The Man From Tomorrow
By Richard Toronto
photo by L. Santiago.
John Keel was royally pissed when Raymond A. Palmer’s front door shut abruptly in his face one chilly New Year’s eve in Amherst, Wisconsin. Keel had made the trek to Palmer’s idyllic country farm hoping for an interview. Palmer, known fondly to devoted fans and friends as “Rap,” was editor of Flying Saucers magazine, the first trade zine ever to have the words “flying saucer” in the title. Rap was something of a living legend – or rogue, depending on your point of view – as a publisher of pulp science fiction and flying saucer zines. Long story short, Keel went back to his motel that night empty handed. Palmer’s son, also named Ray but with a different middle initial, recalled the long ago incident.
“We used to have New Year’s parties at the house. About 60 to 80 people would come. One year, around seven o’clock at night, just as our guests were arriving, this guy (Keel) comes to the door. He wants to interview my dad. And my dad said ‘Well, we’re having a party and I just don’t have the time.’ Normally my dad would always sit down and talk to somebody. Well this guy got all mad … and he left. Since that time he never wrote a nice thing about dad.” 1
Keel, a former writer for TV, is best known for his speculative UFO books with Fortean overtones. Hollywood even bought movie rights to his book The Mothman Prophesies, casting Richard Gere as John Keel. Though it must be interesting to see Richard Gere being you on the big screen, this has nothing to do with our story.
The cover from an old Shaver Mystery Magazine (Vol. 2 #1, 1948) depicting the Maury Island Saucer scene, but all I have is a Xerox copy, so it leaves something to be desired. Original issues of the SMM are pretty rare.
Some years after the front door incident in Amherst, Keel published a scathing article titled The Man Who Invented Flying Saucers. 2 It concerned a certain science fiction fan who went on to become the editor of a very famous science fiction pulp magazine. The editor eventually warped the minds of readers throughout the land with talk of flying saucers and malevolent entities living inside the Earth. Through these and other clever means the sf editor created a flying saucer mythos that still haunts us on TV “sightings” shows and in scores of Whitney Strieber books.
The editor—purely by accident Keel noted—tapped into the psyches of millions of Americans to implant the shape, source and behavior of flying saucers—simply by writing about them. As an added bonus, the editor sold more copies of his sf magazine and got a big fat raise from his boss for doing so. Something called The Shaver Mystery seems to have really ticked Keel off too, and he ranted about that with escalating disdain for several paragraphs.
Air Wonder Stories, April 1930, a pre-RAP flying saucer.
In any case, the article was a hit, if not hit piece, and became source material for other writers who spawned subsequent articles that have transformed the sf editor into a kind of Svengali to mentally disturbed crackpots everywhere, who believe aliens from space control their thoughts. Long story short—if it were not for the sf editor, there would have been no flying saucers as we know them; no abductions, no underground bases, no alien probes, no men in black, and come to think of it, probably no X-Files.
That editor, Keel wrote, was Raymond A. Palmer, the diminutive but spunky host of that New Year’s Eve party in Amherst.
At this point, one might pause to ask just how a pulp science fiction writer could possibly become the cultish leader of millions of gullible … What? Who? Have I ever heard of L. Ron Hubbard?? Jeez. Okay, let’s move on.
To get to the bottom of this alleged plot to invent flying saucers, we should take a closer look at the source of all the hoopla; the man who by his own admission was the world’s first flying saucer investigator. He was a mystic, a libertarian, did not support labor unions and was a foe to what eventually became known as Establishment Thinking. He was a pioneer who fought hard for what he believed in, if, indeed, he believed in anything. And he did. Too much and too little has been said about Ray Palmer, both pro and con and yet he remains an enigma to sf history. After his death in 1977, the bulk of his monumental collection of UFO case files was purchased by CUFOS, the flying saucer research organization founded by Dr. J. Allen Hynek of Illinois University.
Robert Bloch, Raymond Palmer, and Louie Samplner.
Flying saucers were not Rap’s only interest by any means. He was one of the first to bang the drum on the dangers of atomic testing and its debilitating worldwide fallout. He suspected it was altering the weather. He wrote extensively about the Atomic Energy Commission and questioned the charter under which it operated in such articles as “The Truth about Atomic Energy” in Mystic magazine:
“This is an article you should read very carefully,” he warned. “…because it is the most important article you will ever read! …its purpose is to challenge those men (soldiers, politicians and scientists) who have taken the destiny of the world into their hands.” 4
Rap used this kind of rhetoric in all of his crusades. His fiery intensity made it seem important, and he wanted readers to pause and think. Maybe not accept, but at least give it a thought. It was emblematic of Palmer’s “larger social responsibility” as Rap biographer Jim Pobst put it.
“My father’s pet peeve about many people was that they did not think for themselves,” Palmer’s son explained. “He promoted space travel, education, genetic engineering, clean air and water, less destructive pesticides, equal right for the Indians, proper care of animals, a government that protects individual freedoms. This list can go on and on.”
Then again, Rap glommed on to crazes too, “stunts” as he called them. Like the time he discovered the real Jesse James…alive at 101 years old, who gave Rap $10,000 to tell his true life story; or Admiral Byrd’s secret 1947 flight over the North Pole; or the NASA photos he ran in Space World magazine that proved beyond a doubt that the Earth was hollow, with holes at the poles. NASA pulled his press privileges after that.
During Rap’s editorial heyday there was no OMNI or Discovery, so Rap filled that need with tales of scientific discoveries, flights of fancy, and establishment cover-ups.
To figure out exactly what went on in Rap’s world, we must dig deep into the brittle, yellowing pages of 60-year-old pulp magazines.
The Milwaukee Miracle
Palmer was born in Milwaukee in 1910, nothing unusual about that. And for seven years it stayed that way, until finally we see young Rap playing in the street near the family home – with a large milk truck barreling down on him. The truck broke his spine and a spinal disease set in. The accident forever altered the world of science fiction. It is said he had the first spinal graft. His childhood became a series of unsuccessful operations followed by years of recuperation. Several of those years were spent laying face down in a canvas-and-steel-pipe “Bradford frame,” an early 20th century torture device according to Rap.
“I was…able only to move the lower part of my legs, my arms, and my head,” recalled Rap in his memoir.
He grew only a few inches after the accident, and while other kids attended school and whiled away their summers at the local swimming hole, Rap spent his youth in the torture bed, reading books. “At intervals totaling more than five years” he got his education from a tutor sent by the Milwaukee School Board and from books delivered weekly by the Milwaukee Public Library.
He devoured crates of books covering a wide range of subjects, like math, archeology, history, mythology, physics, and the emerging literary genre called science fiction. These were years when Rap dreamed of better things – a fantastic world of tomorrow foreshadowed by the imaginations of science fiction writers.
He also practiced what he called mental healing. This was not “faith” healing, since he believed in neither “fate” nor “faith.” Doctors predicted his imminent demise from time to time, but Rap used his developing mental powers to prove them wrong.
“All during my life, beginning most specifically at age nine when I promised my weeping mother that I wasn’t going to die in 24 hours as the doctor had just assured her, I have had this confidence that I could ‘do things’ I wanted to do…through sheer determination,” said Rap. 5
To hear him tell it, Rap read his first issue of Amazing Stories magazine in 1926, and that same day mailed off his first sf yarn to Hugo Gernsback, Amazing’s editor. When Gernsback replied with a $40 acceptance check, this may have been the moment Rap knew he would become editor of Amazing Stories. After all, Amazing Stories is where the popular science fiction movement began. Or, as Frederik Pohl once said, “In the Beginning there was Hugo Gernsback, and he begat Amazing Stories.”
Rap’s earliest recollections of his fannish past drifted back to 1924, when “…the first SF began to appear in the old Electrical Experimenter.” 6
Rap was what you would call a “true fan”—a fan among fen. In fan-speak of the era he was considered an actifan who never gafiated from fandom’s fold, though he was often considered a fugghead by other fen who started many a fanfeud with him over his editorial policies. 7
He is credited with publishing the first fanzine—The Comet. He started a lending library—The Science Correspondence Club—loaning books to would-be writers in the sf field. He founded the Jules Verne Prize Club in 1933, a short-lived precursor to the Hugo Awards. Members could join for a mere 25¢. And in the early ’30s he was a founding member of a group called the Milwaukee Fictioneers. Robert Bloch, a former member, recalled that it was “…a writers’ workshop before the term was even invented.” 8
As an organizer, editor, and writer, Rap “… worked off enough fannish energies to give him the $100 prize in a Gernsback contest on ‘What I have Done to Advance Science Fiction’,” said long-time sf fan Harry Warner Jr. “He blamed hard work with fandom and science fiction for causing him an eight month stay in a sanatorium.” 9
Raymond F. Palmer playing the starring role on the cover of Amazing Stories.
And so it came to pass that the boy who would not live to see his 10th birthday became editor of Amazing Stories at the age of 28. Thanks to arcane knowledge learned during his Bradford frame days, Rap charted his life’s course early on. “It is as though Life is a blueprint, but a design that you manufacture yourself!” he said. 10
In 1938, the year of his hire at Ziff-Davis—the new owners of Amazing Stories—Rap had been employed as a sheet metal worker for the P.J. Lavies Company, installing aluminum roofs and gutters. He installed furnaces and clothes chutes too, and even kept the company books to boost his meager income. From a dingy rented room he cranked out pulp fiction for sf and adventure magazines, selling occasional work to Shade Publications of Milwaukee. It was “impossible” to make a living writing science fiction, he said.
More than Amazing
Curiously, Rap said his hard work and organizing skills had nothing to do with his hire at Amazing Stories. The real story, the truth, he said, went something like this. One day, he simply quit his job at the P.J. Lavies Company and went home. At the time of the life-altering job offer, Rap was sitting in his tiny room, “having meals delivered and wishing himself a pulp sale.” 11
Said Rap, “… I gave up my job, went to my rented room, and simply waited…I was waiting to be called to the editorship of Amazing Stories magazine, which was published in New York and had an editor who had no intention of relinquishing his job. In short, I pre-destined it!” 12 Meaning, none of the circumstances leading up to his job at Amazing were chance, fate, or the fact that he had been writing science fiction since age 16 and was on a first name basis with scores of pulp fiction writers like Ralph Milne Farley, who recommended him for the job. No, it was “…by pure force of will I had created the conditions I wanted,” he said.
As another version of the story goes, his eventual career as an sf writer and editor may have been due in part, at least, to his grandmother. In 1929 she informed him he would never achieve his dream of becoming a writer. As this version goes, Rap immediately sat down and cranked out his first sf yarn, “The Time Ray of Chandra.” It appeared some years later in Gernsback’s June 1930 issue of Wonder Stories. The rest, as they say, is history.
Even if this version (or the previous one for that matter) is a total myth, it’s real enough to fit a pattern. It was a pattern Rap repeated throughout his life, and it went something like this:
Tell Rap that something, anything, is ridiculous, far-fetched, or impossible to accomplish.
Rap then proves you wrong, and has fun doing so.
This was as much a form of entertainment as a symptom of his self-declared war on establishment thinking. And Rap abhorred mainstream thinking…the kind of thinking that has no place in science fiction literature.
As a self-taught writer, it is no surprise that Rap viewed himself as the common man; no ivy league, tweed-coat-wearing, pipe-smoking, latte-swilling elitist, he. It was this identification with the “average” man, he said, that taught him everything he knew.
“Thus it was that I learned that the pathway toward reality did not lie in the libraries and the universities, but out among the people, the simple person who sought no acclaim, no high position in life, no mastery over anyone, no power of life and death.” 13
Science fiction offered the world he craved, of infinite possibilities, of challenges to accepted thought. And sparking the imaginations of thousands of young sf readers at the time was what was commonly known as space ships. Rap had been reading about them since he was a kid.
Which brings us back to his alleged invention of flying saucers. Did Rap really invent them or was he merely following the footsteps of others who came before?
In 1928, two years after Rap sold “Time Ray of Chandra” to Gernsback, a 40-year-old newspaperman named Philip Francis Nowlan sold his first sf yarn to Amazing Stories-- called “Armageddon 2419 A.D.” It was about a rebel spaceship pilot named Anthony “Buck” Rogers. Buck became the hero of a long-lived comic strip read by generations of youngsters. Rap, too, read the popular strip, that bristled with anti-gravity flying belts and rocket guns.
There were evil aliens, too, Martians, of course, who sent their saucer-like craft to Earth to kidnap human specimens (that is SO 1930s—today we say “abduct” human specimens). To combat this evil Martian threat, Buck built the world’s first interplanetary space ship, and declared, “Roaring rockets! We’ll show these Martians who’s who in the solar system!” 14
The Ziff-Davis Years
“I don’t believe the literal ‘truth’ can ever be known—we can only appropriate truth in the framework of our capability of understanding.”—Rap
With the reigns at Amazing Stories firmly in hand, Rap galloped off at breakneck speed publishing tales of space ships, BEMs, beautiful babes in stylish space suits, ray mech, and aliens. Newsstand sales soared. To hear Rap tell it, sales went from his first issue of 75,000 copies to 93,000 by the second, and within a year Amazing was selling 185,000 copies per month (or 250,000 depending on who’s telling the story). Though he enjoyed telling and re-telling the story of these legendary circulation figures, its numbers varied widely; depending on which publication and year he told the story.
Collages by Mark Schirmeister
The same year Rap was assuming editorial control at Amazing, Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater panicked thousands of radio listeners on Halloween night after convincing them Martians had landed in New Jersey and were coming to get them. Just months before Welles’ legendary broadcast, Rap’s editorial in Amazing Stories went like this:
“We wonder if after all, if earth hasn’t been visited by beings from other planets? What were the ships, with tails of fire, Elisha saw in his visions? Are they future prophecy, or are they the more likely legendary memory of actual and long-gone fact?” 15
Then, in 1939, he witnessed something that brought new conviction to his editorials.
“Your editors were reminded of Charles Fort and his LO! The other day, seen from our 22nd story window, in the west was a strong light, high in the air, which remained for perhaps ten minutes, then faded…your editor got a great kick out of announcing the arrival of the Martians to his fellow editors of…Radio News, Popular Photography, and Popular Aviation.” 16
Rap’s interest in the as yet unnamed flying saucers had percolated for years thanks to science fiction. But future events were about to alter his career in the science fiction field he loved so dearly.
Richard S. Shaver
The Shaver Mystery
Rap knew exactly why the circulation figures were climbing at Amazing, and said so in his Other Worlds magazine years later…
“…it was ideas that did it. NEW ideas. STARTLING ideas. It was building a fire under readers by giving them something so hot they couldn’t put them down, and making them pant for the next issue. Nobody pants for the next issue these days.” 17
After successfully piloting the good ship Amazing for nearly six years, Rap encountered yet another truck barreling down on him, and this one would hit him harder than the first. The truck is only a metaphor, but it, too, was something of an accident and it changed Rap’s life forever. This time he gave the truck a name; he called it “The Shaver Mystery.” It was hot, and it was NEW. Rap said it was the next big wave in sf, though he also said that of flying saucers.
The mystery emerged from Rap’s discovery of a Ford assembly line worker named Richard S. Shaver, who in 1943 sent a letter to Amazing Stories offering Rap first crack at an ancient alphabet – Mantong, he called it. The alphabet, which Shaver deciphered himself, was said to be the original tongue of Earth’s first civilization. It piqued Rap’s interest mightily and, ignoring the admonitions of his assistant editor Howard Browne, he published Shaver’s letter in Amazing’s January 1944 issue.
Behind the scenes, a feverish correspondence ensued, wherein Palmer learned that Shaver had an even more bizarre tale to tell. As the story went, Shaver had lived among the denizens of an underground civilization that exists within the Earth’s mantel. These underworld people (essentially two groups, “dero” and “tero,”—the first being evil, the latter good) have the ability to control earthly affairs via thought control using wondrous machinery left by that fantastic elder race whose language was the aforementioned Mantong.
Raymond Palmer and Richard Shaver.
“They have death rays, space ships, giant rockets that traverse the upper air (the flying saucers were described in detail by Mr. Shaver before they actually appeared to Mr. Kenneth Arnold and to thousands since)...and many more marvelous things which Mr. Shaver claimed would revolutionize our surface science if we could but obtain them.” 18
There are hundreds of details to the Shaver Mystery, but, in the interest of hitting the sack before 3 AM, this synopsis will have to do. Shaver typed a 10,000-word story on a semi-functional typer at his Pennsylvania home and mailed it to Palmer. It was titled ominously, “A Warning to Future Man.”
Rap read it and saw its potential as a new direction for Amazing and, as legend has it, expanded it to a 31,000-word manuscript titled “I Remember Lemuria!” Rap changed one key element, however. Shaver claimed he got the basis for his story from first-hand experience; but fearing his readers would find that too outlandish, Rap changed the source to “racial memory,” much to Shaver’s chagrin.
In any case, it was a hit. It was beyond a hit, it became a phenomenon. Letters of support and congratulation poured in. Rap’s hunch that his Shaver Mystery would punch up sales did that and more. It was creating a new fan base for Amazing. Sales climbed to incredible heights during the Shaver Mystery’s heyday, “a record that has never been broken in pulp publishing,” Rap said.
As occasionally happens when something seems to be going so well, a problem arose when Palmer informed his readers that the Shaver yarns, now being cranked out at white hot speed each month, were based on factual events, just as Shaver said. Rap began arguing, debating, and generally lobbying readers to seriously consider Shaver’s claims. He commissioned artists to feature back covers of Fantastic Adventures as well as Amazing Stories depicting Shaver Mystery scenes. On the one hand, this lured Forteans, occultists, and mystics into the Amazing fold. The way they saw it, there was truth to be mined in the pages of Amazing; some readers even became amateur explorers and spelunkers in the hope of finding cavern portals to Shaver’s fabled Underworld.
Fantastic Adventures showing the back cover Shaver scene.
What is often ignored in the Shaver Mystery mêlée is Ray Palmer himself. Fellow sf writers and fen could not understand why he strayed so far from the mainstream of science fiction. According to his son, it is exactly what Ray Palmer was all about.
“This was all to get people to think for themselves and see that there are other possibilities,” Palmer the younger explained. “He would write an article one month saying this [or that] is true, and in the next issue under a pen name would blast that crazy Ray Palmer with a new viewpoint. And that is what people do not seem to understand. Ray Palmer wanted to learn. Being unable to travel the world, he found a way for the world to come to him with their ideas. With Shaver, he would listen to what he had to say and did not ridicule him…he would ask questions to bring out new possibilities and then see if he could find out how they could be true.”
Throughout the Shaver Mystery hoopla, Rap promised to reveal his proofs of said mystery. One key element, as he often pointed out, was the fact that Shaver talked in great detail of sinister saucer-like craft invading our airspace for reasons that did not benefit humankind. Shaver called these saucers “Vermin From Space.” The Shaver Mystery was replete with what would later be considered conspiracy literature.
To be fair, John W. Campbell, Rap’s competition over at the “scientifically-based” Astounding Science Fiction magazine, later began publishing sf tales by L. Ron Hubbard, claiming these stories too, were based on solid fact (Hubbard’s Dianetics). At one point, Campbell even became editorially obsessed with psionics. Nonetheless, everyone agreed Rap set a precedent.
As Keel saw it, Rap used the Shaver Mystery to brainwash a legion of Manchurian candidates, implanting the shape, behavior, and even the source of flying saucers into the minds of millions. There were many sf fen at the time that would have agreed with Keel, because for every fan who loved the Shaver Mystery there was another who hated it. To them it became “The Palmer Hoax.” An article by Thomas S. Gardner, published in the Fantasy Commentator, expressed the indignation of the time:
“The crackpots, as they are usually called, number at least a million in the United States. They are, in the main, adults, and have educational levels ranging from near zero to those of Ph.D.s. A great many harbor seriously (sic) delusions of ancient civilizations superior to ours, believe in pyramidology and the like. To capture these readers it is only necessary to publish issues of Amazing Stories containing stories which propitiate these crackpots’ views in fictional guise. And with Richard S. Shaver’s ‘I remember Lemuria’ Palmer has instituted this very trend.”
And so it came to pass that a vast chasm loomed among fandom thanks to the Shaver Mystery. Those who read Amazing and followed the Shaver series with interest were called Shaverites. Those who read Astounding Science Fiction (and shunned Amazing) were “rational, science-based fen.” Fan luminaries like Forrest J Ackerman sustained this on-going fan fued, and it continued unabated for nearly four years.
Kenneth Arnold and Raymond Palmer.
The protracted squabble had no effect on the diminutive editor of Amazing Stories, however. Even Rap must have known something would have to tip the balance, and that’s just what happened on June 24, 1947 when pilot Kenneth Arnold spotted a formation of nine silvery flying objects near Mt. Rainier, Washington.
The objects’ strange, skipping motion inspired a newspaper reporter to tag them as “flying saucers,” and the name stuck like glue. The flying saucer age was on with a vengeance. Newspapers were blazing with the story of the mystery discs.
Back in Chicago, Rap followed the newspaper stories with keen interest. He assured his Amazing Stories readers that here at last was proof of the veracity of the Shaver Mystery. But the handwriting was on the wall for the Shaver series. With growing concerns from his publisher over the fact that elements of the mystery conflicted with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and continuing complaints from a newly organizing fandom, Rap’s budding interest in flying saucers gradually drew him away from the Shaver Mystery.
Fred Lee Crisman
One could say that if all it takes is for someone to write about something to make it happen, Buck Rogers can be blamed for flying saucers. He predated The Shaver Mystery. What really turned Rap into the world’s first flying saucer investigator was one Fred L. Crisman of Tacoma, Washington, not Richard S. Shaver.
Nowadays, Crisman is generally deemed a trickster by trade, and a truly shady character. The two things we positively know about him is that he was born in 1919 and died in 1975. Conspiracy buffs and ufologists alike have been trying to unravel his secrets for years. Just Google Crisman’s name and it will spew a bizarre thread that begins with Ray Palmer and the Shaver Mystery.
Crisman is believed by some to have been an OSS and CIA agent, an industrial spy, closely aligned with right-wing extremists, underworld figures, and anti-Castro Cubans who were allegedly involved in the JFK assassination. In 1968 Crisman worked as a right wing “shock jock” hosting a radio talk show in Tacoma. He was subpoenaed by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison during a 1968 investigation into the Kennedy assassination. It has been rumored (even Keel mentioned this) that Crisman was one of the three “tramps” arrested in Dealey Plaza after the murder.
It is also written that during WW II, Crisman came up with a plan to forestall the Nazis’ completion of their atom bomb. He came up with a non-functional “widget,” that was dropped by Allied bombers across Germany as the war ground to its grisly finale. While German scientists wasted valuable time trying to figure out what the widgets were about, we whomped their asses and dropped the A-Bomb on Japan. So the story goes.
Crismanologists all agree that Crisman’s post-war existence was first noted in a published letter in the June 1946 issue of Amazing Stories. At first glance it appeared to be a fantastic corroboration of The Shaver Mystery, detailing the gory details of a dero attack on then Army pilot Crisman and an unnamed captain near Tibet. Wrote Crisman…
“For heaven’s sake, drop the whole thing! [The Shaver Mystery]. My companion and I fought our way out of a cave with sub-machine guns. I have two nine-inch scars on my left arm that came from wounds given me in the cave when I was 50 feet from a moving object of any kind….
“You can imagine my fright when I picked up my first copy of Amazing Stories and see you splashing words about on the subject.”
Anti-Shaverites zeroed in on the letter. Though it appeared to be a validation of Shaver’s claims, critics saw it as one more proof that Rap and his wild-eyed readers were a bunch of nut balls. Years later, Rap said he was actually skeptical of the letter.
“…According to Life magazine, this publisher wanted everybody to believe that the Shaver Mystery was true, and here was some provident proof. But he did nothing, because he didn’t believe a word of Crisman’s letter,” said Rap. 19
There was a follow-up letter from Crisman, too, appearing in the May 1947 issue. Soon after the appearance of the first letter, Harpers magazine published a denunciation of Rap and the Shaver Mystery. The author, S. Baring-Gould, touted Crisman’s letter as an example of the crackpots Rap catered to. Then Crisman himself chimed in!
“I bitterly resent this,” snorted Crisman about the article. “I felt that you too, Mr. Palmer, had more or less given me up for a jerk who was only trying to pull your leg…that maybe all this was only a promotion stunt….”
Whatever Crisman’s motives, one thing is clear; Crisman had already targeted Ray Palmer as part of a grand scheme. What the purpose of this scheme was, not even conspiriologists admit to knowing for sure, though they have their theories. One thing we know for certain is that one month after the appearance of Crisman’s second letter, Ray Palmer got sucked into a black hole that pulled him into an even stranger universe than the Shaver Mystery. This is where his reputation as the world’s first flying saucer investigator really begins.
The Tacoma Incident
We wonder how many of you readers know that at one time Project Blue Book…named your editor as the ‘hoaxer’ who started this whole flying saucer thing? —Rap
Martin Gardner in his book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science brushes off the Tacoma Incident, aka the Maury Island Mystery, like it was lint on his collar:
“The entire Maury Island episode later proved to be a hoax elaborately planned by two Tacoma men who hoped to sell the phony yarn to an adventure magazine. Both men eventually made a full confession.” End of story. 20
What Freedom of Information?
I got a reply from the NSA on my foia request for info on Rap. First they assumed I was interested in his flying saucer stuff, but I didn’t mention that in my request. They said nope, no ufo stuff to do with Rap. Sorry. Then they say that if I was asking about Ray Palmer, however, they can’t confirm or deny anything they have. They then deny my request on grounds that everything is super top secret due to executive orders, on two or three counts. I guess the foia doesn’t apply to the NSA now. –Richard Toronto
The key word here is “elaborately,” because Crisman was definitely a pro. Elaborately means he reserved a hotel room for his victim before the victim arrived. Crisman also secured an empty house to set up a phony “secretary” who lived there and “worked on the books” for his phony log-salvaging company. This was a lot of work just to sell a penny-a-word pulp yarn to some adventure magazine; but hey, strange things happen. In any case, let the tale begin.
On June 21, 1947, three days before airplane pilot Kenneth Arnold spied a formation of nine bright objects “skipping like rocks” across water, a very strange event was unfolding near Tacoma, Washington. Featuring all the key elements of future flying saucer lore, it had intrigue, a bugged hotel room, inquisitive newspaper reporters, tragic deaths, Military Intelligence officers, potential Cold War spies, weird saucer debris that was somehow “switched” with phony metal slag, unannounced visits by government secret service agents, and an after-hours burglary of saucer evidence, sinister warnings over the phone, and finally the disappearance of the two men who started the whole thing. Again, in the hope of getting to bed before 3 AM, this has to be a Readers Digest version.
One very special day on Puget Sound harbor near a place called Maury Island, a logger, Harold Dahl by name, his teenage son, the family dog, and two crew members were patrolling for salvage logs in a war surplus mine sweeper, when they witnessed six huge doughnut-shaped craft in the sky.
They estimated the objects, which had a bright metallic sheen, to be about 100 feet in diameter. Five of the things circled a sixth one, which acted differently than the rest, as if it was having some kind of mechanical malfunction.
The crew was then spooked by a loud concussion from the distressed ship, which suddenly discharged vast quantities of metallic “stuff” resembling shreds of aluminum foil and newspaper interspersed with heavier “stuff” like lava rock. All this came raining down on the crew, much to their dismay. The dog was killed by a large piece of the falling debris, and Dahl’s son suffered a severe burn to his arm. The boat’s cabin was significantly damaged.
In the midst of all this chaos, one of the hovering doughnuts approached the sickly, spewing doughnut and somehow “rejuvenated” it, at which point all disks quickly rose into the sky and vanished.
Dahl, on returning home, gave a report to his “boss” Fred L. Crisman. Yes, the very same Fred L. Crisman who sent the letters to Rap a year earlier. He was now in charge of a log salvaging operation in Tacoma Washington! Small world. Or was it a large conspiracy?
Back in Chicago, Rap sat at his desk pondering newspaper reports of Kenneth Arnold’s “flying saucer” sighting near Mt. Rainier. It was June 1947, the same month Rap published Amazing’s highly anticipated all-Shaver Mystery issue.
Then, as was the pattern in Rap’s charmed life, “it” happened. He got a phone call from Tacoma, Washington. Fred L. Crisman was calling. He told Rap that he was ready to hand over the greatest story since, well, never.
At this point we can only ponder why Rap would even consider Crisman’s story if he suspected those previous letters were a hoax, though Rap’s son explains it thusly:
“Ray Palmer [was] a skeptic, but he was not the type of skeptic that would laugh at you and then change your story to make you look foolish,” he said. “He would listen and get as much information as he could and then try to find out how your story is true. Sometimes you find out and sometimes you don’t, but either way you learn more.”
We only ask that you suspend disbelief awhile longer, as Rap did; otherwise the rest of this tale would not have happened.
Rap went right to his typewriter and hammered out a letter to Kenneth Arnold, pleading with him to get in his plane and head to Tacoma to investigate Crisman’s story. He offered him $200, but it took a second letter with even more pleas from Rap, before the world’s most celebrated pilot since Charles Lindberg conceded.
Ken Arnold’s first clue that he was not in control of his situation came when he discovered he had a room already reserved at the Winthrop Hotel in Tacoma. Neither he nor Rap made the arrangements. “Ah, yes,” the desk clerk said to Arnold over the phone, “We have Room 502 reserved in your name!” Maybe it was a different Kenneth Arnold, he thought, since no one other than Rap and Arnold’s family knew he was flying to Tacoma. Oh well, whatever. He took the room.
In due time, Arnold contacted Harold Dahl, who arrived at Room 502 to tell the strange tale of saucer debris, a dead dog, danger, and incredulity. Dahl was full of angst, and seemed reticent to tell the story, warning Arnold that he should just forget the whole thing and fly home.
Next day at 9:30 AM, Fred L. Crisman was banging on the door of Room 502. Arnold described him as a “short, stocky fellow, dark complexioned, a happy-go-lucky appearing person…and extremely alert.” 21 After Crisman’s grand entrance, Dahl faded into the woodwork, spending much of the rest of this story at a local movie theater watching episodes of The Crimson Ghost.
Crisman confirmed Dahl’s story to Arnold and added even more. He said he went to retrieve some of the saucer debris at Maury Island. While there, he too saw one of the doughnut-shaped craft circling the area, and there was no doubt about it, he knew what he saw.
“I hold a commercial pilot’s license,” Crisman informed Arnold. “I flew over a hundred missions in fighter aircraft over Burma in the last war and I feel qualified to describe it accurately.” 22
Arnold, feeling overwhelmed by all the details Crisman was firing at him, called an old friend and commercial pilot, Captain E.J. Smith, for backup. Smith arrived the next day, and heard more of the same from the two “loggers.” Nonetheless, Arnold began to feel uneasy about the two men.
“We both had a peculiar feeling that we were being watched or that there was something dangerous about getting involved with Crisman and Dahl,” he later wrote in The Coming of the Saucers. 23
Smith and Arnold suspected a hoax, or even that Russian espionage was at play. Cold War jitters being what they were, everyone believed it was a good bet the saucers were Soviet secret weapons taken from the Nazis.
Arnold’s paranoia edged a notch further when he got a phone call from an United Press reporter named Ted Morello, who informed him that, “Some crackpot has been phoning us here, telling us verbatim what has been going on in your hotel room for the last day.” 23 Naturally, Crisman and Dahl were the prime suspects, but when both men were present in the hotel room when Morello called again, confirming what had just transpired in the room, Arnold and Smith were dumbfounded. Who was it? How was the information getting out, and to what end?
After a thorough search of the room, Rap’s two saucer investigators were unable to locate the bug they knew must reside in Room 502. Finally, with growing concern for his safety, Arnold called in Military Intelligence.
Within hours, Air Force First Lt. Frank M. Brown and Capt. William L. Davidson arrived from Hamilton AFB in California. After interviewing all concerned, Crisman nearly forced a cardboard box full of the so-called saucer debris on the two officers, which was then loaded onto their B-25 bomber.
Talk of sabotage hit the Washington papers next morning when news that the plane’s left engine had caught fire, and the safety extinguisher failed to operate. Brown and Davidson died when they crashed near Kelso, Washington. The saucer debris was never found in the wreckage. Mysteriously, Crisman and Dahl were never prosecuted for promoting what they later confessed (“allegedly” confessed, say conspiriologists) to FBI agents was a complete hoax that indirectly led to the loss of a newly refurbished B-25 bomber. AF officials said they had traced Crisman’s saucer debris to a Tacoma smelter.
Back in Room 502, Arnold was totally freaked and wanted out. He called Rap and briefed him on the situation. Rap told him to get on his plane and bail.
“He told me to keep the money and…not to carry any of the fragments aboard my plane. He advised me to prevent Smith from taking any fragments. He didn’t tell me why, but I felt the advice was good. Mr. Palmer told me not to become too upset and then I gave the phone to Crisman.” 25
Crisman talked briefly with Rap confirming the plane crash. Arnold claimed later that “Raymond Palmer told me that he recognized Crisman’s voice. He was positive that it was the same voice that had called him long distance on other occasions from various parts of the country. Brother, what a mess.” 26
A witness was said to have spotted Crisman boarding an Army Air Corps plane, destination—Alaska. Dahl simply vanished. Back in Chicago, Rap was left holding the bag. He was now being blamed for perpetrating the greatest hoax since the Shaver Mystery. The new round of criticism only made him dig in his heels. He was convinced something very strange was going on. If the whole thing was a hoax, he wondered why his samples of the so-called smelter slag were stolen from his Ziff-Davis office one night after a visit from an intelligence agent? The agent, he said, was asking questions about the Shaver Mystery.
It was pretty clear that Rap was going to take the hit for Maury Island, and when Edward J. Ruppelt, former head the Air Force’s Project Blue Book, published his “Report on Unidentified Flying Objects” in 1956, Rap endured further public humiliation when Ruppelt declared:
“[Crisman and Dahl] admitted that the rock fragments had nothing to do with flying saucers. They had sent in the rock fragments [to Palmer] as a joke…and said the rock came from a flying saucer because that’s what [Ray Palmer] wanted him to say.” 27
Rap was pissed. “If the Maury Island Incident was a hoax, there is basis to lay it at the door of Fred L. Crisman” he sputtered.
But it moved Rap’s name to the top of the government’s list of “people to keep an eye on,” as Palmer’s son explained to this writer.
“There was a joke at the shop that the way to identify a G-man was to look at his shoes; so whenever one would come we would all lean over and look at the shoes. They came to look at our rocket launching base and radar (which we didn’t have); they came to audit his taxes; they came as postal inspectors and spent three days here only to give him back about 38¢ that was overpaid (but they did look at every name on the mailing list). They planted a false story in the news and all the authorities came down on him only to have them mysteriously leave and never explain to the news why they left with nothing being done.”
Yet, Rap continued his investigating, as well as his crusade against injustice. He also came up with a new slant to his beloved science fiction.
The Coming of the Saucers
The cover of the issue of Amazing Stories that was cancelled.
“We are adding a kind of science fiction … that deals with the new kind of space ship. After all, it’s just not modern to talk of spaceships these days, or of Bob Crosby; but of flying saucers and Elvis Presley!” –Rap
Rap revealed years later that prior to the Tacoma Incident, he was about to release new “evidence” concerning the saucers and much more in a special Amazing Stories flying saucers issue, but never got the chance, thanks to a visit from a Federal agent.
“The Tacoma incident intervened,” he grouched. “The owner of the magazine ordered the special issue halted, killed the Shaver Mystery, and tossed aside a bit of business that had netted him a half million dollars in four years—all the day after a man with a gold badge paid him a visit.” 28
Yes, the Tacoma affair did little to endear Rap to Ziff-Davis. So, in 1949, two years after Maury Island, Kenneth Arnold and Room 502, Rap left Amazing Stories to strike out on his own as an independent publisher. In fact, he started his new career on the sly even before he left Amazing. He founded an sf pulp—Other Worlds Science Stories—and he gambled on Fate magazine, a mystical digest that Rap bet would fill a niche in the publishing field. He was right. Fate struck a chord with a new readership, while newsstand sales for science fiction slowly dried up. TV and the newly emerging paperback houses were blamed.
Rap tried valiantly to drum up interest in his science fiction ’zines with a dizzying array of title and format changes. From October 1953 to April ’54, Other Worlds suddenly became Science Stories. Also in ’53, Rap founded Universe Science Fiction, ran it for ten issues, then changed the name to Other Worlds Science Stories, giving it a larger format in the hopes of making it more noticeable on newsstands; all to no avail.
Meanwhile, Rap’s obsession with flying saucers was growing. His magazine cover art blatantly mirrored this preoccupation. His saucer files were growing almost as fast as his personal file at FBI headquarters. After all, the Feds had concluded in 1947 that Palmer and Shaver were indeed behind flying saucer “hysteria.” The Tacoma Incident further expanded Palmer’s burgeoning file.
Then Rap had a brainstorm. He decided to change Other Worlds Science Stories into Flying Saucers from Other Worlds, filling it with a combination of saucer fiction yarns and factual reports. It was the beginning of his transition from science fiction to saucer and “spiritual” publications, what now is termed “New Age.” For a time, he alternated thetwo zines. One month it was Flying Saucers from Other Worlds, the next it was Other Worlds Science Stories. By this time Rap had accumulated several file cabinets full of saucer documentation. Why not put it to good use? As he often did when he came up with a new idea, he hinted that something extraordinary was about to happen … in the next issue, of course.
“Today we are living the science fiction of yesterday, and now something new is being added —we are living tomorrow’s science fiction too…ahead of time! We have that unexplainable feeling we always get when something big is about to break. We were ‘in on’ the flying saucer mystery before it broke.” 29
What with his shabby treatment after Maury Island, this new plan gave him the perfect soapbox from which to harangue Officialdom and pound the media, and other pundits did not take the subject seriously. In the first issue of Flying Saucers from Other Worlds, Rap angrily struck out at so-called journalists in May of 1957.
“When flying saucers first appeared, no writer had the gumption to sit down and state it was a plain news item. No, they had to make a huge joke out of it…Your editor has a word for that kind of writer, and it’s spelled ‘tramp.’ They ride the fourth estate rails free…Laughing jackasses, the whole lot of them.”
Apparently, only Rap acknowledged his vast contribution to ufology. The ghost of Tacoma still haunted him. He was being snubbed even by Flying saucer organizations like NICAP, who refused to acknowledge his work. Rap concluded NICAP was simply a “mouthpiece for the CIA” in one of his many searing editorials:
“…In spite of the fact that this editor is not only the first flying saucer investigator, but the possessor of the largest private file of saucer information in the world, and the publisher of the only newsstand magazine on flying saucers, and has repeatedly offered to help NICAP, this help being refused.” 30
John A. Keel remained unrepentant of his criticism of Rap’s ufological contribution, as revealed in a 1984 letter to Shavertron, a fanzine dedicated to the Shaver Mystery. Keel was bemoaning an apparent lack of interest in flying saucers at that time, making it more difficult to sell saucer-related material.
“Palmer created and sustained the field of ufology, and modeled it after science fiction fandom,” chided Keel. “If Palmer had not existed, it is very likely that widespread interest in flying saucers would have faded away after 1947. After his death in 1977, ufology and the subject of UFOs has slipped into total limbo…
“Because only a few copies of Amazing Stories from the 1940s remain intact, very few advocates of the Shaver Mystery have had a chance to study them. So the Shaver Mystery itself is now founded on hearsay and myth.
“Keep up the bad work,
“John A. Keel.”
And what of the man who, with one crazy episode, turned Rap into the world’s first flying saucer investigator? As conspiracy history tells us, he was arrested on the grassy knoll as one of the three tramps after JFK’s assassination; he wrote a novel titled Murder of a City about Tacoma dirty politics; he partied with rogues and burned down a building or two; got into S&M: and continued to write occasionally to Rap, no doubt to clinch his reputation as master obscurantist.
“Fred Crisman not only didn’t admit [Maury Island] was a hoax,” writes long-time Crisman researcher Ron Halbritter, “but [in a letter] in the January 1950 issue of Fate he called those accusations a ‘bald-faced lie.’” 31
Halbritter, through extensive use of the Freedom of Information Act, studied Crisman’s FBI file, military records, and even job applications. He has a decidedly different opinion about Palmer’s saucer nemesis.
“Fred Lee Crisman would have you, me, and the rest of the world believe he was a secret agent for some three letter classified group. Crisman was the classic yardbird; injured during WW II, he became addicted to painkillers and spent the remainder of his life trying to hustle to support his habit.
“Crisman always sought to be the center of attention. When Ray Palmer described the Shaver Mystery, he claimed to have been in a dero cave in Kashmir. When Harold Dahl saw a UFO at Maury Island, the next day Crisman claimed, ‘Me, too—when nobody else was around, I did see one.’ While Jim Garrison was seeking Kennedy assassins, he suddenly got an anonymous letter implying Crisman was involved. When Roy Thinnes had a hit television show in 1967 called The Invaders, a letter, allegedly from Harold Dahl, was sent saying that the character David Vincent, and in fact the entire show, was based on Crisman’s life. These are examples of Crisman’s need for fame.”
The Tacoma Incident not only strengthened Rap’s distrust of government authority, it also energized his metaphysical side. He began to publish Mystic and then Search magazines, exploring the shadow world of the occult. He continued publishing Shaver’s mystery, as well as the writings of mystical saucer contactees like Orfeo Angelucci. He started a special feature in Mystic called “The Man From Tomorrow,” in which he predicted future events using his “random thought” technique. More than the predictions themselves, Rap liked the title. “The Man from Tomorrow” was Rap. He liked to think he was just one step ahead of the next big trend…the next big blockbuster.
“Without the Tacoma Incident, the Chicago publisher might finally have given up on the flying saucers, uncertain of the evidence of even his own eyes,” Rap said. “But that one fantastic experience told him that here was a tremendous true thing, of unknown, unpredictable importance on the stage of future history.” 32
And everyone knows future history is where the Man from Tomorrow lives.
1. Interview with Ray B. Palmer, The UFO Forum, http://www.theufoforum.org/Content.html
2. Keel, John, “The Man Who Invented Flying Saucers,” Fortean Times 41, p 52-57
3. Mystic Magazine, April 1955, p 14
4. The Secret World, p 29
5. Ibid. p 28
6. Rap, Amazing editorial, February 1941
7. Actifan: a fan who participates in sf publishing, conventions, clubs. Gafiate: “get away from it all” …meaning to quit fandom. Fugghead: a fan who exhibits behavior so far beyond the pale that even the most liberal fen might raise an eyebrow over it. Fen: plural of fan. Fanfeud: feuds that existed between fen, usually over inane subjects.
8. “Fantastic Adventures with Amazing,” Amazing Stories, January 1984
9. Warner, Harry, All Our Yesterdays, p 76
10. Palmer, Ray, The Secret World, 1975, p 8
11. Pobst, Jim, The Rap Packets #1 p 3
12. Palmer, The Secret World, p 26
13. Ibid. p 30
14. Ron Goulart, St.James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture
15. Rap editorial, Amazing Stories, August 1938
16. Ibid., July 1939
17. Rap editorial, Other Worlds Science Stories, November 1955
18. Rap, The Secret World, p 37
19. Rap, Flying Saucers Magazine, 1958
20. Gardner, Martin, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, p 56
21. Arnold/Palmer, The Coming of the Saucers, p 88
22. Ibid. p 39
23. Ibid. p 44
24. Ibid. p 45
25. Ibid. p 58
27. Ruppelt, Edward, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, 1956, p 26
28. Arnold/Palmer, The Coming of the Saucers, p 9
29. Editorial, Other Worlds Science Stories, May 1957
30. Editorial, Flying Saucers Magazine, June 1960
31. Halbritter, Ron, Beyond Roswell—The Hoax on You, http://n6rpf.com-us.net/mauryisl.html
32. Rap on Maury Island, Flying Saucers, December 1958
Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that all was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, and make it possible. -- Lawrence of Arabia