The Hodges Meteorite

The Hodges Meteorite, on display in Tuscaloosa AL, is the first known example of a space rock that hit and injured a human.

The Hodges Meteorite, on display at the Alabama Museum of Natural History

Meteorites have been falling from the sky ever since there has been a sky to fall from. Ancient cultures from China to Africa to Europe came across meteorites and recognized that they were different from ordinary rocks. Ironically, those ancient people were also familiar with “falling stars” which they had observed in the night sky, but they never made the connection between the two phenomena.

One of the first people to scientifically propose that meteorites were actually rocks that had fallen from outer space was Benjamin Silliman, a chemistry professor at Yale University, who examined a meteorite that had fallen in Connecticut in 1807. The meteor’s fall had been seen by one of the local judges, and Silliman was able to watch local townspeople extracting pieces of the rock from fresh holes in the ground. As a chemist, Silliman also knew that the rock was mostly iron and was different from all the other local geology. He concluded that it had fallen from the sky, from outer space. Sadly, his conclusion was ridiculed (President Thomas Jefferson famously remarked that he would rather believe that Yankee professors would lie than to believe rocks fell from the heavens). It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the scientific evidence became overwhelming and the celestial origin of meteors became widely accepted. It soon became apparent that most meteorites were pieces of asteroid that had crashed to Earth.

It is estimated that at least 17,000 meteorites collide with the Earth each year. Nearly all of these burn up in the atmosphere, though, melted away by friction with the air. Only a handful are able to survive long enough to reach the ground. So far, around 50,000 meteorites have been recovered and identified. Some of these are famous for their size and their effects. A meteorite strike in Mexico 66 million years ago famously killed off about two-thirds of all life on the planet, including the dinosaurs. Barringer Meteor Crater in Arizona is a famous tourist spot, as is Tswaing Meteor Crater in South Africa.

Only a tiny number of meteorites strike near populated areas, though. (A good thing, since a sizable meteor can release the energy of an atomic bomb, enough to wipe out a city.) But there have been some rare instances. In September 1938 a meteorite weighing about 4 pounds smashed through the ceiling of Ed McCain’s garage in Benld, Illinois, pierced the roof of his 1928 Pontiac coupe, punched through the rear seat, dented the muffler, then bounced back up and lodged inside the seat springs.  Later, in October 1992, a 28-pound meteorite fell in Peekskill NY, crushing the trunk of Michelle Knapp’s 1980 Chevy Malibu.

But perhaps the most famous meteorite fall among afficionados is the 1954 Sylacauga Meteor, unofficially known as the Hodges Meteorite.

On November 30, 1954, just before 3 in the afternoon, the sky over the southeast US was lit up by a bright fireball, as a large meteor entered the atmosphere over Alabama. Witnesses saw it from as far away as Mississippi and Georgia. In Alabama, the smoky trail led many to believe it was an airplane on fire, and reports flooded in to local police of a crash.

In Sylacauga, 31-year old Ann Hodges was napping on her couch when she was woken up by a loud noise. Hodges’ mother Ida Franklin was also staying in the house, and she came rushing in. The whole house was filled with choking dust, and at first the two thought that a gas heater had exploded or the chimney had collapsed. After a time, though, they noticed a large heavy rock resting on the living room floor. They also noted that Ann had a large and deep bruise on her hip. Thinking it had been vandalism from local kids, they called the fire department and the police.

Police investigators, meanwhile, had already received reports of a “crashing airplane”, and that’s what they expected when they arrived. Instead, they found a large hole in the living room ceiling and a grapefruit-sized rock on the floor, and it was soon apparent what had happened: the space rock, weighing about 8.5 pounds, had crashed through the roof of the house, through the living room ceiling, and bounced off the large radio console before hitting Hodges in the hip and falling to the floor. The police submitted the rock to a local geologist who identified it as a likely meteorite, then sent it to the nearby Maxwell Air Force Base. The Air Force, in turn, sent it to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC to confirm its origin. Experts there quickly determined that it was a type of meteor known as an H Chondrite. Fortunately, there had been a large number of photographs and films of the incoming fireball, which allowed astronomers to calculate the object’s orbit. They concluded that the fragments had most likely come from the asteroid 1685 Toro.

Then the Smithsonian, hoping to buy it, hemmed and hawed about returning the meteorite to Hodges, which brought about an intervention by Alabama Congressman Kenneth Roberts. But now, because Hodges was renting the home, her landlady Bertie Guy claimed ownership of the meteorite, planning to sell it to cover the cost of repairing the now-damaged roof. Hodges resisted, telling the newspapers “I think God intended it for me. After all, it hit me!” She countersued, seeking damages from Guy for her hospital bills. The meteorite was now serving as a doorstop at the Hodges house. After a time, the entire dispute was settled out of court, with Hodges agreeing to pay Guy $500 for ownership of the space rock.

Hodges would always say afterwards that she regretted it had happened at all. Although she had a brief stint of fame and appeared in Life Magazine and on the TV game show “I’ve Got a Secret”, Hodges ran into difficulties. Her marriage ended in 1964 (her husband claimed she had become addicted to painkillers while being treated in the hospital for her meteor bruise), and she died in a nursing home in 1972.

The day after the meteor fall, meanwhile, a local farmer named Julius McKinney found a smaller fragment of the same meteorite in one of his fields, indicating that the object had broken up in the atmosphere on its way in. This recovered piece, at less than four pounds, was smaller than the Hodges fragment. McKinney sold it to the Smithsonian Institution, where it is exhibited in the Natural History Museum.

The Smithsonian had also offered to buy the Hodges fragment, but she and her husband considered their offer to be too low. Hodges instead hoped to sell the meteorite to a collector, but with legal ownership of the rock still disputed she could not find a buyer at the price she wanted and the offers stopped. By the time she won clear ownership, she told the press in 1956 that she was “fed up” with the whole thing and instead gave the rock to Alabama University’s Museum of Natural History, who gave her a check for $25. The meteorite remains there on display.


5 thoughts on “The Hodges Meteorite”

  1. And a photo of Mr Flank (he’s the handsome dude on the left) standing on the rim of Tswaing crater in South Africa can be seen here:

      1. Yeah, it was a pretty tough little hike – I don’t think we’d survive it nowadays. 🙂

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