Digging into the mystery behind the Kentucky Meat Rain of 1876
The morning of Friday, March 3, 1876 dawned sunny and cloudless over Olympian Springs in northeast Kentucky. A light breeze tickled the fields of the Crouch family farm as Mrs. Crouch made soap in the yard. Then, shortly before noon, something unexpected started falling from the sky.
“Why, Grandma, is it snowing!” said Mrs. Crouch’s pre-teen grandson, Allen. But what hit the property for the next few minutes weren’t the snowflakes. They were filthy, oozing chunks of flesh, some as long as Mrs. Crouch’s hand.
For a horrifying moment, as she later told a reporter, Ms Crouch contemplated the possibility that her ‘absent husband and son had been ripped to pieces and their remains brought home … by the wind”.
Fortunately, that hadn’t happened. So what had?
It didn’t take long for news of the mystery meat to spread across the country. “Flesh descends in a shower,” read one New York Times title the following week. The New York Herald raises the stakes by sending a correspondent from Louisville to investigate the case.
The journalist, anonymous in the Herald, circled around town gleaning details of the incident from all manner of residents. Chief among them were the Crouchs themselves. Ms. Crouch had rushed inside shortly after the shower started, but she guessed that at least half a bushel (4 gallons) of chunks of meat had fallen. When Mr Crouch returned home later that day, he inspected the carnage, which affected around an acre of land. The fences were mottled with fabric and stained with what looked like blood; the prickly brambles bore masses of flesh like Christmas trees from hell.
The gory horror of the scene was completely lost on the Crouch’s pigs, chickens, cat and dog, who “had all eaten [the meat] freely, and seemed to like it,” Ms. Crouch said. (The dog fell suspiciously ill later that month.)
Mr Crouch collected a number of samples and gave some to Olympian Springs owner Harrison Gill, who preserved them in alcohol. Other morsels have found their way into the mouths of intrepid locals, like 27-year-old butcher LC “Friz” Frisbe in nearby Mount Sterling.
“Several people…told me it was a dangerous experience, but I told them my constitution could take as much as a rooster’s or a cat’s,” Frisbe said. Herald reporter, their conversation punctuated by the steady hum of a bone saw and the occasional sound of a cleaver. But even the steel-bellied Friz had decided to spit out the meat “after chewing it a bit”, perhaps because “some kind of milky, watery liquid oozed out of it,” he said. Although he compared its appearance to that of mutton and its texture to that of veal or lamb, he could not place the taste or the smell.
A dealer named Joe Jordan also spat out his specimen, which smelled like a corpse and leached “brown mucus”. Like Friz, Reverend JR Nichols compared the meat to mutton, while CJ Craig claimed it resembled “pounded steak”. Benjamin Franklin Ellington, a trapper, swore it was bear meat.
The Herald the correspondent even attempted to bribe an Irish railway worker, Jimmy Welsh, to sample a bite. Welsh agreed to do it for a dollar, but kept finding ways to postpone the act. He asked for side dishes first, then whiskey and finally claimed he was just not hungry. After the correspondent increased the reward to $3, Welsh suddenly remembered that he couldn’t eat meat because it was Lent.
If butchers, preachers and railroad workers couldn’t solve the mystery, maybe scientists could.
Rumor has it it was all a prank staged by Mrs. Crouch to scare her husband into selling their farm. The Crouchs had a good laugh when the Herald journalist relayed this explanation: Apparently, Mr. Croupton had already wanted to sell the farm. Another amateur theorist postulated, according to the Heraldthat “the meat might have fallen from a passing balloonist’s lunch box”.
As the samples made their way to the labs, slightly less fanciful theories began to emerge. Chemist J. Lawrence Smith said The New York Times that he believed the shower to be dried frog spawn “carried from ponds and marshes by currents of winds”. For some people who had seen the wreckage in all its glory, that notion was about as hard to swallow as the meat itself.
In the weekly medical journal The Louisville Medical NewsLeopold Brandeis suggested that the substance was Nostoc– a type of cyanobacterium that grows in gelatinous, jelly-like clumps when there is excess moisture on the ground. Because it often happens after rain, legend has it that Nostoc also rained. Brandeis, for his part, just thought the wind had blown some into rural Kentucky.
But the most plausible theory – then and now – is that meat is spewed out of the beaks of vultures hovering above our heads. Red-headed vultures and black vultures, both native to Kentucky, sometimes vomit when threatened. Not only does their extremely acidic chunder work as some sort of weapon, but an empty stomach could also help them get away faster.
“I always thought there were big holes in that theory because Mrs Crouch said the meat had fallen from a clear blue sky and she would surely have noticed a flock of vultures of a necessary amount. to fill a football field with meat while vomiting.” Kurt Gohde, an art professor at Transylvania University in Kentucky who has done extensive research on the meat shower, tells Mental Floss.
Gohde has since returned after learning more about black vultures, namely that they are known to fly at an altitude of 20,000 feet in groups (or kettles) of tens or even hundreds, and they can swallow pound after pound of flesh in just a few minutes. In other words, it’s entirely possible that the vultures were flying high enough that Mrs. Crouch didn’t see them and that the kettle was big enough to regurgitate half a bushel of morsels or more. This theory also explains the lack of consistency in everyone’s descriptions of what Gohde calls “the metrain”. Even the scientists couldn’t agree on whether it was muscle, cartilage, fat or something else.
“These vultures would have had different meals in their stomachs and there were most likely a handful of different meats mixed in the shower of flesh,” he explains. “Meat of various dead animals soaked in the acidic brine of digestive fluids from the stomachs of vultures. It looks like a horrible thing to eat! Bully for Jimmy Welsh.
Gohde’s study of the Kentucky Meat Shower was not limited to researching the habits of vultures. In 2004, as Atlas Obscura reports, he discovered a surviving piece buried in a warehouse at Transylvania University. So he had it genetically tested.
“The tests didn’t reveal the animal and didn’t reveal much else either,” he says. “The liquid in which it was suspended was an alcohol preservation liquid. It is estimated that the cork was only about 40 years old at the time and it was assumed that was when the liquid had probably been replaced (of what could have been formaldehyde) with alcohol.(These days, the piece is safely hidden in an apothecary’s cabinet at the Monroe Moosnick Medical and Science Museum in TU .)
Without genetic analysis to determine exactly what a vulture might have swallowed on that fateful day in March, Gohde enlisted the help of a Cincinnati taste lab to create candy based on flavor compounds from the sample. He described the flavor of the treat as “strong enough that I would have immediately spat out any meat with that taste”, with a lingering chemical aftertaste. In 2007, he solicited feedback from fellow tasters at Mount Sterling’s annual Court Days fall festival.
Many have compared the flavor to ham; “lamb that has started to turn” and “pre-cooked bacon” have also been mentioned. Gohde thought that the preservatives in the pre-cooked bacon products might “add a flavor to the bacon that somewhat matches the chemical taste I experienced myself when tasting the gummies.”
“My favorite was the ‘strawberry pork chop’ because that’s what we guessed the moment a big man with a beard put it in his mouth. He was certain,” recalls Gohde, who had never heard of such a dish. “I prefer to let it stay as a kind of wonder in my mind, so I didn’t look for it at all.”
Gohde is also happy not to settle the Kentucky Meat Shower issue, however plausible the vulture vomit theory may seem.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever think of it as a done deal,” he says. “I prefer to think of it as a mystery that was left open because it happened at a time when people didn’t need to figure it all out.”