2017 UPDATE: A DVD of the conference is now available from swampgasufo.com!
Due to lack of time, money, and interest (pretty much in that order), I don’t attend many “UFO Conferences.” Actually, the last one I attended was a small Indiana MUFON presentation in Pendleton, Indiana about a year ago that was free (yay!). Before that, it had been years.
But last weekend, Michigan MUFON had a day of speakers ostensibly focused on the “swamp gas” sightings in and around Dexter and Hillsdale, Michigan in March 1966. I won’t bore you with the details, but this as the case explained away by J. Allen Hynek as “swamp gas” leading—eventually—to the Condon Committee’s scientific investigation and ultimate dismissal of UFOs as unworthy of further study.
What follows is a brief rundown of some of the more notable occurances and some of my thoughts, cobbled from pretty illegible notes! This isn’t a full list of speakers, but, rather, of those that really piqued my interest.
Will Matthews gave the extensive overview of the events in March 1966, and did a very good job of keeping the discussion grounded in the statements made at the time, augmented by his own interviews of witnesses, particularly members of the Mannor family, farmers near Dexter who were the first witnesses of the anomalies—and who soon found themselves besieged with press and onlookers. As I wrote in my notes, “I like this guy! Seems likely to be sane.” He did a good job, I think, of emphasizing that just because what was seen was not swamp gas, the best conclusion might not be that they were structured craft from another world. “If not artificial, then at least unusual” is now I paraphrased him in my increasingly cryptic and sloppy notes. Overall, this was a well-structured, chronological examination of the events on the ground, garnered from witness testimony and other documentation.
Bill Murphy gave a very interesting talk on UFO/flying saucer information in Gerald Ford’s papers. As you probably know, Ford (as a US Representative from Michigan at the time of the sightings) played a role in pushing for a more detailed scientific account. Murphy had gone through about 1700 pages of documents at the Ford Presidential Library and presented a précis of what letters to Ford (and Ford’s responses) may tell us about the future President’s viewpoint on the phenomenon and the manner in which the Air Force handled it). In general, there’s very little indiction that Ford bought into the extraterrestrial hypothesis, or even much interest in the topic. However, he was concerned by public alarm on the topic and also by the often perfunctory and dismissing treatment of UFO witnesses by the Air Force. He also was concerned that there was a lack of transparency on the subject about aspects that might bear on national security (as a ranking member of the House Armed Services committee, it makes sense that Ford would have some qualms about that. Murphy also discussed government scrutiny of UFO groups and one of the best documents he showed was a questionnaire from the US Information Agency to a Michigan UFO group in the 1950s which focused on their political beliefs and agenda. I need to get myself a copy of that, because it would be great to use in class!
Peter Robbins did not talk about the Bentwaters Incident, but rather on “UFO ridicule” in the pages of the New York Times. In the limited time he had, he did (I think) a good job of demonstrating that the NYT’s UFO debunking and ridicule was earlier, more consistent, and more pervasive than other outlets. HIs broader conclusion, based on the eventual Robertson panel but also on conjecture and conversations with some involved (that couldn’t be proved, which he acknowledged), was that in 1947 intel/mil/gov’t officials exerted pressure on media (esp. NYT) to downplay and dismiss UFO sightings while they figured out what was going on. Robbins believes that this approach and attitude became institutionalized in the media (esp NYT) and, voila, the CIA, etc., had a long term disinfo/debunking partner in place. It was a good presentation.
Mark O’Connell, who blogs at High Strangeness and is working on a biography of J. Allen Hynek, gave a very good presentation about the events in Dexter and Hillsdale from Hynek’s perspective. Like Will Matthews’s talk, this was deeply grounded in the solid chronology of events and gave some interesting insight into the pressure that Hynek (and Blue Book) were under to provide a simple explanation. as well as the context of these 1966 sightings as part of the larger UFO waves (and, especially, UFO publishing wave) of the time. In particular, O’Connell argued that one of the reason the Michigan sightings caught as much public and media attention as they did was due to their proximity to excerpts from John Fuller’s Incident at Exeter being published. Along wth Will Matthews’s talk, O’Connell’s was worth the price of admission alone. He’s blogged on his perspective on the conference as well.
Finally, Grant Cameron, spoke on (largely) the same disclosure stuff he’s been talking about forever. John Podesta, Laurence Rockefeller, Hillary Clinton, the Holloman AFB film, et cetera and ad nauseum. While much of this was nothing new, and even taking into account my disdain for anything that smacks of disclosure-ism or exopolitics, what irked me most about Cameron’s appearance was that it had, really, nothing to do with the 1966 Michigan sightings. Every other talk was at least thematically related (such as Peter Robbins’s talk on the NYT “laughter curtain”) but Cameron…wow. I may have been more sympathetic, or at least amused, if he hadn’t gone on at the end of a long day on uncomfortable chairs but still.
As a final note, there were scant handful of young people there and I was able, at the conclusion of the event, snag a couple of them for interrogation as to their interest in the topic. They described themselves as “curious” rather than believers. Generally, they seemed to have more skepticism about Cameron’s rapid-fire coverup selling than anything. In a way, I wonder if, for newbies or those casually interested, Cameron’s talk undermined the credibility of the very good and balanced research we’d seen up to that point.
Overall though, it was a good day of talk about a collection of sightings that is incredibly interesting.