Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Sept. 30 2016 12:45 PM

The FBI Debunked These UFO Documents in the Most Childish Way Possible

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Everyone knows the story of the alien craft that supposedly crashed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, but who was appointed to deal with it?

According to UFOlogy diehards, it was a group known as the Majestic 12, and there are top secret documents to prove it. The FBI says the whole story is "bogus." Yes, that's a quote. They wrote “BOGUS” across the documents.

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The relevant files can be easily accessed on the FBI’s website, and nothing in there has been redacted. But no matter how many times the Majestic 12 case gets debunked, true believers stay interested.

Mark Fenster, author of Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture has done extensive research into modern-day conspiracy theories including those surrounding 9/11. He points out that the enduring appeal of the Majestic 12 has to do with the government’s response. “If you wanted to bluff as the FBI, you would redact nothing," he says.

To believers, the story of the Majestic 12 (also known as the MJ-12 or MAJIC) goes back to 1947, but as far as supposed hard evidence is concerned, it begins in 1984. Documentary producer Jaime Shandera is said to have been reading a magazine at home when a mysterious envelope was dropped through his mail slot. The envelope, which bore a New Mexico postmark, contained a roll of undeveloped photo film. Not a UFOlogist himself, Shandera supposedly took the mysterious film with him to dinner with friend and avid conspiracy theorist, William Moore. Once Moore heard Shandera’s strange tale, he apparently ditched dinner and went to his house to develop the images.

The pictures were not of people or places (or aliens), but of eight pages of classified documents. While they weren’t exactly the candid shots of an alien autopsy that Shandera and Moore had likely hoped for, the top-secret pages told an explosive story that, if true, not only confirmed the Roswell incident, but also detailed the people behind its research and cover-up.

The most prominent file, dated 1952, described a number of UFO encounters, including the Roswell crash, from 1947 on into the 1950s. While these descriptions all seem vague enough to be easily dismissed, the real gold in the document was the revelation that President Truman had appointed a committee of scientists, government officials, and military men—the Majestic 12—to figure out just how to deal with the Roswell crash, and any other alien incursions that might occur in the future. These were the original men in black.

truman_bush_and_conant
Vannevar Bush with President Truman, and atomic scientist James Conant.

The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum/Public Domain

According to the documents, members of the original MJ-12 included Dr. Vannevar Bush, an inventor, engineer, and head of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II; Retired Admiral Sidney Souers, the first Director of the CIA; and Dr. Donald Menzel, theoretical astrophysicist and avid UFO debunker.

Shandera and Moore would spend years trying to verify and validate the documents that had fallen into their laps, while word of the Majestic 12 spread among UFOlogists and believers. The existence of a secret government cabal working to hide and control our first contact with extraterrestrials was just too juicy to stay buried. The documents' claims began to take hold, both in the UFOlogy community, and in the larger culture it touched, worming its way into the standard alien conspiracy narrative.

But the seemingly incriminating documents didn’t hold water for long. Prominent members of the UFOlogy community, like skeptic Philip Klass, began to point out flaws and inconsistencies in the allegedly top-secret papers. Among the many issues that have been raised regarding the Majestic 12 documents are some incorrect ranks assigned to the members of the group, odd formatting that didn’t match with standard government briefs of their vintage, and some anachronistic verbiage, specifically the use of the term “media” as opposed to the term “press.”

The most damning issue with the Majestic 12 documents was their origin. None other than Carl Sagan himself denounced the documents in his book, The Demon Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark. “Where the MJ-12 documents are most vulnerable and suspect is exactly on this question of provenance—the evidence miraculously dropped on a doorstep like something out of a fairy story, perhaps ‘The Shoemaker and the Elves,’” he wrote.

Moore soon became the presumed perpetrator of a hoax. As the central figure behind the dissemination of the documents it was assumed that he had simply had them forged.

image
Bogus, dude.

FBI.gov/Public Domain

By the late 1980s, the FBI and the Air Force had gotten wind of the Majestic 12 documents and launched investigations into their veracity, mainly trying to determine whether someone was disseminating classified documents. The Air Force Office of Special Investigations looked into the matter before handing it over to the FBI around 1988. Their investigators were able to determine that the pages were bunk. In their final assessment on the Majestic 12 documents, an FBI official wrote “The document is completely bogus.” To drive the point home, the word “bogus” was then scrawled across the filed documents in giant capital letters.

It’s almost as if the FBI was sick of talking about MJ-12, or more likely was not quite sure how to respond. “If you don’t respond, then it seems as though you’re confirming the conspiracy theorists and you’re leaving these theories out there,” says Fenster. “But if you DO respond, you can’t truly debunk the conspiracy theory, and you’re giving it more oxygen. There’s almost no way to successfully respond to it.”

Still, the Majestic 12 live on. There are those in the UFOology community, such as prominent voice Stanton Friedman, who still believe that the documents are real, and continue to argue the point. There have even been further documents that have surfaced claiming to support the originals, but none have gained such a strong response.

In a more broad sense, the Majestic 12 seem to be thoroughly ingrained into the larger UFO narrative at this point, appearing in some form or another in shows like The X-Files (as the Syndicate), and movies like Men in Black (as, you know…the Men in Black). Even if the truth isn’t in the Majestic 12 documents, some people still seem to want to believe. 

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s new book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Sept. 29 2016 12:30 PM

The Original American Kazoo Company

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

In 1916, a sheet metal shop in a town south of Buffalo, New York, decided to engage in a new endeavor: the manufacture of kazoos, a toy instrument craze brought to the area by a traveling salesman. The gambit paid off, as the easy-to-play novelty shortly thereafter rose to prominence in vaudeville and jug bands and was featured in a surprising number of early musical recordings.

Proving capable of keeping up with the growing demand, the Original American Kazoo Company cornered the market, ultimately becoming the only manufacturer of metal kazoos in North America. At its height, the factory was producing 1.5 million kazoos annually, using equipment and facilities largely unchanged from its early days in the midst of World War I.

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Eventually changing hands and transferring the bulk of kazoo production responsibilities to a facility in the Hudson Valley, the site is known officially today at the Kazoo Factory, Museum, and Boutique Gift Shop of Eden. Most of the original machines and infrastructure are still used to make kazoos (albeit a smaller number per year), making it a rare example of a fully operational industrial museum.

Visitors can tour the small factory and museum and observe the step-by-step making of metal kazoos. There are also one-of-a-kind specialty kazoos on display.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s new book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Sept. 27 2016 3:45 PM

The World’s Largest Truck Stop

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Heading west on Interstate 80 in Iowa, you’ll come across a gigantic billboard proclaiming, “18 miles to WOW!” If you follow the billboard’s instructions and get off at Exit 284, that’s just what you’ll say.

In eastern Iowa, just west of the Quad Cities, lies the Iowa 80 Truckstop, the largest truck stop in the world. Established in 1964, the Iowa 80 Truckstop has been dubbed “a small city” and “a trucker’s Disneyland,” and to this day it serves as the ultimate one-stop shop to make every cross-country trucker feel at home.

Sept. 26 2016 4:45 PM

The Lone Tree of Lake Wanaka

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Framed by the South Island’s stunning Southern Alps, a lonely tree has grown up to spread its wings just off shore at the south end of Lake Wanaka.

Known as the "lone tree of lake Wanaka," it is said to be one of the most photographed trees in all New Zealand. However you still need to have the inside scoop to find it, as there are no signs directing people to the solitary tree. It's just enough off of the beaten path to not be bothered by too many tourists, unless they've done their research.

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Walking along the lake to find the lone tree is a beautiful sight. When you arrive, you'll find beach access on the shore just a stone's through away from the tree, the perfect place to have a picnic and watch the sun set or rise. If you can stand the cold but refreshing water of Lake Wanaka, swimming is a great way to reach the tree.

The lone tree is right at the foothills of Mount Aspiring National Park, a World Heritage Site, acting as a doorway into even more of the breathtaking landscapes that embody the South Island of New Zealand. Try visiting when the sun is low on the horizon and there's an abundance of colorful low light, rather than the view being bleached out by the midday sun. At this time of day you're also more likely to find the lone tree of Lake Wanaka, all alone.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s new book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Sept. 23 2016 12:30 PM

The Strange Tale of JFK’s Goat-Out-the-Vote Campaign

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and ;Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

As this turbulent election season marches on, it's easy to forget that, throughout the history of world politics, a small but steady role has been played by goats.

During June's European Union referendum, something called gifgoat.party convinced nearly 10,000 people to register to vote by showing them videos of frolicking kids. One of Donald Trump's personal tax-cutting strategies includes pasturing goats on two of his New Jersey golf courses, making them, legally, large (and strangely barren) farms. And then there's President George W. Bush's favorite emergency reading material, The Pet Goat. If three's a trend, we're already there.

Less apparent is the potential originator of this campaign staple—none other than President John F. Kennedy, who, during his very first political race in 1946, walked a billy goat around Boston and stole the city's heart.

It's tough to imagine such a storied personage walking a goat. But before he was a Democratic wunderkind, JFK was just Jack Kennedy, a young man trying to figure out what to do with his life. Both of Kennedy's grandfathers had been politicians—his dad's dad, P.J. Kennedy, served many years as a Massachusetts congressman and senator, and his mom's dad, John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, was a two-term mayor of Boston. His father, Joseph, was a successful businessman with a web of political ties. He had been grooming his oldest son, Joe, to take up the family game, while Jack traveled, tried his hand at journalism, and finished up an eventful stint in the Navy.

Sept. 22 2016 12:30 PM

The Spiral Tower of Krásno

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

The Spirálovitá Rozhledna ("Spiral Lookout") in Krásno is one of the most unusual lookout towers in Czech Republic, a country with no shortage of lookout towers. Situated 777 meters above sea level, this twisty tower offers not just a beautiful view of the surrounding area but also some unique architecture.

During the economic crises between 1933 and 1935 the village of Krásno wanted to provide work to it's citizens and attract people to town by building an observation tower. Legends tell that the designers—local sculptor Willy Russ and the local architect Fritz Hoffmann—had been inspired by the story of the Tower of Babylon.

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A staircase with 120 steps leads up the tower, arranged spirally around the outside of the tower. The work was done by unemployed citizens of Krásno only. To save money the stone used for construction was collected in the near area.

Up until the end of WWI, Krásno was called "Schönfeld" and was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. With the expulsion of German-speaking people from the Czech Republic after the war, the population diminished greatly and the view tower was not tended to. It slowly decayed, until 1997 when it was renovated and partly reconstructed.

During the renovations porcelain plaques were added on top of the tower, explaining what can be seen. The tower offers great views in far areas around the year. Many events are organized around the tower by the people of Krásno during the year, among them a traditional burning of an effigy of witches.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s new book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Sept. 20 2016 5:45 PM

The World’s Wonders, in a Convenient Hardcover Format

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Today, our first book, Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders, is released into the world. Inside this 480-page tome you'll find 700 strange, wondrous, and awe-inspiring places to inspire your travels and imagination.

We spent five years planning, researching, and writing this book, and we can't wait for you to read it. It contains our most treasured wonders, from Galileo's middle finger to everyone's favorite giant flaming hole in the Turkmenistan desert. There are new maps and illustrations, gorgeous photos, and useful information on everything from preventing premature burial to not getting killed by one of Australia's many deadly animals.

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Here are a few more views on the book from people who are not us:

I thought I had seen most of the interesting bits of the world. Atlas Obscura showed me that I was wrong. It's the kind of book that makes you want to pack in your workaday life and head out to places you'd never have dreamed of going, to see things you could not even have imagined. A joy to read and to reread.”
—NEIL GAIMAN, author of Sandman and American Gods
Atlas Obscura is a joyful antidote to the creeping suspicion that travel these days is little more than a homogenized corporate shopping opportunity. Here are hundreds of surprising, perplexing, mind-blowing, inspiring reasons to travel a day longer and farther off the path. ... Bestest travel guide ever.
—MARY ROACH, author of Stiff and Gulp
My favorite travel guide! Never start a trip without knowing where a haunted hotel or a mouth of hell is!”
—GUILLERMO DEL TORO, filmmaker, Pan’s Labyrinth

We hope you'll pick up a copy at your local bookstore or online. We'd adore it if you came to party with us on our 12-city book tour. And most of all, we love that you're a part of Atlas Obscura. Thank you for coming on this adventure with us. Let's keep exploring.

Sept. 20 2016 5:30 PM

The Magic Owl of Dijon

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

There is a small stone owl carved into a corner of the oldest church in Dijon, France. His face has seen better days, and he’s less than a foot tall, but for over three centuries he’s had a big job: granting wishes to all who reach up and stroke his little face.

This is the Owl of Notre Dame de Dijon, the city’s symbol and unofficial talisman. The carving sits about 6 feet off the ground on an otherwise unremarkable corner of the church, and as the tradition goes, if you touch him with your left hand and make a wish, your wish will come true.

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The original Gothic structure of Notre Dame dates to the 13th century, but the owl isn’t nearly so old. He was added—no one knows why or by whom—during construction of a more modern chapel (and by European church standards, modern means early 16th century) on the north wall. Here the narrow pedestrian street is called Rue de la Chouette, "Owl Street."

Dijon is no out-of-the-way place, and the church is dead center, so you can imagine how many left hands have touched the carving over the course of more than three hundred years. His face, probably once well-defined, now looks more like a melted wax candle of an owl.

The pint-sized bird has come to symbolize Dijon, capital of the region of Burgundy (as in wine country—it’s not all mustard here). Owls represent everything from the local football team to official tourism destinations, marked with brass plaques of cartoon owls that form a trail of sites around the city.

The history of the owl as a symbol of wisdom goes back to Athena, the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom who was represented as one in her animal form. Right up through the old Tootsie Pop commercials, the bird has been associated with stolid and steady smarts. In Dijon, they’ve added a touch of magic.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s new book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Sept. 19 2016 5:15 PM

The U.S.-Canada Border Slash

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

The U.S.-Canada border is the longest in the world. Stretching 5,525 miles from Maine to Alaska, traversing land, sea, and untouched wilderness, this colossal border is one you’d assume would be left untouched by mankind, merely an invisible line on a map. You’d be wrong.

Every year, the average American taxpayer pays half of a cent to the International Boundary Commission, or IBC, for the sole purpose of deforesting every inch of the U.S.-Canada border. With an annual budget of $1,400,000, the IBC ensures that the boundary will never be just an imaginary line.

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Known as “the Slash,” this treeless zone is 20 feet wide and covers everything from narrow isolated islands to steep hillsides. Spanning national forests and towering mountains, the vast majority of The Slash is so remote that it will never receive any visitors (aside from a handful of bears), yet it is still painstakingly maintained every six years with countless hours of exhausting manual labor.

The Slash was initially deforested for the sole purpose of, according to the IBC, making sure that the “average person ... knows they are on the border.” It all started in the 1800s, when the U.S.-Canada border line was set at the 49th parallel. The Slash was cut and over 8,000 original border markers were laid down, all of which are still standing along the Slash to this day. Unfortunately, there was no GPS at the time, so the border markers were inadvertently placed in a zig-zaggy fashion, straying north or south of the official 49th parallel border by an average of 295 feet. The lack of sufficient cartography also led to irregular border cutoffs such as Point Roberts and the Northwest Angle.

Despite its errors, witnessing the Slash is still on the bucket list of hundreds of geography nerds worldwide. Seeing the Slash can be as simple as going to Google Maps, zooming toward the U.S.-Canada border, and switching to satellite view. Those looking for a more up close view can travel to Newport, Vermont, and hop aboard North Star Cruises, which will take you right alongside the Slash.

Place contributed by lewblank

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s new book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Sept. 16 2016 5:00 PM

New York’s Bensonhurst Statue House

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

And you thought gnomes were bad. It's hard to miss what has come to be known simply as the Bensonhurst Statue House on 85th Street in Brooklyn, since dozens of superheroes, vampires, wizards, and more are standing sentinel in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable neighborhood.

While it might seem like a lawn art oddity to many, former marine Steve Campanella simply calls it "home." And he has made damn well sure that people know that it is his home by outfitting the public-facing facade with dozens of pop culture statues. As of 2008, there were at least 32 of the life-size figures propped up against the walls of the home and garage, and despite each one costing hundreds of dollars, the collection has likely continued to grow.

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Almost all of the figures in the collection are of pop culture characters. The Blues Brothers can be seen sitting on a bench by the garage, while Superman bursts out of the wall above the front door. Another Superman figure, Clark Kent in midtransformation, stands in a reclaimed phone booth nearby. Dracula and Frankenstein stand next to an indian and a pirate above the garage door.* Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and Betty Boop look on. The figures go on and on. In any of the spots that aren't inhabited by a fiberglass figure, vintage signs have been posted up ranging from road signs to instructions for good Brooklyn etiquette.

Campanella is an inveterate collector, and his garage is also full of artifacts and finds that he has been known to show off to curious visitors. Since this is a private residence, privacy should be respected, but feel free to drop by and take a look at one of the last lingering examples of old New York idiosyncrasy.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s new book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

*Correction, Sept. 19, 2016: This post originally misspelled the name Frankenstein.

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