March 3, 1876, was a beautiful day in Bath County, Kentucky, and a local farmer’s wife, Mrs. Crouch, was outside making soap.
“Between 11 and 12 o'clock I was in my yard, not more than forty steps from the house,” she told reporters. “There was a light wind coming from the west, but the sky was clear and the sun was shining brightly. Without any prelude or warning of any kind, and exactly under these circumstances, the shower commenced.”
Suddenly, meat came raining down all around her.
“When the flesh began to fall I saw a large piece strike the ground close by me, with a snapping-like noise when it struck,” Crouch said. “The largest piece that I saw was as long as my hand and about half an inch wide. It looked gristly, as if it had been torn from the throat of some animal. Another piece that I saw was half round in shape and about the size of a half dollar."
Mrs. Crouch said she was “impressed with the conviction that it was either a miracle or a warning.” The Crouchs’ cat, less concerned about meaning of the meat than his masters, "immediately gorged himself with the public breakfast so unexpectedly tendered to him."
When it was over, the “Kentucky meat shower,” as it came to be known, left an area of the farmyard 100 yards long and 50 wide strewn with flesh. “Particles of meat” were found “sticking to the fences and scattered over the ground.”
The shower drew plenty of attention, and curious neighbors and newspaper reporters flocked to the Crouchs’ farm to see the mystery meat and offer their opinions on it. Many locals said it looked like beef, but one neighbor who was a hunter, “on being shown a piece of the flesh, declared it to be bear meat, and stated that it had ‘that uncommonly greasy feel’ peculiar to the flesh of that animal.”
Tastes Like Mutton
Others took it upon themselves to taste it, and two men said it was “either mutton or venison.” A local butcher who tried a piece “declared that it tasted neither like flesh, fish or fowl. It looked to him like mutton, but the smell was a new one.”
With no one able to identify the meat by sight or taste, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported, “a great deal of the flesh was sent to chemists and others in various parts of the country, and analyses were made by several well-known scientists.”
A Professor J.L. Smith initially thought that the “meat” was actually dried frog spawn that had been picked up from a pond by the wind, but later abandoned the idea.
Leopold Brandies, writing in a journal called The Sanitarian, claimed that “the ‘Kentucky Wonder’ is nothing more or less than the ‘Nostoc’ of the old alchemist,” a “strange-looking vegetable mass” [now recognized as cyanobacteria] consisting of “translucent, gelatinous bodies joined together by thread-like tubes or seedbearers.”
A few other scientists concluded that their samples “possess undoubted characteristics peculiar to the flesh of animals”—it was indeed meat, but which kind was unclear.
Dr. L.D. Kastenbine, a chemist at Louisville College, heated one sample over a Bunsen burner and noted that it had an odor “distinctly like rancid mutton-suet on warming, and after ignition had the characteristic smell of burned animal tissue.” He also treated some pieces in chemical solutions, which helped expose muscle fibers and connective and fatty tissues. “As the specimen was not placed in alcohol the odor was retained, which a number of meat experts pronounced without hesitation mutton,” he wrote. “Since my examination I have learned that others have arrived at the same conclusion as myself, some even asserting that the wool of the animal was distinctly seen.”
Doctors Allan McLane Hamilton and J.W.S. Arnold agreed that the flesh had come from an animal, but it wasn’t mutton. After examining a piece under a microscope, they identified it instead as lung tissue either from a horse or a human infant, “the structure of the organ in these two cases being very similar.”
Dr. Mead Edwards, meanwhile, examined three different samples, “two in the natural state as they fell and one prepared and mounted for the microscope.” The mounted specimen and one of the others, he determined, were bits of cartilage, while the last piece was composed of “striated muscular fibers along with what appears to be dense connective tissue.” While the condition of the samples prevented him from identifying source of the flesh, Edwards concluded that all of the specimens “proved to be of animal origin, showing that the Kentucky shower was a veritable ‘meat’ shower.”
But if it was meat, where did it come from? William Livingston Alden, writing in the New York Times, offered two different tongue-in-cheek explanations. The first was the “obvious conclusion” that the deluge of meat was a bizarre form of meteor shower. “According to the present theory of astronomers, an enormous belt of meteoric stones constantly revolves around the sun, and when the earth comes in contact with this belt she is soundly pelted,” he wrote. “Similarly, we may suppose that there revolves about the sun a belt of venison, mutton, and other meats, divided into small fragments, which are precipitated upon the earth whenever the latter crosses their path.”
Alternately, he offered that “a terrible suspicion has since grown up that the shower actually consisted of finely-hashed citizens of Kentucky, who had been caught in a whirlwind while engaged in a little 'difficulty' with Bowie knives and strewn over their astonished State.”
A more probable explanation, suggested by the Crouchs and chemist Robert Peter and supported by Kastenbine, Edwards and Smith, was that meat shower was simply vomit produced by a passing flock of vultures “who had been feasting themselves more abundantly than wisely” on a carcass.
“I am informed that it is not uncommon for buzzards thus to disgorge their overcharged stomachs,” Smith wrote. “And that when in a flock one commences the relief operation, the others are excited to nausea, and a general shower of half-digested meat takes place.”
That would explain the melange of muscle, connective tissue and fat that was recovered, Kastenbine wrote. It would also, unfortunately, mean that a cat and a bunch of people were eating bits of half-digested meat off the ground.
Whatever the meat was and wherever it came from, you can see a bit of it for yourself. The Monroe Moosnick Medical and Science Museum at Transylvania University in Lexington has a preserved piece of meat from the shower in its collection.