History Channel’s Project Blue Book, while unfurling a plot based purely in fantasy, has highlighted a “real” historical UFO case in each episode, most with pretty well-accepted, mundane explanations. Was this past week’s the first true hoax to be featured? Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, the analogue of whom is Blue Book‘s Michael Quinn, didn’t think so — at first.
When Ruppelt initially interviewed Dunham Sanborn “Sonny” Desvergers, a relatively new scoutmaster in the area of West Palm Beach, Florida, he thought Desvergers was genuine, and genuinely shaken. Deputy Sheriff Mott N. Partin said, “In all my 19 years of law enforcement work, I’ve never seen anyone as terrified as he was,” after Desvergers scrambled up the embankment, out of the palmetto groves on the night of August 19, 1952.
Desvergers was driving three Boy Scouts home when he noticed a light out in the palmettos, and after protests from the kids, eventually stopped to trek into the darkness and check it out. The boys could see the scoutmaster’s flashlight, and possibly some other white lights pass by (stories conflict here), and then “a series of red lights … a lot like flares.” Desvergers would subsequently come out of the grove with burn marks on his cap, singed arm hair and a story about a “ship” over his head that belched a red ball of flame (or something similar) at him.
As it turned out, Desvergers had a lot of stories, like his four-month-old son being able to walk and talk (he couldn’t), and being crushed by a car and requiring a three-month hospitalization (which the doctor who examined him after the incident found very unlikely). The doctor said the hair on his arms was indeed singed, but saw no evidence of burns on his body.
During the first investigation, Desvergers had made a big deal about keeping things secret if the Air Force wanted him to, despite Ruppelt saying he could talk to anyone he liked. Desvergers continued to tell others he wouldn’t, because, “It’s not foolish to say that it will determine the future of all of us someday.” This didn’t stop Desvergers from hiring a press agent almost immediately.
Ruppelt became suspicious and decided to interview Desvergers and the boys a second time upon finding out the scoutmaster had been “less than honorably discharged” from the Marines for going AWOL and stealing a car (he would later be sentenced to seven years probation for passing phony checks). The oldest scout seemed uncomfortable and just parroted what Desvergers said, and the accounts of the other two diverged somewhat significantly, though did reveal that Desvergers had thought the light might be a “flying saucer” before he even left the vehicle. Further interviews with Desvergers’ brothers and others pegged him as an “exhibitionist” who always had to top everyone else’s stories.
Desvergers’ agent dropped him when learning of the scoutmaster’s sketchy past, and he ended up selling his story to the Sunday newspaper supplement American Weekly, first adding that he had seen a creature in the craft (which hadn’t come up before), and then going so far as to tell someone else he had fought three different aliens on the edge of the saucer. He was overpowering the weaklings until the saucer shifted and dumped him onto the ground.
This was after Ruppelt had already concluded, following the second investigation, this was “the best hoax in UFO history.” A nearby airport, behind the palmettos, could explain the white lights, but still, no residue of flares or anything else could be obtained from the scoutmaster’s cap. The ground where the incident occurred didn’t appear to be burned, but tests showed the roots of a grass sample were indeed charred. Ruppelt thought of several possibilities to explain this, though couldn’t positively identify any particular cause. Others would later suggest the samples might have been planted by police who were in on the con, most likely Constable Louis Carroll, who was there the night of the incident and expressed interest in making the case famous.
Strangely, Blue Book added two elements that weren’t in the scoutmaster case at all. “Swamp gas” is a real thing, methane from decaying matter that could conceivably burn given an ignition source. Swamp gas was used, probably more often than was warranted, as an explanation for UFO reports during the Project Blue Book era, but was never brought up in relation to this one.
There were absolutely no deformed “skulls” at the site, either, but “head binding” (AKA artificial cranial deformation) was indeed practiced by many cultures the world over, including the Choctaw Indians of the American southeast. It’s thought the intentional lengthening of children’s skulls may have been done as a sign of social status, and yes, not-exactly-scrupulous parties have tried to pass off pictures of them as alien remains to unknowing internet perusers.
Much of the information in this article comes from Karl T. Pflock’s 1997 investigation.
Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AiPT! Comics cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.