Our Iowa Heritage: Charles B. Elliott – Romancing the Forest City Meteorite.

Rock fragments from this exploding meteor showered an eight-square mile area of Winnebago County on May 2, 1890.

The Forest City (Iowa) Meteorite.

The Forest City Meteorite appeared out of the west about 5:15 pm on May 2, 1890, momentarily outshining the sun in a cloudless sky. With a head compared to the size of a full moon, observers reported a roaring sound, “Sputtering” and throwing off a long train of sparks and trailing a heavy line of black smoke. As observed from Grinnell (about 100 miles away) the meteor required only a few seconds to pass from horizon to horizon. Other sightings of the meteorite were reported from Chamberlain (South Dakota), Sioux City, Humboldt, Ruthven, Des Moines, and Mason City. The meteorite exploded about 11 miles northwest of Forest City raining rock fragments on an area about four miles long and 1.5 to 2 miles wide near the town of Thompson. Thousands of pieces of the Forest City Meteorite, totaling about 269 pounds, were recovered, the largest weighing 81, 75, and 66 pounds. (thanks to The University of Iowa Geological Survey for this info)

Here’s an entertaining story about Charles Burke Elliott and his legal pursuit of the 66-pound fragment of the Forest City Iowa meteorite published as “Romancing the Meteorite” in the University of Minnesota Alumni Magazine (11/5/2008) by Tim Brady.

Charles Burke Elliott

A yellow flash as big as the moon appeared in the late afternoon sky accompanied by an echoing boom. The thing mellowed to a burning light then arced west to east above the Iowa towns below, moving at the deliberate pace of a celestial freight train. It crackled like burning timber, according to accounts, leaving a smoking trail in the atmosphere and gaping mouths below. Across more than a dozen counties in northern Iowa and a half-dozen more in Minnesota, witnesses stared at the phenomenon with a wonder tempered by the fact that the same sort of alien force had visited Iowa just 11 years earlier, in Estherville.

Most knew what they were seeing before it hit the ground. Which might explain why, when one of the biggest chunks of this aerolite settled on a farm near Forest City, about 15 miles south of the central Minnesota border, the tenant there, Peter Hoagland, had no qualms about racing toward the impact. What his mind’s eye envisioned, as he grabbed his spade and headed out toward the landing zone, were stacks of greenbacks, not armies of little green men.

It was just after 5 o’clock on May 2, 1890. Hundreds of small chunks of the meteorite (or aerolite, as they were known then) peppered the landscape for miles around, but one of the biggest rocks landed in prairie grass on the farm worked by Hoagland. It buried itself three feet deep but was neither smoking nor hot to the touch when he found it, despite the fact it had just burned through the atmosphere on its way to Earth.

Word spread quickly across the Upper Midwest that another meteorite had flashed across the Iowa sky, just like the famed Estherville Aerolite of 1879. In papers throughout the state and up into Minnesota, news went out announcing the event. But aside from Hoagland and the handful he told, no one knew for a couple of days precisely where the big rock had landed.

That fact sent meteorite hunters from across the region out into the field in search of the stone. Included in this pack was Horace V. Winchell, the son of the esteemed chair of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Geology, Newton H. Winchell. Aside from heading the University’s geology studies, Newton was also director of the state’s Geological and Natural History Survey, first director of the Minnesota Natural History Museum, and the state’s highest authority on its many natural resources. There was hardly a rock in Minnesota that Newton hadn’t inspected.

Horace V. Winchell was himself an accomplished student of geology and had a long, influential career as a practicing geologist. Sniffing for meteorites on behalf of the museum and his father, Horace headed south from Minneapolis, stopping first in Faribault to check out reports of sightings there before aiming toward Iowa, where already teams of scholars from the University of Iowa and Grinnell College were in the field.

Meteorites have fallen from the heavens through all of recorded history. But despite the seeming frequency of falls in northern Iowa in the last quarter of the 1800s, in fact it is extremely rare to witness a meteor shower and then find the actual rocks that rained down from above. Even today, while the number of known meteorites collected on Earth is in the tens of thousands, the number of falls seen and subsequently collected by humans is a little over a thousand.

All of which meant there was a great deal of value attached to the meteorite that fell that May afternoon. Beyond the academic hunters, any numbers of enterprising meteorite hounds were also out searching in northern Iowa for the rock. The Estherville incident was a fresh memory, and it was well known that that meteorite was purchased by the British Museum for thousands of dollars.

When Horace Winchell heard reports that perhaps the biggest chunk of rock had fallen in Winnebago County, bordering Minnesota, he raced in that direction. There he found Hoagland waiting with a 66-pound meteorite on the kitchen table, ready to entertain offers for the stone, as well as for about 30 smaller meteorite fragments that had fallen on the property.

A team representing the University of Iowa was not far behind Winchell. In fact, they raced up in a wagon just as the bargaining session began. Apparently, the representative of the U of I had only $100 in his pocket, while Winchell came with at least $105. That higher bid was enough to ensure that the Minnesota Natural History Museum, through its representative Winchell, was soon trundling off toward Forest City with a wheelbarrow full of meteorites, including the prize 66-pounder.

Winchell took his new possessions to the train station for shipment back to Minneapolis and then proceeded to get a bath and a shave. He returned to the depot in the morning to catch the train northward with his haul and was shocked to find a group of Iowans surrounding his meteorite as if they were Hawkeye gridders around a football. At their center was the local sheriff, who informed Winchell that the meteorite was being replevied—a fancy way of saying swiped by legal authority.

Hoagland, it seemed, as a mere tenant on the property where the stone had fallen, was not necessarily its rightful owner. There was a serious legal question about whether or not Hoagland had any right to sell what had simply fallen on the land he rented. The deed to the property was held by a man named John Goodard who claimed the meteorite was his because the land was his. Further, Goodard wasn’t interested in selling it to the University of Minnesota’s Natural History Museum—which is why he went out and got a writ from a local bondsman, contacted the sheriff, and proceeded to do his replevying. Turns out a person could legally recover goods on a claim that they’ve been wrongfully taken if one pays a bond to the legal authorities and promises to show up in court to settle the matter.

Until the case was settled in a local court of law, the Forest City meteorite was going to stay in Iowa.

The scientific study of meteorites was about a hundred years old at the time of the Forest City event, and until the 20th century only a few hundred meteorites had ever been found. Scientists were still uncertain about what exactly meteorites were, where they came from, and how they happened to land in places like northern Iowa. In other words, they had scientific value as well as the monetary kind. This fact helped the Winchells and the University of Minnesota decide they weren’t going to take this matter lying down. A member of the local bar, who also happened to have earned the first University of Minnesota Ph.D. ever granted, in 1888, Charles Burke Elliott was retained by the U of M to go to Forest City to represent the interests of the museum in the matter of the stone.

To Elliott, the question at hand “was absolutely new and highly novel.” As he wrote in a memoir years later, this was an action “to determine the ownership of celestial real estate” and “there were no precedents.” He prepared his argument for Iowa district court, planning to contend that the meteorite “was analogous to lost property and treasure trove, and belonged to the one who first reduced it to possession.”

On the other hand, the plaintiff, John Goodard, claimed that the meteorite had become attached to the real estate the moment it plunked down in his field. “Whatever is affixed to the soil, belongs to the soil,” read an ancient law from Blackstone’s. And if the court agreed, the rock would belong to Goodard.

Down in Forest City where the case was to be tried, the townspeople clamored around the courthouse, anxious about the outcome of the trial. According to Elliott, they “seemed to think that to permit the stone to be taken to Minneapolis would be a reflection upon local patriotism.” The case seemed straightforward to the local judge, who made his decision quickly. He pleased local observers enormously by finding in favor of Goodard. The Forest City meteorite would stay in Iowa. At least for now.

Elliott was a man of wit and persistence. He’d also achieved some measure of fame a few years earlier when his doctoral thesis—a history of fishing rights disputes between Great Britain and the United States in the Atlantic Ocean—had been praised to the marbled ceilings in the Senate chambers of the nation’s capitol. It was even said to have helped avert a possible war between the two nations, and Elliott had received notes of thanks for his scholarship from a number of big shots in Washington.

Back in Minneapolis, as he crafted the University’s appeal, Elliott noticed an advertisement in the Forest City newspaper announcing that the now-famous meteorite was being exhibited at the local fair under the auspices of the Iowa State Agricultural Society. Elliott reasoned that the U of M had a more compelling right to the stone than the Iowa Ag Society, and if Goodard was allowing the meteorite out of his possession while the matter was still being adjudicated, the University of Minnesota should consider a little replevying of its own.

Off he went to the office of former Governor John Pillsbury, chair of the U of M’s Board of Regents. There Elliott received Pillsbury’s blessing to head back to Iowa to pursue the stone. “I remembered the Governor chuckled and remarked that it would fall pretty flat if I got caught within the state,” wrote Elliott, “but he was finally a good sport and approved my plan.”

On a dark and rainy morning, Elliott set off for Iowa, arriving at Forest City at 4 o’clock afternoon. By chance, the agricultural fair was being conducted right beside the train station around a temporary structure known as the Flax Palace. There Elliott began sleuthing around for the meteorite and quickly bumped into one of the local attorneys representing Goodard. If the Iowa counsel’s suspicions were aroused by Elliott’s presence, he didn’t seem alarmed. Just before informing Elliott that the rock had been taken to the local bank for the night for safekeeping, the Iowa attorney reminded him (rather smugly, Elliott thought) of the old lawyerly adage that possession is nine points of the law.

Elliott decided not to engage in an argument at the Flax Palace. Instead, he headed to a local bondsman who just happened to be a business acquaintance of John Pillsbury. There he asked for a writ that would allow him to confiscate the stone on the basis of the fact that it was not currently in the possession of John Goodard. The bondsman agreed, and early the next morning Charles Elliott took the order to the same Forest City sheriff who had grabbed the stone on behalf of Goodard just weeks earlier. The befuddled sheriff reluctantly agreed to escort Elliott to the local bank where the meteorite was dutifully hauled from the safe and given over to the hero of the aborted northeastern fishery wars.

Hotshot, big-city lawyers don’t go unnoticed for long at an Iowa county fair, especially when they’re snooping around after the local meteorite. By the time the stone had been fetched from the vault and placed in Elliott’s hands, a crowd had gathered in the bank and the sheriff, having handed the 66-pound meteorite over to Elliott, was suddenly huffing and puffing for the benefit of his neighbors. He claimed that the attorney had just taken the stone and scoffed at the fact that Elliott had a signed receipt for the rock from the sheriff in his pocket.

Pillsbury’s chuckling warning that matters could “fall pretty flat” if Elliott were caught in Forest City was looking mighty prophetic. As muttered threats started to get physical and the crowd inched toward him, the lawyer decided to make a run for it—easier said than done when cradling a rock weighing as much as a weaned Iowa pig. Using the meteorite as a battering ram, Elliot charged out of the bank. Someone gave him a push and he wound up running “stiff-legged” into the street. Elliott was about to fall face first into the street when he ran headlong into the very carriage he’d hired an hour earlier to take the meteorite back to the state line. Elliott plunked the cargo in the back of the buggy, jumped aboard, and raced with his driver out of town, a handful of outraged Iowans hot on his tail.

After losing the posse in the cornfields north of Forest City, yet fearing the Iowa law would be gathered in Lake Mills to apprehend him and the meteorite, Elliott decided to ditch his first ride in favor of another. He sent his Forest City driver home and hired a local farmer to take him and the meteorite on back roads to Minnesota.

Elliott called a halt to the escape at the first train station they could find inside the North Star state. There he hailed a passing freight train and set the rock on a flatcar. Elliott climbed aboard and sat on the Forest City meteorite until the train reached Albert Lea, where he finally breathed easy. “The next morning,” Elliott wrote with satisfaction, “the stone was in the museum at the University of Minnesota.

What the Iowans thought of Elliott and the stone-snatching can well be imagined. There were, however, no known attempts to retrieve it from the Minnesota Natural History Museum. The case of Goodard v. Winchell wound its way to the Iowa Supreme Court, not arriving until a full two years after the scuffle, by which time Elliott had left the employ of the University.

The U of M was represented in Des Moines by William Pattee, dean of the Law School. Unfortunately, the U lost the precedent-setting case. Though meteorites may fall from the heavens, said the court, they belong to person on whose property they fall. “Whence it came is not known, but, under the natural law of its government, it became part of the earth.”

This was not the last word on the Forest City meteorite. As Goodard’s counsel had so smugly pointed out earlier, possession is nine points of the law, and fact of the matter was that the University of Minnesota Natural History Museum retained ownership of the Forest City meteorite within its walls, even after the decision from the Iowa Supreme Court. The bond for the stone, issued in Forest City, was valued at $105, which the U of M proceeded to pay. There were gripes; Elliott was warned that if he ever returned to Forest City he would be prosecuted. But as he wrote: “I never learned what my offense was, as I had acted strictly within the laws of Iowa.”

For the next seven decades, until the bulk of the Minnesota meteorite collection was loaned to the Smithsonian Institution in 1966, the famed Minnesota specimen of the Forest City meteorite stayed on the campus of the University of Minnesota. Its value is now estimated to be approximately $300,000.    

Tim Brady is a St. Paul–based writer and regular contributor to UM Alumni Review.

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