Welcome, foolish mortals, to the home of cadaverous casseroles, exsanguinous eats, and snack-related sagas so strange and frightening they may well transport you to a realm unknown. Welcome, readers, to A Dark and Stormy Bite, a monthly column that dives deep into a teeth-chattering culinary dimension of utterly ghoulish proportions. Basically, if it involves food and goes bump in the night, we’ll cover it here. Do you have a favorite haunted restaurant or cursed recipe? Email firstname.lastname@example.org—and beware.
The year is 1876, and you’ve just embarked on your afternoon constitutional through the scenic dirt roads of Bath County, Kentucky. You tip your hat at passersby and marvel at the unseasonably pleasant weather. You’ve never seen a car or any of the Jackass films, and the mere presence of a cherry Twizzler would cause the kind of sensory stimulation that would make your tongue fall out. Your mind is free and your conscience is clear—that is, until you hear a wet THWACK. Then a SQUELCH. You duck as an unidentified object zips past your top hat; immediately after, something red lands in your beard. An early spring storm, perhaps? You slowly look up. That’s no thunderstorm, my good fellow—the skies have turned dark with chunks of flying meat.
Is this the stuff of nightmares? Yes, but make no mistake: it happened, and it’s colloquially known as the Kentucky Meat Shower. According to a series of records, large hunks of flesh fell from the sky over Bath County, Kentucky, for a period of about seven minutes on March 3, 1876. What could be more terrifying? More ghastly? A more economical way to stock your homestead’s meat shack? You tell me, reader. You tell me.
An archived news report from The New York Times explains that the fun began around 11 a.m. The lovely wife of one Allen Crouch was sitting on her porch casually making some soap when, without warning, raw meat started to rain from the sky. “Meat which looked like beef began to fall around her,” wrote the Times. “The sky was perfectly clear at the time, and she said it fell like large snow flakes.” The Times also cites the account of a Mr. Harrison Gill, whose veracity was described as “unquestionable.” Gill reportedly visited the Crouch residence the next day and found meat strewn across the grounds, some hunks measuring as large as 10 centimeters square. Two brave unidentified gentlemen then traveled to the Crouch residence to taste the fallen meat, declaring that it was either mutton or venison. The whole thing baffled the locals and inspired a host of crackpot theories—but what really happened?
First, we need to acknowledge that the meat shower may have been some sort of nasty prank. True, there’s no reporting on a potential Hatfields and McCoys-style feud in the area. But we can’t discount the possibility that a riled-up neighbor loaded up a buggy with chunks of meat and rained destruction upon the Crouch residence. The truth is that neighbors have been messing with each other since time immemorial, as evidenced by the many bags of dog poop my dad used to hide in his recreational softball teammates’ cars. And while I’ve certainly never taken the time to cover an enemy’s property in raw meat, I did once spend an afternoon plastering my annoying college roommate’s walls with photos of American Idol star Bo Bice.
Assuming the incident wasn’t a prank or a hoax, there are a few other possibilities. Several researchers were actually able to score samples of the meat, including a gentleman named Arthur Byrd who added the meat to his personal cabinet of curiosities. The University of Louisville’s Hite Galleries once exhibited Byrd’s coveted meat stash, writing:
Perhaps the most far fetched entry in to this exhibition is the bottled meatrain which fell from the sky but only over just one farm in 1876. The fact that there was still “meat” to bottle up after all the farm animals had their fill of a meal falling from the sky may be a testament to the quantity that rained down.
Researcher Leopold Brandeis was the first to propose a semi-plausible theory. A few months after the incident, Brandeis proclaimed that the meat wasn’t actually meat, but a type of gelatinous bacteria colony. (I found this explanation in Popular Science, which cites a Scientific American article from 1876. The article in question appears in a document called The Project Gutenberg eBook of the Damned. Research!) “It has been comparatively easy to identify the substance and to fix its status,” Brandeis told Scientific American at the time. “The Kentucky ‘wonder’ is no more or less than nostoc.”
What’s nostoc, you ask? It sounds like the name of a demon, and it’s certainly gross enough to belong in the pits of hell. Popular Science explains that nostoc is “a type of cyanobacteria that forms colonies surrounded by a protective gelatinous envelope.” The colonies are known to “swell up into a translucent jelly-like mass” when exposed to high levels of precipitation, often falling from the sky and earning nicknames like “star jelly” and “witch’s butter.” Think of an oozing, bacteria-ridden blob.
Bradeis’ hypothesis was later disproven by the president of the Newark Scientific Association, Dr. A. Mead Edwards. Edwards investigated the specimen and determined it was likely lung tissue belonging to either a human infant or a horse. Scientists went on to inspect a total of seven samples, confirming two to be lung tissue, three to be muscular tissue, and two to be made of cartilage. Scientists weren’t able to confirm whether the samples did, in fact, contain human tissue, but that possibility does seem far-fetched given the final hypothesis, which Dr. L.D. Kastenbine proposed in a 1876 edition of the Louisville Medical News.
According to Kastenbine, the flying chunks were neither bird, nor plane, nor baby lung, nor gelatinous bacterial mass. They were vulture vomit. Kastenbine obtained a sample of the mysterious flying matter, set it aflame, and realized that it smelled like rotten mutton. He then wrote that the chunks were likely the result of “the disgorgement of some vultures that were sailing over the spot, from their immense height,” who upchucked and caused the particles to scatter “by the prevailing wind over the ground.”
This theory is actually pretty plausible since, as Popular Science explains, Kentucky is home to two species of vulture (the black vulture and the turkey vulture), both of which are known to gorge themselves on food and then, if necessary, puke up their stomach contents to make a quick escape. “Meat is heavy,” Joe Walston, the Vice President for Field Programs at the Wildlife Conservation Society, told VICE in 2018. “If you want to take off quickly with a huge amount of weight, the first thing you’re going to do is vomit.” Yes, well. Same.
So, what really happened? Scientists aren’t sure. None of these theories have been accepted by the modern scientific community, and there are a lot of plot holes. First, the shower reportedly lasted for seven minutes, blanketing the entire Crouch property. While vultures are known to travel in groups, that’s an absolutely obscene quantity of vulture vomit. The same flock would have to circle around the area for a full seven minutes, dumping their guts before fleeing the scene. That seems both unrealistically vengeful and biologically impossible. There’s also the fact that “rain” made of animals and animal parts is reported on a semi-frequent basis—so often that Wikipedia has a page dedicated to flesh rain. Was the meat shower the work of some Lovecraftian invader bent on terrorizing the good folk of Bath County? Or did some greedy vultures just spent seven minutes blowing chunks on top of an innocent lady who was just trying to make soap? We may never know, but I think we can all agree: just because the meat is free doesn’t mean you should eat the meat.