Things That Are Not: The Philadelphia Experiment

Welcome to this week’s Things That Are Not, a limited series exploring historical mysteries and paranormal phenomena that simply aren’t true. Having explored the Bermuda Triangle last week, we’ll take a deep dive into an even stranger maritime misadventure. 

When Morris K. Jessup published The Case for the UFO in 1955, he entered a well-populated field. The modern “flying saucer” craze, started by Kenneth Arnold’s famous sightings in June 1947 (with the Roswell incident several weeks later providing an exclamation point), had reached a fever pitch, buoyed by fear of Atomic Age technology, Cold War paranoia and an endless glut of science fiction books, comics and movies. Not only did thousands of Americans see alien spacecraft; they photographed them or met their occupants. Most of these  “contactees” conveyed messages of peace, love and understanding from aliens; others viewed ETs as a potential menace, citing cases like Thomas Mantell, an Air National Guard pilot who crashed pursuing a UFO in January 1948.

Jessup resembles many other ufologists, possessing both an eclectic scientific background and extreme curiosity bordering on credulity. An Indiana native, Jessup received a Master’s Degree in Astronomy from the University of Michigan, studied astrophysics and worked several archaeological digs in South America. He styled himself “Doctor” Jessup, though he never completed his Ph. D and instead worked variously as a chemical engineer, mechanic, auto parts salesman and freelance photographer, living in Coral Gables, Florida. Jessup’s friends considered him intelligent but temperamental; one professor recalled his “outbursts of temper that verged on the insane.”

Jessup disliked the sensationalism of early UFO coverage, complaining that “there is so much damned nonsense being put out by silly people that one gets disgusted with a lot of it.” Presumably this desire to set the record straight spurred Jessup to write his own book. Mixing affected scientific rigor with bizarre pseudo-religious musings (he openly borrowed from Helena Blavatsky’s Theosophy movement, which credited “Ascended Masters” from Tibet with creating the modern world), in April 1955 he published The Case for the UFO.

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Morris K. Jessup

Whatever Jessup’s pretensions, Case is typical of its genre, fitting disparate supernatural lore into a Grand Unified Theory of Weirdness. Jessup recycles passages from Charles Fort’s The Book of the Damned, the 1919 tome which pioneered modern occult writing, incorporates Blatavasky’s ideas and congressman-crank Ignatius Donnelly’s theories on Atlantis, and reproduces tales from Fate Magazine and similar sources. He recounts the legend of Oliver Lerch, a young lad carried skyward by unseen forces on a snowy Christmas Eve; the Ourang Medan, a Dutch ship whose crew was mysteriously slain, “their frozen faces…upturned to the sun, the mouths…gaping open and the eyes staring”; a 16th Century Spanish soldier teleported from Manila to Mexico City; and other paranormal apocrypha.

Jessup’s book sold reasonably well; his tales of interdimensional travel, advanced science building ancient monuments (a precursor to Erich von Daniken’s “ancient astronauts”), alien abductions (a term not in currency until Betty and Barney Hill’s disappearance in 1963) and otherworldly mysteries easily found an audience amidst the ‘50s saucer boom. But Case hardly stood out among similar works by George Adamski (Flying Saucers Have Landed), Donald Keyhoe (Flying Saucers are Real), Frank Scully (Behind the Flying Saucers) and other early ufologists. At least until Jessup received history’s strangest fan letter.

As Jessup worked on a sequel, he received letters from a gentleman calling himself “Carlos Miguel Allende.” Allende, an alleged Navy veteran, rambled about the Unified Field Theory and its practical applications for awhile, building vaguely off Jessup’s writings. About halfway through this missive, sprinkled with random capitalization, erratic spelling and a singularly strange oracular style, Allended dropped his bombshell, claiming that the Navy had conducted an experiment during the war, and that “the result was complete invisibility of a ship, Destroyer type, and all of its crew, While at Sea.”

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The Eldridge in wartime camouflage

Allende elaborated on this story, dubbed Project RAINBOW by him and the Philadelphia Experiment in subsequent tellings, at length. Claiming to have worked with Albert Einstein on a Unified Field Theory, Allende witnessed the Navy’s efforts to make warships invisible using magnetic fields. The ship involved was a destroyer escort named the USS Eldridge (DE-173). When the Experiment took place, the Eldridge teleported, in a flash of fog and green light, from Philadelphia to Norfolk and back, in front of dozens of witnesses. The Experiment proved an extraordinary success: not only had the Eldridge been rendered invisible, it traveled hundreds of miles in the blink of an eye!

This scientific breakthrough came at a great human cost. The Eldridge’s crew, having endured an unprecedented experience, suffered extraordinary repercussions. Some devolved into raving lunatics, unable to process what had happened to them: these men were lucky. Others randomly burst into flame, disappeared into a cosmic void (several in the middle of a barroom brawl!), or found their bodies welded to the ship, their legs, arms and even torsos becoming one with the steel hull. In Allende’s colorful phrasing, “The expierement (sic) Was a Complete Success. The Men Were Complete Failures.”

A more diligent researcher than Jessup might have unraveled Allende’s yarn. For starters, the USS Eldridge, launched in July 1943 and named after a naval officer killed in the Solomon Islands, was on a shakedown cruise to the Caribbean on the date of the Experiment. The vessel spent most of the war on convoy duty in the Mediterranean, escorting Allied supply ships to the Azores, North Africa and Italy; it ended the war in Okinawa preparing for the mooted invasion of Japan. Eldridge was later sold to the Greek Navy, where it remained in service until being scrapped in the late’ 90s. Bill Van Allen, who served as the Eldridge’s captain from 1943-44, later commented that “I have not the slightest idea how these stories got started.”

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The Eldridge‘s crew

Another sailor, Edward Allan Dudgeon, offers a clue. An electrician’s mate on the USS Engstrom (DE-50), Dudgeon described for investigator Jacques Vallee how his vessel, along with the Eldridge, were outfitted in July 1943 with equipment for defense against German U-Boats: “Our ship was put in dry dock so they could install high-torque screws…[they] made a sound of a different pitch, which made it harder for the submarines to hear us. They also installed a new sonar for underwater detection, and a device we called a “hedgehog” which…fired depth charges in banks of twenty-four to thirty in a pattern, and could cover 180 degrees as far as about a mile away.”

The vessels also engaged in routine degaussing procedures, designed to de-magnify ship’s hulls against magnetic torpedoes. As for the Eldridge’s ability to travel, Dudgeon doubted this happened, but noted that the Navy made wartime use of inland canals (including the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal) which made a fast (if presumably not instantaneous) voyage from Philadelphia to Norfolk plausible. All of which might be interesting to naval buffs, but hardly mysterious.

This was unknown to Jessup, who only had Allende’s bizarre tale for reference. In a later letter, the informant spelled out his motivations for sharing these dread secrets with “Dr.” Jessup:

“I am a star-gazer Mr. Jessup. I make no bones about this and the fact that I feel that IF HANDLED PROPERLY, I.E. PRESENTED TO PEOPLE & SCIENCE IN THE PROPER PSYCOLOGICALLY EFFECTIVE MANNER. I FEEL sure THAT Man will go where He now dreams of being—to the stars via the form of transport that the Navy accidentally stumbled upon (to their embarrassment) when their EXP. SHIP took off & popped-up a minute or so later on several Hundred sea 21 travel–trip miles away at another of its Berths in the Chesapeake Bay area. I read of this in another newspaper & only by Hypnosis could any Man remember all the details of which paper, date of occurrence & etc., you see? Eh. Perhaps already, the Navy has used this accident of transport to build your UFO’s. It is a logical advance from any standpoint. What do you think???”

At first, Jessup found Allende’s notes sufficiently intriguing to correspond with his informant. But Allende grew increasingly vague and evasive, his explanations raising more questions than answers and his rambling tone exasperating Jessup. Eventually, Jessup concluded he’d been the victim of a bizarre practical joke and discontinued their correspondence. He continued his research without Allende’s “help,” publishing three sequels to Case in quick succession: UFOs and the Bible, The UFO Annual (both 1956) and The Expanding Case for the UFO (1957).

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In 1957, while completing the latter book, Jessup received a summons from the Office of Naval Research (ONR) in Washington. Commander George Hoover and Captain Sidney Sherby met with Jessup, showing the dumbfounded author a copy of The Case for the UFO they’d received from a postmark in Seminole, Texas. Written in the margins of Jessup’s book were notes in three different colors and, apparently, three different writing styles, ascribed to individuals called “Jemi,” “Mr. A” and “Mr. B.” Sometimes the notations appeared individually; other times, the annotators conversed with each other while critiquing and commenting on Jessup’s analysis.

Jessup immediately recognized the notes as Carlos Allende’s handiwork. The idiosyncratic spellings and rambling prose, the musings about interdimensional travel, lost civilizations and alien propulsion systems: all were extremely familiar. Yet Commander Hoover told Jessup that higher-ups at ONR wished to analyze Allende’s notes for scientific information. Taken aback, Jessup soon turned over his own letters from Allende to the Navy. Within a few months, a privately-printed edition of Case for the UFO, incorporating the notes from “Jemi” and Messers A & B along with Allende’s letters to Jessup, was released by the Varo Corporation, a military contractor from Garland, Texas. Thus, the expanded version of Case became known in UFO circles as the Varo Edition.  

It’s hard to see why Allende’s notes merited serious attention. Between ostensibly serious passages about otherworldly beings and interdimensional travel, “Jemi” and his colleagues muse about alien hobbies (“Ice in Great Curved sheets is used at odd times as a Gigantic Lens for close observation of Humankind or Merely for amusement”), clothing preferences (“Force-extruder expieriment in Plastic cloth fibres…Boy! My socks wear for 3 years or so!”) and dietary fads (“They eat so revolting amount of Sea Food that Red-Meat is a Madness in Them?”). Their content resembles the ravings of a madman, or the concoction of a particularly whimsical prankster, rather than anything of scientific value.

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Annotations from Allende to Anna Lykins Genzlinger’s The Jessup Dimension, indicative of his style. 

Then again, the United States government took interest in numerous paranormal phenomena during the Cold War era. As Hoover and Sherby interviewed Jessup, the Air Force was in the midst of Project Blue Book, a two-decade study of UFO sightings and alleged alien encounters. The government, admittedly, seemed less interested in extraterrestrial visitations than determining whether UFOs were secret Soviet weapons or aircraft. A variety of similar projects flourished, including the CIA’s Project Star Gate, which attempted to uncover the veracity (and potential intelligence utility) of psychic phenomena in the 1970s and 1980s.

Regardless, the Navy’s investigation went nowhere. ONR tracked Allende to an address in New Kensington, Pennsylvania and sent investigators to question him. The location was, according to most reports, “an abandoned farmhouse” (later writers discovered it was an Allen family property fallen into disuse) with no sign of the informant. The Navy soon dropped their investigation, finding no leads to justify further investment. Yet Morris K. Jessup, previously skeptical about the whole business, remained intrigued about the incident and resolved to investigate further.

Yet Jessup’s deep immersion in UFOs wrought a heavy toll: it cost him his marriage, with his wife Kathryn showing little patience for alien endeavors. While his first book sold well, the sequels flopped. His doctors diagnosed depression, prescribing several prescriptions which Jessup refused to take. Friends and colleagues grew alarmed by his condition. Ivan T. Sanderson, a naturalist and paranormal investigator, recalled that Jessup became “extremely distraught and admitted that…he found that he had been sucked into a completely insane world of unreality.” Another ufologist, J. Manson Valentine, described him as “despondent over the criticism directed against his books by the scientific and academic world.”

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Jessup’s death certificate, erroneously identifying him as a “Professor of Astronomy”

Nonetheless, after corresponding with Sanderson, Valentine and others, Jessup seemed to rebound, suggesting that he planned to continue his investigations. Then on April 21, 1959 Jessup’s body was found in a car in Dade County Park, outside Miami, having committed suicide by carbon monoxide. Many of Jessup’s colleagues suspected he’d been silenced by the Powers That Be (“Perhaps he’d been allowed to die,” Valentine hinted darkly), but most evidence pointed to a straightforward suicide. Thus Morris K. Jessup, a brilliant but erratic, fatally tormented man, met an all-too-worldly demise.

As for Allende, he continued beguiling paranormal researchers for decades, writing cryptic missives to various ufologists and, less frequently, meeting them in person. He wrote from different locations across the United States and Mexico, visited UFO conventions and baffled and frustrated those struggling to make sense of him. Ufologists Gray Barker and Jim Moseley conducted a bizarre interview in 1977 where Allen demonstrated how he’d penned the Varo notes with three different handwriting styles, without explaining why. Perhaps Barker, who came to the interview heavily intoxicated, was too drunk to ask.

As early as 1969, Allende admitted that the Experiment was a hoax, which didn’t stop writers from repeating his story. The Experiment story appeared in book after book: Vincent Gaddis’ Invisible Horizons, Ivan T. Sanderson’s Invisible Residents, Charles Berlitz’s The Bermuda Triangle. Berlitz, a linguist who found a second calling promoting supernatural silliness, collaborated with journalist William L. Moore on a full-length account of the Experiment in 1979. The story found renewed life in the ‘80s with Alfred Bielek, who tied it to the Montauk Project, an experiment in mind control and interdimensional travel supposedly conducted in New York.

Carl Allen – or Carlos Allende?

Finally, in 1980 Fate Magazine columnist Robert A. Goerman confirmed that Allende was Carl Meredith Allen. A fellow New Kensington native, Goerman contacted Allen’s father and discovered that Carl had a longstanding habit of mailing “research” to perplexed family members. Allen had a history of mental illness and erratic behavior long predating his confidences to Morris Jessup. When Allen wasn’t writing about UFOs and teleportation, he harangued the VA for cutting off his benefits and, less plausibly, for giving him sickle cell anemia. He also carried on compulsive flirtations with younger women, most of whom found the old man aggressively strange and off-putting.

By this time, Allen decamped to Greeley, Colorado, where he continued espousing his bizarre theories to anyone who’d listen. Interviewed by a local paper, Allen proposed that “we could have a fleet of starships unrivaled in the world,” outdoing Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars program by several orders of magnitude; he also boasted that “there are only four men in the United States who understand Unified Field Theory. I am one of them.” (One of Allen’s friends scoffed at this, branding him “a sad, frustrated old man who…knows no physics beyond a bit of jargon.”) 

Allen died in 1994, unhumbled by his lifetime spreading humbug. The Philadelphia Experiment lives on in numerous books and websites, not to mention several feature films inspired by the story. Perhaps science fiction is where Allen’s improbable tale best belongs; but his aimless travels and relationship with Morris K. Jessup remain far stranger than any mythical experiment.

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Sources and Further Reading:

A transcription of the Varo Edition of The Case for the UFO can be found online here. Most of this article’s information comes from Andrew Hochmeier’s extraordinarily comprehensive website, The Philadelphia Experiment From A to Z. See also Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore, The Philadelphia Experiment: Project Invisibility (1979); Joshua Blu Buhs’ profile of Jessup here; Jim Frazier, “Mystery Man Offers Death Bed Statement” (The News of Colorado Centennial Country [Greeley, CO], August 22, 1986); Robert A. Goerman, “Alias Carlos Allende” (Fate, October 1980); David Halperin, “The Philadelphia Experiment” (The Revealer, July 2012); and Jacques F. Vallee, “Anatomy of a Hoax: The Philadelphia Experiment Fifty Years Later” (Society for Scientific Exploration, winter 1994).