The turn of the twentieth century was a pretty crazy time. Major European wars were a thing of the past (or so people thought.) The world had mostly been conquered by Europeans and was rapidly being tamed. Technological advancement was on the rise and new wonders, such as recorded sound, moving picture, electric lights, the telephone… Oh yeah! And in 1896 and 97 men from Mars were trolling about the American midwest, kidnapping people and taking them hostage in their airships.
It’s true! Or, at least there were a lot of reports of Mystery Airships all over the Midwest for a brief period of time. This was about five to ten years before the powered flight had been made a reality by folks like Alberto Santo-Dumont and Count von Zeppelin so while the prospect of an airship created by some mysterious inventor traveling the countryside with it underwraps seemed plausible (Thomas Edison had to explicitly deny his involvement,) the stories themselves were necessarily sensational for the time.
My favorite detail about this particular brouhaha was the outlandishness of some of the stories, especially the ones detailing actual meetings with the passengers of the aircraft. They speak to the wonder of a time where there were still places in the world yet to discover. Take for example one story where men from Texas encountered strange men in a airship who claimed to descendant from one of the lost tribes of Israel. So, aeronaut Jews?
In another incident, 7-foot men attempted to drag Colonal H. G. Shaw into their airship but failed when they found out he was much stronger than them. Shaw believed the men to be Martians, sent to Earth to kidnap a man as a possible prelude to invasion. Of course. Later a man from Missouri sees an airship piloted by 8 beautiful naked ladies and one naked bearded man (I wonder who thought that arrangement up?) They didn’t speak English but did know the word for Mars as that is where they said they were from, (while pointing to the sky, of course.)
The craziest though, is when an airship apparently lassoed a cow and hoisted it into the air and off into the distance, much to the dismay of the farmer who attempted to rescue his cow.
All in all, most of these stories were probably hoaxes perpetuated by the newspapers which were much more inclined to print outright falsehoods for entertainment at the time then they are now. Even the stories that might have been true were largely embellished and very little fact checking every happened through the whole affair. So even though it is possible that there was an inventor behind some of the appearances, no one will ever know.