(For Part 3, “The Green Children – ‘Small, Vulnerable ETs,'” click here.)
In the first post of this series, I led off with the question of why, given that UFO beings are seldom described as green in the actual reports, the stereotype of “little green men” in the flying saucers is so widespread and enduring.
Exploring this question took me back into the Middle Ages, and to the “green children” of 12th-century Woolpit, England.
Thirteen years ago, on the pages of the journal The Anomalist, Martin S. Kottmeyer asked the same question:
“It is the cynic’s synonym for aliens. Journalists are quite fond of it and seem to use it endlessly. It is too cutesy, a gentle clue the user thinks the ufo phenomenon verges on the campy. Ufologists pretty much consider anyone using it as obviously stupid. Those who know anything at all about the ufo phenomenon know that ufonauts are never really green and never have been. Thus we have here a puzzle. How did this expression come to be a synonym for aliens if there have never been any little green men sightings?”
Kottmeyer’s answer takes us not to Woolpit but to rural Kentucky, and to the bizarre incident of August 1955 that was the distant inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s E.T.
If you haven’t read Kottmeyer’s writings–start out by Googling his name–you really need to. Once upon a time I would have pigeonholed him as a “UFO debunker,” which strictly speaking I suppose he is. But the thrust of his work is not to dismiss UFOs as “bunk” but to understand them as a cultural phenomenon, and if there’s anyone with a better grasp of the rich and complex interweavings of UFO lore with other aspects of popular culture, particularly science fiction, I don’t know who it is.
It’s hard to think of any UFOlogical topic on which Kottmeyer doesn’t have an informed opinion, lucidly argued, backed up with an erudition that never ceases to astound me.
In his 2002 Anomalist article on the “little green men,” Kottmeyer came only to the most reserved and tentative conclusions. “We can state with certainty the expression achieved notoriety and wide currency in 1955 and was a journalistic cliche thereafter whenever the subject of flying saucers and aliens came up. Evidence suggests it was a cliche in some other social circle familiar to [science-fiction writer] Fredric Brown as early as September 1954 and was in some limited use as early as June 1950.”
Start with 1950. (All of what follows is taken from Kottmeyer’s article.) On June 30 of that year a Wichita newspaper ran an article on a flying saucer seen the previous night near Kingman, Kansas. One of the witnesses, a “Reverend R. Vermilion,” is quoted as saying:
“Right now before anyone starts spreading screwy stories about us, I want to say we didn’t see anything alive on that thing. There were absolutely no little green men with egg on their whiskers or any assorted do-bobbies.”
What are “do-bobbies”? Your guess is as good as mine. But one thing emerges clearly: in Vermilion’s opinion, at least, “little green men” are beings you’d stereotypically think of as zooming around in flying saucers.
In 1954, a science-fiction story by Fredric Brown mentioned “little green men” as a cliche which “science fiction had carefully avoided.” So, it seems, did nearly everybody else. Kottmeyer’s search for the phrase in the often scornful press accounts of flying saucer sightings, where you’d certainly expect to find it, turned up nothing. (Apart from Vermilion.)
Until August 22, 1955.
That was the date of a United Press report from Hopkinsville, Kentucky: “Hundreds of curiosity seekers tramped across Cecil Sutton’s farm today after the Suttons said ‘little green men’ from space paid them a visit last night. Sutton, his family, and several relatives said they were up all night fending off the little men which they said glowed with an inner illumination. ‘About 7:30 p.m. Sunday,’ the Suttons said, ‘a little green man approached the house.’ They described him as ‘about 3 feet tall, with eyes like saucers and set about 6 inches apart, hands like claws and glowing all over.’ He fled when they fired a shotgun, but returned later with several similar companions who clambered all over the roof and neighboring trees.”
This is not a bad summary of the weird episode that’s come to be known as the “Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter,” after the two neighboring towns in southwestern Kentucky between which the Sutton farm was located. Only one thing wrong:
The creatures weren’t green. At least not as the Suttons and other witnesses described them.
So where did that detail come from?
Wherever–the “little green men” phrase spread virally (if one may use that term of the print journalism of yesteryear) from this starting point. It was no doubt encouraged by a public relations statement made by an Air Force captain a few days after the siege of the Suttons’ farm: “In the past three years I’ve heard all kinds of descriptions, but the most frequent are little, green, luminous smelly types … people keep insisting that they’ve seen little green men.” (Completely untrue, including the “smelly” part. But when has that ever made a difference?)
So far, Kottmeyer’s argument seems unshakable. The little green saucer pilots, hardly attested in the early years of the UFO era, suddenly explode onto the journalistic scene in August 1955. The parameters of the problem are clearly defined.
But what’s the solution?
Kottmeyer ended his 2002 article with the question unanswered. (“So there you have the situation in all its muddledness.”) In an unpublished follow-up, however, which he was kind enough to share with me, Kottmeyer makes a proposal which I find partly convincing, partly unconvincing.
In this second paper, “Leprechauns on Venus: A Note on the ‘Little Green Men’ Problem,” Kottmeyer argues that “little green men” was used in the pre-UFO era for leprechauns. (Whose clothing, rather than skin, was normally thought of as green. But I’m not sure this is a significant distinction.) It was a dismissive term, indicating something believed in by the superstitious, “seen” by drunkards–as the Irish were stereotypically supposed to be. Although there’s some variation in how the term was applied, it was always used for some kind of fairies or nature spirits, never extraterrestrials.
“I feel confident,” Kottmeyer wrote, “this material points the way to a scenario that makes sense of the puzzles my Anomalist paper left unanswered. The avoidance of LGMs by science fiction writers and artists that [Fredric] Brown spoke of would be due to the phrase being associated with children’s literature, drunkenness, primitive folk supernaturalism, and/or childish fantasy.”
With the appearance of the UFOs from 1947 onward, with the spread of the notion that they come from outer space, and with reports of “little men” (not green) found in crashed saucers, there was a natural association of “these little men to the little green men of prior decades. … When some newswriter inserted the color green into coverage of the ludicrous Kelly-Hopkinsville shoot’em up in ‘the sticks’–Kentucky–the phrase stuck and spread.
“The reason newsmen inserted green into the tale was never explicitly determined, but in retrospect the answer is obvious. Kelly is an Irish name. It is the second most common given family name in Ireland (after Murphy). With so obviously an Irish place-name, the automatic inference was that these were drunken Irishmen firing at leprechauns. Irish folks were having drunken hallucinations of little green men as per the stereotype. Newsmen were simply filling in the blanks with the received stereotype.”
And of course, who can avoid thinking of “kelly green”?
My first reaction when I read Kottmeyer’s theory was: brilliant! Now it’s all starting to come together! But reservations began to creep in.
Backwoods Kentucky is not stereotypically associated with Irish immigrants. The names of the witnesses–Sutton, Taylor, Lankford–would hardly lead anyone to imagine they were Irish. Most troubling: there’s no evidence in any of the press reports on Kelly-Hopkinsville that any of the writers had Irish stereotypes on their minds. The entire case for the “drunken Irishmen” theory rests on the name of one of the two neighboring towns. (Nothing Irish about “Hopkinsville.”)
That seems very frail support.
Yet Kottmeyer has made a good case that “little green men” used to be leprechauns, or at least fairies of some sort. He’s made an even stronger case that the currency of the “little green men” trope in the UFO context is somehow linked to Kelly-Hopkinsville and its aftermath. This requires some explanation, and I can’t propose a better one.
Actually, there are two questions here. One is the origin of the trope’s popularity. The other is its persistence: nearly 60 years, if we take Kelly-Hopkinsville as the starting point.
Perhaps our best chance of answering that second question is to step back and ask: what do green beings–“little” and otherwise, “children” and otherwise–mean for the human psyche?
It’s difficult territory, and the chances of losing our way are high. But let’s give it a try.
(Correction: In last week’s post, I inaccurately described John Clark as a “science-fiction historian.” He’s a medieval historian and archaeologist, Curator Emeritus at the Museum of London, and I’ll have more to say about his work with the “green children” in a later post. I’ve updated last week’s post accordingly.)
by David Halperin
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