About 2 p.m. on a March day in 1876, on a farm in southern Bath County, a mystery fell from the sky.
It wasn’t rain or hail, or even cats and dogs. For years afterward, locals had no idea what it was, only that it was meat of some sort.
A preserved piece of meat from that event, now known as the “Kentucky Meat Shower,” is on display at the Monroe Moosnick Medical and Science Museum at Transylvania University.
Transylvania professor Kurt Gohde, who has studied the event for years, said the mysterious precipitation of meat received widespread attention from journalists and scientists for about a year.
“I like that it’s kind of the result of a time period where people were OK wondering and not necessarily having to solve everything,” Gohde said. The amount of meat that fell from the sky was “enough to fill a horse wagon,” as the locals put it at the time.
The words of those who observed the meat shower, which lasted about 10 minutes, live on through the work of Kentucky journalists.
“There was a light wind coming from the west, but the sky was clear and the sun was shining brightly,” Mary Crouch, who was the first person to see the meat, told local newspaper reporters.
Crouch was outside making soap when the mysterious substance began falling, making loud thudding sounds as it crashed onto the grass. “The largest piece that I saw was as long as my hand and about a half an inch wide,” she said.
Two men tasted pieces of the meat and declared it to be venison or mutton. A local hunter named Benjamin Franklin Ellington swore by his name that the meat was that of a bear.
In a time before the U.S. Department of Agriculture, taste-testing was often the go-to method in cases of unknown foodlike objects, Gohde said. “That seemed to be the most reasonable response … was just tasting it,” he said. For about a year, samples of the meat were sent to scientists around the country, and they offered many theories about the origins. One scientist declared it wasn’t meat at all but rather a type of cyanobacteria called nostoc, which is a vegetative mass coated by a gelatinlike substance that swells up whenever it rains. But on the day of the meat shower in Bath County, there was no rain.
“It’s a low form of plant matter, that when it gets wet it smells,” Gohde said. This theory was unlikely because the ground around the farm had spots of blood, he said. Another scientist who examined the meat said it probably was the lung tissue of a horse or a human infant. Horse and human lungs are made of the same cartilage and tissue.
Several more samples were sent to other scientists, who agreed the meat consisted of lung tissue, muscular tissue and cartilage.
“There was not sureness it was a human lung, (and) they admitted the species of tissue was harder to tell than the type of tissue,” Gohde said.
One of the more fanatical theories was that the supposed slices of human meat were the result of a nasty knife fight among several Kentuckians, and the flesh was picked up by a whirlwind and launched like a cannon.
Gohde said the most plausible theory circulated among scientists at the time was that the meat shower was the result of projectile vomit from a flock of vultures.
Vultures are known to projectile vomit midflight, either as a defense mechanism or to lighten their weight while flying, and the sight of one vulture in the group vomiting might have influenced the others to do so, scientists at the time said. “It’s ridiculous and fun when you first think about it,” Gohde said. There are many other outlandish theories about the meat, he said. “They are, like some other birds, known to disgorge themselves if they need to take off quicker or if they hear a sound that frightens them.”
The problem with this theory, Gohde said, was the only firsthand account came from Crouch, who claimed to see nothing when she looked up at the sky. If the source of the meat was vultures, either they were flying extremely high or Crouch suffered from nearsightedness, Gohde said.
To this day, scientists have not confirmed the origins of the meat, and it has been in formaldehyde so long it would be hard to tell at this point.
Gohde said the mystery is what interests him the most.
“There was always something new and unusual for people to move onto before they really solved anything,” said Gohde, who called that point in history “a time where wondering was OK.”