Ann Elizabeth Fowler Hodges, a married woman of thirty-four years old, was sleeping on the sofa in her Oak Grove home (Alabama, USA) on November 30, 1954, without imagining what was about to happen. Quite literally, because suddenly, at 12:46 (local time) and amid a sudden roar that violently woke her up, she felt a sharp pain in her left hip. The culprit of this unpleasant experience was a meteorite that had just fallen on the neighboring town of Sylacauga, and hence was named after her.

On the roof of her house, Ann could see the sky through a huge hole. Next to her, on the floor, a black stone about 30 centimeters in diameter and weighing 3.86 kilograms emerged as the cause of the disaster. It was nothing more than a fragment of the meteorite in question, which had disintegrated upon entering the atmosphere and had fallen precisely onto the Hodges’ house. It pierced the roof of the wooden building and then descended rapidly through the shelves of a pantry, crashing into a large radio cabinet (which, at that time, was of considerable size) and bouncing towards the woman’s body.

Although it caused a serious injury and a hematoma of considerable size, she could walk and recovered with proper treatment. At least, physically speaking, because it seems she also needed psychological attention. The reason was not so much the scare as the initial confusion (in the midst of McCarthyism and the almost paranoid fear of a Soviet attack characteristic of the Cold War) and the attention the event garnered. Dozens of journalists crowded the porch trying to get a good story, causing her an anxiety attack that required hospitalization.

After all, she was the first human being injured by a celestial body. It’s not that there were no previous cases, as there are a few documented ones, but in these cases, the damage came more from the shockwave than from the objects themselves. The first recorded case happened as far back as 1677: a Milanese friar died when a meteorite hit him, according to a manuscript preserved in the Italian town of Tortona, although the degree of truthfulness of the episode is uncertain as there is no proper scientific information about it.

In contrast, it is confirmed that a 13-year-old Ugandan boy was hit by a small fragment of the Mbale Meteorite on August 14, 1992, although it had previously passed through the crown of a tree. This, coupled with its tiny size (only 6 grams), dampened its force, making it an event of little consequence to the physical well-being of the young boy. We also remember how the shockwave from the February 2013 meteor in the Urals injured over a thousand people and left no unbroken windows in the vicinity.

While there are reports of many more cases affecting both humans and animals, they have not been scientifically proven and are usually not taken into consideration. Hence, Ann’s case is still considered unique. In reality, the probability of being hit by a meteorite is very remote, and although experts’ calculations on this vary widely depending on the factors they take into account, the figures are truly astronomical: astronomer Alan Harris says the risk of death is one in 700,000; in other estimates, the proportion is, ironically, astronomical.

A meteorite is a smaller body that, upon entering our planet, leaves a luminous trail until it disintegrates into multiple fragments at an approximate altitude of a hundred kilometers. In the case of the Sylacauga meteorite, witnesses from several states saw the fireball and heard the explosion. Despite appearances, it is not an uncommon phenomenon because there are more than 32,000 documented meteorites, making it easy to deduce that the number of them fallen to Earth throughout history is unimaginable.

Returning to Sylacauga, the police chief confiscated the object and handed it over to the Air Force, which had deployed a helicopter from Maxwell Air Force Base for that purpose to verify that it was not a Soviet artifact. Perhaps it should have ended there, but in the USA, the possibility of making money from almost anything is always a reality. So, two claims were filed for ownership of the meteorite. One was from the Hodges, supported by public opinion. The other was from Bertie Guy, the owner of the property (they lived on rent), who believed it was hers because it fell on her property, and selling it would also cover the repairs to the building.

The Air Force yielded to public pressure and handed the meteorite over to the couple. However, their landlady was not satisfied and filed a lawsuit. In the end, they reached an agreement outside the courts: Guy withdrew the lawsuit, and they paid her $500, convinced that they could get much more by selling it. In fact, they rejected an offer from the Smithsonian Institute, considering it insufficient, and some others that reached $5,000. As the saying goes, greed would break the sack.

By then, the episode of the Sylacauga meteorite had already lost its relevance, and people’s interest had waned. No proposal came in as good as they had hoped to recover their investment. Especially considering that they did not have a unique piece: the day after the event, a local farmer named Julius McKinney had found another smaller fragment (1.68 kilograms), which he could sell to the Smithsonian Institute for an amount that allowed him to buy a car and a house.

It seems that a third fragment fell in the vicinity of Childersburg, a small town near Oak Grove whose inhabitants consider it “the oldest city in America” because indigenous kymulga people (belonging to the Mississippian Culture, which developed between 800 and 1550) lived there, and it was visited in the 16th century by Hernando de Soto. It has been calculated that the original meteorite that disintegrated over the Alabama sky in 1954 had a diameter of half a meter and came from the asteroid 1685 Toro, discovered in 1948.

But the story of that aerolite (the name given to rocky meteorites as opposed to metallic siderites and mixed lithosiderites) did not end there. It had a curious epilogue in which Ann, tired of being in the media spotlight due to the legal dispute with Bertie Guy over the ownership of the meteorite, which was affecting her emotionally (to the point of needing psychological care, as we mentioned), convinced her husband to donate it to the Natural History Museum of the University of Alabama in 1956.

Unfortunately, that only provided temporary relief. Ann would suffer a new nervous breakdown, and, among other things, ten years later, she and Eugene eventually separated. She died in 1972, young, at the age of 52, due to kidney failure. She was always convinced that the cause of all her misfortunes was that stone from space which, ironically, science baptized as Hodges.


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on January 8, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Ann Elizabeth Hodges, la primera persona que resultó herida por el impacto de un meteorito

Sources

UA Museum to Observe 50th Anniversary of Hodges Meteorite (The University of Alabama) | George W. Swindel, Walter B. Jones, The Sylacauga, Talladega County, Alabama, Aerolite: A recent meteoritic fall that injured a human being | Jackie Sheckler Finch, It happened in Alabama | Kelly Kazek, Forgotten tales of Alabama | Wikipedia


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