What Was the Mystery Behind the Great Kentucky Meat Shower of 1876?
The Kentucky Meat Shower is still shrouded in mystery today, There exist several explanations as to how this occurred and what the “meat” was, the most popular being the Vulture theory, in which a group of vultures regurgitated their meals; and the pieces fell to earth from a reasonable height and the light breeze caught the meat, causing it to fall across the farm like rain. However, the initial theory was of nostoc bacteria.
The Kentucky meat shower was an incident occurring for a period of several minutes on March 3, 1876, where what appeared to be flakes or pieces of red meat fell from the sky in a yard area near the settlement of Rankin in Bath County, Kentucky. One article, dated March 9, 1876, and reprinted the next day in the New York Times, described a Mrs. Mary Crouch who was in her yard making soap when flakes of meat began to fall down around her. “The sky was perfectly clear at the time, and she said it felt like large snowflakes,” read the article. “One piece fell near her which was three or four inches square.”
In the coming days, many neighbors stopped by to see the result of the meat shower for themselves. One named Harrison Gill later reported that meat was everywhere on the farm. It hung from fences and lay all over the ground. People quickly went about trying to figure out what the meat was and where it came from. One local hunter inspected the meat and declared it came from a bear.
The exact type of meat was never identified, with the meat appearing to be beef, but according to the two gentlemen who tasted it judged it to be mutton or venison, and the Crouch family cat gorged on the fortuitous feast. Dr. A. Mead Edwards and Dr. J.W.S. Arnold identified the meat as lung tissue from either a horse or a human infant, “the structure of the organ in these two cases being almost identical”, from the sample he was given.
Theories regarding the origin of the meat shower abounded. One early idea was that the meat was actually nostoc, a type of bacteria that swells to look like a clump of seaweed when exposed to moisture. However, lab tests confirmed the meat shower was actually bits of muscle, lung, and cartilage, dashing that idea.
Another disconcertingly violent theory proposed that two brothers had gotten into a knife fight, and a twister picked up the gory carnage and deposited it over the residents of Olympia Springs.
The favorite theory, however, is one proposed by humorist William Livingston Alden. “The obvious conclusion is that the Kentucky shower of meat was really a meteoric shower,” wrote Alden in a New York Times article published on March 11, 1876. The article explains that since “meteoric stones” constantly revolve around the sun, it would also stand to reason that “there revolves about the sun a belt of venison, mutton, and other meats, divided into small fragments which are precipitated about the earth.”
Alden continues to explain that previously, scientists had theorized that meteors were the result of exploded planets, so the meat shower must be “inhabitants who formerly occupied the wrecked planet”—essentially, that the meat was exploded alien livestock.
In 1876, the idea of solving every riddle just didn’t exist yet, so people were largely okay with a relatively plausible solution. Several scientists believed that the meat shower was a result of vomiting vultures, a theory first proposed by an unnamed Ohio farmer and later by Dr. L. D. Kastenbine who published a hypothesis that many still support today.
Kentucky is home to turkey vultures that gorge themselves on carrion, limiting their ability to fly. These birds are most likely to vomit for a strategic reason. They’re known to projectile vomit to ward off predators. If spooked, the birds need to immediately take flight, and lighten their load by regurgitating their last meal. As it turns out, the unlucky Mrs. Crouch was likely rained on by a buzzard barf blizzard. One of the articles also posits that it’s possible that the vultures feasted on sheep treated with strychnine, a poison used to target coyotes. The vultures may have vomited in response to feeding on poisoned meat.