx

Although it is technically a sighting of the twentieth century, the Bronx Park incident of June 1904 is interesting. Especially with the Coney Island incidents taken into account. They certainly deserve a place in our look at such early New York incidents.

The report in question appeared in the 22nd June 1904 edition of the New York Times. And would concern a “big brown owl” that was “scaring policemen” [3] in the Post 16 area of the Bronx. According to the story, Bronx Park Police Captain Wilson had enlisted the help of the Superintendent of the Zoological Gardens to aid in this task.

A depiction of a UFO in 1800s New York

A depiction of a UFO in 1800s New York

Although the newspaper would use the word “owl”, police officer, Patrick Hickey would state in the same story that:

It’s not an owl, it’s a devil with wings…six feet wide! And its ‘whoo’ is like a ghost in a graveyard…when it’s not growling beneath its breath!

Hickey would further state that he was “going to get transferred”. Certainly rather than come face to face with the creature again. His replacement would be in the role for a little over an hour when he witnessed the grotesque creature. According to the replacement officer it had “a stick on its claw”. It would use this to attempt to “smash my head”. He would further state:

I think it’s supernatural!

Needless to say, the replacement officer didn’t last much longer at the post before the need for another replacement.

A Beast, Like A Tall Man Who Takes The Form Of A Mountain Dwarf

Several more replacements for the post would arrive and just as quickly demand transfers away from the area. Walter Kane, for example, would request such a transfer shortly after arriving. The menacing creature would get so close to him it “knocked his helmet off” during his patrol.

Following that, Frank Campbell would encounter “something strange” on his second night at the post. Something that would fly out “from the trees and attack him”. He would make his report with a physical scratch across his face. In it, he would state he had encountered:

…a dark, flying object with four legs and two wings…the beast attacked me if it was a beast! … (It) has the resemblance of a tall, slim, man but at other times assumes the form of a mountain dwarf!

Two police officers would find the terrified young lady shortly after. Screaming as she ran down one of the streets in the area. When she calmed, her story was almost identical to the young man’s. A “wildcat with wings” had attempted to carry her off.

A depiction of a winged humanoid

A depiction of a winged humanoid

Whether they would ever capture the “big owl” is unknown. The sightings and attacks, however, would seemingly stop just as quickly as they began. There are obvious comparisons with the aforementioned Jersey Devil. Not least to the close proximity of New Jersey. Some researchers, however, point to the equally intriguing similarities with the Mothman sightings. Particularly of Point Pleasant from the mid-1960s.

Cross-Shaped UFO In The “Cramped Urban Setting” Of 1860s New York City

Around half a century earlier in March 1861, shortly after the inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln, another intriguing sighting would unfold over the city of New York. Although it was still far the New York we know today, New York City in the 1860s was already full of tall buildings and offered a “cramped urban setting” [4] for those who chose to reside there.

On this particular evening, in a slum house in an area named Five Points, Mrs. Kinder was looking towards a church out of the window of her room on the upper floor of the building. Much to her disbelief, moving across the sky was a strange cross-like object with a “flaming luminosity”. After waking him, her husband also witnessed the strange object.

The sky was clear and moonless, and both witnesses would watch the object until it vanished from sight.

A depiction of a UFO in 1800s New York

A depiction of a UFO in 1800s New York

Perhaps interestingly is the fact that the witness would seemingly tell of the sighting to a priest at the St. Peters Church in Jersey City, whose Baptismal records clearly show the account. Maybe the cross-like shape of the object convinced the witnesses it was a religious sighting. Or perhaps the mindset of people in that age – generally much more ardently religious – simply jumped (to them) to the logical conclusion.

Whether of consequence or not, at roughly the same time a large fire seemingly destroyed an entire block. One only six blocks away from the location of the sighting. Whether there is a connection to the sighting of the cross-shaped craft or not is open to debate. Or did the fire “illuminate the hull” of the craft? These all still intrigue researchers.

Strange Occurrences And Appearances Nothing New To New York Residents!

It is perfectly obvious that strange goings-on are most certainly not a recent phenomenon in the state of New York. Are the apparent long-standing and persistent reports of such incidents a consequence of the increased populations of the Empire State, especially in the New York City area? Or might it be that the development into the behemoth-like metropolis that the area is today much more in sympathy with these aerial anomalies?

And what should we make of the sightings of strange, winged, devil-like creatures? Are these sightings, much like the Jersey Devil a consequence of humanity encroaching onto territory once home to indigenous tribes. And the “legendary” creatures they lived in harmony with?

What is perhaps most interesting, although such phrases as UFOs or aliens, were not widely used at the time, the notion of strange happenings, bizarre flying objects, and suddenly appearing figures was not new to the people of New York in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We have merely touched on a small percentage of these strange occurrences here. A little more poking about in the archives would undoubtedly reveal more. Perhaps enough to fill out a volume in its own right.

Check out the video below. It looks at some of the sightings from before the twentieth century.


1 1879 UFO Mothership Was Over New York City, Cheryl Costa, Syracuse New Times, February 28th, 2014
2 A 1790 Colonial UFO Sighting, Cheryl Costa, Syracuse New Times, November 29th, 2014
3 New York Times, June 22nd, 1904
4 1861 UFO: The Five Points Incident, Cheryl Costa, Syracuse New Times, February 6th 2015

Marcus Lowth

Marcus Lowth is a writer with a love for UFOs, aliens, and the Ancient Astronaut Theory, to the paranormal, general conspiracies, and unsolved mysteries. He has been writing and researching with over 20 years of experience.

Marcus has been Editor-in-Chief for several years due to his excellent knowledge in these fields. Marcus also regularly appears as an expert on radio talk shows including Troubled Minds and Unexplained Radio discussing these topics.

Read Marcus' full bio.

You can contact Marcus via email.

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  • Lelisa Abdeta says:

    Thank you for your contribution on general history of developed nation..

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