It’s been seven decades since a small, nondescript town out in the scorching southern desert entered history books and popular culture for the most peculiar of reasons.
Half myth, half cover-up, it is one hell of a story.
Welcome to Roswell, New Mexico.
A farmer’s tale of strange objects in the desert
Temperatures in New Mexico hover around the 80F (26F) mark in early July, with little to no precipitation. It is hot out there.
Seventy years ago today, a local farmhand named William ‘Mac’ Brazel returned from the blazing desert heat and contacted County Sheriff George Wilcox to report something rather unusual.
48-year-old Brazel claimed that he had found some strange-looking debris out in the arid, wild terrain. An aircraft of some kind, he said. But an odd one, if it was an aircraft at all. The site, he said, was located in lands belonging to Foster Ranch, far out into the wasteland, about 40m from the town of Corona in the neighbouring state of Texas. By some accounts, Brazel had already collected some pieces of debris -including a ‘flying disc’- from the site and brought them back to his ranch.
Intrigued by the rancher’s claims, Sheriff Wilcox contacted army officials at the local airfield. Major Jesse Marcel, a military intelligence officer based at Roswell Air Force Base, headed out to the’crash’ site to investigate.
Things get a bit murky as to exactly what happened from there on. Whatever the truth may be, Major Marcel and other personnel showed up at Brazel’s home to retrieve the items found in the desert.
The local press picked up on the story. Brazel told a local newspaper about what he had found, saying it was some kind of ‘bright wreckage’.
The army released an official statement on July 9 to say that the military had recovered a ‘flying disc’ from a site north of Roswell, New Mexico. The statement deemed this disc to be a ‘weather balloon.’
The Roswell Incident: Half-truths, conspiracy theories, and an alien autopsy that never happened
The weather balloon story had the desired effect. By trivializing the find, the Government effectively suppressed interest, and the Roswell Incident went largely forgotten for about thirty years.
Everyone got on with their lives around Roswell and elsewhere, but the secret hidden outside that little town out in the desert simmered just beneath the public’s attention.
The 70s brought about a marked social shift. Issues like the Watergate, and particularly the deeply unpopular Vietnam war, created an atmosphere of distrust in the Government.
Fuelled by this new anti-Government trend, rumours and stories began to circulate about what really happened at Roswell. The ‘weather balloon’ was in fact an alien craft that had crashed out there, some said. Conspiracy theorists even postulated that the ship’s crew had been found to be dead inside it, and that the bodies had been taken to a place that’s also not supposed to exist, Area 51. The weather balloon story was simply a smoke screen concocted by the scheming US Government, many claimed.
As the buzz around Roswell’s UFO story grew, so did the efforts to refute it. Hundreds of ‘witnesses’ were interviewed by a multitude of magazines, newspapers, radio stations, and other media outlets, national and international. All of a sudden, townfolk recalled seeing ‘aliens’ around Roswell, some saying that ‘rescue UFOs’ had been seen flying around the area of the original crash site, presumably searching for the missing crew.
The Government stuck to its guns, saying that it was nothing more than a weather balloon. Later, military officials admitted that the object was in fact a device for monitoring nuclear explosions. Remember, this was back in 1947. Hiroshima and Nagasaki had happened less than 24 months prior. People’s resolve to find aliens in their backyard only grew stronger.
Then, in 1995, footage surfaced of an ‘alien autopsy’ being performed on some of the dead bodies of the Roswell UFO crew. TV networks around the world showed it with great fanfare, taking a huge boost in their ratings.
The footage was provided by a London-based videographer and entrepeneur by the name of Ray Santilli, who claimed that the footage was original and had been given to him by a military cameraman who was present when the autopsy supposedly took place, circa summer of 1947.
The program ‘Alien autopsy’ aired worldwide on August 28, 1995.
Soon debunked as a hoax, Santilli made admissions that his footage was a ‘reconstruction’ and that only a ‘few frames’ of the original autopsy actually remained. The whole thing had been shot in an improvised set inside an empty London apartment, as it turned out. Still, a version of the documentary was released on DVD in 2006.
The (financial) truth is out there: Alien business is big
Whoever’s truth you choose to believe, the UFO story was the best thing that could ever happen to a small desert town like Roswell.
Back in 1947, Roswell was little more than a tiny geographical point on ordnance maps. Sparsely dotted with ranches and a couple of diners for transient farmhands to get greasy food in, Roswell grew to a current population of around 50,000. Today, the town’s economy is largely based on two very disparate things: agriculture to feed people, and alien lore to attract tourism.
And the latter it does, very efficiently, too. Ufologists, conspiracy theorists, or simply curious tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of an alien creature wandering around the desert flock to Roswell year after year. The town’s UFO Museum recorded a bumper year in terms of numbers in 2016, for example, with 200,000 unique visitors recorded.
Roswell’s tourism industry is a thriving one, largely due to an event that happened 70 years ago. Local business have embraced the alien gig much like the Irish Government has taken to the trough: With quasi-religious fervor. You can even get Alien Burgers and most local diners, and stickers and balloons in the shape of the Little Green Men are only a convenience store away. Or why not drop by the Alien Zone, where you can get your picture taken next to aliens in just about every setting you can think of.
The town’s tourist centerpiece is the UFO Festival, which takes place the first weekend in July every year.
2017 marks the 70th anniversary of Roswell’s notorious UFO incident, and the locals are in for a bumper alien-themed spending spree. This year’s festival is expected to be worth in the region of $6m.
Conspiracy theories and stories circulate to this day. Some say that the Government bought Brazel’s silence, going as far as threatening his life if he ever revealed the ‘truth’. The rancher died in 1963, coincidentally the same year as the Kennedy assassination.
Be it as it may, the Roswell legacy lives on, and for some shopkeepers around town, it’s big alien business as usual.