In early autumn of 1903, something bizarre and terrifying happened in the town of Van Meter, Iowa. People have been talking about it ever since.
On the night of September 29th a farm implement salesman named U.G. Griffith was returning late from his rounds when he saw something odd. It was one o’clock in the morning. The town of Van Meter, population 900, had long since gone to bed. Nothing was stirring. Then Mr. Griffith saw a light burning on top of the two-story Mather and Gregg’s building on Main Street. The light was so bright it was like a beacon. Mr. Griffith drew closer to investigate, and, as he did so, the light jumped across the street and landed on top of another building. Mr. Griffith was astounded. What could it be? He took a couple of steps closer, and the light abruptly vanished.
Alcott and Dunn Encounter the Monster
The next night, September 30th, just before 12:27 a.m. the local town doctor, Dr. Alcott, was jolted from his sleep in the backroom of his office in downtown Van Meter by a bright light shining in his face. The source of the light was outside his window. Dr. Alcott grabbed his gun and approached. What he saw made his heart leap into his throat. Before him, on the opposite side of the glass, was a creature half human and half animal with bat-like wings and a single blunt horn in the middle of its forehead. A piercing light emanated from the horn. Terrified, Dr. Alcott raised his gun and fired, five shots in all. The creature vanished.
The following night, October 1st, a dedicated bank teller by the name of Peter Dunn decided to take justice into his own hands by squaring off against what he believed could only be burglars perpetrating an elaborate hoax. To that end, he holed up in the bank, armed and ready. Just after 1:00 a.m. he heard a strange noise outside his window, gargled gasps like that of someone strangling. Dunn approached the window to see what was happening and was blinded by a glaring light. He staggered back, covering his eyes, whereupon the light swept around the room. That’s when Dunn glimpsed his antagonist, a giant creature of some kind, a monster. He raised his gun and fired. The thing vanished.
White and Gregg Stupefied
Less than twenty-four hours later, hardware merchant O.V. White was asleep in his room over the hardware store on Main Street when he was awakened by a strange rasping sound. Grabbing his gun, he went to the window. Across the street he saw something perched on the cross member of a telephone pole. White raised his gun and fired. In the next instant he was immersed in a glaring light. Simultaneously, he was overwhelmed by a noxious odor and staggered back, stupefied.
At about the same time, local merchant Sidney Gregg was awakened by White’s gunshot. Opening his front door, he peered down Main Street and saw the monster perched atop the telephone pole. It was at least eight feet tall with a beak like a bird, bat-like wings and four legs. As Gregg stood watching, the thing lowered itself from the telephone pole in the manner of a parrot, using its beak. Then it stood listening.
Just then the mail train came tearing through town. Startled, the thing crouched as if getting ready to spring, but instead of taking flight, flapped its wings and hopped away, like a kangaroo. A moment later it began to run. Trotting along on all four legs, it extended its wings and sailed away. Gregg fell back, stunned.
The Miners Take the Monster On
By now the town was abuzz over what five of its leading citizens had witnessed. Van Meter was a mining town, and the miners thought the sightings could be related to the fearsome noises they had heard coming from the mine in recent days.
Two days after the events of October 1st, mine director J.L. Platt Jr. was drawn to the open shaft by the same fearsome noises, which he later described as “though Satan and a regiment of imps were coming forth for battle”. Backing away in fear, he was suddenly struck dumb by the site of a bird-like creature emerging from the shaft. The thing had bat-like wings and a horn protruding from its forehead out of which shown a piercing light. Then a second creature emerged, smaller than the first, and both creatures flew away.
Platt gathered a group of armed men and stood watch at the mine, waiting for the monsters to return. They waited anxiously through the night. Just before dawn, they reappeared. The men opened fire. According to those who witnessed it, “the reception would’ve sunk the Spanish fleet.” But it only worked to antagonize the monsters. They let loose their strange rasping cries and released their noxious odors. Then they flew to the mine’s entrance and disappeared inside.
Wasting no time, the miners set to work barricading the mouth of the mine. And after that, the story goes silent. The monsters were never seen or heard from again. Or so we are left to infer.
What the Heck is the Van Meter Visitor?
The next day a story appeared in the Des Moines Daily News under the byline H.H. Phillips. It detailed the story in all its particulars. Its tone was measured and earnest. It was picked up by newspapers around the country. It looked like something real and terrifying had happened in Van Meter.
But the following day, the Daily News ran another story, suggesting the first story had been exaggerated, while still admitting that the citizens of Van Meter had encountered some kind of unexplained light and fired at it. In the days following, a number of newspapers ran follow-up stories ranging from skeptical to convinced, but by the end of November 1903 the story had faded away.
What the heck was going on? Was the whole story just an elaborate hoax, the 1903 version of fake news? Or did a monster actually terrorize the town of Van Meter, earning the name it has worn ever since, the Van Meter Visitor?
Motivations of the Town’s Leading Citizens
Ask the people of Van Meter today, and they are in no more accord on the matter than anyone else. Some point out that six of the men who reported encounters with the Visitor were among Van Meter’s leading citizens: two merchants, a doctor, a salesman, a mine director, and a bank teller who would eventually become the bank manager. For them to put their credibility on the line by concocting a bizarre story that invited disbelief seems unlikely.
On the other hand, Van Meter at the time was experiencing an economic downturn. Its coal mine, which had been the town’s life’s blood, had played out. It was making a go of things by using the old mine to harvest clay to make bricks. The town’s leading citizens might have looked at the situation and decided to attempt a publicity stunt, something to draw attention to Van Meter. But if so, why such an outlandish story?
Outlandish Stories and Brazen Hoaxes
As it turns out, the late 19th century was a time ripe with outlandish stories and brazen hoaxes. If we think the conspiracy theories of our own day are crackpot, they can’t hold a candle to the three decades leading up to the turn of the last century.
In 1869 workers digging on a farm in Cardiff, New York discovered the petrified remains of a prehistoric man who stood ten feet tall. The so called Cardiff Giant thrilled newspaper readers of the day. But it turned out to be a hoax. Entrepreneur George Hull had carved the figure out of a ten foot block of gypsum and buried it in Cardiff to be discovered later. It wasn’t a bad investment. It cost Hull $2,600 to make the giant, which he put on display after its “discovery” for an admission price of fifty cents. A few years later he sold his interest in the giant for $23,000.
In 1873 flying dragons were sighted in Texas and Kansas. Not to be outdone, California weighed in with reports of flying crocodiles in 1882. Then in 1890 Tombstone, Arizona got into the act with pterodactyls. Throughout the 19th century the good people of Great Britain were menaced by a creature known as Spring-heeled Jack, described as humanoid in appearance with clawed hands and eyes that resembled red balls of fire. In addition, he was reported to have bat-like wings and a putrid stench.
When viewed in the context of the times, the Van Meter Visitor was right in step.
A Willingness to Believe
Yet for any of this to be newsworthy, at least a segment of the public had to believe it. In our own time, the number of Americans willing to embrace conspiracy theories is disheartening but a fact, so to learn that Americans in the 19th century were deceived by stories of prehistoric giants and flying monsters shouldn’t surprise us.
Credulity is born of fear. When people are on guard, they are keenly alert to potential threats. If one cannot know where the next threat is coming from, the willingness to believe may be a necessary defense.
In our own time, the sudden loss of a well paying job in a big factory — a place where generations worked before us — followed by the depopulation and impoverishment of the town we grew up in can be shocking and traumatic. Combine that with false government assurances that everything is all right, and you have the makings of credulity, a willingness to believe that the next threat is hiding just around the corner, ready to pounce, and that the authorities are not to be trusted. Fertile ground for conspiracy theories.
In the late 19th century it was worse. America had just gone through the worst trauma of its short history. The Civil War had killed one in five soldiers, two percent of the overall population. To put it in context, if two percent of today’s population were killed, 7 million people would be dead. A trauma of such magnitude would naturally make people leery. To scoff at a potential threat, even one as outlandish as a flying creature, would make one vulnerable. And so one took no chances. One believed.
A Sucker Born Every Minute
Then, as now, entrepreneurs were only too happy to profit from peoples’ credulity. Not only George Hull and his Cardiff Giant, but most notably, P.T. Barnum, whose famous adage, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” became the guiding principle for hucksters throughout time. If the leading citizens of Van Meter in 1903 thought they might profit by concocting an outlandish story, they would certainly not have been the first.
Of course, others reject the explanation of a hoax and prefer to believe the Van Meter Visitor was a prehistoric creature trapped beneath the earth and accidentally let loose by the miners. Or that it was a creature from another dimension who slipped through a tear in space-time and stumbled into our world. Or that it was a kind of UFO, a visitor from another planet who assumed a bird-like form in a time before people were able to conceive of spacecrafts. Notably, each of these theories requires a degree of credulity, and to the degree that we feel vulnerable, we might be willing to believe them.
A Strange Story with Wings
Credulity exists on a spectrum. Each of us is willing to be gullible up to a point. Yet where that point is varies from person to person. Which is why it can be so fun to attend the Van Meter Visitor Festival in late September. Organizers put together a slate of speakers, walking tours and other activities related to the Van Meter Visitor. Here you can nosh on a hot dog while listening to a heavy metal band, and debate the merits of the different theories.
When all is said and done, if the leading citizens of Van Meter had hoped to draw attention to the town by concocting the story of the Visitor, they succeeded. Whether or not there was any truth to it is beside the point. After all, there’s not much we can do about otherworldly creatures suddenly appearing among us. But if we want to feel less vulnerable and more on guard, and if we want to make a few bucks doing it, why not let the story have its wings and take flight?
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Next Stop on the Odyssey: West Quincy, MO
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Lewis, Chad, Noah Voss and Kevin Lee Nelson. The Van Meter Visitor, a True & Mysterious Encounter with the Unknown, On the Road Publications, 2013.
Van Meter Visitor atop a building, UnexplainedMysteries.com
U.V. Griffith, Van Meter Public Library
O.V. White, Van Meter Public Library
Sidney Gregg, Van Meter Public Library
Visitor shooting its beam, Deviantart by Ropen7789
Van Meter Bank, Van Meter Public Library
Visitor in Flight, Werewoofs.com
Miner shooting at the creature, Damir Spanic
Sketch of the Van Meter visitor, Van Meter Public Library
Van Meter’s leading citizens, Van Meter Public Library
Cardiff giant, Public Domain
Flying dragons of Texas, 1Zoom.net
Plant closure, WJCT
Civil War dead, Public Domain
PT Barnum, Public Domain
Van Meter today, Malcolm Logan