9 Facts About Project Blue Book, the Government's Top-Secret UFO Program

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Between 1952 and 1969, the U.S. Air Force conducted a series of studies on UFO sightings called Project Blue Book. Not only is there a new History Channel series about the program, this year also marks the 50th anniversary of the project’s termination. Get to know the secretive program better.

1. Project Blue Book wasn’t the government’s first UFO study.

In 1947, a private pilot named Kenneth Arnold reportedly spotted nine glowing UFOs zooming over Washington's Mount Rainier. The public went wild for the so-called “flying saucers.” Shortly after, the U.S. government launched Project SIGN to determine if such objects were a threat. In 1948, Project SIGN purportedly published a document called the “Estimate of the Situation,” which suggested that extraterrestrials were a possible explanation for UFO sightings. As the story goes, Air Force officials destroyed the document and launched a more skeptical investigation in the late 1940s called Project GRUDGE. Blue Book came a few years later.

2. The “Estimate of the Situation” was inspired by a mind-boggling event.

In the 1960s, Air Force officials denied that the “Estimate of the Situation” document ever existed. Those who vouch for its authenticity, however, say the report was inspired by a 1948 UFO sighting in Alabama, after two experienced pilots saw a torpedo-shaped “glowing object” zip past their aircraft and rocket into the clouds. The report shocked and baffled many of Project SIGN’s researchers, though scientists would later claim the sighting was consistent with a bolide, or bright meteor.

3. “Blue Book” was named after a college testing staple.

Whether UFOs are extraterrestrial in origin is debatable. What’s undeniable is that, during the 1950s, people routinely spotted (or thought they spotted) objects flying over the United States—and it was the onus of the U.S. military to figure out what they were and whether they posed any danger. Blue Book would earn its name because, at the time, Air Force officials equated studying the phenomenon with preparing for a collegiate “blue book” final exam.

4. Officials developed a special protocol for handling UFO sightings.

A central part of Project Blue Book was the creation of a standardized questionnaire for UFO sightings. Some sample prompts: “Draw a picture that will show the shape of the object or objects … What was the condition of the sky? ... Did the object: Suddenly speed up and rush away at any time? Change shape? Flicker, throb, or pulsate?” Eventually, every U.S. Air Force base ended up designating a special officer to collect these UFO reports.

5. Thousands of reports were collected—and some haven’t been explained.

By the time Project Blue Book was closed, officials had gathered 12,618 UFO reports. Of those, 701 were never explained. Nearly half of those unidentified UFOs appeared in 1952 when a whopping 1501 UFOs were sighted. (Interestingly, that following year, it became a crime for military personnel to discuss classified UFO reports with the public; the risk of breaking the law could mean up to two years imprisonment.)

6. Project Blue Book saw five leadership changes.

Each person in command saw the purpose of Project Blue Book differently. Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, for example, treated the job as a serious scientific quest and is often lauded as the project’s most impartial leader. (Notably, he is responsible for coining the term UFO.) Major Hector Quintanilla, who took over the project in 1963, was more interested in turning Blue Book into a PR front and focused on quelling the public’s interest in UFOs—a desire that would eventually lead to charges of a government cover-up.

7. Blue Book made such bad scientific mistakes that Congress had to get involved.

In 1965, Oklahoma Police, the Tinker Air Force Base, and a local meteorologist using weather radar independently tracked four unexplained flying objects. Under Quintanilla’s advisement, Project Blue Book would claim that these witnesses had simply observed the planet Jupiter. The problem with this explanation? Jupiter wasn’t even visible in the night’s sky. “The Air Force must have had its star finder upside-down during August,” Robert Riser, an Oklahoma planetarium director, said at the time. A series of more badly botched scientific explanations eventually led to a congressional hearing.

8. The Project’s desire to dismiss unidentified phenomena bothered its sole scientist.

Project Blue Book had one consistent scientific consultant, astronomer Dr. J. Allen Hynek. In 1968, Hynek wrote: “The staff of Blue Book, both in numbers and in scientific training, is grossly inadequate … there is virtually no scientific dialogue between Blue Book and the outside scientific world … The statistical methods employed by Blue Book are nothing less than a travesty” [PDF]. Hynek held Quintanilla in particularly low regard, saying, “Quintanilla’s method was simple: disregard any evidence that was counter to his hypothesis.”

9. In 2007, a new government Inquiry into UFOs was launched.

Between 2007 and 2012, the U.S. government spent $22 million on a new UFO study called the “Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program.” (Nowadays, UFOs are called UAPs, or "Unidentified Aerial Phenomena": You can watch one here.) This January, more than three dozen of the program’s studies became publicly available, revealing the government’s interest in everything from warp drives to invisibility cloaks.

How Queen Victoria Almost Learned the Ending to Charles Dickens's Unfinished 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood'

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Rischgitz/Getty Images

By 1870, Charles Dickens had reached the height of his fame. The British novelist had concluded his second reading tour of the U.S., where fans stood in line for hours just to be in the same room as the literary superstar. His last three major works—A Tale of Two Cities, a historical novel; Great Expectations, a coming-of-age story; and Our Mutual Friend, a social satire—had all been critical and commercial successes. For his next project, he chose a darker genre to explore.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a whodunit set in Cloisterham, England (the fictionalized version of Dickens’s hometown of Rochester). In the tale, Edwin Drood is engaged to be married to Rosa Bud, but his fiancée has attracted romantic attention from two other men in town: his uncle John Jasper and the hot-tempered Neville Landless. Tensions boil over when the three men spend an evening together, and Landless nearly chucks a wine goblet at Drood. Days later, Drood disappears without warning, and though foul play is suspected, the culprit’s identity is unclear.

Before starting the book, Dickens wrote to his friend and biographer John Forster that he had “a very curious and new idea for my new story. Not a communicable idea (or the interest of the book would be gone), but a very strong one, though difficult to work." The writer’s vision would never be fully realized, however; Dickens died of a stroke on June 9, 1870, at age 58 after publishing the sixth installment of The Mystery of Edwin Drood—which was meant to be serialized in 12 parts.

The author took the ending of his final novel to the grave, and to this day, the full plot of The Mystery of Edwin Drood remains mysterious. There was, however, one person he came close to sharing his secret with: Queen Victoria. To the people who knew Dickens, she seemed like the last person he would confide in.

An Unlikely Meeting

Queen Victoria was one of the few people who rivaled Dickens’s fame in mid-19th century Britain. She held the throne from 1837 to 1901, making her the longest-reigning monarch in British history at the time of her death. The queen devoured literature—she also published a book of her own, Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, in 1868—and like many of her subjects, she enjoyed the works of Charles Dickens. She described Oliver Twist as “excessively interesting,” and tried many times during her reign to set up a meeting with the author. But for 22 years, Dickens declined.

Dickens wasn’t as enchanted with royalty as some of his peers. To him, Queen Victoria was "merely a provincial devotee,” and he didn’t feel compelled to meet this one fan out of many, even if declining a royal invitation was a great violation of social norms at the time. Despite the insults implied with each rejection, the queen persisted—and in March 1870, she finally succeeded in getting the most famous novelist in England into her palace.

The meeting was a little awkward—they both stood the entire time—but any frank opinions the author had about his host or royalty in general he kept to himself. When Queen Victoria presented him with a copy of Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, he accepted it politely, and did not mention the fact that he had once called it “preposterous” in a letter to a friend, and described those who gave it positive reviews as a “shameful lick-spittle chorus.”

Yet Dickens also didn’t exactly go out of his way to make Victoria happy. When the queen expressed regret over never making it to one of Dickens’s famous live readings, he told her didn’t do private shows (a statement that wasn’t entirely truthful). Dickens instead offered to share something with her on his terms: the ending of the novel he was currently writing, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

It's possible Queen Victoria didn't realize the full significance of this gesture; Dickens hadn’t shared the full ending of the book with anyone, and as far as historians know, he hadn’t written it down anywhere—an unusual move from the normally meticulous note-taker. Whatever her reasons, the queen said 'no thank you,' and the rest of their conversation consisted of much less historically important matters, such as rising food prices and how hard it was to find good servants in England.

Dickens died less than four months later. Following their meeting, Queen Victoria had described Dickens as "very agreeable, with a pleasant voice and manner." After his death, she wrote in her diary, "He is a very great loss."

The Unsolved Mystery of Edwin Drood

Charles Dickens was known for his cliffhangers, and dying halfway through writing his last novel produced the greatest cliffhanger of his career. Whatever ending he had planned for The Mystery of Edwin Drood, it likely wouldn’t have matched the 150 years' worth of mystique that has developed around the story.

Some have claimed they were in on the secret. John Forster, a friend with whom Dickens often shared his work before publishing it, wrote in his biography of the author that Drood ends with the discovery of Edwin’s lime-resistant gold ring. This apparently confirms speculations that John Jasper murdered his nephew and dissolved his remains in lime.

Other scholars and writers have attempted to solve the mystery on their own over the years. In 1914, the Dickens Fellowship held a mock trial for Jasper, with G.K. Chesterton serving as the judge and George Bernard Shaw as the foreman of the jury. (The fictional character was found guilty of manslaughter.) In 2015, the University of Buckingham set up a website called Drood Inquiry, where the public could submit their theories on the book’s conclusion. The ending that pinned Jasper as the murderer was by far the most popular, but the project also attracted some more surprising ideas. According to one submission, Edwin Drood was killed by the sweet mother of the local reverend.

All of this speculation might have never have happened if Queen Victoria had agreed to hear the ending Dickens offered to share with her. Instead, she lived out the remainder of her life just as in the dark about what the writer intended as the rest of us—even if she was lucky enough to once share in his company.

Killing Fields: The Town That Got Away With Murder

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The townspeople who had gathered near the D&G Tavern in the small farming community of Skidmore, Missouri, that July morning could feel the shift in the atmosphere. The fear that once hung over the town's 440 residents had been replaced by something else. Anger—a deep, long-simmering anger—was part of it, but so was a sense of obligation. Men stood near vehicles that held rifles and shotguns inside. Bank employees and grocery clerks watched from nearby windows. Dust hovering over the sparsely developed main road through town helped lend that moment in 1981 the tension of a Wild West showdown.

The tavern door opened, and out stepped Ken Rex McElroy, 47, a bulky man with a ragged pair of sideburns and a piercing stare. To someone passing through town, McElroy may have looked like a strong farmhand, a callused good old boy. But to locals, McElroy was a vengeful bully, a thief, and an attempted murderer who eluded any and all attempts to put him behind bars. He terrorized the rural town of Skidmore (which had no police force of its own), taking point-blank aim at those who crossed him, and was routinely charged with three to four crimes a year.

McElroy was not ignorant of the town's hostility. He simply didn't care. That morning, he was out on bond, once again free to walk Skidmore's streets. As he moved from the tavern and opened the driver's side door to his Chevy Silverado, he said nothing to the 30-odd residents who stood nearby or watched from a gas station just up the hill. His wife, Trena, climbed into the passenger’s seat.

Trena looked around, then behind them. She was the first to see the rifle as one of the gathered men hoisted it to shoulder-level. She heard the rear window of the Silverado shatter, and saw her husband slump over the steering wheel.

In seconds, Ken McElroy would be dead, and the people of Skidmore—who had seen everything—would claim to have seen nothing at all.

 

If anyone could drive a normally peaceful community to cover up a murder, it was Ken McElroy. As one of over a dozen children raised under modest financial means in and around Kansas and the Ozarks, McElroy appeared to consider a proper education frivolous at best. According to In Broad Daylight, a comprehensive account of the Skidmore saga by author Harry N. MacLean, McElroy dropped out of school in the eighth grade. Having never learned to read or write, he set about a life of labor, eventually winding up in Nodaway County, Missouri.

It became apparent to McElroy fairly early on that an honest living would fail to provide the material possessions and leisurely lifestyle he desired. So he began stealing. Mostly, it was the livestock in and around Skidmore, a small town roughly 90 minutes north of Kansas City. In the dead of night, he'd pull up next to farmers' hog pens and make off with animals he could sell at auction or to third parties who knew better than to ask too many questions. He also leased his own land and trafficked in hunting dogs, which he had a talent for training. Through means legitimate and illicit, he was usually flush with cash—money that would come in handy when he inevitably lost his temper.

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McElroy was rarely without a firearm of some kind, either on his person or mounted in his vehicles. Possessing a weapon was not unusual in Missouri, but brandishing it was. McElroy had no reservations about stuffing a shotgun in someone's face or belly to make a point. When a farmer named Romaine Henry had an encounter with McElroy on Henry's land in July 1976, McElroy shot him in the stomach. Henry survived and expected some measure of justice. But in court, McElroy produced witnesses who swore he was home at the time the shooting took place. A jury subsequently found McElroy not guilty.

Sliding out of trouble was a McElroy specialty. In addition to allies—often his hunting-dog cohorts—who would guarantee he was some place other than the scene of a crime, he had the money to hire Richard McFadin, a skilled defense attorney, to represent him. McFadin would use every legal maneuver at his disposal to get hearings postponed or delayed on the premise that the longer it took to go to trial, the colder the case against McElroy would get. Suddenly, defendants who had been assaulted or witnesses who had seen McElroy's impropriety would spot a pick-up truck parked outside their house or hear a shotgun going off in the middle of the night. Sometimes McElroy would confront them face-to-face and explain in a measured tone that he'd kill anyone opposing him in court.

Perhaps they could have held out for a month or two. Faced with extended periods of McElroy's harassment, many of them recanted their statements. Time and again, McElroy would simply walk away from serious charges with nothing more than a dent in his wallet.

 

As McElroy aged, his behavior grew more audacious, and the town of Skidmore grew more apprehensive. After two marriages, he wed Trena McCloud, whom he had met when she was just 14 years old. She accused him of raping her but—like many of McElroy's victims—later withdrew her statement. When McElroy was all but confirmed to have burned her parents' house down in a fit of rage, Trena blamed it on "faulty wiring." She became his accomplice, accompanying McElroy on several of his nocturnal visits to people he had targeted for harassment. As McElroy ranted, she would stand nearby, a firearm in her hands.

In 1980, Trena entered a grocery store in Skidmore with one of Ken's daughters from a previous marriage, Tonia. Before long, an argument ensued between Trena and shopkeepers Ernest "Bo" Bowenkamp and his wife, Lois, over whether Tonia had taken candy without intending to pay for it. For McElroy, the misunderstanding turned into an accusation that his daughter was a thief. He began to haunt the Bowenkamps at their store and at home, parking outside for hours at a time. Knowing McElroy's reputation, the couple feared it wouldn't be long before his harassment turned violent.

One evening in July 1980, McElroy approached Bo Bowenkamp near the loading area of the grocery store. After a brief verbal exchange, McElroy raised a shotgun and fired. Bowenkamp flinched as the buckshot tore through his neck. The 70-year-old was lucky to survive.

A cornfield is seen under a full moon
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McElroy peeled off in his truck. A highway patrol corporal named Richard Stratton was alerted to the incident and gave chase. Having had run-ins with McElroy before, he knew the man would attempt to get out of the county via an alternative route going through neighboring Fillmore. He found and arrested McElroy, but not before considering he might just get shot. McElroy had previously threatened that he was capable of gunning down police, and at that point there was no reason to doubt him.

 

In what was becoming a routine occurrence, McElroy enlisted McFadin to represent him in the resulting criminal case. McFadin asked for and received a change of venue—this time to Harrison County—and prepared a defense that portrayed Bowenkamp as the aggressor. The store owner, McElroy claimed, had approached him menacingly with a knife. McElroy had no choice but to defend himself.

In the interim, McElroy stuck to his usual strategy of intimidating victims, driving by the Bowenkamp household and making harassing calls. This time, his words fell on deaf ears. The Bowenkamps never lost their nerve, and McElroy was convicted of second-degree assault. He received a two-year jail sentence.

Anyone in Skidmore rejoicing at the news McElroy had finally been cornered by the law found their relief short-lived. A judge allowed McElroy out on a $40,000 bond pending an appeal of the conviction.

McElroy remained a looming presence in town, and the sentence did nothing to curb his behavior. At the D&G Tavern, he brandished a rifle with a bayonet attached to it, vowing to finish the job on Bowenkamp. Such a display was a clear violation of his bond, and eyewitnesses found the courage to testify against him in the hopes he would finally be locked up. But a crafty McFadin got the hearing delayed again. On the morning of July 10, 1981, when McElroy should have been answering to charges of wielding a firearm, he was in the tavern.

To the people of Skidmore, McElroy's continued presence was inexplicable. Time and again, the law had failed to protect them from a violent, abusive man who had stolen from them, raped them, terrorized them in their homes, and fired guns in the hopes of killing them. There was no predicting what kind of pain he could inflict before he was sent to jail. And that assumed he'd wind up there at all.

A windshield with a bullet hole is pictured
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A town meeting was convened at the American Legion Hall up the road from the tavern. Many of the same people who once cowered from McElroy now discussed the best way to protect their town from another rampage. Someone voiced the idea of trailing McElroy in a pack to prevent him from acting out—a kind of roving neighborhood watch. Others simply couldn't believe McElroy had once again sidestepped punishment for his actions.

The meeting dispersed, and the residents walked toward the tavern. Many walked inside and surrounded McElroy, a silent statement that there was solidarity among the townspeople.

McElroy said nothing. He exited the building and climbed into his Silverado. His wife, Trena, would later tell investigators she saw a man behind them raise a rifle before the shooting began. A shot shattered the car window and ripped through McElroy, leaving glass everywhere. Then one of the men opened the passenger-side door and ushered Trena out of the line of fire.

She was led into the nearby bank. The shooting continued for 20 seconds or so and then stopped. The only remaining noise was the Silverado’s rumbling engine.

A few residents walked up to the truck to peer inside. But when the ambulance arrived, it was obvious no one had tried to help.

 

From the time she was brought in for questioning, Trena was unwavering in her assertion that she knew who the killer was. She identified a man People magazine later named as Del Clement as the one who had held up the rifle and shot McElroy. Clement had motive—he was part-owner of the tavern where McElroy idled, driving away customers, and was also victimized by his livestock heists—and was known to have a quick temper.

Trena told Nodaway County's prosecuting attorney, David Baird, that it was Clement. She told FBI investigators and three separate grand juries. But she was the only one talking. Local law enforcement and federal officials tried every approach possible to gather information from residents. They tried playing nice. Then they played a heavy hand, demanding to know what had happened. They insisted no one would be getting away with murder—certainly not in broad daylight and in front of dozens of witnesses. FBI vehicles crawled through town, stopping in front of houses. Agents sat in kitchens, hoping to pry even the tiniest bit of detail from locals.

A close-up of a man's eye is pictured
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Nothing worked. Skidmore's population had little else to say other than that they heard shooting and hit the ground to avoid being struck by a bullet. They didn't see who started it, if there had been one shooter or several, or if anyone was fleeing the scene. One witness mentioned seeing Clement and a passenger speeding down a road after the shooting but later recanted.

None of it was enough for Baird to bring a case. Trena's testimony would wither without anyone to corroborate it. After a year, the FBI announced they would be closing their investigation.

The town was deluged by reporters intoxicated by the idea of frontier justice. They composed headlines like "Town Bully is Dead" and "Woman Says Husband Killed by Vigilante." They knocked on doors and sat down in the tavern. But they couldn't loosen the tongues of the locals.

Highway patrolman Stratton, who knew of McElroy's sinister reputation first-hand—McElroy once terrorized his wife outside of their home with a shotgun—seemed resigned to the town's silence. "They did what they did because we didn't do our job," he said in 2010. "Then they went home and kept their mouths shut and kept them closed all these years. There wasn't much David Baird could do about that."

No one was ever charged with the murder of Ken McElroy. Clement, the man Trena named as the shooter, died in 2009. Baird moved to private practice. Trena managed to get a $17,000 settlement in a wrongful-death civil suit against the county sheriff, Skidmore's mayor, and Clement, and nothing more.

Skidmore's population continues to dwindle. And as its residents age, it grows even less likely that anyone will come forward with information that could solve the case.

McFadin summarized his feelings in a 2010 New York Times interview. "The town," he said, "got away with murder."

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