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Roswell, New Mexico: The Birthplace of an Enduring Alien Legend

UFOs, alien autopsies, and more—what really happened in Roswell?

Aliens in the UFO museum in Roswell, NM
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

The supposed “alien crash” in Roswell, New Mexico, has been called “the world’s most famous, most exhaustively investigated, and most thoroughly debunked UFO claim,” but when most of us think of flying saucers and little green (or gray) men from outer space, the first thing that pops to mind is probably what has become known as “the Roswell incident.”

Related: 13 Fascinating UFO Books for Believers and Skeptics Alike

A UFO craze overtakes public consciousness

Roswell Daily Record July 8, 1947
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  • Roswell Daily Record July 8,1947

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

First, a bit of context. In June of 1947, America had flying saucers on the brain. On June 24, a civilian pilot named Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine unidentified flying objects, moving faster than the speed of sound (a feat not yet accomplished by terrestrial aircraft) near Washington’s Mount Rainier. His widely-publicized account, the first public UFO sightings after World War II, led the press to coin the term “flying saucers”—and led to a boom in “copycat” sightings, with as many as 800 reported in the weeks and months that followed.

Into this cauldron of renewed interest in unexplained aerial phenomena came W. W. “Mac” Brazel, a rancher who lived near Corona, New Mexico. Scattered across a square mile of his remote ranch, Brazel had discovered an array of unusual debris, later described as rubber, “tinfoil, paper, tape, and sticks.” Living far from the nearest town, without a telephone or radio, Brazel had no knowledge of the UFO craze that was sweeping the nation, and so didn’t think much of his unusual find until he drove into town and heard about the “flying saucers.”

Roswell UFO: alien crash debris or secret government project? 

Jesse Marcel examines ufo debris in Roswell, NM
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  • Lieutenant Colonel Jesse Marcel

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

That was the night of Saturday, July 5. By Monday, he had gathered up his find—which, according to newspaper accounts, consisted of two bundles, one about three feet long and 8 inches thick, with another 18 or 20 inches long and of the same thickness—and taken it to the sheriff’s office in Roswell. The town of Roswell, which today is home to some 50,000 people, was, at that time, also the location of Roswell Army Air Field, and the sheriff, unsure what to do with Brazel’s unusual find, called the army.

By the following day, July 8, a public information officer from the base had issued a press release stating that the army had recovered a “flying disc.” The statement further claimed that, “Action was immediately taken and the disc was picked up at the rancher’s home. It was inspected at the Roswell Army Air Field and subsequently loaned by Major Marcel to higher headquarters.”

Before long, the army had recanted the “flying disc” claim, saying that the debris were pieces of a weather balloon kite. In the years since, the story has changed again, with declassified documents suggesting that what was found on Brazel’s ranch was debris from the top-secret Project Mogul, which used high-altitude balloons to monitor nuclear tests conducted by other nations. 

The Roswell Legacy

The Roswell Legacy

By Jesse Marcel Jr. and Linda Marcel

Does extraterrestrial life exist? Have alien beings actually visited Earth and left clear traces of their visits? One man has the answer...and his son can now break the silence. The Roswell Legacy is the story of Major Jesse Marcel, the intelligence officer for the 509th Bomber Group—famous for dropping the atomic bomb on Japan—and the first military officer to reach the scene of one of the most famous and enduring UFO events in the recorded history of mankind. 

Massive public interest in “the Roswell incident”, from books to TV shows to documentaries

This interview massively reignited public interest in the so-called “Roswell incident.” Countless TV shows used interviews with Marcel, dozens of books were written on the subject, and the tabloid rag National Enquirer ran the story numerous times. Even Marcel’s son eventually got in on the act, claiming in documentaries, books, and TV shows that his father had shown him alien artifacts when he was a boy, including “a small beam with purple-hued hieroglyphics on it.”

Among the many accounts spawned by the renewed interest in Roswell, the one that had the most significant impact on the public imagination may have been The Roswell Incident, a 1980 book written by Charles Berlitz and William Moore. Berlitz had made a name as a writer of books about strange phenomena, including Atlantis, the Bermuda Triangle, and the Philadelphia Experiment, while Moore was a ufologist. 

Alien autopsy in Roswell?

Autopsy room at UFO Museum, Roswell
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  • Autopsy room at UFO Museum, Roswell

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

In addition to Marcel’s altered story, the book also introduced some new wrinkles to the scenario, including the first mention of alien bodies—a detail that Marcel had never included in his accounts. Attributed to a civil engineer named Grady Barnett and some archaeology students from an unnamed university, this account of alien bodies was treated with skepticism even in the book, and may in fact have been pulled from a different incident altogether, an admittedly fake UFO crash that occurred in Aztec, New Mexico in 1948.

Whatever their origins, the claims of alien bodies discovered in the wreckage took hold, and were soon an inextricable part of the mythology surrounding the “Roswell incident.” So much so that, in 1995, a 17-minute, black-and-white film was released claiming to be authentic documentation of an “alien autopsy” performed at Roswell Army Air Field.

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Produced by London-based filmmaker Ray Santilli, the footage was shown on Fox under the title Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction. It was hosted by Star Trek’s Jonathan Frakes and included interviews with individuals such as special effects legend Stan Winston and a forensic pathologist. The broadcast caused an international uproar, leading no less than Time magazine to devote space to the footage, saying that it was being scrutinized and debated “with an intensity not lavished on any home movie since the Zapruder film.” 

While Santilli would eventually concede that the footage was not of a real alien autopsy, he continued to claim that it was a “reconstruction” of actual alien autopsy footage that he had really seen. Others, including filmmaker John Jopson, who directed portions of the Fox special, were much clearer that the documentary was nothing more than a hoax. Whether the alien autopsy footage was real or not, however, the idea of the alien autopsy had become an inextricable part of the Roswell lore by 1995.

Related: 21 Terrifying UFO and Alien Encounters

The first accounts of such an autopsy came in the 1991 book UFO Crash at Roswell, written by Kevin Randle and Donald Schmitt. The book, which drew from accounts by some 100 new “witnesses,” added numerous elements to the Roswell story, with the alien autopsy being perhaps the most notable. The autopsy account began with Glenn Dennis, a Roswell mortician.

Dennis had seen a 1989 episode of Unsolved Mysteries featuring stories of alien bodies recovered in Roswell, and he called into the show with additional information. While working at a funeral home that provided mortuary services to Roswell Army Air Field, he claimed to have received “four or five calls” with suspicious questions about body preservation techniques from the base at the time of the Roswell incident. He also claimed to have spoken to a local nurse who witnessed an “alien autopsy,” making him the first source to cite the existence of such autopsies at Roswell.

The Roswell Report

The Roswell Report

By States Air Force

The Roswell Report: Case Closed is the follow-up to that report and contains additional materials and analysis intended to reach a complete, open, and final explanation of the events that occurred in the Southwest many years ago. While this explanation may not be as titillating as tales of unearthly craft and creatures, it is a fascinating story nonetheless.

Founding the Roswell, New Mexico Alien Museum

Roswell UFO Museum
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  • Roswell, New Mexico, UFO Museum

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Author Kevin Randle deemed Dennis one of the “least credible” of all the witnesses interviewed for the book, and yet his story—thanks, in part, to the legendary Fox special from a few years later—has become “the most popular narrative of the alleged alien crash.” As for what motive Dennis could have for fabricating such an account, that’s easy enough to pin down. In 1991, the same year that UFO Crash at Roswell was released, Dennis co-founded the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell. His business partners included a real estate salesman and Walter Haut, the former public information officer at Roswell Army Air Field who had disseminated the original “flying disc” story all those years ago.

Related: 9 Weird and Scary Museums You Can Actually Visit—If You Dare

Indeed, the city of Roswell hasn’t been shy about capitalizing on the public’s interest in the “Roswell incident.” In addition to the aforementioned UFO Museum, the city’s official seal includes a depiction of an alien, while extraterrestrial-themed souvenirs, attractions, and iconography can be found all over town. Whether real or fictitious, it seems that aliens and Roswell will be together for a very long time.