This webpage details the discovery of a microscope slide holding a sample of what fell to earth in Kentucky on Friday, the third of March, 1876.
Curiosity is part of the hardwired circuitry of human nature. And most times, the more profound a mystery appears to be; the greater curiosity commandeers the focus of our complicated minds. So, in 1876, when half a bushel of chopped meat rained down from a blue sky terrifying a Kentucky farmer’s wife and grandchild, it quickly became national news. Curiosity’s itch craved scratching. Quickly newspaper editorials and letter sections were flooded with imaginative theories, and an occasional jokes, fueling additional discourse.
Several professionals were supplied with fragments of what fell on Kentucky’s Bath County farm, hoping their knowledge could reveal what the stuff was and why the enigmatic event happened. Journalists cross-examined the locals who witnessed the event and interviewed those in the know, running a spectrum from chemists, hunters, and even the local butcher, about their take on what happened. Others hit the library shelves, searching for similar historical occurrences that might shed light on what caused the sanguine dump. After examining specimens from the scene, two first-to-publish experts claimed it was not meat. One reported the samples he looked over were globs of reproductive spawn exuded by frogs. The other expert in their account emphatically declared his specimen was not even animal-related but rather a type of plant life commonly known as algae.
Science – Independent Confirmation and Peer Review
In the mid-nineteenth century, scientists and philosophers in England and Germany were hammering out the scientific process and its associated methodologies. Slowly these powerful reasoning tools diffused across the Atlantic to the Americas. (The United States was quick to incorporate nineteenth-century science into technology but lagged in advancing pure science) Scientific methodologies were making inroads into US culture – one might describe it as science becoming democratized – by riding on the back of the popular Victorian hobby of microscopy. Microscope clubs and societies formed in most US cities and larger towns. The groups met frequently, held microscopic soirees open to the public, and published journals. The mysterious well-publicized Kentucky Meat Shower did leave evidence behind. Knowing some strange stuff was out there attracted the nouveau scientifically minded micro-explorers like sharks to the scent of blood. Within days after the event, the Lexington post office became swamped with mail asking for samples of what fell addressed to whoever’s name they could find in the press.
What unfolded was beautiful. Absent a central administrator, microscopists self-assembled a scientific process involving observation, interpretation (based on comparisons with known samples), publication, reproducibility*, and independent peer review. This webpage documents finding the Kentucky Meat Shower microscope slide, its authentication, and the chain of evidence bringing the historical relic to its place in today’s exhibition one-hundred-forty years later.
*redoing the identification methodology, not recreating meat showers.
It was a morning like many others on the Crouch’s Kentucky Farm. The year was 1876, the season late winter. A sunny, clear blue sky promised to chase away remnants of ice from last night’s dip into the twenties. Allen Crouch, a man in his sixties, was leaving with his thirty-four-year-old son, William, for a trip to the newly established town of Frenchburg. William visited his parents and brought his twelve-year-old son, Allen, named after his grandfather. He would leave the boy with his grandmother, Rebecca, until their return. Allen and William waved as they left the farm, and Rebecca, with her grandson, went out into the farmyard to begin daily chores. And then the day turned into one unlike any other.
About an hour before noon, Rebecca was building a fire beneath a vat she used for making soap. Allen was playing nearby when he suddenly exclaimed, “Hey grandma! It’s starting to snow.”
A lump of red, bloody, meat-like material hit the ground with an audible splat. Rebecca looked up at the cloudless sky and saw particles flying through the air like a thousand bloody spitballs. They ranged in size from that of hail to strips several inches long, and they were descending over an area the size of a football field. Rebecca grabbed her grandson by his hand, and the two ran for the farmhouse. A week later, during an interview with a reporter from the New York Herald, Rebecca confided that falling lumps of flesh terrified her to her very core. She believed something terrible had happened to her husband. To Rebecca, the bloody guts raining down around her were pieces of her husband that had, somehow, found their way home. As extreme as this may seem, Rebecca’s gory imagery could be based on witnessing past horrors. Only twelve years prior, on October 19, 1864, the Crouchs farm – and surrounding lands – were the stage for one of the last cavalry battles of the Civil War.
Once inside the farmhouse, Rebecca, her grandson, and a schoolmarm boarding with them, Miss Robinson, watched fearfully from a window. Robinson, a teacher at the Bath County public school, stayed with the Crouch household during the school year. She described the shower of meat as “falling in clumps and not evenly scattered like one sows oats.” Robinson left the house to get a better view of what was going on, but the carnal downpour had stopped when she got out the farmhouse door. Robinson saw meat hanging from brier bushes, fence rails, and lying on the ground. She also saw, with great surprise, the farm’s hogs and chickens gobbling up the bits of flesh as fast as they could find them. And she added, “They sure seemed to like it very much.” Rebecca stayed inside, refusing to leave the house until Allen and William returned.
The Crouch’s adult daughter, Sadie Crouch (1849 – 1939), was also in the farmhouse but stayed in bed, feeling too sick to leave it. As a result, she missed an event soon to be named by the press, The Great Kentucky Meat Shower. (See Rebecca’s testimony to the NY Herald)
Neighbors Visit the Scene
Weird news flies on wings. Soon curious neighbors and folks from the town began visiting the farm. But, unlike most claims of supernatural events, The Kentucky Meat Shower left enough evidence to fill a half-bushel. The unidentified material was lying on the ground, hung from branches and fencing. Lumps of meat were even inside someone’s shoe left out on the porch. Some early visitors to the scene collected samples of the fallen flesh, while others feared touching it.
Mr. Armitage, a resident of Frenchburg, told the reporter from the Louisville Courier-Journal that he touched the meat and “felt a shot in my arm that left it paralyzed for half an hour.” An emboldened few put small pieces in their mouths, chewing them to detect their flavor. The butcher shop owner from Mt. Sterling, identified by the Courier as Mr. Frisbe, tasted one of the questionable droppings. He declared, “I can not tell what kind of animal it came from, but it is animal meat without a doubt.”
Nibbling the unknown material was taken to its extreme by a neighbor, Mr. Wills. He reportedly gathered up a handful of meat, brought it home, and intended to cook and eat it. Wills’ family, fearing the mystery flesh might be poisonous, tried to talk him out of doing it. Nevertheless, Wills dug in his heels and would not abandon the fulfillment of his gustatory dreams. So several family members physically restrained him while another ran off with the meat to throw it in a place where they knew he would not go to retrieve it.
Journalists may sometimes embellish facts to make a news story an entertaining read. But one thing about the mysterious happenings at Crouch’s farm is clear. All those first to visit the scene were unanimous – what they found scattered about the property undeniably was meat.
Samples of the earth-fallen carrion were collected at the farm to give to experts for analysis. Mr. Venarsdelle, who resides near Frenchburg, reportedly picked up fifteen or twenty samples. Allen Crouch saved a quantity as well. Some examples were allowed to dry, while others were placed in jars of alcohol or glycerin for their preservation. The efforts of both proved valuable later in providing samples needed by investigators.
The earliest reports from experts about the nature of the meat shower samples shocked everyone. They claimed the downfall was not of meat at all. The first report was from J.Lawrence Smith, Professor of Medical Chemistry and Toxicology at the University of Louisville. Smith examined specimens given to him by Venarsdelle and dismissively identified them as clumps of frog ejaculate.
Two months later, Leopold Brandeis published his finding in the public health journal, Sanitarian. Brandeis opened the article with a degree of arrogance. He proclaimed that the mystery of what happened on the Kentucky farm was now solved! Brandeis states, “it was nothing more nor less than clumps of the algae named Nostoc, well known to the old alchemists,” and describes Nostoc as “a low form of vegetable existence.” Brandies declares the mystery of Crouch’s farm solved as being lumps of the pond plant, Nostoc.
In addition to being wrong, another commonality between the two first to publish their findings is their investigative methodology. It was centered in a library rather than in a laboratory. Smith and Brandeis drew heavily from historical writings about previous food-like items mysteriously falling from the heavens in forming their opinions. Both researchers claimed to identify the specimens they had in hand by finding a match to a past reported historical event and assuming their sample must be the same. With a tone of condensation, the authors implied that anyone historically cognizant of natural events could have explained the Kentucky Meat Shower. However, criticizing their methodology without historical contextualization is not particularly sporting, so let’s give their era a quick go-over.
Charles Darwin published The Decent of Man merely four years before the Kentucky Meat Shower. The mid-nineteenth century was an intellectual battlefield as evidence-demanding scientific thinking crossed borders into the adjacent domains of religion, medicine, and human behavior. The scientific method was beginning to flex its muscles as the primary problem-solving tool of reasoned thought. Still, not everyone was on that page. Many scientists continued producing valuable results to form the foundation for modern science. Professor J. Lawrence Smith was one of those. However, for the new Turks of science, unexplained natural events, such as the Kentucky Meat Shower, we’re “red meat.” As the national press spread the news of the unexplained event, some in the scientific community smelled blood in the water. The ones that came were microscopists, a fast-growing group of dedicated professionals using the microscope as a powerful tool for their observations.
The Microscopists’ Hay Day
The President of the Newark Scientific Association, Arthur Mead Edwards, asked Brandeis to send a sample of what he based his conclusion on so he could microscopically examine it to confirm its nature. Independent verification is a critical step in the scientific process.
So Brandeis sent Edwards all the meat shower samples in his possession, including a note explaining that his source for the materials was Prof. Chandler via an unnamed doctor in Brooklyn. In turn, Chandler obtained meat shower specimens from the editor of the Agriculturist and sent half to the unknown Brooklyn doctor and the other half to Allan McClain Hamilton.
Hamilton was both a medical doctor and an attorney. Having expertise in two fields, he garnered fame in the press by giving expert witness testimonies during several high-profile judicial cases. Hamilton was the first to write an authoritative book about delivering medical testimony in legal matters and hence is known as the father of forensic science. He knew well the importance of seeking out the most authoritative experts for educating juries. When he received the Kentucky meat shower specimens from Chandler, Hamilton enlisted the help of one of the most prominent histologists available, J. W. S. Arnold.
Arnold was chair of the department of anatomy and histology at the University of New York. His specialty was microscope slide preparation of human tissues and identifying histological samples. Arnold made microscope slide mounts using Hamilton’s Kentucky Rain Shower samples. After studying the slides, he stated that they were, without doubt, lung tissue. Hamilton also viewed the slide with a microscope and agreed with Arnold’s conclusion.
Hamilton wrote a report to the NY Medical Record, publishing the two doctor’s opinion that the specimens under observation were from an animal’s lungs. Edwards read the Hamilton and Arnold paper and, as with Brandeis, asked the authors to send him the samples they worked with, which they did. Edwards confirmed Hamilton’s and Arnold’s identification of lung tissue.
John Phin, the American Journal of Microscopy editor, offered additional samples from the Kentucky Meat Shower to Edwards for examination, which he did in two batches. The material first sent had already been mounted on a microscope slide by W. H. Walmsley, Secretary of the Philadelphia Microscopic Society. Microscopic examination by Edwards revealed it to be striated muscle tissue.
Phin followed that with another specimen from A. T. Parker of Lexington, Kentucky. Edwards found that sample to be striated muscle tissue as well. Edwards then wrote directly to A. T. Parker in Kentucky, who sent three additional samples, two in their natural state and one prepared for microscopic viewing. Two proved to be cartilage, and one was muscle tissue. Thus, of the seven samples mounted on slides and examined microscopically by Edwards, two were lung tissue, three were striated muscle, and two were cartilage.
Edwards had obtained Kentucky Meat Shower samples from most of the prominent investigators. He provided the scientifically necessary independent review functions and created a repository of reference slides for future investigators. Arthur Meade Edwards proved what fell to earth on Rebecca Crouch was, in fact, flesh from a higher vertebrate.
What if it was all a Hoax?
“Was it a hoax?” is a question broached early in the Louisville Courier-Journal’s Kentucky Meat Shower reportage. The newspaper’s journalist interviewed a community member who claimed to know the Crouch family well. They reported a rumor that Rebecca Crouch wanted to sell the farm and move to Illinois, but her husband did not. They then speculated that maybe Rebecca flung pieces of meat about the property to frighten her husband into changing his mind about leaving the farm.
During the New York Herald’s interview with Mrs. Crouch, the reporter asked if that rumor might be true. Rebecca stated that she wanted to sell the farm but was not alone in that wish. She assured the reporter that her husband agreed about wanting to retire and leave Kentucky. The year before the meat shower was a rough one for the people living in that area of Kentucky. Bath County farms suffered significant crop failures. As a result, many of the farming families in the area had to accept food donations to make it through the winter.
Mrs. Reynolds and twelve-year-old Allen Crouch. Although unlikely, the possibility that a human hand lurks behind the meat scattering can not be completely ruled out. Nevertheless, the Kentucky Meat Shower was widely reported, studied, and discussed and is firmly enmeshed with American nineteenth-century lore and the history of American science.
FINDING THE SLIDE
Six boxes of microscope slides, collected and mounted by Jacob D. Cox, were found in Auburn, Ohio. Jacob D. Cox was a Civil War general, Governor of Ohio, and president of the American Microscopical Society. The boxes, each holding twenty-five slides, were individually offered on eBay. I submitted winning bids for five of the six boxed collections. A person with deeper pockets than mine won the sixth. However, the seller pulled several slides from the collection to list individually on the auction site. (offering unique slides as separate bid items can maximize profits.) The Kentucky Meat Shower slide was one in that category, being unique as made by Jacob's brother, Charles Cox. Apparently, The label identifying the specimen as a sample from a Kentucky Meat Shower seemed nonsensical to the seller. So, they assumed "meat" was an abbreviation for meteor and advertised the slide as holding a specimen from the "Kentucky Meteor Shower." My competitor (in bidding only, otherwise deeply respected), Brian Stevenson, Ph.D. (Univ. of Kentucky), won one of the Cox slide boxes but missed the deadline to bid on the Meat Shower slide because of a meeting. As he described it, I was at a conference at the time that the auction ended. I recall exactly where I was when I remembered the auction, and my anguish when I saw that it had ended several minutes before I checked! Stevenson has one of the world's most extensive collections of antique microscope slides on our planet. He missed getting the meat slide but did copy the slide's picture from the eBay auction site and post it on his website, thereby documenting its accession to the collector community on 2014.
ALLAN McCLAIN HAMILTON
1848 – 1919
THE ALIENIST FINDS PIECES OF LUNG IN THE KENTUCKY MEAT SHOWER
Caleb Carr’s 1993 novel “The Alienist” and the current HBO series revolve around the use of science-based investigations during the late 1800s by the fictional protagonist Lorenzo Kreizler. Dr. Kreizler is a medical doctor and practitioner of psychology, a field then in its infancy. Dr. Kreisler is particularly interested in the minds of the suffering souls deemed “the criminally insane.” The commonly held belief in the 1800s was that the mentally deranged were alienated from their true personality. For this reason, doctors working with the mentally ill were called alienists.
One well-known alienist of the time was Dr. Allen McClane Hamilton. Dr. Hamilton received national fame by testifying as an expert witness in many high-profile criminal cases. In addition, he published his methodologies for other alienists to follow when testifying about a defendant’s mental state before a court. The work earned him the sobriquet of “America’s Father of Forensic Psychiatry.” Toward the end of his career, Dr. Hamilton wrote an autobiography titled “The Recollections of an Alienist.” The memoirs make clear that Dr. Kreizler is Dr. Hamilton’s fictional embodiment. In the current HBO series, the actor Daniel Bruhl becomes Hamilton incarnate.
Hamilton was drawn to mysteries, so when he read about the Kentucky Meat Shower being a mind-boggler, he set out to get a sample of the evidence. In keeping with his forensic way of working, he sought to collaborate with a scientist having impeccable microscopy credentials. He picked W. J. S Arnold, Professor of Histology at New York City University, School of Medicine. Using microscopes, the two determined that the specimen under examination was a piece of lung, not a balloonist’s lunch or pieces of a cosmic dinosaur. Hamilton published these findings in the New York Medical Record.
John William Schmidt Arnold (1846 – 1888) was a professor at the University of New York, serving as chairperson of the medical school’s Department of Physiology and Histology. Using a microscope and staining and slicing techniques, histologists study the types of tissues and cells that make up the organs of living creatures. Dr. Alan Hamilton’s assessment was on target when he asserted in the New York Medical Record that J. W. S. Arnold was the best person in the US to assess the identity evidence from the Kentucky meat shower event.
Professionally, J. W. S. Arnold was best known for his testimonies before the U. S. Congress and health-related agencies, espousing the safety of oleomargarine’s use for consumption as a butter substitute. In the 1882 issue of the American Monthly Microscopical Journal, he stated that he taught practical histology at the University of New York for fourteen years. Arnold was interested in the newly developing field of photomicrography. He advertised his services as a photomicrographer in several journals. He was elected to a term as secretary of the New York Microscopical Society and was active in several photography associations. Arnold’s microscope pictures received excellent reviews, and a collection of his photomicrographs are available in the Otis Historical Archives at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Silver Springs, Maryland.
Not much information is available about Arnold’s personal life. Still, one may speculate that his retirement from the University at the young age of forty was related to failing health, as he died two years later. After retiring, Arnold continued using the University’s address, indicating his association with the lab he once supervised.
Arnold, J. W. S. (1882) Microscopical Laboratories, American Monthly Microscopical Journal, Boston, April, p.69.
REMEMBERED BY HISTORY FOR HIS VENTURE INTO THE “DARKSIDE”
Blackburn Visited Crouch’s farm and obtained samples of the material that fell on that strange day in 1876. He passed what he found to others for identification. Later he became the Governor of Kentucky but what he did earlier in life was the infamous act for which he is remembered. The medals bedecking Blackburn’s jacket were presented to him by Queen Victoria for his medical assistance in fighting Bermuda’s Yellow Fever epidemic of 1864. To end the deadly pandemic, “he fought the good fight.” But the knowledge he gained about saving people from death, he twisted into a plan to kill most evilly. While treating the sick in Bermuda’s yellow fever hospitals, he collected what he believed to be the most dangerously infectious materials possible. He took the bed linens and blankets from patients after their death from yellow fever. Blackburn, aided by a few accomplices, shipped them via Canada for auctioning to impoverished people living in New York, Boston, and Washington. The plan worked. The blankets were delivered and auctioned. Blackburn’s intended to sicken and kill workers in the northern United States. As a result, he expected Abraham Lincoln to abandon the war against the Confederacy. Luckily for the United States, what Blackburn thought he knew about yellow fever was wrong. The disease is spread to people by mosquito bites – not contact between people with the garments of the sick. That fact was not discovered until 1901 by the U. S. Army physician Walter Reed.
Dr. Chandler received his Ph.D. from the Laurance Scientific School at Harvard University in analytical chemistry. He taught chemistry at Columbia University and became Dean of the Columbia School of Mines. Chandler served as chairperson for the New York City Board of Health, where he gained public attention for exposing the watering down of milk, known as the NYC milk scandal of 1886. He also investigated and testified about the safety of using water gas as a fuel for household cooking. According to the Brooklyn Eagle, on March 10, 1884, Columbia University commissioned a bust of Dr. Chandler by the sculptor J. Scott Hartley for display when they created the Chandler lectureship in chemistry. Additionally, Columbia named their Chemical Museum in his honor. (NY Times May 1, 1910)
Professor Frederic Ward Putnam (1839 – 1915) earned his Ph.D. From the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University, where he remained to teach. Putnam became the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology curator at Harvard. He directed excavations around North America and wrote extensively about North America’s native inhabitants. The techniques he developed for unearthing and cataloging them earned him the informal title of the father of American archaeology.
John Phin ( 1832-1913) was a writer, lawyer, and publisher. He founded the Industrial Publishing Company in New York City, which published the American Journal of Microscopy and several other serial publications. He was interested in microscopy and authored the book Practical Hints on the Selection and Use of the Microscope. As editor of the American Journal of Microscopy, he ran four stories on the Kentucky Meat-shower.
(I had a) A vague idea that my husband and son, who were away, had been torn to pieces and their remains were being brought home to me in this way
From her dictated testimony to the New York Herald on 03/21/1876
On Friday morning, March 3, between the hours of eleven and twelve o’clock, I was in my yard, not more than forty steps from the door of the room in which we are now sitting. ‘The skies were clear and the sun was shining brightly. There was a light wind coming from a westerly direction. Without any prelude or warning and exactly under these circumstances, the shower commenced.
The fall was on not less than one nor more than two minutes duration. I never touched any of the flesh until my husband came home. I noticed little whirlwinds in the mountains during the morning and predicted rain from that fact. When the flesh began to fall, I said to my grandson, who was the only person in the yard with me at the time. “what is that falling, Allen?” He looked up at me and said, “Why grandma, it’s snowing.” I then walked around and saw a large piece of it strike the ground right behind me, with a slap when it struck. A vague idea that my husband and son, who were away, had been torn to pieces and their remains were being brought home to me in this way by the wind flashed through my mind at the moment. I was also impressed with the conviction that it was a miracle of God, which, as yet, we do not understand. It may have been a warning, as coming events are said to cast their shadows before them. The largest piece that I saw was as long as my hand and about half an inch wide. It looked gristly as if it had been torn from the throat of some animal. Another piece that I saw was half-round in shape and about the size of a half-dollar.