In the last issue, we traveled to the strangely-named Benld, Illinois, to investigate a close encounter with a meteorite. In 1938, some humans had the closest recorded brush with a meteorite impact. Just 50 feet away, a space rock hit a garage, went through the ceiling of a car, its cushion, its floorboard, bounced off the ground, and lodged itself in the coils of the cushion.
A few anecdotes exist in antiquity about humans possibly being hit by shooting stars, but their veracities are either dubious or unable to be substantiated. The Benld incident was a documented record, but the notoriety wouldn’t last long. Fast forward through World War II and into the early reaches of the Cold War to another town with an interesting name, this time in Alabama.
Before the middle of the 20th century, Sylacauga, AKA “The Cog”, was most well known for being probed by Hernando de Soto’s expedition in the 1540s and the discovery of marble in the 1820s. The town received a different type of attention one November afternoon, as a young woman named Ann Hodges napped peacefully on her couch.
Though today’s tale focuses on Sylacauga, the antagonist made itself known across a mammoth swath of the Southern United States. Even in the brightness of early afternoon, witnesses in three states reported a fireball streaking across the sky like a “Roman candle trailing smoke” or a “gigantic welding arc.” Unlike the Benld meteorite, the celestial visitor in Alabama created a massive aural imprint, booming as it traveled, which indicates an air blast. Ann Hodges, however, did not see any fireworks, as she obliviously snoozed.
The meteor originally weighed in at least 12 pounds. The rock fragmented into three pieces, one of which was approximately 8.5 pounds and the size of a grapefruit. That piece hit a farmhouse, crashing through the roof, then impacted a wooden radio console, after which it bounced toward the couch, where a living human being awaited.
Needless to say, the nap Hodges was taking ended quickly and abruptly. Miraculously, the meteorite did not kill her. The travel through the atmosphere, the fragmentation, and the energy lost as it hit the house and radio must have slowed the stone enough to save her life. It did, however, leave quite a mark.
Because it was 1954, many area residents feared the strike was not the result of deep space, but instead the Russians. A government geologist was forced to the scene to determine the origin of the object. The police chief confiscated the meteorite and turned it over to the Air Force. The Hodges house became a zoo. Ann’s husband, Eugene, had to force his way into his own abode when he got home from work. Overcome with the attention, Ann was admitted to the local hospital, despite no real medical emergency.
Because it was the United States, the rock itself then became the subject of disputes and lawsuits. The Hodges believed the meteorite belonged to them since it hit Ann, but they were mere tenants on the property of a woman named Birdie Guy. Guy desired the object for herself and claimed it because it fell on her property. Guy eventually settled out of court, receiving monetary recompense for giving up claim to the meteorite.
Despite surviving a truly frightening occurrence, the story of Ann Hodges does not, unfortunately, have a good ending. Perhaps due to media scrutiny and the lengthy court battle over the object, Hodges’ mental and physical health started to deteriorate. She suffered a mental breakdown. She and her husband separated in 1964 and she died of kidney failure in 1972, never having profited monetarily from the meteorite.
Ironically, the farmer who found one of the other fragments of the meteorite made enough money to buy a house and a car by unloading his discovery. That piece was less than half the size of the one that hit Hodges. Unable to procure a buyer, Hodges donated the rock to the Alabama Museum of Natural History, where it remains to this day.
The odds are astronomical, pun intended, against being hit by a stellar object. The odds must be even worse when it comes to surviving the ordeal if one is impacted. Then again, Ann Hodges is the only recorded human being to have been hit at all and she survived. So far we’re batting a 1.000!
The story is a sad one, to me, at least. To survive something so freakish, something that nearly ensures instant unliving, then to succumb to the after-effects is disheartening. Though, I suppose, on some level of my non-optimistic realism, perhaps it is a perfect metaphor for life.
The director of the Alabama Museum of Natural History is quoted to have said Ann “wasn’t a person who sought out the limelight. The Hodges were just simple country people, and I really think all that attention was her downfall.”
Further Reading and Exploration
The True Story of History’s Only Known Meteorite Victim – National Geographic
For the Only Person Ever Hit by a Meteorite, the Real Trouble Began Later – Smithsonian Magazine
60 Years Ago Today: The Day a Meteorite Hit Ann Hodges – Slate
Alabama Museum of Natural History
The Sylacauga Meteorite – University of Alabama video interview