Making UFOlogy History: Roswell, and the story of Betty and Barney Hill


David Clarke
Dr David Clarke is a lecturer in the Department of Communication and Journalism at Sheffield Hallam University. He has written several books on UFOlogy and frequently appears on TV and radio programmes dealing with this subject.

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This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 21, Issue 3, from 2008

The 60th anniversary of the birth of UFOlogy has come and gone and the truth remains, as always, still out there. Proclamations about “the death of UFOlogy” are premature as the subject continually regenerates itself either by the creation of new submyths (e.g., crop circles, ancient astronauts) or via the injection of new generations of eager believers inspire by new TV programmes and films. It would be more accurate to say that public interest in UFOs tends to wax and wane in response to media coverage. Nevertheless, despite the best efforts of the UFO industry, classic cases such as Rendlesham now appear to be a thing of the past. As a result, the discourse of UFOlogy – today largely conducted online – is focussed upon the obsessive re-examination of a tiny number of historical cases that are regarded by proponents as being most evidential in terms of providing proof of extraterrestrial visits.

Last year’s anniversary provided an opportunity to resurrect two key pillars of the UFO legend – alien abductions and government cover-ups. Six decades have passed since Kenneth Arnold’s sighting in June 1947 ushered in the age of the flying saucer, but it was the event that occurred in New Mexico just days afterwards that has since been crowned “the most important case in UFO history.” Since it was ‘rediscovered’ in the 1970s, the Roswell incident has spawned an entire cottage industry and its various elements now dominate UFOlogical discourse, particularly in North America.

2007 was for many UFO diehards the 60th anniversary not of Kenneth Arnold’s sighting but of Roswell. This opportunity has provided a handy vehicle for two of the case’s stalwarts, Tom Carey and Donald Schmitt, to publish the fruits of their research. Their book, Witness to Roswell, subtitled “unmasking the 60-year cover-up” was published to coincide with the carnival that has become an integral part of the little town’s economy. As the title suggests, this book is a compendium of testimonies from people who say they witnessed some aspect of the saucer crash and its aftermath. The authors claim all these stories describe a flying saucer and alien bodies; none of them talk about a Mogul balloon. What they fail to mention is that they date not from 1947, but from a period after 1980. It was then that the Roswell base intelligence officer, Jesse Marcel, came forward with his version of the story. Another key participant, USAF Capt. Sheridan Cavitt, who was present at the crash site with Marcel, told an air force investigator in 1993 the objects he collected were part of a balloon trail. But to conspiracists like Carey and Schmitt, Cavitt’s evidence is worthless. He is painted as a Government stooge and as such his story is all part of the cover-up. Jesse Marcel’s account is, in contrast, a UFOlogist’s dream. It appears that in 1947, in the aftermath of the flying saucer craze, he came to believe the wreckage he saw came from a spaceship.

The stories that have emerged since 1980, including those that describe alien bodies, have all been influenced by Marcel’s account, hyped by the vivid imaginations of UFOlogists. The ‘new’ testimonies are not contemporary evidence or ‘oral histories’ as Carey and Schmitt would have us believe. They were mostly collected between 30 and 60 years after the events they purport to describe and as such are examples of contemporary legend. One typical example, chosen at random, begins:

… after the Unsolved Mysteries [TV broadcast on Roswell in 1989] … a former cancer ward nurse from the St Petersburg Hospital in Florida came forward to describe the final testimony she personally heard from one of her patients. The nurse was Mary Ann Gardner, who worked at the hospital from 1976 to 1977. The patient, a woman (Gardner couldn’t remember her name), had been alone in the hospital. Feeling concern for her because she had no visitors, Gardner spent as much time as she could listening to the woman’s stories – especially the one about the crashed ship and the ‘little men’ she had seen…

In the absence of any real hard evidence, Roswell’s promoters rely upon this type of second- and thirdhand testimony along with death-bed confessions, many extracted literally from beyond the grave, as living witnesses who actually remember the incident are now scarce indeed. With each passing year ‘new’ witnesses have to be found to keep the Roswell bandwagon on the road. Chief among them is the testimony of Walter Haut, the press officer at Roswell Army Air base in 1947. It was Haut who, on the orders of the base commander, Col. William Blanchard, sent out the famous press release that announced to the world how the US Army Air Force had recovered a flying saucer from a remote desert ranch. The initial excitement was dampened within hours by the announcement that the ‘flying disc’ had been identified as a lowly weather balloon. For some, this is where the cover-up began, or where the seeds of a modern myth were planted.

UFOlogists have pursued Haut and other surviving Roswell veterans for decades. When Haut insisted he knew nothing, they concluded he wasn’t ready to break his oath of silence. If they waited long enough, they might find what they wanted, and so it has turned out. In 1993 Haut signed an affidavit to the effect that although he had not personally seen the Roswell debris, he had become “convinced that the material recovered was some type of craft from outer space”. This implies his sincere belief was based not upon what he knew was fact, but what he subsequently heard from others, such as Jesse Marcel and the assorted UFOlogists who befriended him. Carey and Schmitt save what they appear to believe is their trump card until the end of this book. In 2002 an elderly Haut signed a second affidavit that his family stipulated was not to be made public until after his death. Haut died in 2005 at the age of 83. The ‘new’ statement, published to coincide with the 60th anniversary hype, contradicts the earlier account. In 1993 he was clear that he had not personally seen any wreckage. But in 2002 this story had changed. Now he had personally handled the debris at a meeting attended by Marcel, Blanchard and his boss Brig. Gen. Roger Ramey, where the cover-up was first hatched. Furthermore, despite the extreme secrecy and ‘need to know’ that surrounded the crash Blanchard took Haut – a mere press officer – for a peek at the saucer and the bodies of its occupants hidden inside a hangar. The famous press release was a Pentagon-inspired tactic to divert attention from a second crash site, where the clean-up operation was taking place.

For those who buy into the Roswell conspiracy, Haut’s story has provided more grist to the mill. But a number of UFOlogists who believe a flying saucer did crash in New Mexico have cast doubt upon the authenticity of the new affadavit. UFO pundit Frank Warren has revealed how in 2000, when an elderly Haut agreed to be interviewed on video, he was confused and contradicted himself frequently. He could not remember where he did his basic training, or even where he was stationed during the war. To Warren, this was clearly an elderly man who was exhibiting signs of dementia. On four separate occasions during the interview Haut says he “didn’t see anything” and he “just wrote a press release.” On another occasion, when asked by interviewer Larry King on national TV if he “had ever seen any of the wreckage”, Haut replied “No.”

Yet we are now asked to believe that a couple of years later this same man was capable of writing a meticulously clear, concise account of handling the wreckage of a spaceship, to the extent that he was able to recall the approximate time of staff meetings and phone conversations. More details emerged when one of the Witness to Roswell co-authors was interviewed for an internet podcast. During the discussion, Don Schmit revealed that Haut did not personally write the affidavit, which is usually a sworn statement made in writing under oath. Rather it was “prepared, it [was] based on things that Walter told us in confidence for a number of years” and when he felt ready to do it “his doctor, had given us the go-ahead that he mentally was totally competent.” Schmitt added that Haut read the document a number of times, then signed it with three witnesses present. So rather than providing the ‘smoking gun’ sought by the UFOlogists, the Haut affidavit turns out to be just another dead end.

Despite such shaky foundations, Roswell retains its central position in the UFO mythology. For many the future credibility of the subject now rests entirely on the evidence for this one case. Carey and Schmitt justify their obsessive interest by claiming it is the only UFO incident that can provide physical proof of ET visitations, if only the cover-up could be exposed. Unfortunately, based upon the contents of this book they are chasing a chimera of their own construction; one based upon self-delusion and self-deception. Those who believe the US Government has successfully concealed wreckage and bodies from a crashed flying saucer for 60 years will accept nothing less than total disclosure of what they see as undeniable fact. For them, the Roswell incident cannot be disproved, only proved. One outcome of the anniversary is clear: belief in Roswell is now a matter of faith which puts the alleged ‘facts’ beyond all rational discussion or examination.

The Story of Betty and Barney Hill

Of more interest to the general reader are two books that seek to throw new light on that other foundation stone of the UFO mythology – alien abductions. Public fascination with the abduction craze is now in decline after reaching its high-water mark during the 90s. A number of its proponents have since moved on or found new outlets for their interests in channelling, contactee cults and New Age beliefs. The lack of any convincing proof and a number of devastating, carefully-argued academic studies, such as those by Susan Clancy, have taken their toll on the credibility of the abduction industry. In ten or twenty years’ time, I predict we will be looking back upon alien abductions as just another UFO fad, which had its day and came and went.

Nevertheless, the 60th anniversary of the birth of the modern UFO enigma provided an opportunity for a collection of authorities, representing all parts of the spectrum of belief and disbelief, to revisit the seminal account that sparked the modern obsession with extraterrestrial kidnappings. The story of Betty and Barney Hill, a mixed-race couple from New Hampshire, has been picked apart in thousands of books and articles. For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the details, it began one night in September 1961 when the couple were returning home from holiday in Canada. Whilst driving through the deserted White Mountains they saw a brightly lit UFO that appeared to follow them. At one stage Barney, who was driving, stopped the car and watched the UFO through binoculars. Behind a row of windows he saw a group of humanoid figures watching him and, believing they were about to be captured, he drove off in a panic. Soon afterwards the couple were confronted by the UFO and its occupants who were now blocking the road. The next thing the Hills consciously recalled was an odd beeping noise; they were aware of being on a road 35 miles further south and eventually returned home two hours later than expected. Betty subsequently experienced a series of disturbing dreams where she and Barney were abducted by the crew of the UFO. In 1964 they were both hypnotically regressed by a Boston psychiatrist, Dr Benjamin Simon, and their stories recorded. Their accounts of what transpired during the period of ‘missing time’ appeared to match Betty’s dreams in significant places. Details emerged of a medical examination and a lengthy conversation between Betty and the ‘leader’ of the alien crew. In 1966 the story was published by journalist John Fuller in his bestselling book, The Interrupted Journey, that was widely syndicated. The Hills became overnight celebrities and their narrative – with its key motifs of ‘missing time’, abduction and medical examination – became the template for all future alien abduction stories.

A digitised copy of a portrait of Betty and Barney Hill and their dog.
Betty and Barney Hill and their dog

If you only have the patience to read one of the two new revisitations of the Hill’s story, Encounters at Indian Head should be your choice. It is by far the superior work. Scholarly in tone and reflecting a range of informed viewpoints, it will become the key text on the case for future generations of researchers. The book is an edited collection of papers prepared following a private symposium that was held in September 2000 at Indian Head, New Hampshire, close to the rural area where Betty and Barney’s encounter with their UFO occurred in September 1961. Editors Karl Pflock and Peter Brookesmith shared a long-term fascination with the Hill story, whilst holding diametrically opposed views on its reality status. While Brookesmith, along with Hilary Evans and Martin Kottmeyer take a sceptical, psychosocial approach, Pflock – the author of a devastating deconstruction of the Roswell myth – appears to play devil’s advocate. He believes only a literal interpretation of the Hill’s story, where the couple are kidnapped by aliens from Zeta Reticuli, fits all of the known facts. #

The strength of Encounters at Indian Head is that hidden somewhere within this polarity of viewpoints, readers can ultimately divine their own version of the ‘truth’. In an appendix, Martin Kottmeyer puts the finishing touches to his argument that the Hill’s experience was a product of the human imagination fashioned from the raw materials of popular culture – the books and films the Hills had seen and absorbed, consciously and unconsciously, before their ‘experience’. All the contributors bring something new to the table, but the consolidated version of the case compiled by Dennis Stacy’s literature search makes it clear the story is actually far stranger than the standard account repeated in the UFO literature. The sociologist and veteran anomalist Marcello Truzzi chaired the symposium and contributed an insightful analysis of contrasting approaches to the Hill’s experience.

Both Truzzi and Pflock died before the book was completed, so it stands as a monument to their and Betty Hill’s input. Barney Hill died in 1969 and Betty went on to become a serial UFO spotter; she died from lung cancer in 2004. Despite her slow transition to cult leader and contactee, she had little time for the amateur abduction researchers who were busily finding new ‘victims’ of the nefarious greys. As we have seen in the case of Roswell, the UFO industry is reluctant to let go of its sacred cows. It was inevitable that Brookesmith and Pflock’s erudite re-examination of the Hill case would provoke a reaction from those who see the Hill abduction as a central pillar of their beliefs and careers.

In contrast to Encounters, Captured! comes across as largely a vehicle for Stanton Friedman and assorted friends to defend this particular UFO Alamo to the last. Sadly, Friedman’s presence here ruins what would have been an intimate and largely neutral insight into the Hill’s private lives by Kathy Marden, Betty’s niece and the trustee of her estate. Marden was a teenager when the Hill’s experience occurred and she has grown up alongside her aunt’s increasingly weird stories. As an adult she became a UFO investigator herself and as such she is clearly not the most objective person to assess the reality, or otherwise, of the story she does her best to chronicle here. Marden is billed as co-author but much of the content of this book appears to be written by her. Her unique collection of papers and correspondence, some of which are reproduced in a lengthy appendix, add a mass of new information to what is known about the Hill’s ordinary lives and the extraordinary events that transformed them.

Friedman’s role seems to be to provide a celebrity name and selling point. His contribution is fortunately confined to a boorish and poorly-argued chapter that attacks ‘noisy negativists’ who appear to include just about anyone who does not accept his literal interpretation of the Hill’s experience. This comes across as a hectoring polemic that is badly out of place in the context of Marden’s careful and, in places, uncomfortable examination of Betty Hill’s strange life.

While neither book provides the reader with a complete answer to what happened to the couple that fateful night in September 1961, both provide valuable contributions to the literature of this complex and intractable case. We may never find a satisfying and comprehensive solution to the Hill’s experiences, but these books demonstrate how we are finally beginning to ask the right questions about their ultimate meaning.

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