19th-century event remains unexplained, but not forgotten
In an occurrence that sounds like a Biblical plague story, meat — what seemed to be rancid, boneless beef — rained down on five acres of the Benicia Arsenal 164 years ago.
How it happened is still the subject of speculation. Benicia Historical Museum curator Beverly Phelan believes it was a prank, possibly by a farmer who found a way to spray chunks of flesh at soldiers.
Museum Executive Director Elizabeth d’Huart’s reaction to the story: “Interesting, but ugh!”
A strong west wind blew through clear skies July 20, 1851, the day the meat fell, according to a news account published July 24, 1851, in the San Francisco Daily Herald.
Major Heintzleman and another officer, Major Allen, observed the “meat shower” that day. Allen was struck by one of the pieces that fell during the shower that lasted two or three minutes, according to the Daily Herald account.
“The pieces were from the size of a pigeon’s egg up to that of an orange — the heaviest perhaps weighing three ounces,” the news article reported.
No birds were seen at the time, the article said, noting that other “meat showers” had been blamed on flocks of regurgitating birds, including vultures.
“The theories heretofore in vogue as to the cause of such phenomena would seem to be negatived by the accounts of this instance,” according to the report on the Benicia meat shower.
Benicia’s meat shower predated most — but not all — aircraft.
Hydrogen balloons first were flown in Paris in 1783, and in the United States, the Union Army Balloon Corps was to use non-steering balloons during the Civil War. However, no such devices were reported in Benicia that day.
Allen and the post surgeon collected some samples of the meat, which appeared to be beef. One piece examined after the fall had a portion of a small blood vessel, some muscle sheath and fiber.
“It was slightly tainted,” the news story reported.
The meat shower covered an area about 300 yards long and 80 yards wide. Soldiers gathered the rest, which the report said amounted to between two and a half and five bushels in bulk.
Additionally, “No pieces of bone were found,” the report said.
Benicia’s meat shower was the third such occurrence on record in the United States the previous six years. And more were to come, including “The Great Kentucky Meat Shower” of March 3, 1876.
According to a New York Times account published a week after the Kentucky event, large chunks of meat fell over Olympia Springs, falling near the home of Allen Crouch, whose wife was outdoors making soap.
Again, the sky was clear when the meat fell.
Crouch’s wife described it as appearing like large snowflakes. A day later, Harrison Gill visited the area and described pieces of meat sticking out of fences and scattered on the ground. The meat appeared to have been fresh when it fell.
Though the meat was described as looking like beef, two unnamed men had the courage to taste it and said it tasted like venison or mutton.
One analyst said the Kentucky meat wasn’t meat at all, but a type of cyanobacteria that forms colonies protected by a jelly-like coating.
The bacteria isn’t easily noticed when dry, but during rain it swells and becomes a substance that has been called “star jelly” and “witch’s butter.” However, like the meat shower that fell on Benicia, the Kentucky meat shower fell on a clear day.
Another analyst who wrote for the Louisville Medical News in 1876 noted that an Ohio farmer suggested the meat showers come from vomiting vultures flying overhead.
A letter in the Medical Record from Dr. Allan McLane Hamilton said he and Dr. J.W.S. Arnold had examined some of the samples said to have come from the Kentucky meat shower. Their conclusion: that it was lung tissue, either from an infant or a horse. Others identified slide samples as being muscular fiber or connective tissue.
A specimen of that meat shower is preserved at Transylvania University, Lexington, Ky.
Other places have had their own unusual showers. In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a large number of small black eggs fell May 5, 1786. Some were preserved and hatched in flasks of water, producing creatures that resembled tadpoles.
Another California meat shower fell Aug. 1, 1869 on two acres of a farm near Los Nitos, according to a report in the San Francisco Evening Bulletin. That day was described as clear and windless, and the meat fell in fine particles from 1 to 6 inches long.
The Bulletin also reported a fall of flesh and blood in Santa Clara County the previous June.
Larvae of some unidentified creatures fell on Bath, England during a rain and hail storm in 1871. About an inch and a half long, the creatures were described by some as marine insects dropped over land by a Bristol Channel waterspout.
The Swiss Alps saw thousands of insects as well as heavy snow in a 1922 storm, and on Aug. 27, 1968, blood and flesh fell on a square mile between Cacapava and Sao Jose dos Campos in Brazil. That fall lasted between five and seven minutes.
Star jelly, the gelatinous substance suggested as the stuff of the Kentucky meat shower, has been reported as early as the 14th century.
Some of this stuff fell Nov. 11, 1846 in Lowville, N.Y., according to the Scientific American. The smelly jelly disappeared shortly after falling.
In Philadelphia, four police officers found “a domed disk of quivering jelly six feet in diameter, one foot thick at the center and an inch or two near the edge.” Eight years later, that 1950 discovery inspired the movie “The Blob.”
In Frisco, Texas, a woman found purple blobs in her yard during the Perseid meteor shower on Aug. 11, 1979.
The jelly falling in 1983 on North Reading, Mass., was gray, and another jelly rain in 1994 lasted several days in Oakville, Wash. Similar goo fell in 1997 in Everett, Wash., in Australia in 1996, in Scotland in 2009 and at the Ham Wall Nature Reserve in southern England in 2013.
Benicia’s meat shower becomes a topic of interest periodically, usually involving someone who calls the museum after learning about the unusual phenomenon.
“When I first got a question about it, I said, ‘What? Meat flying in the air?’” Phelan said.
But other local historians had heard of it, notably Harry Wassman. So Phelan began saving any information she could find, including the San Francisco Daily Herald newspaper article.
She said the last inquiry was eight or nine years ago.
She said she heard that some in the Arsenal thought it was a joke or prank coming from the kitchen, but she hasn’t found documentation to support that story.
Her personal opinion is that it was, indeed, the product of a joke, possibly by a farmer or someone who had a supply of refuse or offal and found a way to shoot the meat across the Arsenal.
“It just sounds like a prank,” Phelan said.
We may never know.