March 1950: was the USAF testing the limits of belief with a far-out flying saucer lecture at a Colorado University?
Earlier this year there was an unwarranted kerfuffle surrounding a report by FBI agent Guy Hottel, filed on 29 March 1950, that begins:
An investigator for the Air Force stated that three so-called flying saucers had been recovered in New Mexico…
As newspapers all over the world disingenuously ran the story as evidence of the US government’s ET coverup – all very healthy for click-through rates, of course – those in the know pointed out that the memo was rather old news (61 years young in fact!) and the end product of an intricate game of Chinese Whispers.
At the root of the memo’s claims were a shady businessman looking to make a fast buck and, perhaps, the grander agenda of a rather more respectable organisation.
8 March 1950. The Korean war was three months away and American interest in flying saucers was reaching one of its early peaks thanks to sensational articles by Navy men Major Donald Keyhoe and Commander Robert McLaughlin, published earlier that year in the hugely popular True magazine.
In a crammed lecture hall at the University of Denver, Colorado, Silas Newton (left), proprietor of the Newton Oil Company, gave an anonymous presentation in which he described several crashed flying saucers in the possession of the Air Force, and their diminutive humanoid occupants, in some detail.
How Newton (whose identity was later revealed in the Denver Post) ended up getting a speaking slot at the university remains unclear, but what is known is that he was in cahoots with – or was perhaps himself being conned by – one Leo Gebauer, who had already drawn the FBI’s attention during the war for calling on President Roosevelt to be assassinated and replaced with that ‘swell guy’ Adolf Hitler.
Gebauer was now selling ‘doodlebugs’ – black boxes for prospecting gold, minerals, gas and other precious metals. These, he claimed, were based on technology from the USAF’s crashed ET craft, and Newton was acting as his front man (read a contemporary account of the hoax from True magazine here).
Later that year, Newton and Gebauer’s tale would become the basis for one of the first best-selling UFO books, Behind The Flying Saucers (pictured top, read it here) by Variety magazine gossip columnist Frank Scully, seeding belief in crashed saucer tales in thousands of minds, a good thirty years before anyone took interest in the Roswell account, which had crashed and burned overnight in July 1947.
What’s interesting is that after Newton’s presentation, the audience, composed largely of science and engineering students, were quizzed as to how convincing they felt his lecture had been – apparently 60 percent believed him to be telling the truth – and some of them were then interviewed by Air Force Intelligence officers.
So what was going on in Denver? With the benefit of hindsight it all sounds rather like a textbook market research exercise – if that was the case, what were the Air Force men doing there, and who might they have been conducting the research for?
I’ve written elsewhere about the US Air Force’s RAND (Research and Development) Corporation paper The Exploitation of Superstition for the purposes of Psychological Warfare [an intriguing piece of the Mirage Men puzzle I only learned about after the book was published!].
The paper, by Jean Hungerford, was officially published by RAND on 14 June 1950 and contains many useful suggestions for making mileage of regional superstitions and folklore, including gods and devils, phantoms, astrologers, magic, good luck charms, chain letters and more. What it neglects to mention, however, is the one subject that everyone was talking about at the time – especially the US Air Force (though in hushed tones) – and that, of course, was flying saucers.
It seems unlikely that this was an simply oversight on the part of the author. Maybe the subject was outside her remit, as the paper mostly deals with cases from the two World Wars. Then again, perhaps the saucers – reports of which were actually being clandestinely examined for the Air Force by RAND at the same time that Hungerford was preparing her own paper, were still too much of a political hot potato for Hungerford to tuck into. Either way, the omission is intriguing.
‘What types of superstitious appeals will be best adapted to the various audiences to be propagandised?’ the paper asks. ‘A study of local supserstitions as reflected in popular folk lore might be profitable in providing answers to these questions.’
Given that Silas Newton’s University of Denver talk, and the ensuing questioning of attendees, took place just six weeks before the RAND paper was published, and that Air Force Intelligence men were amongst those asking the questions, one does have to wonder the if Denver affair wasn’t an attempt to gauge how successful Newton was at spinning his crashed saucer yarn, and whether it might gain wings. It did, of course, via Frank Scully’s book and the story of the UFO crash at Aztec is still being retold over and over again, six decades later.
It would be nearly three years before the CIA’s Robertson Panel formally recognised the great psychological warfare potential of the flying saucer lore, but the events of March/April 1950 suggest that RAND and the USAF were already fully aware of this – and perhaps in Denver these Mirage Men were already exploring how they could make use of it.
A drawing by Newton of one of the crashed saucers.
As an interesting coda, in his diaries Newton wrote that after his presentation made the Denver Post he was approached by two members of a ‘highly secret US Government entity’ who told him that they knew his UFO crash story was a hoax, but that he should continue to tell it. If he did then ‘they and the people they worked for would look out for me [Newton] and for Leo [Gebauer]’.
Two years later Newton and Gebauer were convicted of fraud for trying to sell advanced mining equipment based on back-engineered alien technology; both received only suspended sentences – perhaps those mysterious men from the government put in a good word for the two crooks…