Thursday, August 3, 2023

Crashed Flying Saucers and the Hydra Club

Caption: Fletcher Pratt and the Roswell UFO crash via The X-files

In January 1950, newspapers reported the autopsy of small extraterrestrial bodies from a flying saucer captured by the U.S. government, information from insiders, “confidential sources” disclosed via a reputable journalist and military expert. Ufologists later cited the report as credible supporting evidence of Roswell and other crash-retrieval cases. Who leaked the story, and how?

Fletcher Pratt Wonder Stories Quarterly, Winter 1932

Murray Fletcher Pratt (1897-1956) was a prolific author, primarily of naval and military history. He was also famous for his science fiction and fantasy, frequently written in collaboration with L. Sprague de Camp.

Fletcher Pratt bio from Modern Science Fiction 1953

A UFO crash opened one of Pratt’s early science fiction stories, an alien encounter story written fifteen years before the flying saucers of 1947.

Amazing Stories Quarterly, Winter 1932

“A Voice Across the Years” was a novella published in Amazing Stories Quarterly, Winter 1932, by Mr. and Mrs. Fletcher Pratt, illustrated by Hans Wessolowski. Two men see a “meteor” crash into a lake and go to investigate. There, they eventually meet and befriend an extraterrestrial shaken from the crash of his “cometary car.” The spaceship is irretrievable, so they assist the alien in construction of a new one. Just as it’s finished, the police come to capture him. In an unintentional abduction, one man is trapped inside the ship as the alien takes off for another world.

Thirty years later, the story was edited and expanded by Pratt’s widow, Inga, and published as the 1962 book, Alien Planet. Cover artist Ed Emshwiller depicted the alien’s circular spaceship with a flattened appearance, making it look very much like a flying saucer.

Astounding Oct. 1954 - SF Book Club ad

In the early 1950s Fletcher Pratt was among the top science fiction authors, and  a member of an elite network of professionals sharing common interests.

The Hydra Club

In October of 1947, a group of professional science fiction writers and editors founded a group in New York, calling themselves the Hydra Club. The founding members included: Lester del Rey, David A. Kyle, Judith Merril, and Frederik Pohl. Lester del Rey described the early days at his The Way the Future Was blog:

“There were nine of us. The mythological Hydra was said to have nine heads. That was good enough, so we called it The Hydra Club and began beating the brush for members. In the process of inviting all the area’s sf writers and editors whose addresses we could locate, Fletcher Pratt was one of the first we reeled in. He was a key recruit. We original nine of course knew all the book and magazine editors, and most of the writers, in the area. Fletcher knew everybody else…”

Besides Fletcher Pratt, they were later joined by more than forty others, including: L. Jerome Stanton, Hans Stefan Santesson, Willy Ley, Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, and L. Sprague de Camp. The group’s early history was chronicled in Marvel Science Fiction Nov. 1951, by Judith Merril, with art by Harry Harrison:

Founding member David A. Kyle wrote "The Legendary Hydra Club" for Mimosa 25, April 2000. The group held monthly meetings at the homes of members or in a rented hall, and once hosted a convention, “the famous New York Science Fiction Conference of July 1-3, 1950, sometimes known as the 'Hydracon'. …Over 300 authors, publishers, scientists, and interested spectators attended. … Life magazine covered the event and [published a] panoramic picture of the assembled diners at the banquet.”

Life magazine May 21, 1951

The photo was included in
Through the Interstellar Looking Glass” by Winthrop Sargeant was a look inside the world of science fiction fandom. It also discussed the “rumpus that rocked the world of science fiction—the Shaver hoax… The deros were responsible for... catastrophes, from shipwrecks to sprained ankles... for the reports of flying saucers." 

Hydra Club members were serious about their science fiction but skeptical about things in popular culture they considered unscientific: Dianetics, Velikovsky, Atlantis, reincarnation and so on. They’d groaned at Ray Palmer presenting the Shaver Mystery tales as true in Amazing Stories, and to them, flying saucer mania was cut from the same cloth. At club gatherings, these pseudo-scientific topics could be the target of criticism, jokes, or satire. 

Photo from “Review: The Compleat Enchanter” by Phil Sawyer

Kyle wrote, “A Hydra Club meeting was always a party… The biggest and best” was held in 1949 on New Year's Eve. Several reporters were present, and their stories on it appeared in the press, including The New York Times. One reporter present was from the French international news agency, Agence France-Presse (AFP). His story focused solely on a talk given by Fletcher Pratt, and it appeared in French in Var-Matin République, Jan. 1-2, 1950, and in the English language daily newspaper in Rangoon, Burma, The Nation, Jan. 2, 1950. 

“Flying Disc” Visitors From Strange Planet
Bodies of 3-Foot High “Strange Creatures” in American Hands

New York, December 31. -- The American newspaper man, Fletcher Pratt, a former U.S. war correspondent, today claimed that contrary to recent official announcement, flying saucers were not a product of the imagination but visitors from another planet.

Speaking at a meeting sponsored by science magazine, Fletcher Pratt said that according to “confidential sources”’ one of such flying discs together with its occupants -- all of them dead --had fallen into the hands of American authorities. These visitors from another world were killed, Pratt said when their flying disc entered the atmosphere of the earth. Atmospheric pressure proved fatal to them and their bodies were now being dissected and studied, he claimed. Quoting the same source, Pratt said the interplanetary travelers were “strange creatures”. -- AFP.

Var-Matin République, Jan. 1-2, 1950 (transcribed by Patrice Seray)

The Nation, Jan. 2, 1950 

Amazing if true. Let’s see what other reporters made of the speech. 

Weird, Astounding

At the end of 1949, spaceships and aliens were headline news due to the release of True magazine’s article by Donald E. Keyhoe, “The Flying Saucers are Real.” Also, Hollywood gossip columnist Frank Scully had published two Variety articles late in the year (based on the claims of Silas Newton) about the U.S. military’s capture of flying saucers and the bodies of the little aliens inside. At the Hydra Club’s holiday party for 1949, Pratt spoke on the topic of saucers. Here’s an account, co-written by one of the club members, “Weird, Astounding” in The New Yorker, January 21, 1950, page 19, by Jerome Stanton and John McCarten: 

“We were invited down to Werdermann's Hall, on lower Third Avenue, the other evening to attend the annual party of the Hydra Club, an outfit composed of writers of science fiction... Fletcher Pratt appeared on the platform and made a speech about flying saucers, which he branded a big fake. He was followed by Mr. [Willy] Ley, who told a story about the footprints of an aardvark being mistaken for those of a dinosaur and expressed agreement with Mr. Pratt's conclusion as to flying saucers. A man about five feet tall interrupted the proceedings at this point, screaming ‘Leave the saucers as a matter of faith!’ "That's Lester del Rey," a gentleman next to us said. "One of the best in the field."

The New York Times Jan. 2, 1950, discussed the party, but only in business terms, “Science fiction has made incredible progress in the past two decades, graduating from the pulp magazine era to its modern respectability of hard-cover books…” There was no mention of saucers.

The Special Collections Research Center at Syracuse University houses the Fletcher Pratt Papers; his correspondence, manuscripts, scrapbooks, and memorabilia. Hoping to locate the text of Pratt’s 1949 flying saucer speech, I contacted the SCRC librarian. Nothing was found about crashed flying saucers or the talk: “No speeches of any kind, unfortunately, and definitely not one from the Hydra Club party.” It may have been that Pratt’s saucer talk that night were no more than impromptu remarks. 

This AFP’s sensational saucer story was given a one sentence summary in the 1980 book by Charles Berlitz and William Moore, The Roswell Incident, along with these comments:

“This further reference to a Roswell-type incident was, of course, denied in official circles with the customary vehemence. However, it must not be forgotten that Fletcher Pratt was a reputable military historian with a historian's regard for the highest possible accuracy of information and therefore would have been reticent to accept a report dealing with startling information from an unreliable source.” 

With the conflicting news accounts and the interpretation by Roswell crash authors, one might wonder where Fletcher Pratt really stood on the phenomenal topic. 

Mechanix Illustrated June, 1951 

Scientists had announced that life was probable throughout our galaxy, and in “How Scientists Visualize the REAL Flying Saucer Men,” Mechanix Illustrated checked with a couple of science fiction authors. John W. Campbell said, “There is every reason to suppose that life on Venus, or on any other planet, if it has developed to a high level, has taken human form. But this form would have to conform to the specific conditions of the planet.” Fletcher Pratt played along but reasoned that if it were possible, “any life form there must be completely different from ours.”

In Saturday Review, March 14, 1953, Pratt gave a favorable review of Flying Saucers by Donald H. Menzel.

“Among the many answers are mirage, auroral phenomena, formations of ice crystals in the upper air, sun dogs, moon dogs. reflections of earthly objects or the moon on layers of mist... In other words, almost anything but little green men from Venus or educated bees from Mars. It is rather a pity that a good scientist had to take time from his work to clear up this clotted nonsense, but now that he has done it we can all be glad he did. And it certainly makes good reading.”

The Hydra Club on UFOs, and Little Green Men from Afar

Fletcher Pratt was a key member of the Hydra Club. He died of cancer in 1956 and his obituary was published in The New York Times, June 11, 1956

(Full text)

According to Dave Kyle, the Hydra Club faded away sometime in the 1960s. Both before and after the club’s demise, several members had some things to say on the topic of UFOs.

Lester del Rey was a frequent Panelist on Long John Nebel’s Party Line radio show, and wrote “The Saucer Myth” in Fantastic Universe Aug. 1957.

Frederik Pohl informally investigated the 1964 Lonnie Zamora case in Socorro, NM, and wrote a skeptical UFO editorial about it, “Air and Space” in Worlds of IF Sept. 1965.

L. Jerome Stanton wrote a skeptical UFO book, Flying Saucers: Hoax or Reality?, 1966.

Hans Stefan Santesson edited Fantastic Universe magazine where he frequently featured non-fiction articles by ufologists.

Willy Ley frequently discussed UFOs skeptically and took the negative side of the debate against Ray Palmer in 1950. He also slammed saucers on the CBS talk show, Longines Chronoscope, Aug. 4, 1952.

Isaac Asimov wrote a favorable review of Flying Saucers by Donald H. Menzel in Galaxy Science Fiction July 1953, and closed by saying, “My own personal use for it will involve braining with its edge the next innocent who says: ‘But don’t all science-fiction writers believe in flying saucers?’”

L. Sprague de Camp also gave a positive review of Menzel’s book, for Science Fiction Quarterly, November 1953, saying, “As an old debunker, I can tell you that one of our species’ odder characteristics is that they will pay much more to be bunked than to be debunked.” Two decades later, L. Sprague de Camp wrote “Little Green Men from Afar'' as a lecture for the conference where the notorious Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, CSI was founded, "The New Irrationalisms: Antiscience and Pseudoscience," April 30-May 1, 1976, at the State University of New York at Buffalo. His lecture started by discussing the same topic as Fletcher Pratt’s 1949 speech Silas Newton’s flying saucer hoax. Then he turned to the broader issue: 

“The story of pseudoscientific cultism, of which the enlighteners in UFOs form but one small part, is depressing to believers in human rationality. Some cultist ideas… are so absurd that they beguile few followers and soon fade away. Others attract huge followings and persist for generations.” 

Theodore Sturgeon reviewed two UFO books in Galaxy science fiction magazine, Nov. 1974, saying:

“My personal opinion on the whole subject… is that yes, there are UFOs, and no, I have no opinions as to what they are, where they come from, or why, being perfectly content to wait for further evidence — ‘hardware or bodies,’ as the late Fletcher Pratt used to say.”

Fletcher Pratt became a footnote in UFO history for making fun of flying saucers at a Hydra Club party. All because someone didn’t get the joke. 

. . .


For Further Reading 

Fletcher Pratt, Military & Naval Historian by Henry Wessells )

L. Sprague de Camp’s “Little Green Men from Afar” was published as an essay in The Humanist, July/Aug. 1976. In recognition of his lifetime achievement, de Camp was awarded the Grand Master Nebula of 1978 by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Editor Frederik Pohl chose de Camp’s essay to represent his work in the 1980 book, Nebula Winners Fourteen, and it also was presented in two other collections:

The Fringe of the Unknown, by L. Sprague de Camp, 1983

The SFWA Grand Masters, Volume 1, edited by Frederik Pohl, 1999


  1. We have a chance 😎

  2. I mean, what exactly do you expect from a group called the "Hydra Club"?


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