and the Flying
"In 1947, the editor of Amazing Stories watched in
astonishment as the things he had been fabricating
for years in his magazine suddenly came true!...
Once the belief system had been set up it became
self-perpetuating. The people beleaguered by
mysterious rays were joined by the wishful thinkers
who hoped that living, compassionate beings existed
out there beyond the stars. They didn’t need any
real evidence. The belief itself was enough to
"I thought it was the sickest crap I’d run into."
-Howard Browne, Palmer’s Associate Editor
[re: the Shaver Mystery Palmer was then pushing]
The Man Who
Invented Flying Saucers
by John A. Keel
North America’s "Bigfoot" was nothing more than an Indian legend
until a zoologist named Ivan T. Sanderson began collecting
contemporary sightings of the creature in the early 1950s,
publishing the reports in a series of popular magazine articles. He
turned the tall, hairy biped into a household word, just as British
author Rupert T. Gould rediscovered sea serpents in the 1930s and,
through his radio broadcasts, articles, and books, brought Loch Ness
to the attention of the world. Another writer named Vincent Gaddis
Bermuda Triangle in his 1965 book,
Horizons: Strange Mysteries of the Sea. Sanderson and Charles Berlitz later added to the Triangle lore, and rewriting their books
became a cottage industry among hack writers in the United States.
Charles Fort put bread on the table of generations of science
fiction writers when, in his 1931 book Lo!, he assembled the many
reports of objects and people strangely transposed in time and
place, and coined the term "teleportation." And it took a politician
named Ignatius Donnelly to revive lost Atlantis and turn it into a
popular subject (again and again and again). (1)
But the man responsible for the most well-known of all such modern
myths -- flying saucers -- has somehow been forgotten. Before the
first flying saucer was sighted in 1947, he suggested the idea to
the American public. Then he converted UFO reports from what might
have been a Silly Season phenomenon into a subject, and kept that
subject alive during periods of total public disinterest.
His name was Raymond A. Palmer.
Born in 1911, Ray Palmer suffered severe injuries that left him
dwarfed in stature and partially crippled. He had a difficult
childhood because of his infirmities and, like many isolated young
men in those pre-television days, he sought escape in "dime novels,"
cheap magazines printed on coarse paper and filled with lurid
stories churned out by writers who were paid a penny a word. He
became an avid science fiction fan, and during the Great Depression
of the 1930s he was active in the world of fandom -- a world of
mimeographed fanzines and heavy correspondence. (Science fiction
fandom still exists and is very well organized with well-attended
annual conventions and lavishly printed fanzines, some of which are
even issued weekly.)
In 1930, he sold his first science
fiction story, and in 1933 he created the Jules Verne Prize Club
which gave out annual awards for the best achievements in sci-fi. A
facile writer with a robust imagination, Palmer was able to earn
many pennies during the dark days of the Depression, undoubtedly
buoyed by his mischievous sense of humor, a fortunate development
motivated by his unfortunate physical problems. Pain was his
In 1938, the Ziff-Davis Publishing Company in Chicago purchased a
dying magazine titled Amazing Stories. It had been created in 1929
by the inestimable Hugo Gernsback, who is generally acknowledged as
the father of modern science fiction. Gernsback, an electrical
engineer, ran a small publishing empire of magazines dealing with
radio and technical subjects. (he also founded Sexology, a magazine
of soft-core pornography disguised as science, which enjoyed great
success in a somewhat conservative era.) It was his practice to sell
-- or even give away -- a magazine when its circulation began to
Although Amazing Stories was one of the first of its kind, its
readership was down to a mere 25,000 when Gernsback unloaded it on
Ziff-Davis. William B. Ziff decided to hand the editorial reins to
the young science fiction buff from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. At the age
of 28, Palmer found his life’s work.
Expanding the pulp magazine to 200 pages (and as many as 250 pages
in some issues), Palmer deliberately tailored it to the tastes of
teenage boys. He filled it with nonfiction features and filler items
on science and pseudo-science in addition to the usual formula short
stories of BEMs (Bug-Eyed Monsters) and beauteous maidens in
distress. Many of the stories were written by Palmer himself under a
variety of pseudonyms such as Festus Pragnell and Thorton Ayre,
enabling him to supplement his meager salary by paying himself the
usual penny-a-word. His old cronies from fandom also contributed
stories to the magazine with a zeal that far surpassed their
In fact, of the dozen or so science magazines then being sold on the
newsstands, Amazing Stories easily ranks as the very worst of the
lot. Its competitors, such as Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder
Stories, Planet Stories and the venerable Astounding (now renamed
Analog) employed skilled, experienced professional writers like Ray
Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and
L. Ron Hubbard (who later created
Dianetics and founded Scientology). Amazing Stories was garbage in
comparison and hardcore sci-fi fans tended to sneer at it. (2)
The magazine might have limped through the 1940s, largely ignored by
everyone, if not for a single incident. Howard Browne, a television
writer who served as Palmer’s associate editor in those days,
recalls: "early in the 1940s, a letter came to us from Dick Shaver
purporting to reveal the "truth" about a race of freaks, called "Deros,"
living under the surface of the earth. Ray Palmer read it, handed it
to me for comment. I read a third of it, tossed it in the waste
basket. Ray, who loved to show his editors a trick or two about the
business, fished it out of the basket, ran it in Amazing, and a
flood of mail poured in from readers who insisted every word of it
was true because they’d been plagued by Deros for years. (3)
Actually, Palmer had accidentally tapped a huge, previously
unrecognized audience. Nearly every community has at least one
person who complains constantly to the local police that someone --
usually a neighbor -- is aiming a terrible ray gun at their house or
apartment. This ray, they claim, is ruining their health, causing
their plants to die, turning their bread moldy, making their hair
and teeth fall out, and broadcasting voices into their heads.
[To the Reichian concept of DOR (Dead
Orgone), stir in the bizarre sci-fi tales of "Alex Constantine,"
and Kathy Kasten, et al, for a latter-day equivalent of the
Shaverian Dero Ray-Gun Attack mythos -B:.B:.]
Psychiatrists are very familiar with
these "ray" victims and relate the problem with
paranoid-schizophrenia. For the most part, these paranoiacs are
harmless and usually elderly. Occasionally, however, the voices they
hear urge them to perform destructive acts, particularly arson. They
are a distrustful lot, loners by nature, and very suspicious of
everyone, including the government and all figures of authority. In
earlier times, they thought they were hearing the voice of God
and/or the Devil. Today they often blame the CIA or space beings for
their woes. They naturally gravitate to eccentric causes and
organizations which reflect their own fears and insecurities,
advocating bizarre political philosophies and reinforcing their
peculiar belief systems. Ray Palmer unintentionally gave thousands
of these people focus to their lives.
Shaver’s long, rambling letter claimed that while he was welding (4)
he heard voices which explained to him how the underground Deros
were controlling life on the surface of the earth through the use of
fiendish rays. Palmer rewrote the letter, making a novelette out of
it, and it was published in the March 1945 issue under the title: "I
Remember Lemuria -- by Richard Shaver."
The Shaver Mystery was born.
Somehow the news of Shaver’s discovery quickly spread beyond science
fiction circles and people who had never before bought a pulp
magazine were rushing to their local newsstands. The demand for
Amazing Stories far exceeded the supply and Ziff-Davis had to divert
paper supplies (remember there were still wartime shortages) from
other magazines so they could increase the press run of AS.
"Palmer traveled to Pennsylvania to talk to Shaver,"
later recalled, "found him sitting on reams of stuff he’d written
about the Deros, bought every bit of it and contracted for more. I
thought it was the sickest crap I’d run into. Palmer ran it and
doubled the circulation of Amazing within four months."
By the end of 1945, Amazing Stories was selling 250,000 copies per
month, an amazing circulation for a science fiction pulp magazine.
Palmer sat up late at night, rewriting Shaver’s material and writing
other short stories about the Deros under pseudonyms. Thousands of
letters poured into the office. Many of them offered supporting
"evidence" for the Shaver stories, describing strange objects they
had seen in the sky and strange encounters they had had with alien
beings. It seemed that many thousands of people were aware of the
existence of some distinctly non-terrestrial group in our midst.
Paranoid fantasies were mixed with tales that had the uncomfortable
ring of truth.
The "Letters-to-the-Editor" section was
the most interesting part of the publication. Here is a typical
contribution from the issue for June 1946:
I flew my last combat mission on May 26  when I was shot
up over Bassein and ditched my ship in Ramaree roads off Chedubs
Island. I was missing five days. I requested leave at Kashmere
(sic). I and Capt. (deleted by request) left Srinagar and went
to Rudok then through the Khese pass to the northern foothills
of the Karakoram. We found what we were looking for. We knew
what we were searching for.
For heaven’s sake, drop the whole thing! You are playing with
dynamite. My companion and I fought our way out of a cave with
submachine guns. I have two 9" scars on my left arm that came
from wounds given me in the cave when I was 50 feet from a
moving object of any kind and in perfect silence. The muscles
were nearly ripped out. How? I don’t know. My friend has a hole
the size of a dime in his right bicep. It was seared inside. How
we don’t know. But we both believe we know more about the Shaver
Mystery than any other pair. You can imagine my fright when I
picked up my first copy of Amazing Stories and see you splashing
words about the subject.
The identity of the author of this
letter was withheld by request. Later Palmer revealed his name:
Lee Crisman. He had inadvertently described the effects of a laser
beam -- even though the laser wasn’t invented until years later.
Apparently Crisman was obsessed with Deros and death rays long
before Kenneth Arnold sighted the "first" UFO in June 1947.
In September 1946, Amazing Stories published a short article by W.C.
Hefferlin, "Circle-Winged Plane," describing experiments with a
circular craft in 1927 in San Francisco. Shaver’s (Palmer’s)
contribution to that issue was a 30,000 word novelette, "Earth
Slaves to Space," dealing with spaceships that regularly visited the
Earth to kidnap humans and haul them away to some other planet.
Other stories described amnesia, an important element in the UFO
reports that still lay far in the future, and mysterious men who
supposedly served as agents for those unfriendly Deros.
A letter from army lieutenant Ellis L. Lyon in the September 1946
issue expressed concern over the psychological impact of the Shaver
What I am worried about is that
there are a few, and perhaps quite large number of readers who
may accept this Shaver Mystery as being founded on fact, even as
Orson Welles put across his invasion from Mars, via radio some
years ago. It is of course, impossible for the reader to sift
out in your "Discussions" and "Reader Comment" features, which
are actually letters from readers and which are credited to an
Amazing Stories staff writer, whipped up to keep alive interest
in your fictional theories. However, if the letters are
generally the work of readers, it is distressing to see the
reaction you have caused in their muddled brains. I refer to the
letters from people who have "seen" the exhaust trails of rocket
ships or "felt" the influence of radiations from underground
Palmer assigned artists to make sketches
of objects described by readers and disc-shaped flying machines
appeared on the covers of his magazine long before June 1947. So we
can note that a considerable number of people -- millions -- were
exposed to the flying saucer concept before the national news media
was even aware of it. Anyone who glanced at the magazines on a
newsstand and caught a glimpse of the saucers-adorned Amazing
Stories cover had the image implanted in his subconscious. In the
course of the two years between march 1945 and June 1947, millions
of Americans had seen at least one issue of Amazing Stories and were
aware of the Shaver Mystery with all of its bewildering
Many of these people were out studying
the empty skies in the hopes that they, like other Amazing Stories
readers, might glimpse something wondrous. World War II was over and
some new excitement was needed. Raymond Palmer was supplying it --
much to the alarm of Lt. Lyon and Fred Crisman.
Aside from Palmer’s readers, two other groups were ready to serve as
cadre for the believers. About 1,500 members of Tiffany Thayer’s Fortean Society knew that weird aerial objects had been sighted
throughout history and some of them were convinced that this planet
was under surveillance by beings from another world. Tiffany Thayer
was rigidly opposed to Franklin Roosevelt and loudly proclaimed that
almost everything was a government conspiracy, so his Forteans were
fully prepared to find new conspiracies hidden in the forthcoming
They would become instant experts,
willing to educate the press and public when the time came. The
second group were spiritualists and students of the occult, headed
by Dr. Meade Layne, who had been chatting with the space people at
seances through trance mediums and Ouija boards. They knew the space
ships were coming and hardly surprised when "ghost rockets" were
reported over Europe in 1946. (5) Combined, these three groups
represented a formidable segment of the population.
On June 24, 1947, Kenneth Arnold made his famous sighting of a group
of "flying saucers" over Mt. Rainier, and in Chicago Ray Palmer
watched in astonishment as the newspaper clippings poured in from
every state. The things that he had been fabricating for his
magazine were suddenly coming true!
For two weeks, the newspapers were filled with UFO reports. Then
they tapered off and the Forteans howled "Censorship!" and
"Conspiracy!" But dozens of magazine writers were busy compiling
articles on this new subject and their pieces would appear steadily
during the next year. One man, who had earned his living writing
stories for the pulp magazines in the 1930s, saw the situation as a
chance to break into the "slicks" (better quality magazines printed
on glossy or "slick" paper).
Although he was 44 years old at the time
of Pearl Harbor, he served as a Captain in the marines until he was
in a plane accident. Discharged as a Major (it was the practice to
promote officers one grade when they retired), he was trying to
resume his writing career when Ralph Daigh, an editor at True
magazine, assigned him to investigate the flying saucer enigma.
Thus, at the age of 50, Donald E. Keyhhoe entered Never-Never-Land.
His article, "Flying Saucers Are Real," would cause a sensation, and
Keyhoe would become an instant UFO personality.
That same year, Palmer decided to put out an all-flying saucer issue
of Amazing Stories. Instead, the publisher demanded that he drop the
whole subject after, according to Palmer, two men in Air Force
uniforms visited him. Palmer decided to publish a magazine of his
own. Enlisting the aid of Curtis Fuller, editor of a flying
magazine, and a few other friends, he put out the first issue of
Fate in the spring of 1948. A digest-sized magazine printed on the
cheapest paper, Fate was as poorly edited as Amazing Stories and had
no impact on the reading public. But it was the only newsstand
periodical that carried UFO reports in every issue. The Amazing
Stories readership supported the early issues wholeheartedly.
In the fall of 1948, the first flying saucer convention was held at
the Labor Temple on 14th Street in New York City. Attended by about
thirty people, most of whom were clutching the latest issue of Fate,
the meeting quickly dissolved into a shouting match. (6) Although
the flying saucer mystery was only a year old, the side issues of
government conspiracy and censorship already dominated the situation
because of their strong emotional appeal. The U.S. Air Force had
been sullenly silent throughout 1948 while, unbeknownst to the UFO
advocates, the boys at Wright- Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio were
making a sincere effort to untangle the mystery.
When the Air Force investigation failed to turn up any tangible
evidence (even though the investigators accepted the
extraterrestrial theory) General Hoyt Vandenburg, Chief of the Air
Force and former head of the CIA, ordered a negative report to
release to the public. The result was
Project Grudge, hundreds of
pages of irrelevant nonsense that was unveiled around the time True
magazine printed Keyhoe’s pro-UFO article. Keyhoe took this
personally, even though his article was largely a rehash of Fort’s
book, and Ralph Daigh had decided to go with the extraterrestrial
hypothesis because it seemed to be the most commercially acceptable
theory (that is, it would sell magazines).
Palmer’s relationship with Ziff-Davis was strained now that he was
publishing his own magazine.
"When I took over from Palmer, in
1949," Howard Browne said, "I put an abrupt end to the Shaver
Mystery -- writing off over 7,000 dollars worth of scripts."
Moving to Amherst, Wisconsin, Palmer set
up his own printing plant and eventually he printed many of those
Shaver stories in his Hidden Worlds series. As it turned out,
postwar inflation and the advent of television was killing the pulp
magazine market anyway. In the fall of 1949, hundreds of pulps
suddenly ceased publication, putting thousands of writers and
editors out of work. Amazing Stories has often changed hands since
but is still being published, and is still paying its writers a
penny a word. (7)
For some reason known only to himself, Palmer chose not to use his
name in Fate. Instead, a fictitious "Robert N. Webster" was listed
as editor for many years. Palmer established another magazine,
Search, to compete with Fate. Search became a catch-all for inane
letters and occult articles that failed to meet Fate’s low
Although there was a brief revival of public and press interest in
flying saucers following the great wave of the summer of 1952, the
subject largely remained in the hands of cultists, cranks,
teenagers, and housewives who reproduced newspaper clippings in
little mimeographed journals and looked up to Palmer as their
In June, 1956, a major four-day symposium on UFOs was held in
Washington, D.C. It was unquestionably the most important UFO affair
of the 1950s and was attended by leading military men, government
officials and industrialists. Men like William Lear, inventor of the
Lear Jet [Yup, John "The Horrible Truth" Lear’s dad -B:.B:.], and
assorted generals, admirals and former CIA heads freely discussed
the UFO "problem" with the press.
Notably absent were Ray Palmer and
Donald Keyhoe. One of the results of the meetings was the founding
of the National Investigation Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP)
by a physicist named Townsend Brown. Although the symposium received
extensive press coverage at the time, it was subsequently censored
out of UFO history by the UFO cultists themselves -- primarily
because they had not participated in it. (8)
The American public was aware of only two flying saucer
personalities, contactee George Adamski, a lovable rogue with a
talent for obtaining publicity, and Donald Keyhoe, a zealot who
howled "Coverup!" and was locked in mortal combat with Adamski for
newspaper coverage. Since Adamski was the more colorful (he had
ridden a saucer to the moon), he was usually awarded more attention.
The press gave him the title of "astronomer" (he lived in a house on
Mount Palomar where a great telescope was in operation), while
Keyhoe attacked him as "the operator of a hamburger stand." Ray
Palmer tried to remain aloof of the warring factions, so naturally,
some of them turned against him.
The year 1957 was marked by several significant developments. There
was another major flying saucer wave. Townsend Brown’s NICAP
floundered and Keyhoe took it over. And Ray Palmer launched a new
newsstand publication called Flying Saucers From Other Worlds. In
the early issues he hinted that he knew some important "secret."
After tantalizing his readers for months, he finally revealed that
UFOs came from the center of the earth and the phrase "From Other
Worlds" was dropped from the title. His readers were variously
enthralled, appalled, and galled by the revelation.
For seven years, from 1957 to 1964, ufology in the United States was
in total limbo. This was the Dark Age. Keyhoe and NICAP were buried
in Washington, vainly tilting at windmills and trying to initiate a
congressional investigation into the UFO situation. [It is therefore
with Great Thanksgiving in Our Hearts that we applaud the Fine
Efforts of CSETI’s
Steve Greer to carry on this proud -- albeit
amusingly Quixotic -- tradition, some four decades later. -B:.B:.]
A few hundred UFO believers clustered around Coral Lorenzen’s Aerial
Phenomena Research Organization (APRO). And about 2,000 teenagers
bought Flying Saucers from newsstands each month. Palmer devoted
much space to UFO clubs, information exchanges, and
letters-to-the-editor. So it was Palmer, and Palmer alone, who kept
the subject alive during the Dark Age and lured new youngsters into
ufology. He published his strange books about Deros, and ran a
mail-order business selling the UFO books that had been published
after various waves of the 1950s. His partners in the Fate venture
bought him out, so he was able to devote his full time to his UFO
Palmer had set up a system similar to sci-fi fandom, but with
himself as the nucleus. He had come a long way since his early days
and the Jules Verne Prize Club. He had been instrumental in
inventing a whole system of belief, a frame of reference -- the
magical world of Shaverism and flying saucers -- and he had set
himself up as the king of that world. Once the belief system had
been set up it became self-perpetuating. The people beleaguered by
mysterious rays were joined by the wishful thinkers who hoped that
living, compassionate beings existed out there beyond the stars.
They didn’t need any real evidence. The belief itself was enough to
When a massive new UFO wave -- the biggest one in U.S. history --
struck in 1964 and continued unabated until 1968, APRO and NICAP
were caught unawares and unprepared to deal with renewed public
interest. Palmer increased the press run of Flying Saucers and
reached out to a new audience. Then in the 1970s, a new Dark Age
began. October 1973 produced a flurry of well- publicized reports
and then the doldrums set in. NICAP strangled in its own confusion
and dissolved in a puddle of apathy, along with scores of lesser UFO
Donald Keyhoe, a very elder statesman,
lives in seclusion in Virginia. Most of the hopeful contacteés and
UFO investigators of the 1940s and 50s have passed away. Palmer’s
Flying Saucers quietly self-destructed in 1975, but he continued
with Search until his death in 1977. Richard Shaver is gone but the
Shaver Mystery still has a few adherents. Yet the sad truth is that
none of this might have come about if Howard Browne hadn’t scoffed
at that letter in that dingy editorial office in that faraway city
so long ago.
Donnelly’s book, Atlantis,
published in 1882, set off a 50- year wave of Atlantean
hysteria around the world. Even the characters who
materialized at seances during that period claimed to be
The author was an active sci-fi
fan in the 1940s and published a fanzine called Lunarite.
Here’s a quote from Lunarite dated October 26, 1946:
"Amazing Stories is still trying to convince everyone that
the BEMs in the caves run the world. And I was blaming it on
the Democrats. ’Great Gods and Little Termites’ was the best
tale in this ish [issue]. But Shaver, author of the ’Land of
Kui,’ ought to give up writing. He’s lousy. And the editors
of AS ought to join Sgt. Saturn on the wagon and quit
drinking that Xeno or the BEMs in the caves will get them."
I clearly remember the controversy created by the Shaver
Mystery and the great disdain with which the hardcore fans
From Cheap Thrills: An Informal
History of the Pulp Magazines by Ron Goulart (published by
Arlington House, New York, 1972).
It is interesting that so many
victims of this type of phenomenon were welding or operating
electrical equipment such as radios, radar, etc. when they
began to hear voices.
The widespread "ghost rockets"
of 1946 received little notice in the U.S. press. I remember
carrying a tiny clipping around in my wallet describing
mysterious rockets weaving through the mountains of
Switzerland. But that was the only "ghost rocket" report
that reached me that year.
I attended this meeting but my
memory of it is vague after so many years. I cannot recall
who sponsored it.
A few of the surviving science
fiction magazines now pay (gasp!) three cents a word. But
writing sci-fi still remains a sure way to starve to death.
When David Michael Jacobs wrote
The UFO Controversy in America, a book generally regarded as
the most complete history of the UFO maze, he chose to
completely revise the history of the 1940s and 50s,
carefully excising any mention of Palmer, the 1956
symposium, and many of the other important developments
during that period.