Saturday, 18 May 1918

This post is part of a series post-blogging the Australian mystery aeroplane panic of 1918. See here for an introduction or here for a list of all posts.

Adelaide Twist, 18 May 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 138 is a statement made by Adelaide Twist, a bookkeeper from Macarthur in the Western District of Victoria, to Mounted Constable J. C. Pickett. She states that on 11 May 1918 she and her sister were walking home at about midnight, and

Just as we were about to go in our gate my sister noticed one big light in the sky, and drew my attention to it. This light at first was very faint and afterwards became much brighter. This light appeared to move about and then a similar light appeared. I should say the second light was about 100 yards distant from the first. They then came closer together, I should say half-a-dozen yards apart. They then appeared to get higher and closer and more brilliant. They then became very faint, one went to the left towards Portland and the other disappeared. My sister and I watched these lights for about ten minutes [...] I should say the lights were twenty or thirty times larger than stars.

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 139 is the statement of her sister, Maud Twist, a music teacher (their white collar occupations are why I cite this report in my article). It broadly matches Adelaide's statement, but there are some discrepancies, most glaringly that 'The lights I did not notice come any closer to one another', a direct contradiction. Where Adelaide says Maud was the first to see the light, Maud says that when she remarked 'What is that peculiar light in the sky?', Adelaide's response was 'I was just looking at that'. Maud also provides some additional information (or remembers things differently):

Both lights appeared to be moving about and one in particular seemed to be coming straight towards us. These lights were not as brilliant as motor car lights [...] I did not hear any sound, only the wind blowing.

Both women note that there was lightning about that night, but were certain that that was not what they had seen; Maud adds that 'The lights appeared too brilliant and were moving [so] that satisfied me they were not stars'. Nor they say they thought they had seen aeroplanes; however, in Pickett's earlier report (at NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 136), he says that 'they were under the impression that as the lights were travelling they were from aeroplanes'.

This is now quite late in the panic; the Army and the Navy had basically already given up on the possibility of any reality to these reports and were mostly just going through the motions in collecting them. At Hamilton, Superindent McKenna was similarly wary/weary; on the back of Pickett's report (at NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 137) he wrote:

I do not want to waste the time of Naval Officers and Detectives unless there is something genuine that requires investigation.

This follows an order to Pickett to obtain independent, signed statements from both sisters, because

When women are interviewed separately their imagination is not nearly so vivid as when in company with others of their sex.

Which is interesting because this same police station and this same constable had already been involved in investigating a mystery aeroplane report near the same town, a month beforehand: the claim by the drover Sutton that he and his assistants had seen an aeroplane land in the middle of the night and take off again. This was an extraordinary -- not to say ridiculous -- story, certainly the one hardest to credit of the whole panic. And yet there was never any suggestion (that I've seen, anyway) that the witnesses needed to be interviewed separately; in fact only Sutton gave a detailed statement, which one assistant briefly agreed was what he had seen, with the third man being unable to be contacted. True, there's more scepticism of the mystery aeroplanes now, but here it's manifesting in an extremely gendered way.

So what did the Twist sisters see? It may not be as bizarre as Sutton's sighting, but it's still a strange one. With the lights coming together and changing brightness over a period of 10 minutes, my suspicion is that they saw fire balloons. Given that an even more bizarre mystery aeroplane encounter took place near the same town, that apparently time involving signal rockets, it's even possible that there was a serial hoaxer in the area.

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