Sunday 30 November 2014

Sylacauga 1954

It's exactly 60 years ago today that a grapefruit-sized meteorite came crackling through the Alabama sky, penetrated the roof of a wood-frame house in Sylacauga, bounced off the wireless and whacked Ann Hodges on the hip.  Luckily she was dozing on the couch, covered in a quilts, so the only damage she sustained was a massive haematoma. Then again, if she'd been in the kitchen peeling potatoes, the rock would have missed her altogether.  When her husband Eugene returned home from work, not only was there no dinner, but he had to fight his way indoors through a hoard of rubber-neckers.  A local geologist came round from the quarry where he was working and pronounced that the rock came from outer space but many people chose to believe that it came from they communiss from Russia. And everyone wanted a piece of the action. The local police called The Feds and a USAF helicopter landed and took the meteorite away for analysis. The Hodges's landlady Birdie Guy claimed the rock as having fallen through her property and a couple of lawyers turned up to help themselves to a client and some folding money. Eugene and Ann refused a cash offer from The Smithsonian but by the time the Air Force had returned the rock and they were ready to accept the Smithsonian's derisory amount, the Smithsonian (and everyone else) had gone off the boil and the offer was no longer on the table.  A couple of years later the meteorite was donated to the Alabama Museum of Natural History in Tuscaloosa. Not many winners there.

But the following day a local black farmer called Julius Kempis McKinney was carting a load of firewood home when his mules [you couldn't make this up] baulked at a black rock in the dirt road.  That night the hullabaloo in Sylacauga caught up with McKinney and he went back to collect the other fragment of meteorite. After confiding his tale to the local post-man, McKinney was able to sell his meteorite to an attorney (another lawyer!), who sold it on to the Smithsonian where it is on display to this day. The McKinneys were quietly able to buy a car, a new house and some additional land with the proceeds. My information is sketchy and may be incorrect in its details because it happened long ago in a world without web-cams or twitter.  In contrast, the Chelyabinsk meteorite which exploded over Siberia a couple of years ago was at least 100x bigger and sold for about $30/g.  That would realise Mr McKinney about $55,000 if it happened today . . . and if the price held pro rata for larger pieces. You can buy a modest detached home with a small yard in Sylacauga today for $35,000.

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