On Monday night, November 14, 1966, a building contractor in Salem, West Virginia, was home watching television with his family when the television began making funny noises. Then it exploded, sending shards of glass around the room. There were loud noises outside.
The contractor ran to the door and threw it open. The family dog, Bandit, ran outside and was never seen again. In a field nearby, red flashing lights were visible. The next day, the grass in the field appeared flattened.
“Four things came together,” said Jeff Wamsley to a group gathered at Wells Public Library in Albany last Thursday evening. “First, the UFOs. Second, the ‘Mothman.’ Third, the men in black. And finally, the collapse of the Silver Bridge.” Together, he added, they make up a series of events that taken together may be as mysterious today as they were when they happened.
Wamsley is proprietor of the Mothman Museum in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, about 90 miles from the aforementioned Salem but the center of the quartet of mysteries that enthralled and terrified the area in late 1966, all of 1967, and from time to time ever since. He has written two books on the “Mothman” and is working on a third. He has seen those peculiar and sometimes tragic events bring unexpected seasonal prosperity to his small town, located at the confluence of the Ohio and Kanawha rivers across from Ohio’s Gallia County.
The night after the event in Salem, two young couples, both recently married, were at what is called the “TNT area” near Point Pleasant, Wamsley recounted. An abandoned World War II government munitions factory, it was a popular hangout for area youth. As they prepared to leave, a tall, strange figure appeared in front of them. It looked generally like a man but for its “baseball-sized red eyes and enormous wings.”
They took off, but it did, too, they told authorities later. It flew right above their car, a 1957 Chevrolet, its wing tips dipping below window level and occasionally whacking into the sides of the car.
They stopped at a nearby restaurant and told their story to the proprietor. He called the Mason County sheriff. The sheriff put the four in separate rooms and asked them to write down what had happened. Even though they were unable to compare notes, the four told the same story and gave the same details. A drawing made by one provided evidence only that the witness was no artist.
Word got around, as it does in a small town. Soon there were more and more sightings, Wamsley told his rapt audience last week. Some of them, certainly, but not all, were clearly pranksters, having fun at the expense of their nervous neighbors. The next 13 months produced more than 100 reports of what locals call “the bird” or “the big bird.” The name “Mothman” came from a reporter at a news conference, and it caught on with the media, as such things do in the media. Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that none of the pranksters got shot.
Various experts suggested that what the people had seen was nothing more than a wood stork, a heron (called a “shitepoke” locally), or even an exceptionally big owl. A local farmer shot the owl that lived in his barn, thinking that it was the culprit.
A skeptical Point Pleasant woman sometimes went to the TNT area to try to debunk the myth. But then one day, as she carried her child to her car, according to Wamsley, she saw standing next to the vehicle a tall, man-like creature with enormous wings and huge red eyes. “She told me she never would drive at night after that,” Wamsley said. A deputy sheriff, assigned to patrol the TNT area where many of the sightings had been, quit on the spot, he said.
“There are more than 100 sightings that we know of,” Wamsley said. “A lot of people didn’t say anything, either because they didn’t want to be called crazy or, as some have told me, because the ‘men in black’ told them not to.”
In fact, it was the “Mothman” mystery that gave the world the phrase, “Men in Black,” and the associated comic books and movies. It was coined by John Keel, an unusual writer and UFO conspiracy theorist from New York who came to the area to investigate. He would go on to write “The Mothman Prophecies,” which book loosely led to a 2002 movie starring Richard Gere.
“When people saw the bird, soon the men in black would come around and talk to them,” said Wamsley. “We don’t know who they were. Sometimes they wore fake Army uniforms.” It all just added to the mystery.
Though no one was physically injured by “the bird” or “Mothman” or whatever it was, it took a psychological toll. Soon after their 1966 encounter with the thing, one of the two couples split, citing stress from having seen the red-eyed creature. “Others have told me that ever since, they are always looking over their shoulders,” Wamsley added. Many of those who witnessed the strange events of nearly 51 years ago have died, and Wamsley said he believes some have taken unheard stories of those events to their graves.
The sightings have never entirely ended – there was one reported in January of this year – but they fell off markedly after Dec. 15, 1967.
That’s when the Silver Bridge, connecting Point Pleasant with Gallipolis, collapsed at rush hour, killing 46 people. Some have theorized that the “Mothman” had come as a warning of the collapse. If so, its efforts were ineffective.
In a peculiar twist, the “Mothman” story has been an economic boon for Point Pleasant, which in addition to Wamsley’s museum has a “Mothman” sculpture in the town square and each September hosts the Mothman Festival, which this year drew 12,000 visitors to the town.
Nor is the story disappearing into history. In fact, the premiere episode of a new series called “Myth or Monster” is scheduled for 10 p.m. this Friday on The Travel Channel. That first episode is entitled “Mothman.” It will re-air Thursday, Nov. 2, at 2 p.m.
“They came to town and spent some time filming it,” Wamsley said.
But what of the story is true? Does Wamsley, a high school graphic arts teacher, believe it himself?
“Yes,” he said before pausing. “I know they saw something.”