At first glance, Kentucky’s Devou Park is just like any other urban green space in the United States. But this part of Covington brings drivers from far and wide – all because of a strange phenomenon. There’s a hill here, you see, that leaves visitors absolutely baffled.
Yet the slope in Devou Park doesn’t appear all that different to a standard hill. Motorists may therefore tackle it in the same way they’d approach any incline: getting into the right gear and considering the speed they’ll need to reach the top.
And when you look at this hill from the bottom, it doesn’t appear to be particularly elevated. Nor is it in a particularly remarkable location, being situated on an ordinary suburban road known as Ridgeway Court. Even so, the stretch of asphalt continues to fascinate drivers.
Indeed, tourists across America travel to Ridgeway Court to watch a strange spectacle on the hill. The phenomenon appears to defy all logic and reason, in fact, and this in turn has led the area to develop quite the reputation. However, in November 2017, a couple of experts tried to finally unravel the mystery.
Before we can get into exactly what the specialists found, though, there’s something else to consider. You see, the Ridgeway Court mystery isn’t the only curious anomaly in Kentucky’s history. Take this particularly baffling story from 2001, for instance.
During the spring of that year, a number of pregnant horses in Kentucky tragically lost their foals. And while mares do sadly suffer miscarriages from time to time, the levels experienced in 2001 were well above those expected in the state.
Naturally, those working within the thoroughbred sector were desperate to figure out this mystery – not least because it had cost the industry around $225 million. And in the end, they came up with a credible theory to explain the miscarriages. In the spring of 2001, you see, the weather in Kentucky had been quite unpredictable.
Experts argued, then, that these conditions had led the cherry leaves found on farms to produce cyanide. And if the pregnant horses had consumed the affected vegetation, this would then go some way to justify the rise in miscarriages. Yet there was one big problem with this hypothesis.
Across the state, you see, there were farms with cherry trees that hadn’t reported any miscarriages in their mares. Perhaps, then, the leaves weren’t the problem. And, ultimately, there was never a clear explanation for the tragic losses.
In 2001 several unresolved animal murders in Grayson, Kentucky, were also put under the microscope. These deaths had taken place over a time span of a quarter of a century and had one detail in common. Curiously, the livestock had all been brutally mutilated, with many of them also losing their vital organs. But this wasn’t even the weirdest aspect of the murders.
Given how horrific the animals’ deaths had been, you would probably expect the respective crime scenes to be pretty graphic. Incredibly, though, the investigators failed to spot any blood near the deceased animals after they had been discovered. There were no traces of blood spatter anywhere, in fact – and this left the local authorities absolutely dumbfounded.
And you may have already heard about this next strange mystery from Kentucky. The story begins at the turn of the 19th century, when a Frenchman named Martin Fugate set up home in the state with his wife Elizabeth Smith. The couple also went on to have a number of children together. It’s fair to say, though, that the Fugates weren’t your typical family.
Most notably, Martin and some of his children all had blue skin. This bizarre condition was then passed down to the next generation and the next until a baby named Benjamin Stacy was delivered in 1975. And, unsurprisingly, the family earned a nickname into the bargain, with locals dubbing them the “blue people of Troublesome Creek.”
Unlike the previous stories, though, there was an explanation for this particular phenomenon. As it turned out, Martin and Elizabeth both suffered from a blood disorder called methemoglobinemia, and it was this that had caused the discoloration of Martin’s skin. Even more remarkably, another family in the area had the same condition.
Martin’s children subsequently married into the state’s other “blue” family and continued to do so for the next 100-plus years, meaning methemoglobinemia was passed down to each new generation. Benjamin proved to be the last in the clan with the condition, and the color of his skin reverted to a more normal hue as he became an adult.
To explain more, a physician named Ayalew Tefferi spoke with ABC News in February 2012. He said, “It’s a fascinating story. You almost never see a patient with [methemoglobinemia] today. It’s a disease that one learns about in medical school, and it is infrequent enough to be on every exam in hematology.”
But another bizarre tale involving Kentucky actually began thousands of miles from the American state. Back in the 1810s, people living in Sheffield, England, reported sightings of a strange-looking man in the community. According to these witnesses, the fearsome individual in question would terrorize the locals before jumping huge distances to escape.
Aptly, the mystery man was therefore dubbed “Spring-Heeled Jack.” Then, two decades after Jack was first seen in Sheffield, he appeared further south in London. It’s believed, moreover, that the figure’s reign of terror in the English capital lasted for around 18 months.
So, what did Spring-Heeled Jack look like? Well, it’s said that he wore a black suit, a cape and a helmet. Most disturbingly of all, though, the man apparently had bright red eyes and sharp-looking ears. And given that unnerving vision, it’s perhaps no surprise that stories about Jack continued to circulate for the next 40 years.
Then, in 1880, Spring-Heeled Jack reportedly made his first appearance on American soil, in Louisville, Kentucky. And much as he is said to have done in England, he apparently went on to scare the locals for a period – only to leap away before he could be caught. However, following that terrifying stint, the mysterious figure allegedly left the state before he finally emerged again in the U.K. in 1904.
Meanwhile, some four years prior to Spring-Heeled Jack’s arrival in Kentucky, the residents of Bath County had their own moment of confusion. In 1876 their community was curiously showered in red meat. And if that wasn’t strange enough, the cuts that fell down from the sky were apparently decent ones, too.
Given how bizarre the situation was, theories were understandably thin on the ground at the time. And while it was initially claimed that a group of buzzards had dropped the meat as they had passed by Bath County, the lack of sightings of any such birds meant this hypothesis was quickly debunked. Even today, the case remains unsolved.
Then, a few decades on in 1948, a Kentucky Air National Guard captain named Thomas Mantell was given instructions from his base. An unidentified flying object had apparently been spotted close to the city of Madisonville, and it was up to Mantell to investigate.
So, Mantell got in his plane and followed the flying object, staying in touch with his base by radio. Then the contact was lost, and after Mantell’s colleagues went out to investigate, they made a horrible discovery. Tragically, the captain’s aircraft had crashed, while the pilot himself had perished.
But the state of Mantell’s body raised many questions. While it was reported, for instance, that all of the pilot’s bones had been “crushed” in the accident, not one drop of blood was found inside the plane. Still, while there was no handy explanation for this strange turn of events, the United States Air Force did offer up a theory regarding the mysterious object.
Supposedly, according to the Air Force, Mantell may have been pursuing a Skyhook balloon. These unusual-looking inflatables were used to study the atmosphere at the time, and – crucially – they were also “top secret.” This meant that Mantell likely wouldn’t have been aware of the object’s true nature prior to the crash.
So, it’s fair to say that Kentucky has seen its fair share of peculiar occurrences over the years. And, more recently, the hill on Ridgeway Court has become a phenomenon in its own right. Why? Well, it seemingly defies the laws of gravity.
Generally speaking, if you stop your car halfway up a hill and forget to put it in park, the vehicle may begin to roll back down to the bottom. On the Ridgeway Court hill, by contrast, the opposite happens. That’s right: here, cars are known to move upwards while in neutral.
It’s a weird spectacle, and plenty of motorists have been drawn to see it for themselves. A local resident named Mary Devitt has also given some insight into what it’s like living near the hill – although she hasn’t actually experienced the weird anti-gravity effect for herself.
Talking to WCPO in 2017, Devitt said, “I don’t think I’ve ever done it actually. I’ve never done it. I just hear people talking about it! When we first moved here, I thought it was very strange that cars kept coasting past the house.”
“Probably the most unusual [story I’ve heard] was [about] a woman who had just gone through cancer treatments,” Devitt added. “And she kind of liked these strange and obscure things. So, she found [the hill] on Facebook and [put] it on her bucket list.”
But Eli White, a psychologist at Northern Kentucky University, has an explanation for the strange goings-on at the so-called “Gravity Hill.” During a demonstration broadcast on WCPO in 2017, White placed his car into neutral, after which the vehicle started to roll slowly up the slope. That’s exactly the experience of others at the site, and yet the academic would go on to say that the visual didn’t line up with what was actually happening.
White told the station, We’re slightly moving forward here, where it looks like we’re moving up a hill. Our perceptual system is very good, but for certain instances like this when you have a false horizon and information over here, that is influencing the grade of this hill. Visually it looks like we’re going up a hill right now, but [that’s not the case].”
Scott Nutter, who works at the same college, concurred with White’s findings, adding, “Your mind is easily fooled by the data that comes in from our senses. This is the exact reason scientists use measuring tools.” Gravity Hill isn’t the only slope in America to confuse and confound people in this manner, either.
Similarly “gravity-defying” hills can be found in Pennsylvania and California, for example, as well as further away in the U.K., Italy and Australia. And perhaps unsurprisingly, people have chosen to test these other strange slopes for themselves, too.
Regardless of where these hills are located, however, they all provide the same illusion. And Pennsylvania State University physicist Brock Weiss neatly explained the phenomenon in 2006. “The embankment is sloped in a way that gives you the effect that you are going uphill,” he said on the American Institute of Physics series Discoveries and Breakthroughs in Science.
Weiss added, “You are indeed going downhill – even though your brain gives you the impression that you’re going uphill.” This deception can be caused by the slope’s horizon, or lack thereof. And researchers in Italy proved as much through a curious experiment.
Using models that depicted slopes such as Gravity Hill, the scientists asked their test subjects to look at the replicas from a certain angle. Then they altered the horizon for each hill – and caused plenty of confusion as a result. The group went on to publish their findings in the journal Psychological Science in September 2003.
The researchers wrote, “We found that perceived slopes depend on the height of the visible horizon. [The] surface slant [also] tends to be underestimated relative to the horizontal plane, and when preceded, followed, or flanked by a steep downhill slope, a slightly downhill stretch is perceived as uphill.”
“The visual (and psychological!) effects obtained in our experiments were in all respects analogous to those experienced on-site,” the group added. “After each observer’s task was concluded, we placed a small roll of tape on the misperceived slope. And the tape appeared to move against the law of gravity — producing surprise and, on occasion, reverential fear.” It seems, then, that Gravity Hill and slopes like it can freak out even the most rational of folk.
But while the mystery of Gravity Hill may have been solved relatively quickly, another bizarre incident of an entirely different kind remained an enigma for decades. And before British South American Airways Flight CS59 seemingly vanished off the face of the Earth in 1947, it transmitted a message that raised more questions than answers.
It’s August 2, 1947, and Flight CS59 is on the last part of a long journey. The Avro Lancastrian passenger plane is making the flight after taking off from Buenos Aires, Argentina, en route to the final destination of Santiago, Chile. But not long before the airliner reaches Santiago, the crew sends a baffling radio message. And those are the last words ever heard from Flight CS59.
Flight CS59’s international journey had actually started on July 29, 1947, when it had taken off from London, U.K. Yet it was a different plane that had made the transatlantic journey to the first stopping off point: Buenos Aires. An Avro York airliner with the name Star Mist had made that flight, you see. This was also a British South American Airways (BSAA) aircraft.
Once in Buenos Aires, though, the Avro Lancastrian called Star Dust took on the role of completing Flight CS59’s itinerary. The final leg involved crossing South America from Buenos Aires in the east to Santiago in the west. It also meant flying across the formidable Andes mountain range – the rocky spine that runs down the continent.
The flight plan for the journey in fact involved a route that flew over the Argentinean city of Mendoza in the eastern foothills of the Andes. The total flight time should have been three hours and 12 minutes. And the Avro Lancastrian should have flown the first 605-mile part of the journey at an altitude of 18,000 feet until it was over Mendoza.
After then passing over Mendoza, the pilot planned to take the airliner to a height of 26,000 feet to cross the high peaks of the Andes for the final 122 miles of the flight on to Santiago. So the Lancastrian duly took off from Buenos Aires at 1:46 p.m. And for most of the flight, everything seemed to be entirely routine.
But during the journey, as the plane passed over Mendoza, bad weather had closed in. And with it came high winds with speeds in excess of 100 mph – along with heavy snow. At 5:41 p.m., though, Star Dust was somewhere near Mount Tupungato, about 50 miles from Santiago. And it then sent a Morse code message from that location to Santiago.
The Star Dust crew’s message to Santiago stated that their estimated time of arrival was just four minutes away. It was a routine transmission but for two things. Firstly, the final word of the message was the incomprehensible word “STENDEC.” And secondly, it would be the last that was ever heard from BSAA Flight CS59.
Yes, the Avro Lancastrian, its five crew and six passengers had apparently disappeared into thin air over the Andes. But what had the enigmatic word, STENDEC, in the final message meant? Before we try to unravel that mystery, though, let’s take a look at other planes that have mysteriously vanished to see if they hold any answers.
And we actually don’t need to look far since British South American Airways seems to have been quite profligate when it came to losing planes in unexplained circumstances. Two other BSAA flights have disappeared over the years, in fact. On January 30, 1948, the year after Flight CS59 vanished over the Andes, another BSAA plane, Star Tiger, went missing over the Atlantic Ocean.
Star Tiger, an Avro Tudor IV passenger plane, had been flying from Santa Maria, one of the Azores islands in the North Atlantic, to the Caribbean island of Bermuda. Its journey had actually started from the Portuguese capital Lisbon on January 28. Its stop in Santa Maria had only been intended to be a brief one simply to re-fuel.
But the pilot, Captain Brian W. McMillan, changed his plans due to bad weather. So the 25 passengers and six crew spent the night in Santa Maria. Then, the next day, Star Tiger took off for Bermuda in the afternoon. Yet the subsequent high winds made Captain McMillan decide to fly at low altitude – 2,000 feet – in the hope of avoiding the worst gusts.
The severe winds knocked the plane off its course to Bermuda, though. McMillan therefore adjusted his flight path to take account of this. But after a final radio message at 3:17 a.m. on January 30, the plane was never heard from again. An official investigation into the incident concluded, “What happened in this case will never be known, and the fate of Star Tiger must remain an unsolved mystery.”
And it was just one year later that BSAA lost yet another plane. Star Ariel, an Avro Tudor Mark IVB airliner, was traveling from the island of Bermuda on January 17, 1949, bound for Kingston, Jamaica. The plane had departed in good, clear weather with 13 passengers and seven crew aboard.
The pilot, Captain John Clutha McPhee, also radioed Kingston about an hour after take-off – all was apparently well. Yet this was the last that was ever heard from Star Ariel. The official enquiry into this plane’s disappearance concluded that “through lack of evidence due to no wreckage having been found, the cause of the accident is unknown.”
Unsurprisingly, then, the loss of these two planes, Star Tiger and Star Ariel, in entirely mysterious circumstances helped to get the whole “Bermuda Triangle” mythology off the ground. But as Star Dust flew over the Andes in 1947, all of that was yet to come. And to find out more, let’s now meet the crew members.
The lead officer on Flight CS59 was Captain Reginald Cook. For his part, the pilot was an experienced flier who had seen action during the Second World War and won medals for his bravery. In fact, all of the flying crew – including First Officer Norman Cook and Second Officer Donald Checklin – had served with the Royal Air Force in WWII.
The other two crew members were Dennis Harmer, the radio operator, and flight attendant Iris Evans. During the war, Evans had served as a Chief Petty Officer with the Women’s Royal Naval Service. And Harmer had served as an RAF radio operator for three years. So this band of WWII veterans crewing the plane pretty much told the story of BSAA as an outfit.
You see, British South American Airways had been founded by demobbed WWII pilots keen to exploit what they saw as a gap in the market for air travel to the Caribbean and Latin America. The company’s inaugural flight in fact took off from London’s Heathrow Airport on New Year’s Day 1946, bound for South America. But the BSAA story predictably came to an end after the loss of that third plane in 1949. The BSAA badge was then subsumed into the British Overseas Airways Corporation.
As for the machine the crew was flying, that was an Avro 691 Lancastrian 3. The Lancastrian was in fact a modified version of the Lancaster – a four-engined WWII era bomber. These civilian airliners were used for passenger flights and for ferrying mail via both Canadian and British operators.
Star Dust’s first flight, fresh from the factory, came in November 1945, and BSAA took delivery of the aircraft in January 1946. That was a Lancastrian 3 variant, and 18 of this model rolled off the Avro production line. These planes could carry up to 13 passengers. And that brings us to the passengers on Flight CS59.
Marta Limpert was a German who lived in Chile, and accompanying her on the flight were the ashes of her late husband. Harald Pagh and Jack Gooderham were businessmen. Briton Paul Simpson worked as a civil servant and had diplomatic papers with him for delivery to the British Embassy in Santiago. In fact, some even theorized that Star Dust might have been sabotaged because of those papers. There was, however, no real evidence for this.
Also on the passenger list was Palestinian Casis Said Atalah, who was on his way back to Chile after a visit to his sick mother. And according to some sources, Atalah was carrying a diamond sewn into the fabric of his suit. Meanwhile, another travelling was Peter Young, who worked for Dunlop. As we know, then, this flight would be the last this disparate group would take.
So Star Dust took off from Buenos Aires at 1:46 p.m. for the 727-mile trip across the Andes to Santiago. Then at 5:41 p.m. radio operator Dennis Harmer sent a Morse code message to Santiago. In its entirety, the message read, “ETA [estimated time of arrival] Santiago 17.45 hrs STENDEC.”
The first part of Harmer’s message is clear enough. It is simply an announcement that the Star Dust was expected to arrive at the airport in Santiago four minutes after the Morse code transmission. But what on Earth did STENDEC mean? Well, that’s something that experts and amateurs have puzzled over for decades.
When the plane did not arrive at Santiago, then, search parties were sent out from both Argentina and Chile. BSAA pilots also scanned the terrain – but no wreckage and no survivors from Star Dust were found. So the only conclusion drawn was that the plane had crashed with the loss of all 11 people on board.
Yet the unanswered questions about what exactly had happened to Star Dust only served to make the elusive meaning of STENDEC seem all the more significant. And there is no shortage of theories as to what this perplexing word in that final Morse code message from Flight CS59 might possibly mean.
A Chilean Air Force operator had taken the last message from Star Dust, and he testified that the Morse code had been clearly transmitted. But he did say that the code had been tapped out very rapidly. Even so, STENDEC had puzzled the operator enough that he had asked Harmer to repeat his message. This he did, and the second time it came out just as clearly as the first, according to the Chilean.
Some thought that this strange word might have been something to do with a UFO. And some apparently thought the plane and crew might have been abducted by aliens. At the time, of course, UFOs and aliens were hot news, so any mystery was apt to be connected to extraterrestrial sources. But we’re probably safe to discount the involvement of little green men here. Although that brings us no closer to understanding the meaning, if any, of STENDEC.
More than 50 years later, then, the STENDEC mystery was still a live one. This was confirmed in 2000 when the BBC broadcast a program delving into the mysteries of Star Dust’s demise. The documentary paid particular attention to that final puzzling message too. Viewers then responded in their hundreds with possible explanations – and some were even quite plausible.
One said that Harmer might have been suffering from a lack of oxygen – impairing his Morse abilities. Perhaps he meant to tap out the word “descent”? That, after all, is actually an anagram of STENDEC. Alternatively, the enigmatic word might have been a series of letters standing for a full phrase. “Severe Turbulence Encountered, Now Descending Emergency Crash-landing” was mooted as one possibility.
But the idea that STENDEC was code for an emergency situation, or a panicked mistyping of descent, is flatly contradicted by the rest of the message, which is entirely routine. There was also the idea that the Chilean wireless operator might simply have got the message wrong – or that Harmer had made errors while sending it.
Remember, the Chilean operator had said that the Morse code had been tapped out very quickly. Ultimately, though, probably the most likely explanation is that it was a Morse code error in the sending or receiving. The dots and dashes for STENDEC are, after all, the same as for SCTI AR.
Of course, the spacings between dots and dashes is crucial for a message’s final meaning. And SCTI AR is not enigmatic; it’s simply standard code for “over,” which makes perfect sense in the context. The misunderstanding could have therefore occurred because the dot and dash spacings were incorrect. Tapping out very rapidly could easily have even led to a mistaken transmission or interpretation of the message.
And that’s probably as close as we’ll ever get to a definitive answer to the STENDEC message enigma. But that still leaves us with the missing plane, which had eluded the best efforts of searchers back in 1947. That situation – the apparent complete disappearance of an airliner and its passengers – would in fact continue for half a century.
A significant breakthrough came in 1998, though, when two Argentinean climbers were scaling Mount Tupungato. They were actually on the Tupungato Glacier at an altitude of 15,000 feet when they came across the remains of a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine and some other debris. And the Star Dust had been fitted with four Merlin aviation engines.
Then a couple of years later, Argentinean soldiers set out to search for wreckage on the Tupungato Glacier. Their finds included a wheel with its tire still inflated and one of the four propellers. Much more gruesomely, the soldiers also found a variety of body parts. The human remains included three torsos, a foot still in its boot and a hand.
Thanks to the freezing conditions and the dry winds, the hand and other body parts found were well preserved. In fact, the hand still retained its manicure and was clearly that of a female. And the only female aboard Star Dust had been Iris Evans, who was just 26 when she died in the crash. The discovery of the remains then triggered a search for surviving relatives so that identities could be confirmed via DNA testing.
The search for descendants and surviving relatives took two years – but brought some success in 2002. In fact, DNA testing confirmed the identities of five of the eight British crew and passengers on the flight. This conclusively confirmed that the bodies were of some of those aboard the plane when it had crashed and that the wreckage was from Star Dust.
Margaret Coalwood of Nottingham, U.K., was one of the surviving relatives who was tracked down. Second Officer Donald Checklin was her cousin. Coalwood spoke to The Guardian in 2002 after DNA testing had confirmed the identity of her cousin’s body. She said, “He was my older cousin, who I idolized hopelessly. He flew Lancaster bombers and got medals for bringing back his aircraft one time on a wing and a prayer.”
But now that the crashed plane’s wreckage had been found, the question was what had caused the disaster? Well, it seems that high winds from the jet stream may have pushed the flight off course. Misjudging his position, the pilot might then have started his descent too soon, putting him on a collision course for Mount Tupungato. Alternatively, high winds and icing may have plunged the plane into the mountain side. Whatever caused the crash, though, it’s likely that more wreckage from Star Dust and further passenger remains will emerge from the glacier as the years go by.