The Philadelphia Experiment
Last week a colleague asked me if I knew about the Philadelphia Experiment, and admitted that he thought it might actually have happened. Frankly, aside from seeing the movie many many years ago, I had not really done much digging into this particular conspiracy theory. I didn’t really need much in the way of exact or detailed knowledge of the story to form the conclusion that it was rubbish – what I know of physics is more than enough. But suffice to say that my interest was peaked, so here is the story of the hoax that became known as the Philadelphia Experiment.
In 1955, an amateur astronomer named Morris Jessup published The Case for the UFO, in which he speculated about the physics that drove the propulsion systems of alien vessels. Shortly thereafter, Jessup received a letter from a man identifying himself as Carlos Miguel Allende at the start of the letter, and Carl M. Allen at the end. In it, he described an experiment by the military using physics similar to that being proposed by Jessup for interstellar travel, to make a ship invisible (I couldn’t make up the following if I tried):
“Results” of My friend Dr. Franklin Reno, Were used. These Were a complete Recheck of That Theory, With a View to any & Every Possible quick use of it, if feasable (sic) in a Very short time. There Were good Results, as far as a Group Math Re-Cheek AND as far as a good Physical “Result,” to Boot. YET THE NAVT FEARS TO USE THIS RESULT. The Result was & stands today as Proof that The Unified Field Theory to a certain extent is correct… The “result” was complete invisibility of a ship, Destroyer type, and all of its crew While at Sea. (Oct. 1943) … Why tell you Now? Very Simple; If You choose to go Mad, then you would reveal this information. Half of the officiers & the crew of that Ship are at Present, Mad as Hatters. A few, are even Yet, confined to certain areas where they May receive trained Scientific aid when they, either, “Go Blank” or Go Blank” & “Get Stuck”. Going-Bland IE an after effect of the Man having been within the field too Much, IS Not at all an unplesant experience too Healthily Curious Sailors. However it is when also, they “Get Stuck” that they call it “HELL” INCORPORATED” The Man thusly stricken can Not Move of his won volition unless tow or More of those who are within the field go & touch him, quickly, else he “Freezes”.
In his letter, Allen does not mention the name of the ship, only identifying it as a Destroyer Class, and naming the ship from which he supposedly witnessed the events, the Andrew Furuseth. A few days later, he sent further notes, this time identifying the place as the Philadelphia Dock, and now additionally claiming that the ship disappeared from this dock and appeared in Norfolk, then back in Philadelphia moments later.
Jessup responded asking for more details. Allen wrote again, this time claiming that he would require hypnosis or sodium pentathol in order to reveal more. Jessup at this point assumed that the author of these letters was a complete fraud, and ceased correspondence. Despite having used the name Allende only once, and the name Allen four times, these missives became forever known as the Allende Letters.
Two years later, Jessup was contacted by individuals at the Office of Navy Research, claiming they had something that would be of interest to him. A package had been mailed to the office, labelled “Happy Easter”, and containing an annotated version of Jessup’s book. The handwritten scribblings in the book appeared to indicate that three men had passed the book between themselves, making comments that proclaimed a superior knowledge of UFOs and alien behaviour. Jessup identified one of the authors as Allen.
On the basis of this evidence (and why not?) Jessup began to believe that he had misjudged Allen. Equally convinced, the two ONR officers who had approached him, Captain Sidney Sherby and Commander George Hoover, also approached a military contractor at the time, Varo Manufacturing Company of Garland, TX. It appears that the company agreed to co-sponsor a printing of the annotated book, as well as the Allende Letters, either as one of many such favours granted to the military to retain profitable contracts, or out of personal interest by members of the company. Either way, what came to be known as the Varo Edition was typed up and printed, and the stuff of legends was born. You can read it in full detail here (PDF) – I sincerely suggest you take the time to look at it and scan down to the original letters themselves, so that you may fully understand the weight of my next sentence.
That is literally it. Essentially everything that has followed has been a result of contributions by others in a 53-year game of Chinese Whispers. Allen(de) remained elusive, once coming forward to retract his statement, and then again to retract his retraction. Jessup committed suicide after a series of personal tragedies. In 1965, the Varo Edition was mentioned in a book on sea mysteries, and then again in 1977 in a book about the Bermuda Triangle. In 1978 the story inspired a fictional novel, Thin Air. This was followed in 1979 by The Philadelphia Experiement: Project Invisibility, which is often touted as the authoritative version (despite having plagiarized heavily from the aforementioned work of fiction) because the author managed to locate Allen and supposedly wring further details from him (now 36 year after the alleged event). In 1984, Hollywood made a movie, and in 1993 there was a crappy sequel. Somewhere along the line, someone decided that Allen(de)’s “Experiment Ship” had to be the USS Eldridge, and since then it has always been assumed to be so.
In 1980, Robert Goerman, a reporter who grew up in Pennsylvania (the location of the return address on the Allende Letters) was able to track down “Carlos Allende’s” family. It turned out he was Carl Meredith Allen, an unstable drifter, experienced prankster, and outcast by his own choice. Correspondence sent to his family quite clearly indicates that Allen was behind all three sets of annotations in the Varo Edition. It is interesting to read the original preface to the imprinting, in which the unnamed author actually notes that the style of all three comments is the same, and then attributes it to the possibility that all three men are Gypsies (they refer to their ‘Gypsy Brothers’ in the annotations) and so must have learned a similar ideosynchratic English. Frankly, this is a lovely display of confirmation bias, forever preserved in print. Anyone not starting out with the assumption that these three people are different can very easily see that all three annotations are written by the same person – the very same person who wrote the letters to Jessup.
So what motivated Allen to contact Jessup and weave this yarn? Some may say that he was just perpetuating a hoax, much as he once faked such a convincing heart attack that the doctor had to run three EKGs to be convinced he was fine. However, another possibility has been raised: Allen was actually in the Coast Guard, and may indeed have been in the Philadelphia/Norfolk region during the war. There, he would almost certainly have seen navy vessels undergoing a top secret outfitting to make them ‘invisible’ – that is, being fitted for degaussing to make them undetectable to the German magnetic mines. Perhaps this experience led him to genuinely believe he had seen something nefarious. Perhaps he even noticed a destroyer gone from the Philadelphia harbour one day, and back the next, and had a fellow seaman swear he saw the same ship in Norfolk that night – again, not unlikely as the Navy at the time had the use of the intercoastal Chesapeake-Delaware Canal, which cut travel time between the two harbours down to only a few hours, and which was not available to merchant ships.
However, any attempts to try to explain the supposed ‘events’ of that night in October 1943 are based on details that have constantly been inventing and reinventing themselves over the years, like any good myth or urban legend often does. Reading the original material, the Allende Letters and the Varo Edition, one has to admit that there is very little detail in these early missives. The filling-in was done by third parties who came after, trying to take the vague descriptions of Allen’s letters and force-fit them to known facts at the time. That many a ‘crew member’ has come forward in the intervening years to either support or deny the story is neither here nor there. Any hoax of this magnitude begins to create its own off-shoots, drawing in those who would seek fame or notoriety in the wake of another’s master deception. After all, those who believe it have so far shown enormous gullibility – why not stretch them just that little bit further, to see how far they’ll go before they snap?
Certainly, the Philadelphia Experiment is one of the greatest self-perpetuating hoaxes of all time. But there is an elegance to the simplicity of what Carl M. Allen started, and it serves as a lesson to all who would spin such a yarn in future: keep it vague, sprinkle it with just enough fact to anchor it, and then let the believers fill in the gaps for themselves. How better to leave them thinking that they have uncovered a great mystery, rather than simply giving an old mischief-maker something to crow about in his letters home?