dinsdag 8 oktober 2013

The Petrified Cornfield

One of the interesting problems in assessing how far back in time the crop circle phenomenon stretches is to find old tales suggestive of the phenomenon.
America has produced such crop-related folklore. In 1885 a newspaper in Georgia printed this intriguing anecdote:
“I heard a truthful, religious old lady say, that when she was a little girl she was sent to pick up corn stalks with the child of a reputed witch. Growing weary of the work, the child of the witch mother proposed to collect the stalks without further labour. A few minutes later, the wind began to rise, furious whirlwinds made their appearance in different parts of the field, the stalks were lifted in the air, but my informant, becoming frightened, begged that it might be stopped. The witch child waved her arms, the wind subsided and the stalks fell back in their places. These stories might be multiplied by scores; they were sufficiently well authenticated and corro­borated to produce conviction of their truth, if only within the bounds of reason and common experience.” [1] 

While the above points to a widespread belief linking crop and field anomalies to the work of the Devil and his minions, that fascinating detail of 'furious whirlwinds' in the American tale connects to a brief letter to the editor of Nature. It was published in 1880, and it is often cited as a precursor to the crop circle phenomenon. Entitled 'Storm Effects', the letter describes how violent storms rocked parts of Surrey, England, producing effects considered as: 
“in some instances curious. Visiting a neighbour’s farm… we found a field of standing wheat considerably knocked about, not as an entirety, but in patches forming, as viewed from a distance, circular spots. 

“Examined more closely, these all presented much the same character, viz., a few standing stalks as a centre, some prostrate stalks with their heads arranged pretty evenly in a direction forming a circle round the centre, and outside these a circular wall of stalks which had not suffered.” [2] 

But just how unusual is it to find stalks flattened or bent in various figures after a severe storm? Two years before the letter in Nature was published, a Wisconsin newspaper remarked on how an “unusually severe wind and rain storm, coming up from the southwest… flattened the grain and twisted it into all conceivable directions and shapes. The grain was very tall and heavy, and the damage of having it completely flattened can well be appreciated by all who have harvested lodged grain.” [3] 

Are there then no genuinely weird tales involving crops and anomalous impressions or phenomena? I’ve been scouring digitized newspaper archives for almost a decade now, and, apart from the examples cited here there seems to be a dearth of tales possessing motifs truly similar to the current crop circle phenomenon. Surprising, when we know that those 19th- and early 20th-century newspaper had no qualms in publishing even the most outlandish yarns. 

During my searches I did, though, find one very curious story that might rank with that of the Mowing Devil. It has all the hallmarks of a tall tale (and was generally referred to as 'the yarn of the season', and 'a marvellous story' in those American newspapers that published it), but is laudable in its invent­iveness. It offers us a strange aerial phenomenon manifesting itself as a green cloud, a radical temperature drop and some fireballs – and this weird atmo­spheric manifest­ation has, in turn, a decidedly strange influence on a field of corn. The tale was published between August and October 1890, and so far I have located it in four different American newspapers: 

The people in the eastern port­ion of Claiborne County, Tenn., are excited over a remarkable occurr­ence which took place there not long ago. It is one of the most marvell­ous occurrences ever heard of, and it will prove to be a problem over which scientific minds may wrestle for some time to come. 

Edgar Ramsey is a farmer who lives five miles from Lick Skillet. He arrived in Middlesboro recently. The story he told would not find believers at first, but since then it has been proven that he has told nothing but the truth. His statement is thus reported by a correspondent of the St Louis Globe-Democrat: “Last Sunday afternoon I noticed what appeared to be a large green-looking cloud coming from a westerly direction toward my house. It was a long distance off, and the rain was falling heavily. Shortly afterward It became very cold, in fact so cold that I went indoors, lit a big fire and put on a big heavy coat. When I came out again, the big green cloud was almost over the house, and the air was as cold as on a winter day. The wind howled and the hail fell in stones as big as eggs. All this lasted 20 minutes, and then the sky cleared up and I felt more like myself again. 

“An hour after, I was sitting with my wife near the fire when I heard a horse galloping at full speed, and when I went out to see who it was there stood Jake Warren, a neighbour farmer who lives about a mile and a quarter from me. He was as pale as a ghost and was trembling all over. It took him over 10 minutes to commence to tell me what he had to say, and as he was talking I thought he was crazy. 

“He stated that a big green cloud had come over his place, and that something which looked like balls of fire had fallen all around his house. He had five acres of corn growing in a field next to the house. After the storm had cleared away, he went to see what damage had been done. He saw that some corn had been blown down, and, entering the field, he found every stalk turned to stone. There were two fine hogs in the field, and they, too, were petrified and standing there as if cut out of solid rock. Myself and wife thought the man was raving mad, but induced him to remain over till morning, when we promised to visit his place with him. That we did, and what we saw will be remembered so long as we both live. There was the corn blown down, but every stalk of it was petri­fied. It was not as hard as granite, but it appeared to be more like soft stone. I took my knife and cut it, and it became powder. The ears were very hard, and they could not be broken with the hand. The leaves were brittle, and if you struck them they would break like glass. The hogs were there, too, looking natural enough, but they were as hard as stone.” 

George E. Henry, of this city, John Rogers, Captain John B. Hull, ex-deputy marshal, and several others rode over the mountains into Tennessee to see for themselves if the things were really there as represented. Captain Hull, ex-United States deputy marshal, makes the following statement: 

“We went over this morning. I doubted the story on starting, but thought I’d try it, anyhow. We found Warren’s farm about seven miles from the Gap, and there, sure enough, was the cornfield completely petrified. The stalks were somewhat blown down, but they seemed completely turned to stone. The two hogs were there also, and they looked like they were carved out of rock. It was the strangest sight I ever saw and I can’t begin to describe the thing. There were a number of men guarding the field with Winchester rifles and they wouldn’t let us go into it. They only let us go to the fence. We could touch some of the corn stalks and could see the hogs, but the men refused posit­ively to let us go any further than the fence. The women wouldn’t say why they would not let people go into the field, but I presume they were afraid people would break the corn stalks to pieces. There was quite a crowd there looking at the thing, and every one was thoroughly dumbfounded with what they saw.” 

This statement is vouched for by a number of others, and naturally there is considerable excitement. [4] 

Part of a longer article originally published in Fortean Times 264, July 2010 


1 “The Obedient Whirlwind”, Telegraph and Mess­enger, Macon, Georgia, 29 Jan 1885.
2 “Letters To The Editor, Storm Effects”, Nature, 29 July 1880. 

3 “Wind And Rain. Severe Wind and Rain Storm West of Here. Fields of High Waving Grain Lodged Flat to the Earth. Effects of the Recent Hot Spell. General Influence of the Weather on the Crops.”, Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, 18 July 1878. 

4 “Turned To Stone. A Strange Story from Claiborne County, Tennessee. A Big Green Cloud Passes Over the Lick Skillet Country and Petrifies Hogs as Well as a Field of Corn – The Yarn of the Season”, Reno Evening Gazette, Reno, Nevada, 4 Oct 1890. I also located the story in the Daily Journal and Journal and Tribune, Tennessee, 16 Aug 1890; Bradford Era, Bradford, Pennsylvania, 26 Aug 1890 and Syracuse Standard, Syracuse, New York, 7 Sept 1890.

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