Daily file photo by Daniel Giles|
The late Dr. Moody Jacobs in 1994 with a copy of the Dec. 13, 1954, issue of Life magazine, which featured a story about the Sylacauga meteorite. In the black-and-white photo on the table, Jacobs points to the large bruise on Ann Hodges' left hip after it was struck by the rock.
A star fell on Sylacauga
'54 meteorite struck home,
woman, changed lives
By M.J. Ellington
firstname.lastname@example.org· (334) 262-1104
Sylacauga residents old enough to remember a famous meteorite strike there 52 years ago may understand why Decatur-area residents were so curious about a lime-green object streaking across the night sky Tuesday.
People began calling 911 lines when the object appeared at 5:28 Tuesday, bright enough for residents of Morgan and Cullman counties to wonder if the object they saw was a plane crashing or the result of an explosion.
On today's date in 1954, Sylacauga residents and others from as far away as Tuscaloosa saw a strange object streaking across the early afternoon sky and heard noises they described as explosions or loud booms.
That afternoon, a Sylacauga-area woman who was not feeling well was asleep on her living room sofa. She woke up when an 8½-pound object crashed through her living room ceiling, bounced off a console radio, struck her left hip and bruised her left hand.
The incident put 34-year-old Ann Elizabeth Hodges in the history books as the only documented case of a human struck by a meteorite. It also added former Decatur physician Moody Jacobs to the history books as the only doctor who ever treated a person struck by a meteorite.
Ann Hodges never fully recovered from the incident that put a grapefruit-sized bruise on her left hip and left permanent emotional scars. She died of kidney failure in 1972 at a Sylacauga nursing home. The 52-year-old woman's family buried her in Charity Baptist Church cemetery in Hazel Green.
Dr. Jacobs was only a year out of medical school when he treated Hodges that day. Within a few years, he moved his medical practice to Decatur and lived in the city until his death in 2001.
On Tuesday night, firefighters and police searched Morgan and Cullman counties for an airplane crash or other evidence to explain the mysterious sight in the sky. They found no fire, no smoke, no trace of the object that caused curious residents to make calls to the emergency number and The Daily.
Experts speculate that the object was a meteoroid or man-made space junk. An object as small as a golf ball could produce the reaction that caused such curiosity among people in the area, experts said.
Imagine the atmosphere in Sylacauga in 1954, when there was no Internet, few televisions and longer time lags between news reports. In that era, people were anxious about atomic bombs, flying saucers and aliens from outer space. They were curious about how that particular star fell on Alabama.
John C. Hall was custodian of the Hodges meteorite during his years as assistant director of the Alabama Museum of Natural History at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where the object is on permanent display.
Though Hall retired from the museum, he continues to research the Hodges meteorite and a related incident involving a fragment of the meteorite that broke off and landed less than three miles away.
Hall believes that Ann Hodges, her husband, Eugene Hulitt Hodges, and the couple's landlady, Birdie Guy, were all victims of the culture of the times.
The Hodgeses' rented, white-frame house on Oden's Mill Road in the Oak Grove community was across the road from the Comet Drive-In Theater, complete with a neon sign that showed a comet streaking toward the heavens.
Hall told a gathering at the Alabama Department of Archives and History that after years of research, his talks on the meteorite have changed. Instead of just telling a dramatic but quirky story from Alabama history, he tries to set the record straight about the events.
Hall believes that the continued media attention, curiosity seekers and dashed hopes about the initial financial potential of the famous rock added to Ann Hodges' problems. She finally gave the object, then in use as a doorstop, to the museum.
Eugene Hodges was frustrated that first day by the crowds at his home. Hall said Hodges was also upset that police officers and government officials took away the meteorite without his family's permission.
Hodges worked with a lawyer who secured the meteorite's return, but he saw the potential for fortune fade in legal battles over its ownership.
The Hodgeses divorced in 1964. Eugene Hodges, now past 80, still lives in Central Alabama.
Court battle over rock
Landlady Birdie Guy wanted the hole in the roof of her house repaired and believed as property owner the meteorite belonged to her. She fought the Hodgeses in court and won in multiple appeals.
Hall said Guy came across negatively in news reports that wrongly depicted her as greedy. The Hodgeses finally paid Guy $500 for the meteorite, which by then was no longer in demand by people willing to pay their price.
Years after the Hodgeses moved away, the rental house caught fire and the Guy family demolished it to make room for a mobile home park. Nothing marks the spot that made meteorite history.
Black farmer a winner
Hall believes the only person with a positive experience in the incident was Julius Kempis McKinney, a black farmer. The day after the meteorite struck the Hodges house — Dec. 1, 1954 — McKinney was driving a mule-drawn wagon with a load of firewood a few miles away. A black rock in the road caused his mules to balk. McKinney pushed the strange rock to the side of the road and continued home. That night, after hearing reports of the Hodges incident, McKinney went back to the site, picked up the rock and took it home where his children played with it.
The farmer told his postman, the only person he trusted with the information. The postman helped McKinney find a lawyer to negotiate the sale of the object.
Experts later confirmed that the 3¾-pound object was a smaller part of the Hodges meteorite that apparently split off as it entered the atmosphere.
Bought car, house
McKinney sold the rock to an attorney from Indianapolis who purchased it for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. While the McKinney family never revealed the amount received from the sale, Hall said researchers said it was enough for the family to purchase a car and a new house.
Bill Field, who as a 5-year-old saw the meteor from his Sylacauga home, shares Hall's opinions about the people most affected by the incident.
"I was standing in the back yard with my mother, who was at the clothesline," Field recalls. "I remember this object shooting across the sky with a white trail that I pointed out to my mother. There was a loud boom and black smoke."
Field grew up to be a filmmaker who researched the incident, and interviewed Eugene Hodges and other people who recalled the meteor. Field bought the movie rights and sold his movie script to 20th Century Fox.
No movie was ever made, but the incident had a permanent impact on Sylacauga.
"It was the biggest thing to literally ever hit the town," said Field, who now lives in Tuscaloosa.
You say meteor, I say meteorite
The difference between a meteor, a meteoroid and a meteorite:
Meteor: The flash of light we see in the night sky when a small chunk of interplanetary debris burns up as it passes through Earth's atmosphere. It's the flash of light, not the debris.
Meteoroid: The debris itself, a piece of interplanetary matter smaller than a kilometer and frequently only millimeters in size. Most meteoroids that enter the Earth's atmosphere are so small they vaporize completely and never reach the planet's surface.
Meteorite: The part of a meteoroid that lands on Earth.
Save $84.50 a year off our newsstand price:
Subscribe today for only 38 cents a day!