Hopkinsville’s other cosmic, close encounter

Aug 16, 2017 at 11:57 am
Illustration by John Nicholson.
Illustration by John Nicholson.

During the total solar eclipse this month, the sun will be blocked by the moon for one of the longest periods — approximately 2 minutes and 40 seconds — in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, a small town roughly 20 miles north of the Tennessee border, with a population just shy of 32,000 people. The community, which is expecting thousands of visitors for this stellar event, is embracing the occasion as an opportunity to cash in on tourist dollars, by rebranding itself as Eclipseville. It’s the first time in 99 years a total solar eclipse will be visible from coast to coast in the United States. It is not, however, the first time Hopkinsville has drawn national attention for an extraordinary occurrence.

The term “little green men” originated in Hopkinsville.

Sixty-two years ago, a family living on the outskirts of town made headlines after claiming they’d been visited by “little grey men” after spotting an otherworldly aircraft floating over their farmhouse. (They were misquoted in the press, resulting in the addition of “little green men” to our modern lexicon.) The incident, also called the Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter, referring to the nearby unincorporated community of Kelly, was well documented in the media and pop culture: director Steven Spielberg cited it as part of the inspiration behind such films as “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

Interestingly enough, this summer’s eclipse will take place on the anniversary of the infamous sighting — a coincidence that has conspiracy theorists buzzing and wondering if the two minutes of daytime darkness herald another extraterrestrial encounter. The fact that the original incident took place along latitude 37 north, a route lately identified by people such as New York Times bestselling author Ben Mezrich — author of The 37th Parallel — for its high frequency of UFO sightings and other anomalies, only adds to the intrigue.

“As far as aliens returning, you never know,” says Joann Smithey, vice president and chairperson of the Kelly Little Green Men Days Festival. “Some people say they are already among us and others say they don’t exist, period.”

But back to the Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter. Here’s how the story goes: On the evening of Sunday, Aug. 21, 1955, Elmer “Lucky” Sutton, a young man in his early 20s, was visiting his mom Glennie Lankford and three younger half-siblings at the farmhouse he’d grown up in, eight miles north of Hopkinsville. On break from his job with a traveling carnival, Lucky had his wife, Vera and their friends Billy Ray and June Taylor with him for the weekend. His brother JC and sister-in-law Alene, plus a family friend, OP, were also there that night.

Following a hearty supper prepared by Miss Glennie, the party of 11 had settled in for a card game when Billy Ray made an outlandish claim. Walking back into the house from a trip to the well to refill his water glass, he blurted out that he’d just seen a round, metallic object, with rainbow-colored streaks trailing behind it, moving through the sky above the farm. His companions took it as a prank, at first, writing it off as another one of the tricks Billy Ray and Lucky liked to play on each other. But Billy Ray seemed genuinely bothered by whatever he’d seen, despite the others’ insistence that it was probably a meteor or shooting star. When he asked his wife, June, for reassurance that she believed him, the absurdity of it all sent her and the others into fits of laughter.

Unwilling to let it go, Billy Ray got Lucky to walk out to the well with him so he could point out exactly where the object had gone across the sky. Lucky didn’t know what to make of his friend’s story, but it was clear something had scared him. They were headed back to resume their game when something stopped them in their tracks, they claimed: a glowing object, approaching from the woods behind the house. As it got closer, they realized it was a short, humanlike creature, with large eyes, two legs that seemed to float rather than walk and two arms raised as if in surrender. Lucky yelled an expletive and the two men ran inside, slamming the door behind them.

Around the same time, a neighbor about a quarter mile north of them noticed lights in the woods behind the Sutton farm and figured the family was searching for one of their pigs that had gotten out. Later, when he would hear gunshots, he imagined they were dealing with a bobcat preying on their livestock.

Glennie didn’t understand what the commotion was about — she’d lived on the property for decades and never experienced anything even remotely strange — but didn’t want Lucky’s talk of “otherworldly goblins” upsetting his younger siblings, so she sent them to bed. The next thing she knew, the guys were standing guard at the doors, Lucky at the front with a 12-gauge and Billy Ray at the back with a .22. She couldn’t believe how far they were willing to go to play a prank. I’m not going to be scared in my own house, she thought.

Once Lucky’s mind was set on something, there wasn’t any convincing him otherwise, his mother knew. So she tried getting answers from his friend instead. Maybe the two young men were playing a joke on their wives. She sidled up to Billy Ray by the back door: Just what exactly was this game all about, she wanted to know. “Miss Glennie, I hope you don’t have to find out,” he replied.

They were sitting there silently, waiting, while everyone else except Lucky and the children talked in the living room, when a figure about three feet tall appeared in the doorway out of the darkness. Glennie screamed and everyone came running. Billy Ray shot at the would-be intruder, piercing a hole in the screen door. Then, spurred by curiosity, he stepped onto the porch. As he did, he says a clawed hand reached down from the roof, grazing his hair. Not knowing the creature’s intent, Alene grabbed Billy Ray and yanked him back inside the house. Lucky stepped outside, aiming his gun at the roof. The creature he shot rolled off the roof and disappeared into the woods, apparently uninjured.

In the living room, a pair of glowing eyes and a set of talons appeared at the window. JC shot at it through the glass with a 20-gauge shotgun. Close behind, Billy Ray followed up with a bullet. The struck creature back-flipped and took off running.

Glennie, a religious woman who’d just been to church earlier that day, started praying. For all she knew, the glowing-eyed creatures on her lawn were sent from the devil himself. The gunfire had stirred her youngest kids from sleep; now they looked to her for answers. The good Lord will watch over us and protect us, she said — as much to reassure herself as her children. Lucky urged the women to take the children into the back room and hide. Everyone but Glennie obeyed: She could hardly believe what she’d seen earlier; she needed a second look to be sure.

Lucky and Billy Ray surveyed the front yard while JC, OP and Glennie waited inside, JC at the ready with a cocked gun. Someone yelled to look up in the maple tree. This time, everyone could clearly see one of the “little men” perched on a branch above them. They shot at it but instead of falling, the being floated off. The noise they heard when they fired at another one coming around the corner sounded like bullets hitting metal.

It floated away too. Realizing their gunfire was useless, the men retreated.

Back in the house, the group tried to collect their thoughts amidst racing questions: What are these things?

Were they goblins or demons? Did their raised arms indicate innocent intent? If they didn’t mean any harm to the home’s occupants, why did they keep coming back after being shot? Bullets may not have scared the intruders off, but someone pointed out that bright light seemed to hurt their large, yellow-pupiled eyes.

Whenever a light came on, the beings backed away.

They turned on every light in the house and waited. Outside, it was eerily silent. One of the children began to cry. Lucky was trying to think of what to do next when they heard scratching coming from the roof. He darted outside, pointed his gun at the top of the house and fired at the creature there. The being floated down and scrambled out of sight beyond the trees, seemingly unharmed like the others. It was becoming abundantly clear that these “goblins” couldn’t be deterred — at least not by any means an ordinary farm family had at their disposal.

It was time to get out of there. When the coast was clear, everyone made a break for the trucks, piling in as fast as they could.

The sergeant working the front desk at the Hopkinsville police station didn’t know what to say to the 11 people who’d come in before midnight. One of them said they’d been fighting “little silver men” for hours. The officer may not have believed that, but it was obvious something had frightened them. Why else would they have children out so late?

The officer phoned Chief Russell Greenwell, who in turn radioed Kentucky State Police, the Christian County Sheriff’s office and Fort Campbell Army Base, which dispatched its own police personnel. The local paper got wind of it and sent a staff photographer. Within an hour, at least a half-dozen law enforcement and media members had converged on the Sutton farm, along with the returning family.

Authorities searched the property with flashlights but found no sign of the “little men” — only holes in the window screens and plenty of shotgun shell casings. One officer noticed something glowing in the woods, but a search returned nothing. The ground beneath where Lucky had shot one of the alleged beings appeared to have been stained with something that gave off an iridescent sheen when viewed from an angle. Officers questioned the family members separately, but all they got was the same consistent description of the night’s events. After hours of fruitless investigation, the police left.

At 3:30 in the morning, after a fitful nap that never entered deep sleep, Glennie awoke to the sight of one of the little men on the other side of her bedroom window. She called out to Lucky, who was dozing on the couch in the living room. He and Billy Ray spent the next couple of hours watching guard with their guns. The creatures left just before daybreak, they say, the last the family would ever see of them.

On a Sunday afternoon 14 years later, Geraldine Sutton, 8, was watching TV with her brother and sister when a man and a woman knocked on the front door. Geraldine answered; the couple, who looked like they’d just come from church, wanted to know if her parents were home. Once Lucky, who’d emerged from a back room to speak with the couple, realized what they wanted, he figured it was time to let his kids in on the event that had haunted him ever since. Their guests were writing a book about UFO sightings, he explained and wanted him to contribute his own experience. It was the first they’d ever heard of their father’s extraterrestrial encounter.

“My daddy didn’t like how people treated him once the story got out,” says Geraldine, who now goes by her married name, Stith. “People made fun of him. It was traumatizing. Still to this day the [witnesses] who are alive are afraid to talk.”

In the days that followed the 1955 incident, dozens of “UFO fanatics” converged on the small farm, hoping to get a peek at any possible evidence left behind by the so-called men from outer space. “There were so many reporters and looky-loos coming by and walking around the property, taking things and calling them ‘souvenirs,’ says Smithey, chairperson of the festival dedicated to all things Little Green Men. “The family got sick of being harassed and called liars. They left within 10 days.”

Stith’s grandmother Glennie, a widow in her early 50s who had always lived in the country, was so shaken up by the encounter that she sold the farmhouse and moved to an apartment in town: “She felt safer around other people.” Whatever happened that night affected her uncle JC, too. “He couldn’t hold down a job anymore. It psychologically messed with him,” says Stith.

Theories emerged about the Suttons’ claims. During subsequent investigations, the family members were questioned separately, each describing the evening’s events and the creatures’ physical appearance — three to four feet tall with muscular upper bodies and atrophied legs, large glowing eyes and pointy ears — in a consistent manner. Different artists rendered similar sketches based on their individual descriptions.

And yet, Dr. J. Allen Hynek, an astronomer and UFO researcher highly regarded for his work with the U.S. Air Force, called the Kelly-Hopkinsville case “preposterous” and offensive to “common sense,” according to 2008’s “A World of UFOs” by Chris A. Rutkowski. Skeptics said the little men were actually monkeys Billy Ray and Lucky had brought back from the carnival, while others thought the family had mistaken great horned owls for aliens. Kentucky moonshine was blamed, even though authorities found none on the premises that night. “We all laugh at that because she didn’t allow alcohol, or even cursing, on her property,” says Smithey. “They were a very quiet, trustworthy family.”

During the summer of 1969, after the UFO writers came calling, Lucky brought Geraldine and her siblings back to his childhood home to show them where one of his life’s pivotal moments had taken place. Long since abandoned, the property still held the well, plus a strange circular impression in the ground where Lucky thought the spacecraft must’ve landed that night.

In 2005, Stith was invited to speak on a panel at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the sighting. What she found were dozens of people who were fascinated by the encounter but had the facts all wrong. The information had been so misconstrued over the decades that sources were misquoting the witnesses’ names and claiming there were 12 alien beings instead of the three or four her family had estimated. “I thought, I heard it from the horse’s mouth,” she says. “If people want to hear the story, let’s get it right.” She chronicled her family’s experience in the books “Alien Legacy,” published in 2007 and 2015’s “The Kelly Green Men: Alien Legacy Revisited.”

In 2010, when the Kelly’s community organization, started brainstorming themes to build a fundraising event around, they delved into their area’s past, hitting on the Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter as a significant moment in time, says Smithey. Thus, the Little Green Men Days Festival was born. Stith, an annual speaker at the event and similar conventions, says she’s often approached by people who want to share their own stories of encounters. “People tell me about things they’ve seen that they can’t explain,” she says. “I think, if this really did happen to these people, and I know it happened to my fam — it’s terrifying. There are millions of stars and planets in the universe — I can’t possibility believe ours is the only planet with life.”

She bristles at the people who criticize her family for their actions that night. Festivalgoers have expressed opinions that Lucky and Billy Ray shouldn’t have shot at the creatures, or that, had it been them, they would’ve invited the little men in. “My dad was trying to protect them. They were country boys and that’s what they knew to do: to get their guns,” says Stith. “My family went through something, whether it be paranormal or extraterrestrial, that changed their lives forever. I just want people to realize the terror they went through that night.”

As for speculations the aliens will return Aug. 21, Joann Smithey isn’t holding her breath. “I just want to see a total solar eclipse,” she says. “Once it gets bright again I have a festival to run.” •

This story was first published on CountryLiving.com

Great facts about the great solar eclipse

Hopkinsville, Kentucky, will view the greatest eclipse — that is, when the sun, moon and Earth line up the most precisely. The eclipse begins there at 1:24 p.m. CDT.

Carbondale, Illinois, will experience the longest eclipse duration, clocking in at two minutes, 43 seconds, beginning at 1:20 p.m. CDT.

The last total eclipse in the United States occurred on Feb. 26, 1979. The last total eclipse that crossed the entire continent occurred on June 8, 1918. The last time a total solar eclipse occurred exclusively in the U.S. was in 1778.

Source: NASA

Great local events...

2017 Solar Eclipse Viewing Big Four Bridge Lawn 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

Solar Eclipse Watch Party Parklands of Floyds Fork noon-4 p.m.

Solar Eclipse Viewing Party Copper & Kings Distillery noon-4 p.m.

Big Bar: Eclipse Big Bar 1 p.m.-4 p.m.

Solar Eclipse Trip to Hopkinsville Jewish Community Center 8:30 a.m.-9 p.m.