It’s not every day that a freedom of information request is this good, but recently released FBI docs have it all: flying saucers, private meetings with intelligence officers, and a mysterious plane crash. By successfully requesting the file of noted conspiracy man and author Fred Lee Crisman, journalist Michael Best has identified a truly remarkable find: a real life X-file.
Cue the famous intro music.
Long before the 90s show made us want to believe, the released documents in Fred Crisman’s file, labeled SM-X (Security Matter–X), made it all way to the director of the FBI at the time, J. Edgar Hoover. They contain investigation details belonging to one of the first cases of the American paranormal activity mythos. The FBI became involved in a case that was fueled by a post-war media raring to publish incredible stories in a world getting used to accelerating technological advancement. Much like today’s shifting media landscape, the early days of paranormal investigation were easy to take advantage of.
The events that were documented by the FBI in Crisman’s file are known as the Maury Island UFO hoax of June, 1947. Crisman was involved with “high weirdness,” according to a post by Best, that swirled around an island near Puget Sound, Washington. The reports helped solidify the imagery behind a couple of the UFO tropes we know and love. It was an early example of how folklore can turn very quickly into fake news and get widespread attention.
I asked Best about his thoughts as to why the files—which, the FBI has long claimed do not exist—were named in such a way that, in complete coincidence, aligned with the paranormal show The X-Files. “I’m not sure, but if I had to guess it would be something like X for unknowns (as in variables),” he said to me in a Twitter message.
Crisman’s story of flying discs first appeared on the pages of the Tacoma Times in August. The reporter at the paper published the claims of Crisman and his business associate, Harold Dahl. Dahl was quoted as saying that, while patrolling the waters by boat near Maury Island, he witnessed multiple donut shaped discs appear in the sky. One of the discs, Dahl claimed, ejected molten material and allegedly crashed into and damaged the boat he was on. Dahl then explained that a person in a dark suit subsequently approached the scene and told them to keep quiet about the events. To many UFO historians, this was the beginning of the “Men in Black” conspiracy.
In an interview found in the FBI file, Crisman said he returned to the damaged boat the next day, where he collected ‘disc fragments’ that became central to a hoax that spun widely out of control.
The FBI report included in the released documents explained that Crisman and Dahl sent samples of the ‘disc fragments’ to Chicago paranormal investigator Raymond Palmer for analysis. Palmer, who originally worked for Ziff-Davis’ Amazing Stories, was deeply involved in the earliest days of 20th century flying saucer myths and went on to publish Fate Magazine, which still investigates claims of the supernatural today.
After being notified by Palmer, Kenneth Arnold, a pilot who claimed to have witnessed the first widely publicised UFO sighting, got in touch with Dahl and Crisman. He travelled to Washington and arranged a meeting at the Winthrop Hotel in Tacoma with him, the two witnesses, and two Air Force intelligence officers.
This is where the story gets even weirder.
A day after the meeting with UFO witnesses, the B-25 Bomber carrying the two air force officers crashed and both were killed. Media immediately published the conclusions of anonymous phone calls (which were probably from Crisman, according to FBI findings detailed in the released documents) that the plane was carrying the disc fragments and it was deliberately shot down in a UFO cover up.
Those details were reported widely as fact by outlets like the Tacoma Times and Boise Statesman. The story made it all the way to the Chicago Times, which would become the Sun-Times the next year.
Of course, the FBI concluded the entire thing was a hoax for attention, with agents writing that there were no fragments on the plane. The flight, it said, came down due to an engine failure. Years later, Dahl eventually admitted the deception to a reporter after being cajoled by his wife.
Image: Mr. Gray/Flickr
The FBI theorized that the explanation was much simpler than UFOs and government conspiracies. It was about money. The investigations found that Crisman and Dahl sought payment from the media outlets who wrote about their tall tale. It’s a slightly different refrain of today’s fake news issue, with greed inspiring the manipulation of mass communication.
This wouldn’t be the last America would hear of Fred Crisman. He would be later subpoenaed by Jim Garrison in the investigation of JFK assassination. During the federal investigation, forensic anthropologists had fingered him as being one of the “three tramps” arrested by Dallas PD on the same day as shooting of the president. He was later exonerated by the House Select Committee on Assassination. In the 60s, according to Aaron Gulyas in his book, The Paranormal and the Paranoid: Conspiratorial Science Fiction Television, Harold Dahl wrote to a UFO investigator that the show The Invaders had elements that were very similar to Crisman’s life and stories.
That isn’t to say the eventual rise of paranormal investigation was all bad. The same paranormal media outlets become known for skepticism and science. Fate magazine was not afraid to debunk the hoaxes or scams it covered in its investigations into the supernatural.
You can only hope our media outlets maintain that level of skepticism today.