Summary: The following in-depth article on Men in Black is an excerpt from the book The UFO Book: Encyclopedia of the Extraterrestrial by Jerome Clark.
Men In Black
In the midst of a religious revival in Wales, a young rural woman was visited three nights in succession by a "man dressed in black," the Barmouth Advertiser reported on March 30, 1905. "This figure has delivered a message to the girl which she is frightened to relate."
The revival owed its inspiration to the charismatic Mary Jones, a 38-year- old farmwife and recent convert to ardent Christian faith, who had quickly become a preacher of exceptional power and persuasiveness. Those who accompanied her in her travels through the Welsh countryside noted that mysterious lights seemed to accompany her. This aspect of her ministry was widely remarked on in press accounts--not surprisingly, because journalists saw the lights, too. Since the lights also appeared in places where Mrs. Jones did not happen to be, the association between the lights and her was most likely coincidental. Wales apparently was undergoing what decades later would be called a UFO wave.
The Welsh landscape of early 1905 was rife with supernatural manifestations. Persons affected by the revival reported encounters with Jesus, angels, and demonic black dogs. Satan, too, was met on dark country roads. Perhaps the men in black were his agents, and as dependent on the imagination of the beholder as the other denizens of heaven and hell "seen" by the faithful and the fervent.
Men in black had already been associated with the devil for several centuries. As William Woods writes of medieval encounters in A History of the Devil (1973), "Sometimes the devil wears green or gray, but mostly he is dressed in black, and always in the fashion of the day." In 1730 a 13-year-old Norwegian girl told clerical witch-hunters that six years earlier she and her grandmother had flown on the back of a pig to attend a meeting with Satan. On the way, the clerics wrote in their report of the interrogation, "they met three men dressed in black whom the grandmother referred to as 'grandfathers boys'." Once arrived at their destination, they "went in and sat down at table next to the devil, whom her grandmother called 'grandfather'." "Three men dressed in black" would be heard of again, in a whole new context, over two centuries later.
Albert Bender and the men in black. In the summer of 1947, as "flying saucers" entered public consciousness, a man named Harold Dahl reported that he had observed a UFO as it discharged metallic substances into the ocean water between Tacoma and Maury Island, Washington. The following morning, he claimed, a stranger clad in a dark suit invited him to breakfast in downtown Tacoma, then startled him by reciting a detailed account of Dahl's experience of the previous day, even though at that point it had received no publicity. The stranger then intimated that Dahl and his family would be harmed if he discussed his sighting with anyone else.
Subsequent investigation by the Air Force elicited confessions from Dahl and associate Fred L. Crisman that the two had engineered a fantastic hoax.
Nonetheless, some civilian investigators refused to credit the retraction and charged that the truth about what would be called the "Maury Island mystery" was being covered up. The legend would live on among uncritical flying-saucer enthusiasts. It would mark the first claimed appearance of a man in black in a UFO-era context, though the concept of "men in black" would not be formed until a few years later.
The International Flying Saucer Bureau (IFSB), which came into being in April 1952 under the direction of Albert K. Bender of Bridgeport, Connecticut, was the most successful early UFO organization. Within months of its creation the IFSB had branches in other countries, an active investigations unit, and a magazine, Space Review. But in the fall of 1953 Bender's ardent pursuit abruptly ended. Soon afterwards Bender wrote in Space Review, "The mystery of the flying saucers is no longer a mystery. The source is already known, but any information about this is being withheld by orders from a higher source." He urged UFO enthusiasts to "please be very cautious."
To a few close associates, including IFSB chief investigator Gray Barker, Bender related that in late September, after he had confided a UFO theory to an unnamed correspondent, three dark-suited men visited him. The men, who Bender indicated were agents of the U.S. government, imparted the alarming answer to the UFO mystery and threatened him with imprisonment if he told anyone.
Bender's "silencing" obsessed Barker, who would go on to become a prominent writer, editor, and publisher on the fringes of saucerdom. In a February 1954 article he cautiously summarized all that was known, which was not much. The article mentioned Australian ufologist Edgar Jarrold, who recently had received a visitor who told him startling UFO secrets that Jarrold was directed to keep to himself. Not long afterwards a badly frightened Jarrold dropped out of active UFO research.
Almost certainly the Bender and Jarrold matters would have passed into obscurity if not for They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers, the book Barker would write two years Later. They Knew Too Much launched the men-in-black legend in ufology. In 246 pages of paranoia-drenched prose, Barker recounted the doings of the sinister "Silence Group," which brought enforcers in dark suits to the residences of UFO researchers who got too close to the truth. Among the victims, Barker asserted, were Bender, Dahl, and Crisman in the United States, Jarrold in Australia, John Stuart and Doreen Wilkinson in New Zealand, and "Gordon Smallwood" (Laimon Mitris) in an unnamed country "outside U.S.A." (Canada). Barker freely speculated that the silencers might be of unearthly origin, and he warned readers that soon they "will be at your door, too, unless we all get wise and find out who the three men really are."
Barker featured what he called the "Bender mystery" in the pages of his magazine The Saucerian (later Soucerian Buttetin), whose readership consisted mostly of persons attracted to the emerging contactee movement. Conservative ufologists paid little attention to men-in-black tales, but such stories frightened and enthralled saucer fans of paranoid disposition.
In 1962, in Flying Saucers and the Three Men, Bender told what he represented as the true story of his silencing. The silencing occurred, he wrote, after he incurred the wrath of monstrous extraterrestrials who kidnapped him to the South Pole. These beings monitored his activities until 1960, when they returned to their home planet Kazik and Bender was freed to tell his tale. Even Barker, who published the book under his Saucerian imprint, privately expressed disbelief, and most readers did not take it seriously.
Still, whatever his off-stage reservations, Barker kept the "mystery" alive in a series of publications, the last of which appeared a year before his death. In 1963 he released both The Bender Mystery Confirmed, an anthology of readers' sometimes strange responses to Three Men, and the more interesting--and even stranger--UFO Warning, John Stuart's allegedly true account of how supernatural sexual harassment drove him and Doreen Wilkinson out of ufology.
There was no way to reconcile Bender's earlier story, sketchy though it was, with the latter tale. Those whose interest in the matter had not yet flagged could only deduce that either the "Bender mystery" was a fabrication from the outset or the first story was true and the second a concoction intended to end years of pestering by UFO buffs. Persons who knew Bender, recalling how frightened he had been in the fall of 1953, remained convinced that government agents had indeed threatened him.
Bender eventually moved to California. Since the late 1960s he has had virtually nothing to do with UFOs and ufologists. It is likely that the truth will come to light only if one day someone finds the relevant documents in an official file--assuming, of course, Bender was in fact the subject of government attention. In the meantime, however, a plausible retrospective interpretation of the episode is possible.
In January 1953 the Central Intelligence Agency, fearing that the Soviet Union might use UFO reports for psychological warfare ends, assembled a panel of five American scientists, under the leadership of physicist H. P. Robertson (see Robertson Panel). Over the next four days, in Washington, D.C., the scientists devoted a total of 12 hours to reviewing data from the Air Force's Project Blue Book. Their final report contended that UFO reports, while all potentially explainable, comprised a danger to national security because they could "overload channels of communication with material quite irrelevant to hostile objects that might some day appear." Thus the Air Force should energetically debunk UFOs and embark on an educational campaign to discourage public interest, thereby reducing the "dangers related to 'flying saucers'."
Furthermore, civilian UFO groups "should be watched because of their potentially great influence on mass thinking if widespread sightings should occur. The apparent irresponsibility and the possible use of such groups for subversive purposes should be kept in mind."
In September 1953, when Bender allegedly met the three agents, the Robertson panel's existence, formally classified Secret, was unknown to anyone in the civilian UFO community.
There are other, more specific reasons Bender may have drawn official interest. Unlike most other saucer clubs of the period, IFSB participated actively in investigations of UFO reports. The most remarkable of these was a physical-evidence case. Shortly after 9 p.m. on August 19, 1953, residents of New Haven, Connecticut, heard an explosion and observed a fast-moving, ricocheting "fireball" at treetop level. They also saw a freshly made foot-wide hole in a nearby metal signboard. The object apparently had ripped through 20-gauge steel and continued on its way undeterred. Naval Ordnance personnel were on the scene soon afterwards. So was IFSB investigator August C. Roberts, who managed to extract at least one small piece from the sign.
IFSB sent the sample to Col. Robert B. Emerson, a Louisiana-based physicist, member of the U.S. Army Reserve, and IFSB research consultant, later to serve on the Board of Governors of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena. Emerson said he would contact friends at the atomic-research facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, about having it analyzed. If anything came of this, no record of it survives. A separate analysis arranged through the Wisconsin-based Aerial Phenomena Research Organization determined that a second fragment consisted mostly of copper and copper oxide. This, plus the fireballs movement, ruled out any possibility it was a meteorite.
In a reconstruction of the Bender episode, Michael D. Swords has suggested that Roberts's retrieval of the metal pieces-"under the noses of Naval Ordnance investigators"--would almost certainly have attracted the attention of federal authorities. Furthermore, he writes, IFSB
was a civilian organization actually attempting scientific research on UFOs (case studies, photo analysis, metallurgy). In some significant way it may have been the first such organization probing into the flying discs in this fashion. It also had an expanding international network for sharing projects and information. One such project between Bender and his Australian and New Zealand colleagues was to plot UFO flight paths in hopes of discovering their bases of origin. What do you think U.S. intelligence thought of all this in 1953?
It requires little genius to suspect that the CIA, et al., were monitoring this organization and that several developments indicated that the stage in which the IFSB was only a harmless flying-saucer club was passing. International projects plotting unidentified aircraft flights are plenty enough to concern the CIA. . . . Also it was the period directly following the Robertson Panel and its CIA concerns with the potential Soviet manipulation of the UFO phenomenon. What would intelligence agencies' opinions be about a bunch of Americans preaching an open-arms welcome for strange incoming ships in the sky?
This interpretation does not necessarily require us to believe that the United States government was covering up secrets related to extraterrestrial visitation (nor, of course, does it contradict this view). The copper "fireball" may have been a military device, the aircraft flights those of Allied or Soviet planes. The fantastic, frightening story the three men told Bender may have been concocted for his benefit, to scare him out of further UFO research.
If this is indeed what happened, Bender would not be the last victim of such a counterintelligence scheme. In the early 1980s Albuquerque physicist and UFO enthusiast Paul Bennewitz became the target of intimidation after he monitored electronic signals emanating from a nuclear installation near Kirtland Air Force Base. Bennewitz decided that these messages were of extraterrestrial origin, sent from UFOs operating in the area. The signals, which were not illusory, were part of a highly classified military experiment, though there is no reason to think they had anything to do with UFOs. When Kirtland authorities learned of Bennewitz's eavesdropping, they turned on him with a vengeance, employing psychological-warfare techniques that one observer and partial participant has claimed were intended to trigger an emotional collapse. If so, they succeeded. Bennewitz was already entertaining dark, conspiratorial theories about UFOs and their intentions; operatives from the Air Force Office of Special Investigations passed on disinformation, alleged to be the U.S. government's deepest UFO secrets, which confirmed and enlarged on Bennewitz's fantasies. Bennewitz became so distraught that soon afterwards he was hospitalized. He subsequently retired from the UFO scene. (See Dark Side.)
The Jarrold affair, it is now known, was neither so menacing nor so mysterious as Barker made it out to be, and it had nothing to do with the "Bender mystery." Jarrold's flying-saucer obsession had placed him in an unstable state that soon led to an emotional breakdown and the break-up of his family. The purportedly enigmatic visitor whom Barker linked to Bender's men in black was in reality--as Barker privately knew--an itinerant occultist, contactee, and retired bank security guard named Gordon Deller. Deller told the impressionable Jarrold that flying saucers were of "etheric" (other-dimensional) origin, that etherians had chosen Jarrold as one of their earthly agents, and that their coming had to do with an imminent geological cataclysm. Deller also called on Jarrold's New Zealand friend and colleague Harold Fulton, who dismissed him as an amiable crackpot. After leaving New Zealand, Deller traveled to the United States and Canada where he may have met, among others, Laimon Mitris.
John Keel and the MIB. By the mid-1950s the legend of the men in black had become fixed in the imaginations of saucerdom's most excitable. Yet, with the arguable exception of the early Bender affair (as opposed to the later Bender book), it was much ado about little beyond fabrication, paranoia, and Barker's promotional genius. Probably the notion of men in black would have devolved into vague memory had it not been for the efforts of John A. Keel. Through Keel men in black were not only revived but transformed into something else entirely: the "MIB."
Though he did not appear on the UFO scene until the mid-1960s, Keel would become one of the most influential writers in the history of ufology. At a time when the mainstream ufological consensus had only recently embraced reports of even briefly observed UFO occupants (later to be called close encounters of the third kind), Keel, essentially a demonologist, championed a far more exotic vision of the UFO phenomenon than anyone but fringe figures had fancied heretofore.
Among the entities whose activities Keel chronicled were not-quite-human individuals who intimidated witnesses and who seemed linked with UFOs. Sometimes, he wrote, they threatened witnesses who had not told anyone else about their sightings. Usually they wore dark suits, sometimes with turtleneck sweaters, and had dark complexions and Oriental features. Others were pale and bug-eyed. Their behavior was frequently odd, as if they were operating in an environment alien to them. In many cases they drove black Cadillacs or other Limousine-like vehicles. Keel had no doubt that his informants were telling the truth because he himself had seen these entities on more than one occasion.
Keel claimed to have had numerous phone conversations with a "Mr. Apol," who "did not know who or what he was. He was a prisoner of our time frame. He often confused the past with the future. I gathered that he and all his fellow entities found themselves transported backward and forward in time involuntarily, playing out their little games because they were programmed to do so, living--or existing--only so long as they could feed off the energy and minds of mediums and contactees." A Long Island woman allegedly saw Mr. Apol. She knew it was he because when he stepped out of a black Cadillac he shook her hand--his own was "as cold as ice"--and so introduced himself. She said he resembled a "Hawaiian."
In Keel's view MIB are ubiquitous presences in human history, responsible for or related to such disparate phenomena as the Grim Reaper image, vampire lore, and demonological visitations. "A dark gentleman in a cloak and hood is supposed to have handed Thomas Jefferson the design for the reverse side of the Great Seal of the United States," he has written. "Julius Caesar, Napoleon, and many others are supposed to have had enigmatic meetings with these odd personages." Another, according to Keel, was Malcolm X. Keel claims, moreover:
Men In Black are also an integral part of the Oriental belief in the King of the World. Ancient tradition in parts of China, Tibet and India claims that there is an underground city where the King of the World runs everything by sending spies and minions to the surface. They dress in black robes and suits, of course, their countenances are very Oriental. In the Middle East, they move around the deserts in black robes and headdresses.
Oz Factor. Late one November afternoon in 1980, at the University of Pennsylvania library, Peter M. Rojcewicz was doing research for a Ph.D. thesis on the folklore of UFOs. "I sat alone in a wing facing a large window to the south," he would recall. "I had the table closest to the window, facing the window. Without any sound to indicate that someone was approaching me from behind, I noticed from the corner of my right eye what I supposed was a man's black pant leg. He was wearing rather worn black leather shoes."
The stranger walked around the table and briefly looked out the window, his back to Rojcewicz, then turned and sat down. He was dark-complexioned, tall, thin, sunken-eyed, and wearing a rumpled black suit. Speaking articulately with a slight accent Rojcewicz thought to be "European," he asked what the young man was doing. A short conversation on UFOs followed. When the stranger asked if he had ever seen a UFO, Rojcewicz said he was more interested at the moment in stories of flying saucers than in the question of whether UFOs existed as physical spacecraft.
The man suddenly shouted, "Flying saucers are the most important fact of the century, and you're not interested?" Startled and afraid that he might be dealing with a lunatic, Rojcewicz tried to calm him, and the man lapsed into silence. Then he stood up "as if he were mechanically lifted." He placed his hand on Rojcewicz"s shoulder and said (as close as Rojcewicz could remember), "Go well in your purpose." Rojcewicz did not watch him go. But a few seconds later he became abruptly fearful as the strangeness of the encounter hit him.
I got up, walked two steps in the direction he had left in, turned around, and returned again to my seat. Got up again. I was highly excited and finally walked around the stacks to the reference desk and nobody was behind the desk. In fact, I could see no one at all in the library. I've gone to graduate school, and I've never been in a library when there wasn't somebody there! No one was even at the information desk across the room. I was close to panicking and went quickly back to my desk. I sat down and tried to calm myself. In about an hour I rose to leave the library. There were two Librarians behind each of the two desks!
Rojcewicz here describes an odd impression some UFO witnesses have described but whose significance went unappreciated until British ufologist Jenny Randles took note of what she called the "Oz Factor"-"the sensation of being isolated, or transported from the real world into [another] environmental framework ... where reality is but slightly different." The Oz Factor figures in other MIB reports as well.
Official agents? In early 1967 Col. George P. Freeman, a Pentagon spokesman for Project Blue Book, reported that unknown individuals posing as Air Force officers or as government agents were threatening UFO witnesses, sometimes even confiscating photographs. "We have checked a number of these cases," he said. "We haven't been able to find out anything about these men. By posing as Air Force officers and government agents they are committing a federal offense. We would sure like to catch one."
A few months later, in May 1967, a man identifying himself as Maj. Richard French called on an Owatonna, Minnesota, woman. "He was about five feet nine inches tall with a kind of olive complexion and pointed face," she later told John Keel. "His hair was dark and very long--too long for an Air Force officer, we thought. He spoke perfect English. He was well educated." He wore a fashionable gray suit, white shirt, and black tie.
In the course of the conversation, which dealt with a UFO experience she and a friend had undergone the previous November, French complained of stomach problems, and the woman replied that he might try some jello. French said he would return for some if the problems continued. The following morning he showed up at the door, and the woman sat him down with a bowl of Jello, which he proceeded to try to drink. "I had to show him how to eat it with a spoon," she recalled. Coincidentally--so one assumes--in the early to mid 1960s the Pentagon spokesman for Project Blue Book was someone named Richard France.
According to ufologist William L. Moore, "the Men in Black are really government people in disguise . . . members of a rather bizarre unit of Air Force intelligence known currently as the Air Force Special Activities Center (AFSAC). . . . As of 1991, the AFSAC, headquartered at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, has been under the operational authority of the Air Force Intelligence Command centered at Kelly Air Force Base in Texas." Moore alleges that "Gray Barker's early-'50s hype" inspired operatives to dress in dark suits and to imitate the men in black of early and later lore. Presumably, if we are to credit Moore's assertions, "Richard French" was having fun at the expense of a UFO witness.
Indeed, many accounts concern individuals who look and behave like normal human beings, or at least normal military officers or intelligence agents, albeit ones who appear under peculiar circumstances (see, for example, North Dakota CE3).
Consider this March 16, 1993, story from the Groom Lake, Nevada, area, near the site of a highly classified military base at which stealth aircraft are being flown and from which unsubstantiated rumors of captured UFOs and extraterrestrial technology have circulated for years. A couple who had come to watch aerial activity from a hill adjacent to the base saw strange UFO-like lights that, subsequently and confusingly, seemed to transform themselves into an automotive vehicle. After the sighting was concluded, the witnesses sensed that half an hour of the encounter was unaccounted for. Soon afterwards they underwent hypnosis during which they "recalled" an abduction by gray-skinned UFO beings. The man was taken into the craft while the woman was led into a white van she had seen earlier as the two were driving to the site. According to an account written by the male witness, ufologist William F. Hamilton III:
Inside the van, two men, dressed entirely in black with black baseball caps on their heads, subjected her to intrusive procedures. They administered some drops in her right eye and placed an odd instrument into her left ear canal. She remembered seeing electronic instruments inside the van as well as automatic rifles. She also recalls that these men admonished her not to speak about her experiences. She did not see the little Gray [alien] during this period, nor does she remember exactly how she was placed back in position by our truck.
Stories like this one show that the MIB image not only continues but continues to be adaptable to new circumstances and to fresh ufological contexts.
MIB in experience and imagination. In some instances, as we have seen, men-in-black reports can be plausibly interpreted as instances of official interest in UFO sightings, especially those of an unusually evidential nature. MIB reports, on the other hand, tend, as we have seen, to have an outlandish, surrealistic flavor. Keel, Rojcewicz, and other chroniclers, who take the stories at face value, have offered various explanations based on their belief in occult phenomena (see Paranormal and Occult Theories about UFOs). Others, for example Hilary Evans, see MIB experiences as psychological experiences of a particularly remarkable kind, though he acknowledges the limitations of this sort of reductionism.
Unless all those reporting such experiences are lying--an appealing proposition for which, unfortunately, no good evidence exists--it is hard to imagine an explanation that does not force us to exceed the boundaries of current knowledge. Yet MIB (as opposed to men-in-black) stories, products solely of memory and testimony, can be little more than curiosities.
One provisional interpretation, more descriptive than explanatory, might be that such occurrences take place in an "experiential reality"--a kind of subjective state that, at least in its ostensible physical setting, is indistinguishable from event-level reality; yet within this seemingly familiar environment, unearthly entities of various kinds appear and interact with the experient. They may be no more "real" than figures in unusually vivid dreams; thus, for example, they leave no footprints when they are seen to cross a muddy field.
This is in itself an extraordinary hypothesis, positing a kind of hallucinatory experience unrecognized by psychology, whose notion of what comprises a hallucination is far more modest, and it is hard to imagine how such an explanation could apply to that minority of cases involving more than one witness. Even by UFO-report standards, MIB stories are hugely anomalous. Possibly MIB are a strange experiential phenomenon inspired by UFO sightings but not truly related to them.
Thomas E. Bullard, a folklorist specializing in UFO-related beliefs, has placed MIB in a broader tradition of mysterious visitants:
[A]lmost a sense of familiarity attaches to the Men in Black. They step into the shoes vacated by angels and demons to serve as modernized versions of otherworldly messengers, modified to reflect extraterrestrial rather than supernatural employment but clearly functionaries in the same mold. Even high gods like Odin in Norse mythology sometimes disguised themselves and roamed the earth to dispense justice or stir up strife among humans, but this sort of work usually devolved on a servant class of beings. In classical belief demons populated the earth in great number, as did fairies in Celtic folklore, and like fairies these demons worked to help or harm mortals. In Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian and Islamic beliefs these beings lost some of their choice of action as they divided into two distinct camps, one loyal to God and the other henchmen of the devil. . . . Devils and demonic beings enjoy broader license for mischief as they cause harm by whatever means their evil imaginations can devise.... [T]he primary activity of demons is to tempt humans into sin. For this purpose demons often disguise themselves by transformation and a common motif in folklore leaves an imperfection in the disguise, often the cloven hoofs of the devil going unchanged. Strange feet and an "artificial" or doll-like look are common traits of Men in Black as well. The devil of folklore sometimes rides a black carriage, the nearest thing to a Cadillac, and often has considerable knowledge and power. If he harms a human he may have to win the permission or cooperation of the victim first, often by trickery; but the saint with a trust in God knew that the devil had no power over the faithful. This theme perhaps reflects the usual harmlessness of Men in Black despite their ability to threaten and scare a witness, though the parallels between devil lore and Men in Black lore are mostly remote. We can even wonder if MIBs are really evil, since their warning to keep silent might offer good practical advice after all, everything considered.