The Philadelphia Experiment – “The Strange Case of Dr. M. K. Jessup”

He wasn’t really a doctor, although the bios on his book jackets hint misleadingly that he was.  His full name was Morris Ketchum Jessup.  He was born in Indiana in 1900; he died in 1959 in Coral Gables, Florida, an apparent suicide.

Only one photograph, as far as I know, is extant.  It shows a plumpish middle-aged man with a snub nose and a rumpled suit jacket, smiling as though seeking approval, with a weary sadness in his eyes.  He leans forward slightly, as if weighted down from behind.

He was the man to whom Carl Allen a.k.a. “Carlos Allende” turned in 1956, with his wild tale of an invisibility experiment carried out thirteen years earlier in the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

Carl Allen, Gray Barker, M. K. Jessup—these are the dramatis personae in the saga of the Philadelphia Experiment.  Three corners of a triangle as enigmatic, to those who probe the human soul, as the Bermuda Triangle is to aficionados of more mundane mysteries.

There’s a great deal about Jessup in the Barker Collection.  The two men carried on a correspondence which began, at Barker’s initiative, in November 1954.  “I heard about you from John P. Bessor of Pittsburgh,” wrote Barker, “who said you are writing a book about saucers.”  And so Jessup was.  The book appeared as The Case for the UFO, published in 1955 by Citadel Press.  It was followed in rapid succession by The UFO and the Bible (1956), The UFO Annual (1956), and The Expanding Case for the UFO (1957).

The Barker-Jessup correspondence ends, quite abruptly, in January 1957.  It’s not clear why.  Perhaps there were subsequent letters which somehow have gone missing?  I’m not sure.

There are also letters in Barker’s files about Jessup.  One E. P. Shrigley of Franklin, Indiana, writes to Barker in 1968, inquiring about Jessup’s birthplace.  Barker’s reply is missing, but to judge from his next letter, Shrigley has been reassured that “the Morris K. Jessup with whom I went to Rockville High School is the Dr. M. K. Jessup of whom you wrote. [The reference is to Barker’s distinctly forgettable book, The Strange Case of Dr. M. K. Jessup, published in 1963.] Since this is established, I can supply you with a few facts about Dr. Jessup which you might find interesting.

He was born just east of Rockville, Indiana, on a farm.  His father’s name was George Jessup and his mother was a Swaim. [A typo; it should be “Swain.”]  … He had one sister, Marjorie, a tiny, fragile, blonde creature who broke every heart in Rockville High.  So far as I know, she is still living.  The family were what Charles Dickens would have called ‘shabby genteel,’ not rich, not poor …

In school, Morris was a brain.  He made excellent grades, and was the pet of the teachers, who forecast a brilliant future for him.  His one love was astronomy, and when he went to Ann Arbor, reports said that he would major in this subject.  He was disgustingly snobbish, especially to the poorer, less brilliant members of the school body.  To a semi-illiterate like myself, he was pure murder!

“Brilliant”—but rebellious.  “Murder”—not just to his less talented peers, but to university professors who weren’t as ready to make him their pet as his high school teachers were.  So I gather from a series of fascinating letters from faculty at the University of Michigan, where Jessup was an undergrad and then a graduate student in the 1920s.

From 1927 through 1930, according to one of these letters (written in 1979), “Jessup served the University of Michigan as an assistant to Dr. R. A. Rossiter at the Lamont-Hussey Observatory, Bloemfontein, South Africa.  Jessup returned to the Ann Arbor campus after a three-year stint in early 1930.  He started work on a topic he thought suitable for a doctoral thesis.  He objected to the requirements for the doctoral degree and did not, therefore, meet them, and he left Ann Arbor in the summer of 1931 with extremely bitter feeling toward the university and the department of astronomy.  He never at any time received a doctoral degree from the University of Michigan, nor did he ever make any attempt to satisfy the graduate school’s requirements for that degree. …

I suppose the reference in one of your clippings to Jessup’s having headed an archaeological expedition to Yucatan has its vague basis in Jessup’s membership in a university expedition to Mexico.  Jessup was not the head, just a student assistant.  He seems to have had recurrent trouble understanding who was boss, since he repeatedly tried to have himself appointed head of the Lamont-Hussey Observatory while he was working as an assistant to Dr. Rossiter; and his trouble with the graduate school arose from an unwillingness to follow regulations.

He was given to outbursts of temper that verged on the insane.  He was regarded by both faculty and graduate students as ‘more on than off, but not much’.  He doubtless would have been dismissed from the university, if the administration at the time had been less tolerant than it was.

A “strange case,” indeed!

More on it, and on the other corners of the “Philadelphia Experiment triangle,” in next week’s post.

- David Halperin, author of Journal of a UFO Investigator: A Novel

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2 Responses to “The Philadelphia Experiment – “The Strange Case of Dr. M. K. Jessup””

  • Duane B. Davidson:

    I just read your piece on Morris K Jessup. The Philadelphia Experiment did not tale place in the shipyards there. It occurred at sea, a destroyer the USS Eldridge was used. It was affixed with powerful pulsating and non-pulsating generators, this venture into invisibility was called Project Rainbow. It allegedly appeared in the Philly shipyards when it went out of sight from observers. The Eldridge was constructed there. The first several months of the ship’s log went missing. The navy sold the vessel to the French; it was renamed the Lyon, and later scrapped.The navy says that at the time in question the Eldridge was in the Caribbean performing shakedowns. On the contrary, Naval records show the Eldridge had encountered a German U-boat in the Mid-Atlantic, depth charges were used. It is not clear if the sub was sunk or not.

    • David Halperin:

      Duane, thank you very much for your comment! Question: how much of what you’ve said could be inferred from Carl Allen’s original letters to Jessup?

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