—Tim Bean

Bath County is roughly 300 square miles of lolling bluegrass hills in north-central Kentucky. Named after the mineral springs within its borders, the county landscape is as peaceful and pretty as a Hallmark card.

But not always. Like any county in any country, ugliness was in the past. Of these, the weirdest would be the Kentucky Meat Shower of March 3rd, 1876.

Smack in the middle of the day on the farm of Allen and Elizabeth Crouch in Bath County, gobs of grisly meat fell from the sky for 10 minutes, plopping onto the grass and dirt around the homestead. It slapped onto the farm house roof, onto the backs of livestock, and onto the loose shingles of the barn.

HEADLINE FROM COURIER-JOURNAL. 3/13/1876

When the steak squall started, Mrs. Crouch had been on the narrow porch of the house, slicing pork fatback into a bucket to later make soap. Her cat sat at her feet, staring up and hoping for some morsels.  Mrs. Crouch heard several soft patters a few paces from the porch and stepped into the yard to investigate. Thin tendrils of wet and bloody meat littered the grass. It was red in spots, but mostly the cream-yellow of fat and gristle. As soon as Mrs. Crouch leaned over to nab a piece, the Kentucky Meat Shower of 1876 started in earnest. The soft pattering turned to pelting and slaps. Mrs. Crouch quickly ran for the safety of the porch.

The meaty hunks averaged between two to four inches long, although a few were bigger. “The largest piece that I saw was as long as my hand and about half an inch wide,” Mrs. Crouch said. She carefully craned her head up and peered at the sky, looking for…well, she wasn’t exactly sure, but there was nothing to see anyway. The clear Kentucky sky stretched to the horizon. No clouds, no malicious spirits, no heavenly chariots. Just the meaty remains littering the farm. 

1880 MAP OF Kentucky (Bath County is north-central)

When it stopped a few minutes later, Mrs. Crouch said, the property was covered in enough meat to fill a good-sized farm wagon. She and her neighbors collected basket-loads of the meat. They sniffed it, prodded it, and held it up to the light, but no one dared try it.

Pioneer meals featured a variety of animal and wild game. Necessity and/or scarcity dictated the menu, so the folks of Bath County were experts in identifying and judging strange meats. This was different. In fact, the only consensus they could reach was that the meat wasn’t spoiled.

The day after the shower, two brave Kentuckians volunteered to taste the raw, fatty hunks of meat. The crowd watched in silence as the two men chewed with deliberateness of wine tasters. One man declared it bear without a doubt. The other shook his head in frustration. He just couldn’t identify it. The Kentuckians hunkered down to discuss it. Bear, possum, venison, beef, lamb, pork, horse…every animal other than cats or dogs was suggested. Even human.

Strangely, the incident grew beyond Bath County‘s borders and became national news. Scientists from every discipline traveled scrutinized preserved samples. For months, several of the nation’s leading periodicals—the New York Times, Scientific American, the American Journal of Science, the New York Heraldreported on the event regularly, with several calling it “the Kentucky Phenomenon.” By this point, Mrs. Crouch, the only adult witness to the event, had faded into her rural obscurity and returned home. She and her husband chalked it up to God’s “mysterious ways.”

NOSTOC aka CYANOBACTERIA aka STAR JELLY

Scientists, reporters, and self-proclaimed paranormal experts put forward theories so absurd they were cartoonish. The esteemed Professor Edward Hitchcock, a former president of Amherst College, unequivocally categorized the “meat” as a gelatinous fungus or even nostoc, a colony of cyanbacteria swollen into a quivering mass after its exposure to moisture. These common colonies of gooey bacteria are also referred to as “star jelly” or “witches’ butter.”

Professor J. Lawrence Smith, a renowned chemist and mineralogist (and inventor of the inverted microscope), dismissed the “star jelly“ theory. Smith concluded that it was spawn “doubtless of the frog” that had been picked up and carried away in inclement weather then deposited on the Crouch farm.

EMPORIA NEWS. 3/17/1876

A New Jersey physician declared it undeveloped lung tissue, perhaps from an infant. One was convinced a canister of gunpowder had been tied to a dog’s tail. BOOM! Another said it had to be a cattle-carrying steamboat explosion. Sadly, one of the popular early theories is that Black Kentuckians pulling a trick on those in Bath County. “The negroes,” a reporter from Louisville’s Courier-Journal wrote, “have not admitted their agency in concocting the shower, as we are informed they have done.” Luckily, that last theory fades away fast.

Without DNA identification to provide a definite answer, the debate raged on, with discussion devolving into vitriolic battles between academics and their egos. They reached no consensus.


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Meanwhile, the people of Bath County had already decided on the source of the mystery meat. Rural folk were used to seeing cartoon on land and in roads, and where there’s carrion, there are vultures (aka buzzards). The people decided a MASSIVE flock of buzzards must have flown over the Crouch farm that late March morning, right after gorging on some putrid meat.

Big, ugly, and filthy, the vulture is perfectly suited for its place as nature’s garbage disposal. Among the bird’s most effective talents is its ability to puke with impunity. Vultures puke for many reasons. If they eat too much and need to fly. They puke to mark territory. And, like all country folk know, a cornered or threatened buzzard will puke to defend itself.

16 Things You Might Not Know About Vultures :: ANNAMITICUS
YOU WOULDN’T LIKE VULTURES WHEN THEY’RE ANGRY

This is not your average puke. Its digestive juices are more acidic than battery acid, strong enough to melt bones and extract nutrition from meat so rancid it would kill a man. With a display of head bobs and rasping cries, buzzards will launch a stream of puke ten feet right into an enemy’s eyes, blinding any man or animal. Kentuckians are smart. They know to steer clear of those carrion-chewing creatures since they ALWAYS aim for the eyes.

In Bath County, the meat shower mystery was solved. It was vulture puke, plain and simple.

But there’s another possibility.

The answer that’s most often correct (and most often avoided) is that someone is simply lying. Maybe one person, maybe many. Maybe they thick they’re telling the truth, like low grade mass hysteria. I mean, edible cuts of meat to rain down from a clear Kentucky sky on a pleasant day in late winter? Even the most astute scientific mind would get twisted in knots explaining it. Discounting a miracle or “mysterious ways,” the story of the Kentucky Meat Shower of 1876 story might be just that. A story.

Several contemporary newspapers, including the New York Herald, the Daily Commonwealth of Topeka, and the Oskaloosa Independent came to the same conclusion. In a remarkable article simply titled “The Kentucky Meat Shower,” a nameless reporter from the Daily Commonwealth decided to investigate the incident further, after a well-respected resident of Bath County has gone on record (for no pay or compensation) to say the whole thing was a hoax.

FROM OSKALOOSA INDEPENDENT. MARCH 25, 1876

This unnamed reporter unearthed several discrepancies in the story already carried by hundreds of newspapers across the country.

First, there had never been a wagonload of meat, but rather a single woven basket containing 20-30 pounds of meat. This has fallen two acres of the Crouch farmland, averaging one ounce of meat per 50 square feet.

Second, the reporter discovered that Mrs. Crouch, the sole adult witness to the entire event, insisted no newspaper reporter had ever sought her out, interviewed her, or even spoken to her, despite the heavy coverage the story received. The reporter’s disgust at his colleagues’ failure in due diligence came through the article like spittle.

RAW BEAR MEAT

Before leaving Bath County, the reporter spoke with one of the two men that had tasted the mystery meat. B.F. Ellington, an elderly hunter, had been killing bears in Eastern Kentucky for the last 30 years as a profession. Mostly, he killed them for their skins, but he also liked the meat. Ellington swore that he had “…chawed more of that kind of meat than any other man in the United States.” He knew the look of it, the taste of it, the smell of it, and especially knew the distinctive feel of bear grease. The colorful hunter ended his recollection with this firm oath: “Gentlemen, it’s bar’ meat certain, or else my name is not Benjamin Franklin Ellington.”

Kentucky Meat Shower: Alien animals, vulture vomit? Mystery remains
THE SOLE SPECIMEN (?) OF THE 1876 EVENT (courtesy of TRANSYLVANIA UNIVERSITY)

With the mountains of genetic advances we’ve gained in the last 140 years, most people assume we’d have an answer by now, especially since there’s a actual sample of the “meat shower” bottled up in Lexington’s Monroe Moosnick Medical and Science Museum at Transylvania University (yes, Transylvania University). DNA testing is right out—according to the museum staff, the formaldehyde has long since destroyed any chance at genetic identification of the pork-like flesh in the bottle. Even if we could test it, there’s no verifiable chain of custody for the sample. Without being able to trace the preserved specimen back to the original 1876 event, the specimen is no more historically useful than a paperweight.

Today, most researchers believe the event was magnified in scope, but started as flock-sized vulture vomiting, likely in anticipation of a long flight. It is possible for a BIG flock of buzzards to deposit 20-30 pounds of meat over two acres during their flight. This would support Ellington’s assertion that it was bear meat and Mrs. Crouch’s testimony. It would also dovetail well with some of the initial scientists’ conclusions. A mass puking event like that would be extraordinary but possible.

Less extraordinary, however, is the simplest explanation: it’s a hoax. By one person or by many, we couldn’t know. In its defense it was a colorful and creative hoax, sure. No one got hurt. That doesn’t change its nature though. Whether done for attention, profit, or amusement, we will probably never know.

I’ll end this article with the above image of those rolling bluegrass hills. No state in the country has landscape like Kentucky. Driving through it is one of life’s free pleasures.