Back In The Day, Everybody Was Talking To Aliens (Thanks To One Scammer)
These days, UFOs are a mainstream hot topic, largely because you can't turn on the news without some government official lunging at the camera and screaming "there's something up there!" This sudden shift in position is all the more remarkable because saying you believed in UFOs used to be roughly the equivalent of yelling "the lizard people are making me do this" while loudly soiling yourself on a crosstown bus. But just how did we get to that point in the first place? Well, just like everything else in America, the crazier side of UFOlogy traces almost entirely back to one half-assed scammer who accidentally changed the world while trying to make a quick buck.
It All Started With George Adamski's Alien Buddies
The modern UFO craze actually started in 1947, when a pilot named Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine unidentified objects flying at great speed past Mount Rainier. His report quickly became a media sensation, but despite all the buzz, Arnold was a credible, serious guy who just saw something he couldn't explain. Unfortunately, his story was quickly one-upped by a cafe owner named George Adamski, who reported seeing no less than 184 unidentified objects doing loop-de-loops over Mount Palomar. This aerial display was somehow missed by the major observatory also located on Mount Palomar. Those guys must have been kicking themselves!
Adamski's early sightings were widely reported, even though he was fairly clearly ripping off Arnold for attention. This extended to describing the objects as "flying saucers," something which Arnold technically never even said. In an early interview, Arnold had described the objects as moving like a saucer "if you skip it across the water." He was very annoyed when multiple outlets took this to mean the objects were saucer-shaped, and actually did a high-profile interview with Edward R. Murrow to insist that they weren't. But the image of flying saucers had taken hold in popular culture and Adamski took it and ran with it like a scammer Usain Bolt.
Over the next few years, Adamski reported so many UFO sightings that he probably should have filed for a restraining order on them. But Adamski wasn't content to play second fiddle to Arnold for long. In 1952, he was wandering through a conveniently isolated patch of desert when he bumped into an alien named Orthon, who was happy to stop for a chat. Using a combination of telepathy and hand signals, Orthon explained that he was from the planet Venus and had come to Earth with a message of peace and friendship. He also warned Adamski of the dangers of nuclear bombs, although what he expected a cafe owner to do about this remains unclear. He actually illustrated the point by waving his arms and shouting "Boom! Boom!" so it's possible that Adamski wasn't dealing with the brightest tool in the intergalactic shed.
Orthon helpfully allowed Adamski to snap a few photos of his flying saucer, although he asked to borrow one of the negatives. Like any good friend he returned the negative a few days later, when an "iridescent, glasslike" craft pulled up outside Adamski's cafe. A porthole cracked open and a hand tossed the negative out (it bounced off a rock, denting the case) before zooming away. And we are just so fascinated to learn that the best way to transport an object from an intergalactic spaceship to the ground is to wind down the window and yeet it like an unwanted soda can. Seriously, why do we have hundreds of movies dealing with alien invasions and not one about the clearly much bigger problem of alien littering.
Adamski Became An International Celebrity (By Claiming To Be An Intergalactic One)
Adamski published his photos of Orthon's spaceship to great fanfare, and they quickly became influential in certain UFO circles. This was despite the fact that they are, and let's be clear about this, lamps. Seriously, they're photos of heating lamps. One researcher even showed that you can zoom in and see the GE logo faintly stamped on one of the light bulbs.
Meanwhile, Adamski continued to pal around with his new alien friends. In 1955, they even gave him a ride back to Venus on their spaceship (we hope he at least ponied up for gas money). The Venusians were apparently all beautiful white people with suspiciously 1950s views, including that women should be good housewives and that dances like the jitterbug were shocking and degenerate. This was enough to convince Adamski that they had ancient celestial wisdom (and enough to convince us we could defeat an alien invasion just by playing them the WAP video). Following a quick tour of Mars and Saturn, he was introduced to "The Master," a thousand-year-old being who explained that the other planets had used Earth as a dumping ground for "defective" individuals, which was why the planet remained "at the lowest stage of development," like some kind of Space Australia.
By this point, Adamski's claims had persuaded most people not to take him seriously. But Cracked's elite squad of mathematicians inform us that "most" isn't "all." His books Flying Saucers Have Landed! and Inside The Space Ships became huge bestsellers. Adamski went on sold-out international lecture tours, and even though audiences repeatedly broke down in hysterical laughter, plenty of people came away convinced. Even Queen Juliana of the Netherlands became a fan and Adamski was invited to a private audience at the palace when he visited the country. And then something weird happened: Other people started meeting the aliens too.
There Were Hundreds Of Similar (But Sexier) Encounters
By the time the 1960s rolled around, there were hundreds of people claiming to have encountered the Space Brothers, as Adamski's wise white aliens came to be known. It seemed like you could hardly turn a corner without a Venusian jumping out and demanding you work for world peace. A Swiss guy called Billy Meier became almost as famous as Adamski for his deeply unconvincing photos of flying saucers just kind of hanging around Switzerland. Another imitator was Howard Meyer, the "East Coast Adamski," who informed a surprised fan at one of his lectures that she was a sleeper agent from Venus sent to aid his mission of enlightenment. This was doubtless a bit of a shock, but she soon married him, won over by his habit of turning into a 10-foot-tall superpowered sex beast from Saturn when they made love.
A guy called Truman Bethurum founded a whole institute to study his encounters with Captain Aura Rhanes, a sexy alien from the planet Clarion. According to Captain Rhanes, Clarion was completely invisible to Earth, since the inhabitants had cleverly hidden it behind some big mirrors (or "light reflectors"). The Clarionites possessed ancient wisdom, but unfortunately Bethurum was too busy drooling over the "little lady captain" to catch much of it. According to his book, Aura's skin "was a beautiful olive and roses ... I am sure she wore no makeup and she certainly needed none," while her pants "appeared almost painted on her, so snugly did they fit." Bethurum told the captain that "the males of this planet would rate her tops in shapeliness and beauty." Rhanes in turn felt the need to share that Clarion was warm enough "to sleep nude if you wish."
Bethurum's obsession with Rhanes grew to the point that his wife filed for divorce on the grounds that her husband was in love with an imaginary space captain. At this point, Bethurum started hiring Rhanes lookalikes as his secretaries. He also started seeing the captain everywhere, once leaping out of the chair at the barber and sprinting down the street after a random woman he believed to be Rhanes. He eventually got married to a Rhanes lookalike atop Giant Rock, a Mojave Desert landmark that had been turned into a UFO convention center by a guy called George van Tassel, who was using the site to build a time machine called the Integratron under the guidance of a Space Brother called Solganda. He was also running for president, because, sure, why not?
Van Tassel's rival for president in 1960 was Gabriel Green, who was essentially a proxy candidate for the aliens who telepathically ran his campaign from their ship orbiting Alpha Centauri. Sadly, they both lost to whichever group of aliens were running JFK's campaign. Meanwhile, Bethurum was rivaled in horniness by Albert Bender, whose interest in aliens earned him a visit from the men in black. For some reason, they took him to a metal room, where three gorgeous women from the planet Kazik stripped him naked and massaged a mysterious liquid into every part of his body. Somehow we can't see Tommy Lee Jones going in for that. But Bender and Bethurum both looked like a couple of nerds compared to Elizabeth Klarer, a South African who spent several months having great sex with a handsome alien named Akon, before being whisked off to his home planet, where she gave birth to a son.
By far the most charming contact story belonged to Helen and Betty Mitchell, two sisters who bumped into the Space Brothers at a coffee shop in St. Louis and spent a few weeks meeting up for coffee before being whisked off to the mothership for a quick game of shuffleboard. The aliens later sent the sisters a telepathic message about the dangers of nuclear war, but we think this was a cover-up for what seems more like some kind of interplanetary blind dating.
Space Travel Was Never Really The Point
A key trait linking many of the contactees was a prior interest in alternative religions, particularly Theosophy, which had been founded in the 1870s by the mysterious Madame Blavatsky, the biggest medium of her day. A foul-mouthed Russian noblewoman, Blavatsky had suddenly appeared in New York, claiming to have learned the secrets of the world from an ancient order of immortal masters based in a hidden valley in Tibet. According to Blavatsky, studying under the masters had given her mystical powers, including telepathy and the ability to "materialize objects out of thin air." She was basically claiming to be a Marvel superhero a hundred years before Doctor Strange was even invented, and it just flat-out blew everyone's minds.
Theosophy became huge in the late 1800s, cultivating a number of wealthy and influential followers. However, the religion suffered a number of blows in the early 20th century, most notably the defection of the World Teacher. This was Jiddu Krishnamurti, an Indian boy who had been spotted playing on a beach by leading Theosophist Charles Leadbeater, who was reportedly stunned almost unconscious by the strength of Jiddu's aura. Following an extensive investigation of his past lives, the Theosophical Society basically abducted Krishnamurti from his parents and raised him to be the vehicle for Lord Maitreya, a great spirit who would bring enlightenment to the world.
A number of high-profile trials followed, accusing the Society of kidnapping and Leadbeater of being a pedophile. But the Society hung on to Krishnamurti until he reached adulthood, at which point he declared that he wasn't the World Teacher and had no interest in becoming him. He promptly left Theosophy, pausing only to dissolve the Order Of The Star In The East, a secret society that had been built at great expense to prepare the way for his reign as Lord Maitreya. This was a major embarrassment, and Theosophy subsequently dwindled, although splinter groups remain active to his day, including an offshoot that recently tried to convince a surprised British economist that he was Maitreya, after he fulfilled a mystic prophecy by appearing on an episode of The Colbert Report.
Before moving to Mount Palomar, George Adamski had run a Theosophist temple called the Royal Order of Tibet in Laguna Beach (America's most mystical city). His wise 1,000-year-old aliens ultimately weren't much different from Blavatsky's wise 1,000-year-old masters, albeit with a cool, sci-fi twist. Many of the Space Brothers' teachings were clearly Theosophy mixed with 1950s social mores and transferred to space, a much trendier setting than Tibet. So let that be a lesson to any aspiring spiritual leaders out there -- you can resurrect a dying religion by just jamming it together with whatever pop culture bullshit is cool at the time. Why, Scientology would probably rule the world by now if they had only thought to announce Xenu was actually a Bionicle.
Adamski Was Running A Scam (And Set Serious Research Back Years In The Process)
Let's be blunt, Adamski was clearly a scammer. Even his early Theosophical temple was actually started as a front for bootlegging sacramental wine during prohibition (he ran his bootlegging ring with the assistance of some old buddies from his time in Mexico fighting Pancho Villa). Aside from the hilariously faked photos, many of his descriptions of alien spaceships are clearly lifted from The Day The Earth Stood Still. It was the equivalent of a guy claiming to have met wise aliens and then just flat-out describing the Na'vi from Avatar. There were plenty of other scammers too. Billy Meier, for instance, was humiliated when his blurry photo of beautiful Venusian women was recognized as an old publicity shot of Dean Martin's backup dancers.
But once Adamski's books started selling, thousands of true believers came out of the woodwork, including hundreds who claimed their own contact with the Space Brothers. It's hard to see Truman Bethurum as a faker, particularly when his book describes fixating on a random woman at a cafe as his beloved Captain Aura Rhanes in disguise, then being confused and hurt when she curtly told him they had never met and then walked out. That really only works as a scam if you're trying to hustle a pharmacist out of an emergency supply of thorazine.
All of this was much to the irritation of more serious researchers. Kenneth Arnold was just a guy who saw something mysterious. Many other pilots have done the same over the years, leading to several government investigations. But the people who genuinely do want to look into the phenomena often have to work to ignore Adamski-style contactees. Maybe no one person did more to discredit UFO research as a legitimate interest. As Arthur C. Clarke put it, Adamski did "a real disservice by obscuring the truth and scaring away serious researchers from a field that may be of great importance." Great work George, hope it was worth it to sell $20 flying saucer photos out the back of your cafe.