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No. 132: NOV-DEC 2000

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Curious Phenomena in Venezuala

The description of a truly remarkable phenomenon recently appeared on Scientific American's web page. It also surfaced in an article by G.D. Kaswell in the journal Infinite Energy. These re-appearances in the current literature of this well-known anecdote allow us to revisit it here. It is well worth repeating, even though many anomalists have had it in their collections for decades. (In fact we recorded it in 1974 in vol. G1 of Strange Phenomena.)

As you read the following quotation from an 1886 issue of Scientific American, remember that the event described occurred almost a decade before the discoveries of X-rays and radioactivity. Although ball lightning was recognized in 1886, the first UFO flap was still 70 years in the future!

The following brief account of a recent strange meteorological occurrence may be of interest to your readers as an addition to the list of electrical eccentricities:

During the night of the 24th of October last [1886], which was rainy and tempestuous, a family of nine persons, sleeping in a hut a few leagues from Maracaibo [Venezuela], were awakened by a loud humming noise and a vivid, dazzling light, which brilliantly illuminated the interior of the house.

The occupants, completely terror stricken, and believing, as they relate, that the end of the world had come, threw themselves on their knees and commenced to pray, but their devotions were almost immediately interrupted by violent vomitings, and extensive swellings commenced to appear in the upper part of their bodies, this being particularly noticeable about the face and lips.

It is to be noted that the brilliant light was not accompanied by a sensation of heat, although there was a smoky appearance and a peculiar smell. The next morning the swellings had subsided, leaving upon the face and body large black blotches. No special pain was felt until the ninth day, when the skin peeled off, and these blotches were transformed into virulent raw sores.

The hair of the head fell off upon the side which happened to be underneath when the phenomenon occurred, the same side of the body being, in all nine cases, the more seriously injured.

The remarkable part of the occurrence is that the house was uninjured, all the doors and windows being closed at the time.

No trace of lightning could afterward be observed in any part of the building, and all the sufferers unite in saying that there was no detonation, but only the loud humming already mentioned.

Another curious attendant circumstance is that the trees around the house showed no signs of injury until the ninth day, when they suddenly withered, almost simultaneously with the development of the sores upon the bodies of the occupants of the house.

This is perhaps a mere coincidence, but it is remarkable that the same susceptibility to electrical effects, with the same lapse of time, should be observed in both animal and vegetable organisms.

I have visited the sufferers, who are now in one of the hospitals of this city; and although their appearance is truly horrible, yet it is hoped that in no case will the injuries prove fatal.

(Signed: Warner Cowgill, U.S. Consulate, Maracaibo, Venezuela, November 17, 1886.)

(Cowgill, Warner; "Curious Phenomenonin Venezuala, Scientific American, 55:389, 1886.)

The article in Infinite Energy discusses in some depth the reality of ball lightning, the similarities to modern UFO reports, the reliability of anecdotes, and, especially, the nature of the physiological effects, which resemble, in some aspects, radiation sickness resulting from exposure to intense X-rays or nuclear devices.

It is also interesting that this anecdote, long-consigned to "fringe" publications, has now been resurrected in digital form by Scientific American, which is an establishment publication if there ever was one. Kaswell writes to this point as follows:

My purpose was (in part) to show that mainstream scientists in main-stream publications like Scientific American evaluate the largely anecdotal evidence for the relatively non-controversial ball lightning by a different and more lenient standard than that they reserve for the highly controversial UFO reports. The Maracaibo case illustrates this beautifully, precisely because the report has aspects similar to both phenomena.

(Kaswell, Gordon David; "Phenomenon in Venezuela: A Documented Case of Unexplained Radiation Exposure," Infinite Energy, 6:33, no. 32, 2000. Journal address: P.O. Box 2816, Concord, NH 03302-2816.)

Comment. The conversion of science archives to digital form so that they can be accessed on the Web is shallow time-wise. The appearance of this 1886 item is an exception. Much old information is being excluded by this transformation of media. In effect, if not intent, it is like the destruction of the Mayan codices by the Spanish priests.

From Science Frontiers #132, NOV-DEC 2000. 2000 William R. Corliss

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