“A difficult target for a meteoric sharpshooter from interplanetary space” – The incredible story of a Indiana teenager, Lawrence Niles Swank, whose automobile was hammered by a meteorite
Do you consider yourself to be a lucky person, my reading friend? While yours truly recognises that such a query is a unusual starting point for this week’s issue of our astounding blog / bulletin / thingee, the truth is that said query is more than appropriate given today’s topic. If I may be permitted to quote / paraphrase the Mask, the secret superhero identity of Stanley Ipkiss, the hapless bank clerk at the heart of the popular 1994 American super hero comedy The Mask, now, you have to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well… Do you, my reading friend?
Let us begin our journey down the yellow brick road to enlightenment with a translation of the caption which accompanied the photograph you came across a few moments ago.
The accident which befell the automobile of Lawrence Swank, of Crawfordsville, Indiana, is not commonplace. A bolide fragment falling from the sky at breakneck speed struck the car as seen in the photo, exited through the radiator, and then pushed into the surface of the road. Lawrence Swank had a narrow escape, as the celestial projectile nearly fell on his head. This accident leads to imagine what would be a bombardment of the earth by the Martians.
Now, I ask you, my reading friend, what are the odds of having a meteorite strike the hood of your vehicle, exit through the radiator, and push into the surface of the road? And yes, that was indeed a rhetorical question. The answers to that father of all questions that one could / can find online were / are in fact quite contradictory.
This being said (typed?), the existence of meteorites, in other words of rocky or metallic objects that crash on the surface of our planet after spending countless eons travelling through space, is recognised by one and all. As yours truly pontificated in the past, that was not always the case, but let us not dwell and… Yes, eons. Our universe did not come into existence on 22 October (Julian calendar) of the year 4004 before the common era. A vegan Tyrannosaurus rex and an equally vegan Adam did not tiptoe through the tulips of the Garden of Eden on 28 October of the year 4004 before the common era. The Earth is older than that. It is older than I am, actually, by around 4 500 000 000 years if you must know, but I digress.
Before I forget, allow me to point out that the reference to a Martian bombardment might, I repeat might, have been related to the fact that the planet Mars was quite clearly visible in Earth’s night sky in 1933. A fact mentioned in a May 1933 issue of Le Petit Journal. That weekly from Montréal, Québec, being the newspaper which had published the photograph at the heart of this issue of our stunning blog / bulletin / thingee.
That same weekly also mentioned in that same issue of May 1933 that an English attorney and founder of a College of Telepathy, Hugh Mansfield Robinson, claimed to have recently entered into telepathic communication with the spouse of a Martian farmer, Oomaruru, a lady who was none other than Kleopátra Theá Filopátor, in other words Cleopatra VII, Queen / Pharaoh of Egypt during the 1st century before the current era. Yes, that Cleopatra, the one played by Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor, an English American actor mentioned in a May 2019 issue of our earth shattering blog / bulletin / thingee, in the eponymous 1963 American epic historical drama motion picture.
What was curious in that story of telepathic communication, apart from the telepathic communication itself and everything that surrounded it, was that the Martians described by Mansfield Robinson were peaceful vegetarians beings who meant no harm to Earthlings, but back to our story.
Even though said story began in December 1913, with the birth of Lawrence Niles Swank in Crawfordsville, Indiana, one could argue it actually burst upon the world in October 1930, on 10 October to be more precise, during the evening. Yes, yes, 1930, not 1933. Yours truly was quite surprised to discover that the photograph published in a July 1933 edition of Le Petit Journal was linked to an event which had taken place 33 or so months before. This being said (typed?), it occurred to me that you might be as intrigued as I was by Swank’s misadventure, a misadventure whose rendition will begin in the next paragraph.
A filling station attendant in Crawfordsville at the time, yes, in October 1930, Swank was driving his second hand jalopy, alone, 5 or so kilometres (3 or so miles) south of that small city, when a funny thing happened on the way… No, not on the way to the Forum. That funny thing happened on the way to some location out of town, I think.
Figuring out how that funny thing unfurled was not quite as simple as one might have imagined. You see, the stories presented in newspapers of the time did not fully match the information gathered, both thoroughly / carefully and independently, I think, by George Ernest Carscallen, a professor of mathematics at Wabash College, in Crawfordsville, a male Homo sapiens only private liberal arts college, and Shirl Herr, a well off seedman / philanthropist / miller / inventor who resided in that small town. The work conducted by that dynamic duo was done at the request of Charles Clayton Wylie, an associate professor of astronomy at the State University of Iowa deeply interested in meteorites.
Would you believe that Herr had recently developed some sort of metal detector he referred to as a hidden metal detector / magnetic balance? Why on Earth, would such a person be interested in metal detection, you ask, my puzzled reading friend? Well, it looked as if one of Herr’s off work interests / hobbies was treasure hunting. I kid you not. He located scores of First Nations graves in Indiana and bushels of small meteorites in Arizona in the late 1920s and / or early 1930s, for example.
It was highly unlikely that Herr located those graves after obtaining the blessing of the elders of the various First Nations (Wyandot, Waayaahtanwa, Shaawanwaki, Peeyankihšiaki, Myaamiaki, Lenni Lenape, Kiwikapawa, Chikashsha, Bodéwadmi, etc.) more or less forced into exile when their lands in Indiana were grabbed by white occupiers / exploiters / colonisers in the 19th century.
Mind you, whether or not the rocks found were real meteorites was / is something else but it looked at if that meteoric work was conducted under the supervision of… Wylie. Ours is a small and sad world, is it not?
Would you believe that, in May 1931, Herr went to England with his son, Remley Herr, to see if his magnetic balance, quite possibly the most powerful and effective device of its type in the world at the time, could be used to date the Castlerigg stone circle as well as other English ancient / prehistoric sites. Mind you, Herr also hoped to spend some time in Hungary in the hope of finding treasures left behind by ancient Romans, as well as the fabled tomb and casket of Attila, the much feared king of the Huns, who had died in the year 453 of the current era. While Herr certainly spent time in England, his presence in Hungary appeared far less certain. In any event, Herr was / is undoubtedly one of the pioneers of archaeological remote sensing, but back to our story.
And no, the fabled tomb and casket of Attila had not been found as of 2023.
And yes, yours truly chose to go with the information gathered by Carscallen and Herr rather than the information published in newspapers. Here goes.
As Swank drove his aforementioned jalopy, possibly a Ford Model T, five or so kilometres (3 or so miles) south of Crawfordsville, he heard what he thought was a gun shot. Believing he was being shot at, the thoroughly panicked teenager drove for another 800 or so metres (900 or so yards), presumably somewhat faster, and turned back. Swank then hightailed it to the residence of an aunt he was staying with, in Crawfordsville. Whether or not he noticed any damage to his vehicle during that rushed ride was / is unclear. In any event, Swank’s aunt and her daughter immediately noticed a hole in the hood of the automobile, by then parked on the street, not to mention a second hole, in the radiator.
The following day, Swank drove his damaged automobile to the garage where he had bought it. An otherwise unidentified person suggested at that point that the holes might have been made by a shooting star or, to use a technical term, a meteoroid / meteorite, and…
Err, you look puzzled, my reading friend. Ahh, I see. A meteoroid is a rocky or metallic object that travels through space. If a meteoroid of a certain size enters the atmosphere of the Earth, friction with molecules of gas present up there heat it up, thus creating a beautiful / frightening streak of light in the sky, in other words a meteor. If a meteoroid is large enough, it will punch its way through said atmosphere and hit the Earth, either in one piece or not. The part(s) of the meteoroid that hit the Earth are / is called a meteorite. Now back to our story.
Swank’s damaged automobile was soon put on display at the filling station where he worked. As news spread, hundreds of people, many of them from outside Crawfordsville, came to see the damaged jalopy. Soon after the automobile went on display, an otherwise unidentified someone found a piece of stone under its generator. That discovery seemed to confirm the likelihood that the holes in Swank’s automobile might have been made by a shooting star or, to use the aforementioned technical term, a meteoroid / meteorite.
A serious looking Lawrence Niles Swank points out the impact and exit points of the meteorite which had hit his automobile near Crawfordsville, Indiana. The photograph may well have been taken at the filling station where the automobile was displayed. Anon., “Le Cayó un Aerolito.” La Opinión, 21 October 1930, 5.
Por cierto, La Opinión era / es un diario en español publicado en Los Ángeles, California, pero estoy divagando. Lo siento.
How did the information gathered by Carscallen and Herr differ from the many, many stories published in daily newspapers in the United States, Canada, Australia, etc., you ask, my truth seeking reading friend? Well, according to a blend of stories found in the press, a not too inaccurate blend I hope, Swank, and his (female?) companion according to at least one (reliable?) version of the story, heard a whizzing / whining / humming / hissing sound as his automobile was going down a small hill and was shocked to the core of his being when an object, fiery or invisible depending on the newspaper, struck the hood of the vehicle, with a blinding flash according to some newspaper reports, barely missing him. The object seemingly went right through said hood.
Understandably shaken, if not fearing for his life, the noise reminding him of a gunshot, according to some versions of the story, Swank put the pedal to the metal. He turned around, in the driveway of a farmhouse perhaps, and hightailed back to Crawfordsville. He then examined his automobile. Something had gone though the hood all right. That something had also gone through the radiator, which was steaming, according to at least one newspaper story. At least one news report also stated that the jagged edges of the holes looked as if they had been melted by a white hot object.
To his surprise, Swank later found a piece of black, metal looking rock embedded in the engine’s generator. According to at least one version of the story, that rock was a perfect fit for a dent in one of the blades of the radiator’s cooling fan.
The teenager took said rock to Wabash College. Teachers he met there were of the opinion that what he had was an honest to goodness meteorite. An examination of the road where the close encounter of a destructive kind had taken place, performed by Swank, his father and a group of friends, revealed the presence of a small depression in the (concrete?) pavement of said road. Nothing else was found at the site.
One of the most interesting and well illustrated article on Lawrence Niles Swank’s encounter with a meteorite. A photograph of the odd looking rock found on the farm of Kenneth Dodson, near Crawfordsville, Indiana, is in the upper left cornet of the article. Anon., “The Indiana Motorist’s Billion-to-One Meteorite Mishap.” The Minneapolis Sunday Tribune, 21 December 1930, no page number.
A further confirmation of the extraterrestrial nature of Swank’s experience came when Kenneth Dodson, a farmer who lived near the site of said experience, found an odd looking, 30 to 35 centimetre (12 to 14 inches) long rock on his property, half buried in his driveway according to a version of the story. That jagged / perforated stone, which might have weighed 5.5 or so kilogrammes (12 or so pounds), was also deemed to be a meteorite. Indeed, some people suggested that Swank’s rock was a fragment of Dodson’s rock.
Given the popularity of his automobile with the scores of gawkers who had visited the filling station, Swank (briefly?) considered the possibility of joining the sideshow circuit to make some moolah. He also considered the possibility of putting his automobile on display in Indianapolis, Indiana, in some place or other where admission fees could presumably be demanded. Mind you, Swank also received some attractive offers from individuals interested in owning and / or displaying the damaged jalopy.
According to William Newton Logan, a professor of geology at Indiana University and state geologist of Indiana, no meteorite had ever hit a moving object before, almost killing a human being in the process.
Yours truly wonders if Logan knew about the tale told by several officers and crew members of the SS Cambrian, a cargo vessel operated by Wilson-Furness-Leyland Line Limited, a British shipping line. You see, back in August 1907, these individuals had claimed that a meteoroid / meteorite had passed between the masts of their ship as it sailed from England to the United States. Better yet, that aerolite had allegedly fallen no more than 15 or so metres (50 or so feet) from its port side, but back to our story.
The differences between the two storylines were not / are not all that different, you state, my reading friend? That may be true but the truth was that Wylie felt there was more to the story than met the eye, which explained why he asked Carscallen and Herr to ask questions.
Their conclusion was that Swank sincerely believed that something had hit his automobile on the evening of 10 October. The first version of his story did not mention the sound widely reported in newspapers, however. In any event, a meteoroid about to hit the surface of the Earth would not have whizzed, whined, hummed or hissed. It would have caused a blast / detonation / explosion louder than thunder perhaps, followed by a roaring sound. An incoming meteoroid could not be mistaken for gunfire.
Incidentally, Swank pointed out to Carscallen and / or Herr that he had not seen the streak of fire visible in drawings of his extraordinary extraterrestrial encounter which were published in certain newspapers. Indeed, a meteoroid about to hit a vehicle at night might have been all but invisible to anyone nearby. Very hot, yes, but not blindingly hot.
Carscallen and / or Herr pointed out that, while a meteor was seemingly seen by a resident of Crawfordsville during the evening of 10 October 1930, no association could be made between that sighting and the location of Swank’s automobile at the point of impact. Other meteors / shooting stars seen by residents of Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin could not be linked to the automobile either. In any event, the sightings were not of a type commonly associated with the presence of a meteoroid large enough, and spectacular enough, to punch its way through the atmosphere of our big blue marble.
Carscallen and / or Herr also pointed out that marks in the depression found in the pavement did not match the trajectory of the projectile.
Given what they had already discovered, Carscallen and / or Herr’s discovery that a worker at the garage where Swank had driven his automobile so that it could be repaired had come up with the idea that said automobile had been hit by a meteoroid / meteorite raised the needle of their suspicion metre to a slightly higher level.
All in all, Swank’s misadventure was not as straightforward as one might have thought.
Additional information added to the growing concerns of the aforementioned Wylie. A chemistry professor at Wabash College, Lloyd B. Howell, examined the rock found under / embedded in the generator of Swank’s automobile. The conclusion of that examination, presumably requested by Wylie, was that said rock was a piece of carborundum / silicon carbide, a hard compound widely used in industry but found only in minute quantities in certain types of meteorites. That particular piece of rock had not come from outer space, however. In turn, the odd rock found by the aforementioned Dodson proved to be a piece of slag.
By now deeply concerned, Wylie set out to calculate the chance an automobile had to be hit by a meteorite. Given that meteorite fragments were being recovered on American soil on average once every 16 months, given also the likelihood that these recoveries represented only 1 percent of the actual number of impacts, Wylie concluded that an automobile on American soil would be hit once every 500 or so years. Automobiles had been present on American roads for a much smaller amount of time, as we both know.
Wylie and a mathematics professor at Wabash College, Roscoe Woods, also conducted an experiment to see if the damage caused to Swank’s automobile could have been made by a shotgun. Their conclusion was that a slug fired from such a weapon could have damaged the vehicle. Yours truly wonders, however, how this evil deed could have been done without Swank’s knowledge.
That, in itself, raised an interesting if highly controversial point and this is yours truly talking (typing?) here, not Wylie: was Swank telling the truth when he claimed that his automobile had been hit by something as he drove south of Crawfordsville on 10 October 1930?
The fact that Swank drove many kilometres (several miles) to get back to Crawfordsville after his automobile allegedly got hit in the radiator by an object almost the size of a human hand did not help matters. As much of the water contained therein leaked out, the engine of the automobile would have heated up quite significantly. That sort of thing would not have gone unnoticed.
There was, it seemed, something rotten in the state of Indiana.
Incidentally, again, Hamlet was not the person who spoke the famous line “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Nay. These famous words were spoken by Marcellus, one of the officers who first saw the ghost of king Hamlet, the daddy of the other Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, walking on the ramparts of Elsinore castle, in real life Kronborg castle, in Helsingør, Denmark. Incidentally, cool Hamlet and the gang were mentioned in an August 2021 issue of our cool blog / bulletin / thingee, but I digress.
In an article published in the April 1931 issue of the well known and respected monthly magazine Scientific American, Wylie pointed out that “The suggestions favored by most persons is that the incident was put across as a clever practical joke.” That gentleman considered, however, “a deliberate attempt to put across the meteor story more unlikely than a simple, but premeditated, attempt to frighten young Swank by making him believe some one was shooting at him.” Yikes…
Before I forget, Wylie supervised the installation of a display case in the Natural Science Building of the State University of Iowa. Said case, installed no later than early April 1931, contained
- a cast of the depression made in the pavement of the road Swank was driving on,
- the damaged radiator and hood used in the aforementioned experiment,
- copies of newspaper articles published in the fall of 1930, and
- a copy of Wylie’s Scientific American article.
By then, Wylie had received an anonymous letter whose… anonymous author agreed with the conclusions of the Scientific American article: Swank’s automobile had not been hit by a meteorite. Better yet, the anonymous writer knew precisely what had happened: five young men had gone out to hunt in the automobile, which was damaged when one of them accidentally discharged a shotgun. As intriguing as that statement was, it could not / can not be proven.
Before I forget, it is possible, I repeat possible, that the State University of Iowa gave US $ 50 to Swank in exchange for the damaged hood and radiator of his automobile. That princely sum corresponded to $ 1 350 or so in 2023 Canadian currency.
And what about the rocks found in Swank’s automobile and in Dodson’s driveway, you ask, my scientifically minded reading friend. A good question. Yours truly has not idea of what happened to them.
In any event, as the days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months, Swank’s incredible adventure gradually faded from memory. The photograph published in July 1933 by the aforementioned weekly Le Petit Journal was, in that regard, very much an unexplained (and unexplainable?) anomaly.
In 1948, Wylie stated in an article published in the American monthly magazine Popular Astronomy that the Crawfordsville meteorite was “the most successful scientific hoax of the last 50 years.”
Wylie could not have known that one of the most successful hoaxes in the history of science was about to blow up in the face of the British Museum (Natural History) of London, England. You see, in November 1953, that august institution informed the press that Eoanthropus dawsoni, better known as Piltdown Man, an ancestor of our species originally thought to have lived in England up to 500 000 years ago, was a fraudulent assembly of a modern human skull and a modern great ape lower jaw – and not a very good assembly, mind you.
At the risk of being impertinent, had influential British scientists not been obnubilated by their pride in having in their possession the missing link between great apes and humans, “the first Englishman” no less, a missing link which dismissed out of hand younger human fossils found in France, the German Empire and elsewhere, they might have looked more closely at the fossils and associated items allegedly found between 1908 and 1914 by English solicitor and amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson, the likely nogoodnik of that sad story.
And yes, that was a loooong sentence. It probably needed a tiret cadratin or, to use the English name for this punctuation mark, an em dash, (Hello, EP!) but I digress.
The so-called cricket bat unearthed at Piltdown, for example, was a tad hard to swallow, no pun intended. And no, that crudely carved fossilised elephant thigh bone had not needed a spoonful of sugar to make that medicine go down. (Hello, MP!) Misplaced British pride proved sufficient for that, but back to our story.
As more months turned into years, and years into decades, Swank’s incredible adventure faded ever further from memory
Lawrence Niles Swank left this world in June 1979, at age 65.
And you have a question, my ever curious reading friend. Did a meteoroid / meteorite ever hit an automobile, you ask? The answer to that question is… yes.
In early October 1992, in the evening, a fireball streaked across the sky over Peekskill, New York, startling countless people and all sorts of creatures great and small. And yes, it was a noisy streaking. A stony-iron meteorite the size of a bowling ball (30 or so centimetre (12 or so inches) in diameter / 12.5 or so kilogrammes (28 or so pounds)) went right through the far right corner of the rear end of an elderly (1980) Chevrolet Malibu parked in the driveway of the residence where the vehicle’s owner, 18-year old Michelle Knapp, was spending the evening with her parents.
And yes, another automobile was hit before October 1992. That vehicle, an elderly (1928) Pontiac 6-27 Coupe, belonged to a 70 year old gentleman, Edward “Ed” McCain of Benld, Illinois. Said automobile was in McCain’s garage, minding its own business, in late September 1938, when a rocky meteorite the size of a large orange or small grapefruit (10 or so centimetre (4 or so inches) in diameter / 1.8 or so kilogrammes (4 or so pounds)) went through the roof of the garage before slicing right through said automobile. Would you believe that McCain only became aware of that celestial visitation when he got into his automobile later in the day?
Given the number of automobiles on American roads in 1930, 1938 and 1992, either the aforementioned Wylie had made some mistake when he calculated his accident rate, or our world is remarkably accident prone these days. You decide, but I digress, for the last time this week.
As you may well imagine, there would be a great many things one could say (type?) about the 1938 and 1992 aerolites but such perorations will not take place today, and… You can throw a tantrum all you want, my juvenile / infantile reading friend. My mind is set.
See ya later.
This writer wishes to thank all the people who provided information. Any mistake contained in this article is my fault, not theirs.