The Mystery of the Kentucky Meat Shower

bull-on-roofOn March 3, 1876, one Mrs. Crouch was working in her yard in Bath County, Kentucky, making soap, when suddenly “meat which looked like beef began to fall all around her. The sky was perfectly clear at the time.” Falling like large snowflakes and settling all around the 5000 square foot yard, pieces of flesh ranging in size from about two inches square to four, dotted the ground and were even stuck on the fences. When it first appeared, the meat was said to be fresh, and, accordingly, two unidentified (but brave) men even sampled it. They claimed it tasted a bit gamey – like mutton or even venison.

The story was published in the New York Times on March 9th, and it caught the attention of Leopold Brandeis who was able to get his hands on a sample that had been preserved in glycerine. After examining it, Brandeis declared that the meat wasn’t a supernatural phenomenon, or in fact, according to him, even meat at all, but a substance called nostoc.

Nostoc has been known to scientists since at least the 16th century when it was named by Paracelsus. As with the Kentucky shower, early on people believed that nostoc fell from the sky in large chunks (or more rightly blobs), and to medieval people it was known as “witch’s jelly” and “troll’s butter.”

Technically a genus of cyanobacteria that live in colonies, it’s not clear when people realized that nostoc does not, in fact, come from the sky, but rather lives in the soil and on moist surfaces. When dry, it is easy to overlook nostoc as it appears as a dark, flaky crust; however, after a rain, nostoc will swell up into jelly-like masses. This led people to think it fell from the sky with rain, thus one of its nicknames “star jelly.”

Edible and said to taste like chicken or frog, Brandeis was convinced that the Crouch’s had nothing more than bacterial blobs on their hands; however, although his theory accounted for some of the details in the report, he had overlooked two important points – eye witness testimony claims they actually saw the substance falling from the sky and it was a clear day with no rain.

Further investigations were also conducted, including one by histologist, Dr. A. Mead Edwards, who also examined the chunks. He concluded that the substance was definitely not nostoc, but rather hunks of flesh. From the tissue samples he had, it appeared to come from the lungs of either a horse or a human baby.

A third investigation by another histologist, Dr. J.W.S. Arnold, confirmed the presence of lung tissue, but also found animal cartilage. Subsequent investigations confirmed both histologists’ findings and also revealed muscular tissue.

Finally, one man provided a theory that covered all of the facts. L. D. Kastenbine, M.D., a Professor of Chemistry at the Louisville College of Pharmacy, published an article on the matter that same year in the Louisville Medical Journal. Kastenbine concluded that the best explanation was that supplied by an old Ohio farmer: the meat had been vomited by several vultures who were flying too high to be seen (some varieties of vulture can fly as high as 40,000 feet; for reference Mount Everest is about 29,029 feet). Given that the chunks fell from a great height, they were scattered by the wind over a relatively large area.

Both the turkey vulture, Cathartes aura, and the black vulture, Coragyps atratus, are found in that part of Kentucky, and both have been observed projectile vomiting the contents of their stomachs, sometimes in or just before they take flight. They particular do this in the presence of a predator, with the discarded contents of their stomachs simultaneously distracting the predator while also lightening the vulture’s load for flight. When one vomits, this also often induces others nearby to vomit as well.  As to why this particular flock of vultures chose to vomit mid-flight is anybody’s guess, but at least the theory seems the most plausible explanation for this bizarre phenomenon.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Nostoc aside, lots of strange things have been seen falling from the sky. In Great Yarmouth, England, on more than one occasion the cool sea air has combined with the warmer air from the land to create tiny tornadoes that pull fish and other edible sea creatures from the ocean, up into the clouds and over land, where they are deposited in what are known as “fish falls.”
  • In November of 1970, whale meat rained from the sky over a portion of Oregon. The cause of this one is definitively known. The Oregon Department of Transportation had the bright idea of disposing of a dead beached sperm whale by blowing it up with a half a ton of dynamite.  This did not work out as anticipated and instead of disintegrating much of the whale, instead huge flying, very dangerous, chunks of whale were launched in all directions, with one large chunk destroying a car some 1/4 of a mile away from the detonation point.
  • Frogs and toads have been reported falling from the skies many times. In 1794, near Lalain, France, 150 French soldiers were pelted with hundreds of toads, many of which still retained some of their tadpole tails.
  • As with amphibians and fish, bird falls are not uncommon either. For example, on New Year’s Eve in 2012, over 100 birds fell from the sky on the Arkansas town of Beebe. The Associated Press reported that, as with some other bird falls, the birds had flown either into each other or objects prior to crashing to the ground.
  • On June 16, 1940, 16th-century coins rained from the sky over Meschera, Russia. The prevailing theory is that a buried trove was exposed during a recent storm, and that same weather event pulled the coins up into the clouds before releasing them over the village.
  • Mud rained from the sky on April 11,1902 in the eastern United States. Caused from an immense dust storm from the west colliding with rain clouds in the east, residents of Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania endured a few minutes of mud pouring from the skies that “discolored or soiled everything exposed to it.”
  • In September 1857 in two separate incidents, sugar crystals fell from the sky in Lake County, California. Later reports noted that some of the ladies collected the crystals and made syrup them. No explanation has ever been given for the sweet rain.
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    Heh, luckily for the ‘two unidentified (but brave) men’ who sampled it, they were long gone before someone came up with that explanation.

  • Oooof, or not. I misread the article.

    How many years would it take you to stop gagging after you heard that?

  • Vomiting vultures! Gosh, that’s just gross. Interesting though!

  • Some variety of vultures can fly at 40,000 feet? What nonsense! That’s the flight ceiling of a modern jet airliner, and at that height the temperatures go down to 60 degrees Celsius below zero! At that low temperature a vulture would turn into a solid piece of super cool ice. Moreover, the air pressure is extremely low for any living creature to survive. Please check and research before simply writing down something.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Chinmoy Mitra: “Please check and research before simply writing down something.” You might want to take your own advice. 😉 “On November 29, 1973, a Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture collided with a commercial aircraft at 37,000 ft over Abijan, Ivory Coast, western Africa. The altitude is that recorded by the pilot shortly after the impact, which damaged one of the aircraft’s engines and caused it to be shut down. The plane landed safely at Abijan without further incident.” They are not totally unique. The Common Crane has been observed flying as high as 33,000 ft. The Bar-Headed Goose as high as 29,000 ft. The Whooper Swan at 27,000 ft. etc.

  • My grandmother lives in olympia and her driveway is covered in it right now